Visiting ancient Athens has been high on my bucket list since I was in seventh grade. That’s when we studied Greek and Roman mythology, culture and history.
There were a number of years in my youth when I wanted to be an archaeologist. Really!
My husband and I have been talking about taking a Greek vacation for at least the past decade. But, Greece’s economic situation and civil unrest led us to travel elsewhere.
About a year ago, we began planning a trip in earnest. We decided a vacation to Athens, and a Greek Island small ship cruise, would be a wonderful, romantic way to celebrate our milestone anniversary and big-0 birthdays. The perfect gift to each other!
So last February, we booked flights and a seven-day Windstar Cruise, Treasures of the Greek Isles. We also added four hotel nights in Athens prior to sailing, and a daytrip to Delphi, for a 13-day holiday.
Come along on Part 1 of our dream vacation to explore and savor ancient Athens.
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Day 1: Athens Arrival
We flew from Pittsburgh via Newark on an overnight flight that landed in Athens at 10:30 AM local time. There was a seven hour time difference, which meant to us it was 3:30 AM. Yawn!
Travel Tip: Our driver from Welcome Pickups was waiting outside baggage claim, and whisked us into his immaculate car. Michael was pleasant, outgoing and bubbling over with helpful information. The drive to our hotel included an orientation tour of Athens, which was great. We also used Welcome for private transfers to the cruise terminal, and from the ship to the airport. Not only was the service exceptional, but the rates were quite reasonable.
Since it was too early to check into our room at the five-star Electra Palace, we took a walk and grabbed a bite to eat in the surrounding Plaka neighborhood. Situated in a quiet corner, within close proximity to the Acropolis and other archaeological sites, the hotel’s location can’t be beat!
Clustered around the northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis, the Plaka has labyrinthine streets and neoclassical architecture. The current neighborhood is built on top of what was the residential area of ancient Athens.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
After checking into our large and lovely garden-view room, we decided against a nap. Instead, we walked to Hadrian’s Gate, crossing a busy highway outside of the Plaka. The gate originally separated the ancient Greek city of Athens from the Roman side. Beyond the gate sits the spectacular Temple of Zeus.
Zeus’ temple is the largest of ancient Greece. Originally consisting of 104 Corinthian columns, 15 remain standing today. One column toppled over as recently as 1852, during a storm. Hadrian had erected a giant gold and ivory statue of Zeus inside the temple, with an equally large one of himself. Nothing remains of either.
My husband and I found the temple, with its colossal columns, large surrounding archaeological site, and view of the Acropolis, awe-inspiring.
Travel Tip: We activated our multi-site, five consecutive-day archaeological passes at the temple. A real value. The pass covers the Acropolis and six other sites in Athens, including; the Ancient Agora, Hadrian’s Library and Roman Agora. Purchase passes in advance, online. You’ll save considerable time standing in long lines to buy tickets; especially at the Acropolis.
Afterwards, we walked along a tree-lined boulevard to the Olympic or Panathenaic Stadium. The gleaming marble stadium was restored to its Roman condition in preparation for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. In ancient times, about 50,000 spectators filled the seats.
Admission to the stadium is a separate ticket that includes an audio-cassette tour. The recording is very informative as you traverse your way around and underneath the stadium. Athletes and animals entered the stadium via this long tunnel for the games.
Seeing the tunnel (which curves to the right and is twice the length you see here), was a surprise and my favorite part. Be sure to follow it all the way to the exhibit of vintage Olympic posters, torches, medals and photographs.
On the way back, we walked through the National Garden and past the Zappeion, which once housed the International Olympic Committee.
Eat Like a Local
Afterwards, we returned to the hotel, changed and headed to the rooftop pool for a refreshing dip and to recharge before dinner.
Dinner was at a mezedopolios, an eatery selling small plates and traditional Greek dishes. We did something similar last year; dining on tapas while in Spectacular Spain in September.
Since the Greeks and Spaniards don’t eat dinner until nine or ten at night, the earlier meal suited us perfectly as we adjusted to the time change.
We dined on an intimate balcony for two; grazing on five shared plates of Greek classics. Then, we strolled hand-in-hand through the lively, atmospheric Plaka.
Day 2: Exploring Ancient Athens
After an early buffet breakfast (included in the room rate), we headed out to meet a pre-arranged, small group tour of the Acropolis.
