Acropolis Museum: no trip to Athens should miss a trip to The Acropolis and The Parthenon, but also unmissable is its museum. Open since 2009, it was founded to exhibit the finds from the Sacred Rock and its foothills. Hosting an impressive collection, it’s split between three levels, above the recently opened basement archaeological excavations.
It’s worth working your way around the museum in chronological order, starting from the bottom up. On the ground floor, the “Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis” is home to the sanctuaries established on the slopes of the Acropolis. The display of quotidian objets (everything from drinking vessels, pots and pans and make-up pouches) brings antiquity to life and gives you a real sense of Athenian daily routine.
Above that, the nine-metre high, naturally lit “Archaic Gallery” on the first floor hosts the magnificent sculptures that graced the first temples on the Acropolis, as well as the votive offerings dedicated by worshippers, such as Korai (depictions of young women) and statutes of the Goddess Athena.
Probably the most memorable level, though, is the sight of the Acropolis through the third-floor Parthenon Gallery. Consciously maintaining the visual link between the Parthenon sculptures exhibited in the Museum and the monument from which they originated, the layout of this Museum achieves a seamless transition between the displayed and the sight itself. With views extending around the entire glass-walls of the museum, it offers breathtaking, 360 degrees views across the whole of Athens.
Archaeological Museum: the scale of this museum – which is the largest in Greece – is outstanding. Set in an enormous neoclassical building and housing the world’s finest collection of Greek antiquities, it may take a few visits to appreciate its exhibits to the full. Spanning the Neolithic era to the Classical periods, crossing the Ptolemaic era in Egypt, those exhibits include exquisite sculptures, pottery, jewellery, frescoes and artefacts found throughout Greece.
Benaki Museum: situated in lovely Kolonaki, this museum provides a fascinating overview of Greek history and civilisation through a broad collection of ancient, medieval, Greek Revolution-era and early modern artefacts and arts. A particularly nice time to visit is on a Thursday evening, when the museum is open late and entrance is free. Don’t miss the view from the rooftop, especially at sunset.
Cycladic Museum: also located in uptown Kolonaki, this is a museum favourite of mine, partly because of its setting. Inspired by the purity and light of the Cycladic landscape (Greece’s islands), it feels like a hidden oasis in the middle of the city. Dedicated to the study and promotion of the ancient cultures of the Aegean and Cyprus, it has a special emphasis on Cycladic Art of the 3rd millennium BC. Split across 4 floors, the first houses a collection of Cycladic Art – everything from figurines and vases, to weaponry and pottery that flourished in the central Aegean during the Early Bronze Age. Whilst the second floor moves onto Ancient Greek art, the third is dedicated to Cyprus’ ancient art and culture, and the fourth to antiquity from Ancient Greek life. The building itself is well-designed, with one of the nicest central courtyard cafés I’ve seen.
Goulandris Museum of Modern Art: From Van Gough to Pollock and everyone in between, works of the world’s most famous modern painters have found a home at the new museum of the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation. Built specially to house the Foundation’s world-class collection of Impressionist, Modernist and post-war art, this long-awaited museum only opened its doors in October this year. Set in a beautiful plaza besides the church of Saint Spyridon, it’s only a stone’s throw from the Panathenaic Stadium and hip Pagrati.
The core museum spans four floors: the first two are dedicated to 19th and 20th-century Western art, whilst the top two are for Greek art from the past 100 years. Highlights include Van Gough’s Olive Picking (1889), which was painted during the artist’s stay at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in the south of France. The painting gleams with a dream-like light, emblematic of Van Gogh’s mastery of colour.
Other seminal pieces include Picasso’s Woman Nude with Raised Arms (1907), also known as the “Avignon Nude”, Auguste Rodin’s Eternal Spring (1884) and other masterpieces by fin-de-siècle artists like Degas, Gaugin and Modigliani.
The museum also showcases some rare works by the most celebrated artists from the post-war era, many of whom were personal friends of Basil and Elise. Jackson Pollock’s Number 13 (1950) is a surprisingly small work from the artist’s famous “drip period”. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Self-portrait (1972) held emotional significance for the artist because they were drawn right after his partner’s death. The quality of the collection is extremely impressive. The collection (estimated to be worth $3 billion) is one of the world’s most valuable private collections.
Lycabettus Hill: at 277 metres, this is the tallest of Athens’ seven hills and it’s worth climbing its summit for the view. Though you can catch a cable car up, the climb up is relatively easy (though hot depending on what time of day you visit) and takes about 25 minutes. As well as a clear view across the Attica basin and the Aegean, you can also see the Acropolis in the distance – it’s a must-see.
Monastiraki market: though touristy and crowded, and full of hawkers charging hiked-up prices, it’s worth walking through and browsing the antiques for sale on a Sunday. Soak up the general vibe, try on some Greek sandles, sample some olive oil and don’t forget to haggle.
National Gardens: the National Gardens are the place to go to for a summer refuge from the sun. Although just a few steps away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, its palm trees and the garden’s walls offer a much-needed oasis. Commission by Queen Amalia in 1838, it was once the Royal Gardens and backs onto the former Royal Palace (now the Parliament). Open from dawn until dusk, it’s a favourite with joggers, families with children and anyone looking for serenity and shade.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus: the magnificent setting here makes any performance spectacular, but The Béjart Ballet Lausanne is awe-inspiring. On my visit I was treated to a varied programme spanning Maurice Béjart’s Seven Greek Dances, an avant-garde jazz meets tribal meets Bollywood mix and Ravel’s bolero. The dances take you on a journey. Like the setting, the costumes are also stunning and the lighting here makes for a show like no other. Although the seats are hard and space tight, a three-hour performance whizzes by.
Open-air cinema: if you’re here in the summer, a must-see is a screening at one of Athens’ many al-fresco cinemas. The one with probably the most unrivalled view is at Thision overlooking the Acropolis, but there are also ones including popular favourites with locals in Kifissia (Mpomponiera, Therinos).
Philopappou Hill: also called the Hill of the Muses, Filopappou Hill feels somewhat wilder as compared with Lycabettus Hill. A pine-shaded spot, it’s good for a stroll, especially at sunset. The hill also gives some of the best vantage points for photographing the Acropolis, and views to the Saronic Gulf. As it’s not as high as Lycabettus, rising to 147 metres, the clarity of the view from the top is impressive and perfect for photographs. Also use the visit as an excuse to visit the more local, district of Ano Petralona, a chilled out neighbourhood of low-rise houses with beautifully planted balconies and reasonable tavernas.
SNFCC: Athens’ cultural Renaissance and its renewed status as a European arts capital is perhaps best signified by the arrival of the $623 million Renzo Piano-designed (who was also behind Paris’ Pompidou Centre) Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC). The SNFCC is an impressive and sustainable world-class cultural, learning and recreational urban complex home to the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera.
As one of the largest green spaces in Athens, covering an area of 210,000 square metres, the impressive roof garden features eco-friendly solar panels. Open since 2016, the place still smells wonderfully new. Browse the concert schedule to see what’s on – a number of performances are free.
It’s also worth registering for a free guided tour of the buildings, which offers an insight into its design and construction and takes you to both the Stavros Niarchos Hall and the Alternative Stage, as well as backstage to the Choir Rehearsal Room and the Ballet Rooms. The on-site Delta Restaurant (only open on Sunday) is a solid option for brunch or dinner. Bonus: visitors can rent bikes to ride around the cultural centre’s massive park between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.