Calling all culture buffs on the hunt for the most important Athens historical sites – this guide is what you’re after. It whittles down the imposing array of UNESCO-tagged relics and eye-wateringly wonderful buildings in and around the Greek capital to help make all the history a little more manageable.
Here, the focus is on the things you simply MUST see if you’re coming to Athens for your fix of the past. Our choice is overwhelmingly ancient, spanning nearly 3,000 years of human history to reveal some of the planet’s most incredible ruins.
You should find that the top Athens historical sites are pretty varied. Some are haunting temples with soaring columns. Others are just locations where totemic events have occurred, like the birth of democracy or the marketplaces of the ancient city. Anyway, a copy of Thucydides at the ready, let’s get stuck in…
Number one on any list of the most important Athens historical sites has to go to the Parthenon. The great temple complex that crowns off the Acropolis Hill in the beating heart of the city, it’s visible from almost anywhere is now a veritable icon of Greece as a nation.
Built way back in 447 BC, it is one of the enduring monuments that mark the rise of the Athenian Empire; a symbol of the power and piety of the city state where it stands. Archaeologists and architects tend to agree that the building is the pinnacle of the Doric Order, a construction method that involves circular-cut columns that are fluted to the base.
Now, the Parthenon has hardly had an easy life. It was hit by a destructive fire in the 3rd century AD, was besieged by the Ottoman Turks in the 1450s, and almost completely exploded when the Venetians launched a mortar shell into piles of gunpowder being stored within in the 1600s. On top of that, the iconic friezes that decorate the exteriors were looted by an English earl in 1803, and around half are now in the British Museum.
Still, it’s one downright impressive site and one you simply have to see. We recommend getting a hotel that has a rooftop view of the Parthenon, because it looks amazing at night. Oh, and don’t miss the all-new Acropolis Museum that’s just below – it tells the immersive story of the building’s long, long history from beginning to end.
The Erechtheion is the second of the most important Athens historical sites to sit up on the Acropolis Hill. Originally dedicated to the goddess Athena (the patron goddess and namesake of the city), it was a center of cult worship for deities in the Greek Pantheon (specifically Athena herself and Poseidon).
What’s unusual about this one is that it has an asymmetrical design. Notice how the north flank protrudes out at an unusual angle, and how the southern peristyle is much smaller than its brothers. That’s something that wasn’t really done in ancient Greece. The other thing that’s sure to catch the eye is the use of human sculptures as pillars. These are known as korai, and archaeologists have been arguing for years over what they really represent.
The Erechtheion stands right next door to the Parthenon, so it’s a top photo-taking spot. Talking of photos, you also get one of the best views of the cityscape from the northern side of the building, with visions of Monastiraki and Plaka unfolding all the way to the amazing Temple of Hephaestus in the Agora below.
The Roman Agora
The story of Athens isn’t just about the glory days of the empire that had its epicenter here some 2,500 years back. The city reigns as one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns on the planet. That means epochs have come and gone like mezze plates in the tavernas.
The Roman era is one that really defined the look and feel of Athens. The hub of it all was the Roman Agora, the meeting place, forum, market grounds, and general gathering area of the new elite that flooded into the city after the conquest of Greece following the battle of Actium in 41 BC.
Today, the spot might not look like all that much. We’ve breezed by without even noticing it on our way to the next bar in Plaka many a time. Pause a little, though, and you can make out the remains of the Tower of the Winds (considered to be the world’s first ever metrological station) and the Doric-style Gate of Athena Archegetis, which was built with funds supplied by a certain Augustus Caesar in 11 BC.
Philopappos Hill might not look like much but it’s actually one of the most important historical sites in the world, let alone one of the most important Athens historical sites to see. You see, this was the place where the system of government we all know as democracy came into being. Yep, the first ever people’s assembly took place here on a stone clearing on the eastern slope, an area known as the Pnyx.
In addition to that, Philopappos Hill is the home of the Philopappos Monument. That half-ruined structure was raised to honor Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos (no? us neither), one of the most powerful Greeks to live and work in the Roman empire in the 2nd century AD. Climb to that and you’ll get sweeping views of the Acropolis in the distance, one of the best in the city, in fact.
The Ancient Agora
If the Parthenon was the grand jewel in the crown of ancient Athens, the Agora was the area where the city functioned. It was the gritty workhorse of the town, where speakers would orate on plinths, marketplaces would spill down the hillsides, and talk of war and peace would reverberate through the crowds as the politicians addressed the people.
