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The capital of Greece, Athens is seen as the birthplace of classical civilisation, epitomised by its iconic fifth-century landmark, the Acropolis, which looms above the modern city spread out in the valley below.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Greece’s most-visited sight, the Acropolis has the best examples of Greek Classical architecture, with its magnificent temples and Doric columns. The Parthenon is the most famous site, dedicated to Athena, the capital’s patron. In the Erecthion, Athena beat Poseidon in becoming patron of Athens and bestowing her name upon the city.
Athens’s status as a capital is relatively recent, dating from 1834; before this, it was a village. Since then it has since grown exponentially, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when many neoclassical buildings were flattened to make way for new ones.
However, urban planning has gradually improved since the 1980s and when Athens hosted the Olympic Games in 2004, the centre underwent a major facelift, including restoration of historic buildings and the construction of new roads and a light railway. The most popular innovation was the creation of a leafy pedestrianized walkway linking the main ancient sights.
Despite the city’s immense size, most of the main sights are concentrated at the foot of the Acropolis around Syntagma Square, dominated by Parliament. In the attractive historic areas of Anafiotika, Plaka, Thissio and Monastiraki you’ll find well-preserved 19th-century neoclassical buildings along narrow streets, as well as stylish shops and fashionable restaurants.
In Monastiraki is Ancient Agora, the heart of public life in the times of Socrates and Plato when it was used for public gatherings, markets and law courts. Today you can wander around the green expanse dotted with ruined temples and other archaeological relics. If you’re in Monastiraki on a Sunday, browse stalls at the flea market in Avissynias Square, lined with antique shops.
Athens is crammed with superb museums, thanks to its rich and ancient history. The top ones to see are the National Archaeological Museum, one of the most important in the world, the futuristic New Acropolis Museum, opened in 2009 to house artefacts from the site’s many excavations, the comprehensive Benaki, exhibiting Greek art from ancient to modern times, and the Museum of Cycladic Art, with its simple but striking marble figurines.
Athens is enclosed by Mount Ymettos, Mount Parnitha and Mount Pendeli and pine-clad hills. For a bird’s eye view of the city, head up the 200-m-high Lykavittos Hill, one of the capital’s famous twelve hills.