Travel Tip: I highly recommend a guide to explore and fully appreciate the Acropolis. There’s a lot to see, no real signage or audio-guide option.
It’s a long winding, and sometimes steep climb to the top of the Acropolis. Wear sensible shoes. The ancient site is not handicap accessible. Also wear sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses. And, don’t forget to bring a bottle of water. Backpacks are currently allowed, strollers are not. There are no restrooms beyond the ticket booth.
Theater of Dionysus
There’s a lot more to see on the slopes of the Acropolis than I realized. First along the climb is the Theater of Dionysus; considered the world’s very first.
Reconstruction is ongoing all over the Acropolis. Pieces of marble, columns, and capitals are lined up in rows as they are photographed and cataloged.
Thanks to advances in technology, the Greeks are attempting to put the ruins back together.
Here’s a look at the theater as we climbed the hill and looked below.
In ancient times, it seated 17,000 and had excellent acoustics.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
Next on the steep slope, sits a large 5,000-seat amphitheater. It once had a wood and tile roof.
Reconstructed in the 1950’s, the Odeon is open to the public only during performances. On our last night in Athens, we attended a nighttime concert. It was amazing!
For details on our return to the Odeon, read Delphi: Home of the Oracle.
Temple of Athena Nike
Climbing the slope, we made our way to the summit. Sitting near the top is the Temple of Athena Nike.
The Acropolis was mainly dedicated to the goddess Athena, patron of the city. Nike means ‘victory.’ At this temple, Athena was worshiped for bringing a victory over the Persians.
Sitting adjacent to the Propylaea, is a U-shaped building with a large central hallway flanked by wings. It’s a sorta mini Parthenon. There’s a lot of architecture in this tight area; including the Beule Gate (ceremonial gateway) and 25-foot-high Monument of Agrippa pedestal.
It’s also a constricted pinch-point. Tourists are sandwiched between those climbing up and others down the slippery, worn marble steps. Most come to a dead stop; craning to listen to guides, take pictures, and to admire 360 degree views around, above and below. Worst are the tourists taking selfies — they’re either oblivious or are just plain rude.
Travel Tip: The Acropolis opens at 8AM. Our tour gathered at nine, but got a slow start. If I had to do it again, I’d hire a private guide and begin at 7:45 — right at one of the two Acropolis entry gates. Even in late September, the crowds were huge. You definitely want to get ahead of the large group tours. Imagine the hoard coming every day from each 2,000-passenger cruise ship! Most ship tours descend on the Acropolis around 10 AM.
I would have liked to explore more here, but the press of humanity made it impossible. To be honest, I was also beyond excited to get to the Parthenon.
Ancient Athens Showstopper
As impressive as it is today, imagine how awesome the Parthenon must have looked 2,500 years ago.
Although the Parthenon is in ruin — ravages of time, earthquakes, pillage and pollution — it was actually a 1687 mortar-shell that did massive damage. The Ottomans stored gunpowder inside, and when the shell hit, the explosion sent pieces of marble everywhere.
Today, modern technology is helping archaeologists and craftsman put the 70,000 pieces back together. Along the way, they are fixing inaccurate or problematic previous work. Missing pieces are being carved from the same local marble as the originals.
Pictured above is a mostly intact corner of the Pantheon. Below is the figure from an upper corner of the pediment. This area would have been filled with statues in ancient times.
Below the figure is the area where some of the famous (and controversial) Elgin Marbles originally were located. Those marble reliefs were removed during an Ottoman occupation and taken to Britain in the late 1800’s. More on that when we visit the Acropolis Museum.
Relief carvings made-up a 525-foot frieze of panes encircling the entire Pantheon. All the sculptures would have been painted in bright colors.
Reconstructing the Past
Anywhere you see bright white, is where new marble replaces missing pieces. That’s allowed the Greek’s to reconstruct portions of the ancient monuments; wherever there is a significant amount of original material. As the Greek economy is still struggling, that effort has slowed to a crawl.
Previously, you could walk inside the Parthenon. With the cranes and scaffolding, that’s no longer possible. Still, the experience exceeded my already high expectations. It was fabulous!
Did you know that there was another massive structure within the Parthenon originally? They are trying to reconstruct sections of it as well. Someday, when my grandchildren visit Athens, I expect the Parthenon will be even more fully realized.
