What to see in Athens?
For all too many people, ATHENS is a city that happened two-and-a-half thousand years ago. It’s true that even now the past looms large – literally, in the shape of the mighty Acropolis that dominates almost every view, as well as on every visitor’s itinerary. Yet the modern city is home to over four million people – more than a third of the Greek nation’s population – and has undergone a transformation in the twenty-first century.
On first acquaintance, Athens is not a beautiful place – the scramble for growth in the decades after World War II, when the population grew from around 700, 000 to close to its present level, was an architectural disaster. But, helped by huge investment for the 2004 Olympics, the city is starting to make the most of what it has, with new roads, rail and metro, along with extensive pedestrianization in the centre. The views for which Athens was once famous have reappeared and, despite inevitable globalization and the appearance of all the usual high-street and fast-food chains, the city retains its character to a remarkable degree. Hectic modernity is always tempered with an air of intimacy and hominess; as any Greek will tell you, Athens is merely the largest village in the country.
However often you’ve visited, the vestiges of the ancient Classical Greek city, most famously represented by the Parthenon and other remains that top the Acropolis, are an inevitable focus; along with the refurbished National Archeological Museum, the finest collection of Greek antiquities anywhere in the world, they should certainly be a priority. The majority of the several million visitors who pass through each year do little more; they never manage to escape the crowds and so see little of the Athens Athenians know. Take the time to explore some of the city’s neighbourhoods, such as Pláka, Monastiráki and Psyrrí and you’ll get far more out of it.
Above all, there’s the sheer vibrancy of the city. Cafés are packed day and night and the streets stay lively until 3 or 4am, with some of the best bars and clubs in the country. Eating out is great, with establishments ranging from traditional tavernas to gourmet restaurants. In summer, much of the action takes place outdoors, from dining on the street or clubbing on the beach, to open-air cinema, concerts and classical drama. There’s a diverse shopping scene, too, ranging from colourful bazaars and lively street markets to chic suburban malls crammed with the latest designer goods. And with good-value, extensive public transportation allied to inexpensive taxis, you’ll have no difficulty getting around.
Outside Athens are more Classical sites – the Temple of Poseidon at Soúnio, sanctuaries at Ramnous and Eleusis (Elefsína), the burial mound from the great victory at Marathon – and there are also easily accessible beaches all around the coast. Further afield, Delphi and the islands of the are also in easy day-trip distance. Moving on is quick and easy, with scores of ferries and hydrofoils leaving daily from the port at Pireás (Piraeus) and, somewhat less frequently, from the two other Attic ferry terminals at Rafína and Lávrio.
Athens has been inhabited continuously for over seven thousand years. Its acropolis, commanding views of all seaward approaches and encircled by protective mountains, was a natural choice for prehistoric settlement and for the Mycenaeans, who established a palace-fortress on the rock. Gradually, Athens emerged as a city-state that dominated the region, ruled by kings who stood at the head of a land-owning aristocracy known as the Eupatridae (the “well-born”), who governed through a Council which met on the Areopagus – the Hill of Ares.
The birth of democracy
As Athens grew wealthier, dissatisfaction with the rule of the Eupatridae grew, above all among a new middle class excluded from political life but forced to pay rent or taxes to the nobility. Among the reforms aimed at addressing this were new, fairer laws drawn up by Draco (whose “draconian” lawcode was published in 621 BC), and the appointment of Solon as ruler (594 BC), with a mandate to introduce sweeping economic and political reform. Although Solon’s reforms laid the foundations of what eventually became Athenian democracy, they failed to stop internal unrest, and eventually Peisistratos, his cousin, seized power in the middle of the sixth century BC. Peisistratos is usually called a tyrant, but this simply means he seized power by force: thanks to his populist policies he was in fact a well-liked and successful ruler who greatly expanded Athens’ power, wealth and influence.
His sons Hippias and Hipparchus were less successful: Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 BC and Hippias overthrown in 510 BC. A new leader, Kleisthenes, took the opportunity for more radical change: he introduced ten classes or tribes based on place of residence, each of which elected fifty members to the Boule or Council of State, which decided on issues to be discussed by the full Assembly. The Assembly was open to all citizens and was both a legislature and a supreme court. This system was the basis of Athenian democracy and remained in place, little changed, right through to Roman times.
Around 500 BC Athens sent troops to aid the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor, who were rebelling against the Persian Empire; this in turn provoked a Persian invasion of Greece. In 490 BC the Athenians and their allies defeated a far larger Persian force at the Battle of Marathon. In 480 BC the Persians returned, capturing and sacking Athens, and leaving much of the city burned to the ground. That same year, however, a naval triumph at Salamis sealed victory over the Persians, and also secured Athens’ position as Greece’s leading city-state.