Athens is without a doubt one of the most incredible historic destinations in the world. Besides being the birthplace of democracy, it is also the greatest centre of the classic sculptural, architectural, and artistic style that has defined art in the West for as long as the West has had an artistic tradition. In Athens, you practically trip over historical monuments (sometimes literally, as some of the cobbled streets on the slopes of the Acropolis date back to ancient times).
You could spend a month exploring – or, like us, be limited to just a few days to fit as much as possible into. (Update: we went back, and spent a month! So this post has been updated with new information.)
For those who can’t wander for days on end, we’ve put together a list of all the most phenomenal Athens monuments, as well as a few amazing museums. At both landmarks and museums, you can see ancient and historic artefacts made by human hands from hundreds to thousands of years ago, and learn so much more about the culture and practices of the ancients.
Historic Landmarks in Athens
Athens is swimming in history. Particularly within the historic centre, you’ll find ancient monuments around every second street. But these are the most impressive and historically significant – as well as some of the most beautiful!
Opening hours: April – October, 08:00 – 19:30 daily (Mondays open at 11:00) | November – March, 08:30 – 15:00 daily
Cost: €12 for adults | €6 for students, children and seniors | €20 for skip-the-line tickets
Glenn and I visiting the Acropolis in 2019 – you can see that it gets very busy, so you’ll easily find someone to take a snap of you! You just might get the top of the Parthenon chopped off, like we did here.
No visit to Athens is complete without spending at least two hours at the Acropolis! It’s one of those attractions that are super popular, but 100% worth it, and not to be missed. You’ll contend with crowds and lines, but be surrounded by ancient and modern history.
A visit to the Acropolis starts at the base of the hilltop (not the base of the hill, the whole neighbourhood slopes up to this point). You’ll pass millennia-old artefacts on your way up, so be sure to stop and read what fascinating purpose they once served!
However, it’s at the top of the Acropolis that the truly awe-inspiring monuments stand.
The Parthenon in 2019, undergoing its long-time restoration, which uses marble from the same marble mine as the ancients used.
As you can see, the iconic Athenian monument is undergoing restoration. In fact, it’s been under restoration for more than 30 years now, slowly jigsawing over 70 000 pieces together. This, despite evidence that suggests it only took about 9 years to build!
The Parthenon finished construction in 438 BC and was dedicated to the goddess Athena – the virginal goddess of war and patron of Athens. It celebrated the Athenian victory over the Persians, who had destroyed the previous temple dedicated to Athena (also on the Acropolis).
In later years, the Parthenon served as a church to the Virgin Mary, an Ottoman mosque, and even a gunpowder magazine. It was at this time, 2000 years after construction and just 500 years ago, that much of the structure was damaged in a – not-surprising – gunpowder explosion. Further destruction came in the 18th century when large portions of the Parthenon were carried off.
An incredibly striking monument, the Parthenon is one of the most famous in the world. It’s very popular, so it’s best to visit as early as possible. It’s also very hot in summer, so you have two reasons to head over early.
The Porch of Maidens – these incredible columns hold up a section of the Erechtheion that was apparently greatly reduced in size because war efforts led to budget cuts.
This temple is dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, but it’s named after another character from Greek mythology. King Erichthonius, who ruled Athens and was, according to some stories, raised by Athena herself.
The Erechtheion is said to hold the marks of Poseidon’s trident, and an ancient, now-dry saltwater well. Just outside it, there is also an olive tree in the same place where Athena was said to have planted her sacred olive tree when she succeeded in her rivalry against Poseidon for the city.
While it’s not quite as monumental as the Parthenon, the Erectheion is a striking asymmetrical structure. It’s most famous feature is the beautiful Porch of the Maidens, which you see in my photo above.
Temple of Athena Nike
While the Parthenon is dedicated to Athena the Virgin (which translates to Athena Parthenos), the Temple of Athena Nike is a shrine to Athena of Victory. Nike is the Greek goddess of victory, who of course is often associated with the goddess of war.
Standing to the right of the entrance to the Acropolis, the temple was built about 20 years after the Parthenon. While the older one celebrated victory, this monument was constructed in the hope of victory – this time against the Spartans.
Theatre of Dionysus
If you lean over the boundaries of the Acropolis hilltop, you’ll have a lovely view of the ruins below – including the Theater of Dionysus, which you can see here in the top left corner.
On your way up the Acropolis, you’ll pass the Theatre of Dionysus. Be sure to stop and imagine what it must have been like in ancient Athens during one of the many festivals. Dionysus, in particular, had a lot of dedicated festivals, being the god of theatre, ritual madness, and wine. Quite the combo.
This ancient theatre has the capacity to host 17 000 people. Athenian tragedy, during its heyday, consisted of three people on stage, and an orchestra of performers off-stage. There would be masks and costumes so that the three actors could play various roles. Almost always, the content of the plays were Greek myths, with various unique twists and approaches.