Have you ever been to the Acropolis? If so, what was the state of reconstruction, access, etc. then?
Erechtheion & Porch of the Caryatids
A close second in majesty to the Parthenon is the adjacent Erechtheion, a temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon.
The Porch of the Caryatids, is a balcony with six beautiful maidens functioning as columns to support the roof. These are actually faithful copies.
Five of the six original Caryatids are on display in the Acropolis Museum. The sixth was removed by Lord Elgin (along with a large section of the marble frieze) and shipped to London.
I could have stayed for hours more, but we had a timed ticket to enter the museum and wanted to meander back down the slope to enjoy the incredible views. Here’s the Ancient Agora and Temple of Hephaistos beyond — our late afternoon destination.
The new museum is a custom-built showcase for the artifacts from the Acropolis. Greeks are hoping now, with a state-of-the-art facility, to lure the Elgin marbles back from the British Museum. Even without them, it’s a not-to-be missed experience.
Located on the south side of the Acropolis, the museum ‘floats’ on top of an active archaeological dig that has been integrated into the building. Open-air sections and glass floors provide a view to ancient Athens below.
To the right of the photo is a cafe where we had a delicious lunch, overlooking the ruins. I had the best iced tea of my life there; flavored with rosemary! Along with being quite inexpensive and delicious, the setting of the cafe can’t be beat.
There’s also a full-service restaurant located on the top floor of the museum. It’s possible to dine there without a museum ticket. But, who would want to skip the museum?
Travel Tip: Buy your timed museum pass online in advance. It’s only 5 Euros and saves a lot of time standing in line to purchase tickets. Ticket holders also are able to use a separate, express entrance. Backpacks, bags and large purses must be checked inside.
Seeing the artifacts up close, in a footprint that mirrors the actual Parthenon, was a moving and informative experience. The interactive displays are exceptionally well done. I can’t recommend it enough! Do it after you explore the Acropolis.
Pictures weren’t permitted inside the museum, so I encourage you to explore via it’s website.
Traffic-free pedestrian walkways ring much of the Acropolis. After visiting the museum, we strolled the loop admiring the views, until we reached the Ancient Agora archaeological site on the northwest slope.
The Ancient Agora was the social and commercial center of ancient Athens. It covers an extensive area, and includes the well-preserved temple we viewed from the top of Acropolis earlier.
There is also an excellent museum in a huge, reconstructed stoa (the long red-roofed building).
As we walked among the ruins, I tried to imagine the Ancient Agora in the time of Socrates and Plato.
Travel Tip: A hat with SPF protection is essential. I first wore this hat during the Incredible Iceland Trip Ten Day Adventure. Next, was during a Provocative Peru Trip. I always travel with a cross-body purse. Mine is big enough to hold a pair of prescription glasses, cell phone, and small travel wallet. It also has a handy pocket to hold a tickets, map or travel guide.
Looking back at the view from the temple towards the Acropolis made it easy to time-travel in my mind.
It had been an incredible day exploring Athens. But, the heat, physical activity and jet lag began to take their toil. So, we headed for ice cold, local brews in the adjacent Psyrri neighborhood. We sat in the cool of a covered awning and watched the world pass by in front of the ruins.
An Enchanted Evening
After a little nap and shower, we headed to our hotel’s rooftop, intimate restaurant for a romantic dinner.
Travel Tip: Don’t shy from letting accommodations and restaurants know when you are celebrating a special occasion when making reservations. It will almost always result in a better table, complimentary drink or dessert. And, if you are staying at the hotel where the restaurant is located, make sure the concierge makes the reservation for you.
We watched transfixed as the sun set over the Plaka and Acropolis. It was truly a magical evening as lights shown on the Parthenon and ancient neighborhood.
My pitiful photography skills don’t do it justice. It’s one of those things you just have to experience in person. I hope you have the opportunity to see it yourself one day.
Now that I’m back home, I remember the amazing trip by setting a Greek Tablescape.
So Much to See & Do
In the next post, I’ll take you to Delphi: Center of the Ancient World, Home of the Oracle.
Then, we’ll set sail on a Small Ship Greek Island Cruise: Nafplio & Mykonos. Other exotic locations in the Aegean Sea will included Santorini and Ephesus.
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