Athens: a city of ancient sites and modern visions

With sites as diverse as classical icons and reminders of recent upheavals, Athens is one of Europe's most vibrant capitals. Here, historian Joanna Bourke explores the city she calls home

Acropolis Museum Athens, combines modern and ancient

It is impossible not to be charmed by Athens. At night, bouzouki music wells up from basements; tables spill out of ouzeris (taverns) where friends and strangers quarrel about politics. The air is filled with the perfume of wild basil, bitter orange, jasmine. Vociferous graffiti on crumbling walls cohabits with freshly painted Minoan ochres on neoclassical buildings. Visitors are welcomed with a hearty “geia-sou!” (or yassou – hello).

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Strangers to the city should start with the classics: if Athens is anything, it is the Parthenon, built on the rock of the Acropolis, the location of the first settlement of Athens in 3000 BC. The Parthenon was constructed during the golden age of the statesman Pericles, in the fifth century BC. It dominates not only the city, but the Greek imagination.

I encourage visitors arriving from the airport to take the ultra-modern metro to the Acropolis station. Outside the station is a tree-lined pedestrian street. I steer guests past tavernas offering vine leaves stuffed with rice, crispy calamari, smooth and sweet fava (a traditional split pea puree), horiatiki (Greek salad) and spicy loukaniko (village sausage), in order to enter the Acropolis Museum.

The entrance has a plexiglass floor through which ancient ruins can be viewed. The museum is a modernist temple in steel and glass to the ancient Greek world. Since opening in 2009, it has become acknowledged as one of the world’s great museums. The lights are on until late and through them you can see the relief sculptures of the Parthenon frieze, showing a procession celebrating the goddess Athena’s birthday. Less than half of the 160-metre frieze includes the original golden-marble reliefs; the rest are replicas, a reminder of Lord Elgin’s actions in removing part of the piece to Britain in the early 19th century.

Outside the museum is the pedestrianised Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, which skirts the Acropolis hill. This is the route to the Parthenon, the Theatre of Herodes Atticus, the Theatre of Dionysius and the rock of Areopagos (where Saint Paul preached in AD 51). It also leads to Philopappos Hill, whose quiet chapel of Agios Dimitrios is well worth a visit, and to a famous yet time-worn outdoor cinema, Thission. Along with the cinematique that holds the Greek Film Archive (at the intersection of Megalou Alexandrou Street and Iera Odos), this cinema regularly premieres international films and champions daring Greek directors, such as Yorgos Lanthimos, of the Greek ‘weird wave’.

At the end of Apostolou Pavlou, the continuation of Areopagitou, turn right into Adrianou towards Monastiraki and a maze of alleys packed with flea-market and antique stalls. At the metro station, turn left to reach Athinas Street and the sprawling food market in streets near Omonia Square. It is home to Greek rembetika music, which probably originated in the Ottoman era in prisons, hashish dens and whorehouses.

From there, it is only a short walk to the bohemian area Exarcheia, the heart of radical Athens and anarchism. This is an edgy, inner-city neighbourhood, teeming with tavernas, used vinyl stores and ultra-cool music clubs. Politics is imprinted on every pavement. Nearby is the Athens Polytechnic, the site of the bloody student uprising of November 1973 that led to the end of the dictatorship that had imprisoned, tortured and exiled so many Greeks. On the corner of Mesologgiou and Tzavella there is a memorial to 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos, killed by a policeman in 2008. The subsequent riots still resonate today among young people hurt by unemployment and austerity.

Finally, I take visitors up Ermou Street (the Greek Oxford Street), past the 11th-century Church of Panagia Kapnikarea to Syntagma Square, the beating heart of the city. This square, in front of the Greek parliament, is surrounded by museums, the best of which is the Benaki on Koumbari Street. Since 2011, this square has been the site of demonstrations against austerity. Today, as in ancient times, Athens remains a bustling, enchanting cosmopolitan city.

Athens in eight sites

  • 1: The Parthenon – The largest temple on the Acropolis – odysseus.culture.gr
  • 2: Acropolis Museum – Finds from the Acropolis site – 15 Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, Athenswww.theacropolismuseum.gr
  • 3: Dionysiou Areopagitou Street – Car-free route to the top historical sites – www.visitgreece.gr
  • 4:  Agios Dimitrios and Philopappos Hill – 16th-century chapel and superb views – Off Dionysiou Areopagitou Street
  • 5: Central market area (Varvakios) – Food market and rembetika music – Athinas Street and surrounding roads
  • 6: Athens Polytechnic – Site of uprising against military junta – 42 Patission (28 Oktovriou) Street, Athens
  • 7: Panagia Kapnikarea Church – 11th-century church – Ermou Street, Athens
  • 8: Benaki Museum – Works of art from prehistoric to modern – 1 Koumbari Street, Athens – www.benaki.gr

Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London. Her books include The Story of Pain (Oxford University Press, 2014) 

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This article was taken from issue 1 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in December 2016