Both tragedies and comedies would be performed for the giant crowd, displaying the skill of the playwrights and the actors, and keeping everyone very much entertained. It was pretty big budget stuff.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
The theatre being set up for a musical performance when we visited the Acropolis
Another historic theatre on the slopes of the acropolis is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. You’ll notice that this monument is in better condition than Dionysus’ theatre. This is because it is one of the Roman monuments built in the city, long after the heyday of ancient and classical Greece. In 161 AD, in fact.
Built by the Roman senator Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife, the theatre once had a wooden roof, and served as a venue specifically for music concerts. Renovated in 1950, it’s used for the same purpose today! Though only rarely, but it’s still worth checking – if you’re lucky, you can see a performance in a millennia-old theatre on the slopes of the ancient Acropolis.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
Opening hours: April – October, 08:00 – 19:30 daily (Mondays open at 11:00) | November – March, 08:30 – 15:00 daily
Cost: €2 entrance
What is left of the Zeus’ Temple is just a small fragment of what it once was. There were once 104 giant Corinthian columns making up the largest ancient temple in the world.
While today it’s only a shadow of its immense glory, the Temple of Olympian Zeus is spectacular. Particularly for history lovers, it’s really a bit mind-boggling to picture its scale.
In fact, the temple’s construction was halted when the tyrant who began it died, and it remained incomplete for hundreds of years. This is because it was considered a sign of hubris (dangerous pride, which could offend the gods) to build something so huge. And at the time, Athenians were turning away from all signs of hubris, and returning to a simpler, humbler aesthetic.
The temple was completed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who was clearly bent on cementing his name and his reign among the ancient greats. And he certainly did!
Arch of Hadrian
Opening hours: You can visit any time
The Arch of Hadrian
The Arch of Hadrian (or Hadrian’s Gate, as it was more commonly known in the past) is not the kind of monument you’ll want to spend hours exploring. It is, after all, an arch. But since it’s central, and forms part of a striking history, it’s very worth popping past on your way to the Temple of Zeus.
The monumental arch names both Hadrian and Theseus as founders of Athens. A bold claim, but its likely implication is that Theseus was founder of the old, and Hadrian founder of the new Athens. New, that is, in 132 AD.
Hadrian was a Roman Emperor whose empire included the illustrious Athens. His rule was a turbulent one, but he invested a lot of time in unification and military preparedness, and erected monuments across his Empire. Athens, being one of the most impressive historic places in the world, inspired him a great deal, and he attempted to make it the cultural capital of his Empire.
Library of Hadrian
Opening hours: Monday – Sunday, 08:00 – 15:00
Cost: €4 full price | €2 reduced for students, children and seniors
A visit to the Library of Hadrian in 2021 – just us and the tortoises, one of whom you can see in the bottom right!
Once housing a host of literary works and important documents, the Library of Hadrian is an impressive Athens landmark right outside the Roman Agora. Like his arch, it formed part of Hadrian’s plans to bring Athens into a new golden age.
The largest library in Athenian history, it was also a space for schools of philosophy and learning, which is a wonderful thing to imagine. While you’re at it, picture reading papyrus scrolls and discussing politics and philosophy in the library garden.
Unfortunately, the library has suffered a fair bit of damage. But that’s to be expected, with 1000 years and time spent as a mosque, residence, fortress, army barracks and even prison.
Opening hours: April – October, 08:00 – 19:30 daily (Mondays open at 11:00) | November – March, 08:00 – 15:00 daily
Cost: Full price is €8, reduced is €4 (museum included)
Located in the heart of Athens, you’ll find the ancient Athenian Agora a short walk away from the Acropolis on its northwest slope.
Like its location, the Agora was the heart of political and social life in ancient Athens. At the peak of Athenian democracy, it housed the city council, the magistrates, and the law courts, where all decisions would be made regarding Athens’ rules of law.
Some of the first and greatest moves towards democratic legislature were made right here! So, while you’ll find that everything is in ruins today, it’s a great place to learn about Athens’ history, and how one of the most impressive places in human history was run.
You’ll also find the Agora Museum, which houses ceramics, jewels and weaponry found here over years of excavations.
Quick tip: If you’re low on time, I recommend this skip-the-line ticket to the Acropolis, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the Ancient Agora, along with the attractions below. It also includes audio tours for each.
Temple of Hephaestus
The beautifully well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus, seen among the trees
Entrance to the ancient Agora also includes access to one of the ancient world’s best-preserved temples! Far humbler than Zeus and Athena’s monuments, the Doric temple has been well-maintained as a Greek Orthodox church for 1000 years.
Hephaestus is the lame-footed patron god of fire, metalworking and craftsmanship in the Greek Pantheon. In his origin story, he was cast from Mount Olympus by his mother Hera and fell to the earth, unwanted because of his deformity. He was returned from exile by Dionysus. But as the god of metalworking, he would spend much of his time in his volcanic workshops, away from the home of the gods.
Because of his patronage of craftsmen, Hephaestus’s temple rises above the Agora, home to ancient Athens’ craftsmen and merchants.
Also included in your entrance is access to the Roman Agora. Built in the 1st century BC, this later Agora encroached on its ancient counterpart, with parts of it being built over the older agora.
