Classical Meets Contemporary: The Best of Arts and Culture in Athens

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus was constructed between AD 160 and 174
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus was constructed between AD 160 and 174 | © Dimitris Sakalakis
Photo of Eva Markatou
6 December 2019

From theatre performances in the midst of ancient architecture to contemporary art in chic surroundings, Athens is a dynamic metropolis bursting with creativity.

In addition to its famed archaeological sites – some of which still function as performance venues today – Athens has no shortage of vibrant alternative cultural spaces: art galleries, theatres, music venues and captivating museum exhibitions.

The Acropolis Museum sits at the foot of Acropolis Hill | © Giorgos Vitsaropoulos

Historical museums

Acropolis Museum

The Acropolis Museum opened in 2009 at the foot of Acropolis Hill, on the pedestrianised Dionysiou Areopagitou Street. It is the most popular museum in Athens, with over a million visitors each year. As its name attests, it hosts artefacts found on Acropolis Hill and in the surrounding area. Spread across three levels, the museum’s permanent collection features pottery, statues and elaborate friezes. On the top floor is the most famous section of the museum, the Parthenon Gallery. Here, you can walk around a simulation of the temple while enjoying a panoramic view of the Acropolis and Athens’s cityscape.

Museum of Cycladic Art

Art Gallery, Museum, Shop
A person standing on a stylish, monochrome-tiled porch, with city views, arched pillars and plants
© Giorgos Sfakianakis
As its name indicates, this museum on Vasilissis Sofias Avenue hosts objects from the Bronze Age Cycladic culture, which developed in the third millennium BC in the Cyclades, a cluster of islands in the central Aegean Sea. The Museum of Cycladic Art showcases diverse objects such as marble sculptures, tools and ceramics. Among the exhibits you will find the best-known artwork to have survived from this era: simple marble figures depicting women with their arms folded (known as ‘FAF’ for ‘folded-arm figurines’ among archaeologists). The museum also hosts a comprehensive collection of Cypriot antiquities and an exhibition on daily life in ancient times.

Athens City Museum

2_Athens City Museum_ccAthens City Museum - Vouros-Eutaxias Foundation
Athens City Museum offers insight into the history and culture of the Greek capital | Courtesy of Athens City Museum

If you want to learn about the history and culture of Athens, look no further. As Stefanos Kavallierakis, the director of the museum, explains, “The museum’s collections focus on the history of the city and its people, culture and evolution.” Here, you can discover the many faces of the city throughout time, and experience creative responses to the city. Particularly interesting, for example, are the paintings of Athens by travellers who visited in the 17th and 18th centuries. Located in the city centre on Klafthmonos Square, the Athens City Museum offers a lesson in history even in its setting: the museum is housed in two of the oldest buildings in Athens, one of which is known as the ‘Old Palace’ owing to its former status as the residence of the first king of Greece, Otto, and his wife Amalia during the 19th century.

Art galleries

The Breeder Gallery

Art Gallery
Ariana Papademetropoulos, Just Like Arcadia, 2019, Installation at The Breeder, Athens
The Breeder Gallery showcases artworks by both local and international artists | Courtesy of The Breeder
Located in one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods in Athens, Metaxourgio, The Breeder Gallery is entrenched in the arts and culture scene of the city. According to co-founder Stathis Panagoulis, “Aiming to remain a dynamic cutting-edge place of inspiration, The Breeder Gallery is an agent for change in a city that is very fast becoming a new international art capital.” The gallery promotes Greek artists by showcasing their works, but it also gives space to international artists. It is an interactive place that focusses on engaging people with the arts. To further encourage this type of exchange, The Breeder Open Studio was founded, a project that gives artists and visitors the opportunity to meet, discuss and explore new artistic horizons together.