The Agora occupies a big slice of downtown Athens. It clutches the northwestern side of Acropolis hill between chic Thiseio district and the hubbub of Monastiraki. You can enter from a gateway on Adrianou Street at the northern end.
There are loads of things to get through at this site, so take a morning over it if you can. However, the things you 100% must get a glimpse of include the Stoa of Attalos, a onetime shopping mall dating to the 2nd century BC, and the Stoa of Zeus. The piece de resistance is the muscular Temple of Hephaestus, though, which is one of the best-preserved of its kind in the ancient world.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus
Prepare to be bowled over by the sheer size and audacity of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Now ringed by car-filled highways that pulse traffic through the midriff of the Greek capital, it stands proud amid its parkland, heralding the bygone era of Athenian glory from the ancient age.
Also called the Olympieion, it was once one of the most massive temples in the ancient world and took a mind-boggling 638 years to complete in full. Its purpose? To honor its namesake god, Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods worshipped throughout antiquity in these parts.
Sadly, the spot is now just a shadow of its former self. Lootings and destruction have plagued it over the centuries to the point that now just a corner of the colossal peristyle remains. Still, stand below one of the mighty columns and you certainly get a feel for what the shrine must have looked like once upon a time!
Archaeological Site of Sounion
The Archaeological Site of Sounion isn’t actually in Athens itself. Instead, it caps off the headland of Attica to the south of the city, marking the point where the rugged rocks of Cape Sounion drop dramatically into the Aegean Sea. If that sounds like it might be a stunning location, that’s because it most certainly is. From here, you can survey the cobalt-blue waters and even make out islands like Kea and Poros in the heat haze.
Anyway, back to the history…evidence shows that the site here was sacred to Athenians since at least the 6th century BC. That means it predates the Athenian Empire and Hellenistic Greece. It’s mentioned by the epic poet Homer as a center of worship for the sea god Poseidon. A temple to him still marks the clifftops with its half-standing columns.
Most make the trip down, which takes about 1.5 hours from the core of Athens itself, to see the sunset at the temple. It’s pretty epic, as the light fades between the ancient stones and glows across the highlands of the Peloponnese on the horizon to the west.
Theatre of Dionysus
The horseshoe Theatre of Dionysus is cut into the rock beneath the great Acropolis Hill. It’s the product of many centuries of building work, which are thought to have begun sometime around the 6th century BC, when one of the first public drama stages in the city was planned on the site. The spot underwent major expansions in the golden age of Perikles and then again in the Hellenistic era, and now stands as one of the most startling cultural monuments of the city.
Evidence shows that some of the most totemic playwrights of all have showcased their work on the marble here. From Sophocles to Euripides, magnum opuses of the highest order have graced the theatre, surely watched on in their time by thousands of ancient Athenians keen for the latest commentary on their age.
Note the stone Prohedria chairs. They were added around the end of the third century as seats for VIP guests. Oh, and don’t confuse this one with the larger and more dominating Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which is actually a much younger Roman addition, also situated under the Acropolis Hill a touch the northwest.
Officially known as the Archaeological Site of Kerameikos, this one is wedged into a slab of the newer part of Athens, just north of hip and stylish Thiseio district. Within, visitors can glimpse the remains of a down-to-earth quarter of the ancient city, which was once the potter’s area (as evidenced by the name, which is the root of the English word “ceramic”).
But there’s also much more than just historic pottery workshops in these parts. Kerameikos was also the home of the great speech platform where the revered leader and warrior Perikles is thought to have delivered his epic Funerary Oration in 431 BC. And there are some of the most impressive remaining sections of the so-called Themistoclean Wall, a huge fortification that ringed Athens itself but also nearby Piraeus port.
Perhaps the most eye-catching site in Kerameikos is the Pompeion. It’s now ruined but still showcases the floorplan of a moderately large temple that sprouts numerous rows of columns and arcades. Originally intended as a gathering place for use during the Panathenaic Festival, it was later razed by the Roman general Sulla in the 1st century BC.
The top Athens historical sites – our conclusion
This guide to nine of the must-see Athens historical sites only scratches the proverbial surface of what’s on the menu in the great and ancient capital of Greece. From majestic hilltop temples to hidden shrines to the sea god, you’ve got loads to get through. But there’s more when you’re done, too, in the form of Orthodox churches and award-winning museum collections.