An inscription indicates that Julius Caesar and Augustus funded its construction, while Hadrian added more to it during his reign. It was primarily a marketplace, consisting of an open-air courtyard surrounded by colonnades.
The most interesting monuments remaining here are the Tower of the Winds, an ancient meteorological timepiece. And the Gate of Athena Archegetis, dedicated by Julius Caesar to the patroness of Athens.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Opening hours: You can visit at any time
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with a changing of the guards, who you’ll always see standing in front of it – image courtesy of Jebulon.
If you’re exploring Athens on foot (which we recommend), you’re bound to see this historic tomb. The war memorial is located right in front of the Old Royal Palace, and is dedicated to Greek soldiers killed in war.
It’s also right next to Plaka, Athens’ most vibrant and popular neighbourhood. As well as a quick walk from the National Gardens! This is what we mean about stumbling over historic monuments as you go. The tomb itself isn’t very old, having been built in 1930. But it calls back to Athens’ gloried past with unique style.
The text you’ll see on either side of the memorial read “There’s one empty bier made up for the unidentified [fallen] ones” and “The whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men”. Both are quotes from Thucydides, an ancient Athenian historian (they even existed thousands of years ago).
Most amazing Athens museums
While these museums aren’t necessarily historic monuments in their own right, they house so many incredible treasures that they have to be included in this list! We visited each of these, and found each of them just wonderful.
Byzantine and Christian Museum
Opening hours: Monday: 08:00 – 20:00 | Tuesday, 13:00 – 20:00 | Wednesday – Sunday, 08:00 – 20:00
Cost: €8 for adults | €4 for students & seniors
Stunningly well-preserved mosaic of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus from the Byzantine period
A beautifully set up museum a little outside Athens’ city centre, the Byzantine and Christian Museum exhibits incredible artefacts from the 3rd century AD to the Late Middle Ages.
With over 25 000 exhibits, you could easily spend a whole day here. From ornate crowns and bibles to frescoes and mosaics like the one above, it’s an absolute treasure trove. It’s also really exciting to see a bit more of Athens’ and Greece’s more recent history.
One of our favourite exhibits were depictions of the Virgin Mary, where you could really see the effects of the changing art styles and various influences on local artists.
National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Opening hours: Monday, 13:00 – 20:00 | Tuesday – Friday, 09:00 – 20:00 | Saturday and Sundays, 09:00 – 16:00
Cost: November – 31 March, €7 full price | 1 April – 31 October, €10 | Under 18s free
This ornate dagger was found in a Greek burial site along with an amazing amount of riches.
Athens’ National Museum is one of the best we’ve ever experienced, with phenomenal exhibits that offer so much more than you bargain for. You’ll see gold filigree, daggers and jewellery from ancient burial sites that may have inspired the Trojan War myth. Along with sculptures that most of us learnt about in high school art and history classes.
If you’re like us, you’ll want to spend a full day here and read the beautifully interesting and informative plaques at every stop. Don’t worry, there’s a cafe, so you can recover some energy. You can also join a guided tour if you prefer to save some time and still get all the highlights.
Museum of Cycladic Art
Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays, 10:00 – 17:00 | Thursdays, 10:00 – 20:00 | Sundays, 11:00 – 17:00 | Tuesdays: closed
Cost: €7 for adults | € 3.50 for students & seniors | Children under 18 free
Pottery with the patterning and animal-forms characteristic to much of the Cycladic artworks.
This lesser-known museum is a wonderful visit. Its exhibitions showcase artworks and artefacts from way back – between 3000 and 5000 years ago. It’s an amazing opportunity to see how humanity developed over the millennia, with exhibits of glasswork, gold, pottery and metalwork, among other things.
You’ll also learn about just how much knowledge humanity lost during the dark ages, and how we redeveloped it again. Most of the historic works come from the Cyclades – a group of islands in the Greek Aegean – which is where it gets its name.
Quick tip: If you visit the museum on a monday, the entrance fee is € 3.50 for everyone!
Opening hours: 1 November – 31 March (winter): Monday – Sunday, 09:00 – 20:00 | 1 April – 31 October (summer): Monday – Sunday, 08:00 – 20:00
Cost: Winter season €5 full price | €3 reduced admission
Summer season €10 full price | €5 reduced admission
If you visit the Acropolis (ahem… when you visit the Acropolis) its so important to visit its museum. As you’re strolling around the Parthenon, you’ll marvel at how much has survived the test of time. But just wait till you get here – the mind boggles.
The Acropolis Museum houses many of the surviving freezes, sculptures and other artworks that were once scattered around and affixed to the iconic site.
It also has exhibits where you can see how colourful ancient Greek sculptures really were, contrary to the popular idea of them as pure white marble. Along with so much more.
Last thoughts on Athens’ historical sites
Anyone visiting Athens could spend a month marvelling at and learning about its historic monuments and artefacts. But if like us, you just have a few days to spend here, you can still tick off so much. You just need to know where to look. And maybe book a couple of skip-the-line tickets, to save a few hours.
I hope you’ve found this guide helpful! I loved putting it together. Please let me know if I’ve missed anything that simply shouldn’t be missed. And enjoy the trip!