TAF (The Art Foundation)

Art Gallery
TAF (The Art Foundation) exterior
TAF is a contemporary art gallery and cultural space | Courtesy of TAF (The Art Foundation)

In 2009, an abandoned house was transformed to become TAF, a contemporary art gallery and multipurpose cultural space. It’s hidden in Normanou Street in the Monastiraki Flea Market, and you must pass through an old wooden doorway to reach the TAF, upon which you will find exhibition spaces, a bar and a treasure trove of a shop. These areas are accessible to the public all year round free of charge and host various cultural projects, events and exhibitions. The bar nestled in the open courtyard (covered in winter) is extremely popular, and many people like to combine taking in the art with a relaxing al-fresco drink.

Basil and Elise Goulandris Museum

Art Gallery, Museum

Opening its doors in October 2019, this museum bears the name of its founders, who had a vision to create a museum that would bring people to engage with modern and contemporary art. The museum hosts the collections of Basil and Elise Goulandris, with a focus on Greek and foreign artists, including works by Van Gogh, Monet, Rodin and Picasso as well as by modern Greek painters such as Moralis and Parthenis. The museum is located in a trendy part of Athens, in the Pagrati neighbourhood.

Music and theatre

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

Building, Theatre
Nabucco - Odeon of Herodes Atticus
Artists to have performed at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus range from Frank Sinatra to Florence and the Machine | © Dimitris Sakalakis

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is located on the southwestern slope of Acropolis Hill. It was constructed in the Roman period, between AD 160 and 174, and was funded by a wealthy benefactor of Athens, Herodes Atticus, in memory of his wife Aspasia Regilla. With a capacity of 5,000 spectators, today the venue hosts concerts, theatre performances and other cultural events from June to October each year. Many world-famous musicians, such as Frank Sinatra and Maria Callas, have performed here. Most of the events offer subtitles in English, making catching a performance in this Roman Odeon a more accessible experience for many visitors.

Greek National Opera

Opera House
Greek National Opera Stavros Niarchos Hall
The Greek National Opera was relocated to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in 2017 | © Andreas Simopoulos

The Greek National Opera is Greece’s premier venue for high-quality productions including operas, ballets and operettas. In 2017, the Opera was relocated to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre. Here, the productions take place on two separate stages – Stavros Niarchos Hall and the Alternative Stage, which hosts an innovative programme of daring productions. The large Stavros Niarchos Hall boasts state-of the-art technology and optimal acoustics for opera. If you attend a performance here, take a look at the ceiling of the hall, where there is a moving aluminium sculpture by Japanese artist Susumu Shingu. In the summer, some Greek National Opera performances are also hosted at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.

The Athens Concert Hall

Concert Hall, Library, Building
The Athens Concert Hall
The Athens Concert Hall hosts concerts, dance and opera performances | Courtesy of The Athens Concert Hall / © Akriviadis

The Athens Concert Hall, or Megaro Mousikis in Greek, is located on Vasilissis Sofias Avenue – arguably the city’s most glamorous boulevard. It hosts numerous concerts as well as dance and opera performances, not only by Greek creators but by artists from around the world. According to the head of press of the Athens Concert Hall, Antonis Stefanou, “Since 1991, internationally acclaimed artists from all over the world have performed and been applauded in the Athens Concert Hall, with its stunning environment, exceptional aesthetics and superb acoustics.” In summer, concerts are organised among the flowers and greenery of the gardens behind the building.

Cultural spaces

Onassis Stegi

Onassis Stegi interior
Onassis Stegi hosts theatrical and musical performances, film screenings and art shows | © CoinUp / Shutterstock

The Onassis Stegi is the cultural centre of the Onassis Foundation. Since it opened in 2014, the Onassis Stegi has striven to be “the place where contemporary culture meets aesthetics and science”. The venue hosts theatrical and musical performances, film screenings, art and digital shows, supporting emerging Greek artists in showing their work. Book tickets early to benefit from reduced prices.

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre

Building, Library, Opera House, Architectural Landmark, Park
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano | © SNFCC Yiorgis Yerolymbos
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, hosts the Greek National Opera and the Greek National Library. It also offers a variety of free cultural activities and programmes throughout the year. In 2019, for example, visitors have been captivated by ‘The Dancing Fountains’, in which vertical water jets and fountains in the canal alongside the complex create a powerful display choreographed to classical music. Free guided tours of the whole complex are on offer in Greek and English.

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