The Greek capital - Athens - is known as the center of the ancient world. The temples attract millions of tourists every year. Although the importance of Acropolis cannot be denied, one can feel a little disappointed while looking at the few remaining monuments - there are other, off the beaten path ancient sites which are way better preserved. Go back to the first part of the article about Athens to learn about our impressions of the Acropolis - expectations versus reality.
But is it only Acropolis that is worth visiting in Athens? I've heard many saying that besides this ancient hill, there's nothing to see. Not all modern parts of Athens may be too appealing to the eye - they remind more of Middle Eastern cities (like Amman - have a look here) with houses crammed tightly between the surrounding hills. To be honest, for me, it wasn't one of the best European capitals, but it's still nice to visit and once you explore it a bit deeper, you'll find some exciting places beyond the famous Acropolis. It's possible to visit all the places described here in one day on foot.
Athens beyond the Acropolis
The non-ancient Acropolis area
Apart from the classical architecture, you can notice many other influences in Athens: early Middle Ages/Byzantine - typical Greek Orthodox churches, the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East.
Before even leaving the Acropolis hill area, you'll see two interesting examples of the Middle Ages era - the church of the Holy Apostles (Agii Apostli) located right beside the Stoa of Attalos - Museum of Ancient Agora and the beautifully decorated Greek Orthodox Church.
The church of the Holy Apostles dates back to the 10th century and contrasts a bit with all the other ancient Greek Temples. It is also one of the two buildings in the Acropolis that survived invasions literally intact. The other is the Temple of Hephaestus - have a look in the first part.
Monastiraki and Plaka
Monastiraki and Plaka are the famous districts that can be compared to "old town" areas in other European or Middle Eastern cities. The Monastiraki square is located right below the Acropolis hill and for me, it feels more Turkish than European. The Tzistarakis Mosque
is the main building of the square - now it serves at the Museum of Greek Folk Art. Supposedly, one of the columns in the mosque was taken from the Temple of Zeus.
The square is always busy and lively, you can find many souvenir shops and restaurants. The streets of nearby Plaka are very pleasant for a stroll - they have the cozy, oriental atmosphere with the grapevines growing everywhere over them and creating some sort of a huge canopy.
Little Greek Orthodox Churches
Very close to Monastiraki, (along Mitropoleos street), you can see two little, lonely beautiful Greek Orthodox Churches squeezed among the modern, concrete buildings: Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea (11th century) and Church of Saint Eleftherios (13th century) which is located right next to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens.
I love this type of architecture - very symmetric, made of stone and covered with beautiful red roof tiles. However, the background in Athens simply doesn't match. The concrete, aesthetically chaotic new buildings surrounding the little churches overwhelm them with their size and are far from beautiful. If you want to see such churches in original, little villages and most spectacular natural surroundings, go to the countryside or visit Georgia, Armenia or Macedonia (you'll be surprised how nice those counties are - I've described them all - just click on the names).
Syntagma Square and National Gardens
Following the Mitropoloes street, you'll reach the Syntagma Square. It is the important center of modern Athens, you can find here many fountains, posh hotels as well we the Greek Parliament building. To be honest, the square is nothing special - the old part of Athens is way better.
Besides the Syntagma square, there is a large park with various flora from all over the world (National Gardens) - a nice place to escape the hustle of the big city. You can also organize a wedding or any other important event in the Zappeion - a building erected in the typical classical Greek style.
On the other side of the National Gardens, you can find Kallimarmaro - the Panathenaic Stadium - probably the oldest and the only marble stadium in the world! In the antiquity, this stadium held the Olympic games - later on, in the 19th century it was restored to its original status. It can seat up to 50 000 spectacles. Unfortunately, you must pay a separate fee to enter the stadium, although it's not too high: 3 EUR (3.50 USD).
Mt. Lycabettus, cactuses and tortoises
It takes around 40 minutes from the National Gardens to hike up the winding streets all the way to the top of the Mt. Lycabettus. Apart from the Acropolis itself and the Philopappos hill, it offers the best views of Athens. It was my favorite place in modern Athens - on top there is a cafe and little white church. It's a perfect spot for a sunset view - the Temple of Athena Nike looks spectacular after dark.
Literally all parts of the city are visible - from the port to the mountains. You can clearly see how tightly the buildings are squeezed together - Athens looks like an enormous lake of white concrete blocks and houses that flooded the entire valley. If you didn't like Athens much - get to the Lycabettus hill, it you'll change your mind a little.
The hill is full of cactuses which make it look a bit exotic. You can also find a lot of tortoises everywhere around - they are incredibly cute! We wish we could have taken one home, but of course it's impossible.
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