Just before Christmas I was lucky enough to go on a research trip to Greece, where I spent a happy couple of weeks in various museum workrooms. Naturally I also managed to get in some sightseeing around Athens (helped by the fact that Greek museums are only open for work until 3pm), so I thought I would share a few tips of things to do/see for any RG readers who may be visiting in future.
Obviously, the first four things to visit in Athens are the Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum, the Agora, and the National Archaeological Museum, but I’m pretty sure most readers of this blog would already be heading for those as soon as the plane touched down. So, assuming you’ve already been in Athens a couple of days and have seen all of those, here are my top suggestions of what to do next:
Just a few blocks from Syntagma Square, this museum has collections ranging from the Neolithic to the 20th century and everything in between. Highlights of the ground floor include the display of Bronze Age jewellery, two Fayum mummy portraits, and some Byzantine illuminated manuscripts; upstairs is a fantastic sequence of displays of dummies wearing traditional costumes from different areas of Greece, interspersed with paintings, books, musical instruments, furniture, ceramics, agricultural tools, you name it, culminating in a room containing objects relating to the Greek War of Independence, the Cretan Revolution, and the World Wars, displayed somewhat jarringly alongside late-nineteenth/ early-twentieth-century court costumes (as pictured right: the flag, from the Cretan Revolution, reads ‘Unity or Death’). Thursday is late opening day, with free entry.
As you might expect, this museum has a pretty impressive collection of Cycladic figurines. Before visiting, I didn’t even know there were 1.5m tall ones like this. A perfect opportunity for attempts at arty ghostly-reflection photography.There are also galleries illustrating the development of ‘Ancient Greek art’ from the Bronze Age to the 4th century A.D. (largely ceramics, some sculpture) and ‘Daily life in antiquity’ (missable, unless you like videos reconstructing the Life of an Athenian Man), as well as a very shiny new gallery full of Cypriot material and interactive touch-panels, and frequent special exhibitions with themes like ‘Health’ or ‘Death and Afterlife’. Very close to the Benaki, and also open late on Thursdays, so the two can easily be combined, perhaps with a stop to refuel at one of the many souvlaki places in the Kolonaki district in between.
Climb every mountain…
…or hill, at any rate. Lykavittos Hill gives an unbeatable view of sunset over the Acropolis: climb up by the (steep!) path beginning at the top of Odos Loukianou in Kolonaki, or take the funicular from the top of Odos Ploutarhou. Filopappou Hill gives a great view of the Acropolis from the other direction (see the photo at the top of this post). On the way up from near the Acropolis, stop to see the ‘Prison of Socrates’ (actually the remains of ancient rooms carved into the cliff; artefacts from museums were stored here during WW2). After admiring the view from the top near the Monument of Filopappos, walk along beside the remains of the ancient fortification walls down to the Pnyx, where you can practise your Demosthenic oratory or just admire the view of the Propylaia.
It’s hard to walk around the older parts of central Athens for more than a few minutes without coming across one of these. Some of the most photogenic (and easy to find) are the ‘Little Metropolis’ (next to the cathedral; has pieces of older sculpture incorporated into the decoration around the outside, as shown in the photo) and Kapnikarea, right in the middle of Odos Ermou, the main shopping street (which is also home to H&M and Marks & Spencer, for anyone missing British shops). Standing at the north end of Monastiraki Square gives a great view of three very different religious sites: the Byzantine Church of the Pantanassa in the foreground, one of Athens’ few remaining mosques behind it (now housing the ceramic collections of the Museum of Greek Folk Art), and the Acropolis in the background. This is also a convenient location to try out the next suggestion:
Eat frozen Greek yoghurt
The perfect way to cool off after a hot summer’s day wandering around archaeological sites – or, indeed, a hot winter’s day, should you happen to be there during a December in which temperatures reach 20 degrees. Can be found in lots of places, especially in the shopping area between Syntagma and Monastiraki. Serving suggestion: topped with fruit and Greek honey.
Metro station archaeology
Some Athenian metro stations have displays of archaeological finds made during the station’s construction, ranging from cases of small finds (vases, lamps, etc) to architectural remains that have been left in situ. See how many you can find!
Practise your Modern Greek
Or, as it’s probably best to call it while in Athens, ‘Greek’. You know, the kind people actually speak nowadays. If, however, your Greek (like mine) is limited to a few phrases out of a guidebook, I should warn you that attempts to use it will go one of two ways:
1) You, to shopkeeper (feeling that it’s polite to at least say hello in the local language): Kalimera! Shopkeeper: looks surprised, then decides that this clearly didn’t happen because tourists don’t speak Greek, and proceeds to speak in English.
2) You, to shopkeeper (as above): Kalimera! Shopkeeper, to you: *something incomprehensible in Greek*. You: *blank look*. Shopkeeper, more slowly: milate Ellinika? [Do you speak Greek?] You, finally understanding: Um, no, I don’t really… *conversation ends in embarrassment*
Visit the British School at Athens
If you’re going to be in Athens for any length of time, I’d highly recommend staying at/joining the BSA – that way, when sightseeing gets too much, you will be able to enjoy access to a very well-stocked library (with resident cat), a varied lecture and seminar programme, a common room full of comfortable sofas, an unlimited supply of Yorkshire tea, and gin-and-tonic nights on Fridays. Cambridge students should feel right at home.
And finally…my top travel tip:
Take your university card with you: students from E.U. universities get free entry to all state museums/sites in Greece! Most private ones will offer discounted entry, and may also have free entry days (e.g. Thursdays at the Benaki); many museums and sites are free to everyone on Sundays (in winter) or the first Sunday of the month (spring and autumn). So there’s really no reason not to go…