In this week's historical city travel guide, we journey back 2,500 years to Classical Athens.
From getting your culture fix at festivals and plays, to indulging in drinking parties, shopping and the local delicacies, we run through what not to miss in Greece's most famous ancient city.
Historical city travel guide: Athens, 5th century BC
The city of Athens lies in the plain of Attica, the large peninsula that forms the southernmost tip of the Greek mainland, jutting out into the Aegean Sea. Being sheltered on all sides by mountains, the city has a pleasant climate with hot and dry summers and mild winters. Though a few miles from the sea, it is well-connected to its busy harbour, Piraeus.
Both land and sea are vital to Athens' economy. Attica – where the Athenians have their farms and where two thirds of Athenians live – provides grain, olives and vines, figs, nuts and other fruit and vegetables.
The most important products the Attic land itself provides are olive oil and silver. In the silver mines of Laurion slaves mine the precious ore from which Athens mints its coins, considered the most solid currency of the Greek world. Athenian olive oil is also famed the world over. Olive groves sacred to the city's patron goddess, Athena, also provide the oil that is given as the prize at the city's Panathenaic Games.
Most visitors to Athens arrive by sea. Athens' port, Piraeus, has much grown over recent decades to become a bustling international town that is well worth a visit in its own right (see below). Here the visitor can change foreign currency into Athenian silver coins.
The road to Athens is a busy thoroughfare, and visitors will have to fight their way through the heavy traffic of people and goods between the port and the city. Those with lots of luggage may wish to hire a mule or cart. The road, though, is safe to travel, being flanked by the famous 'long walls', part of the big fortifications the Athenians erected to protect their city and harbour following the catastrophic sack of Athens in the great war against Persia.
In the city walls, over a dozen major gates open to roads that give access to the countryside beyond. It is through these gates that travellers approaching the city overland will enter.
Athens is a city best explored on foot, and visitors should do as locals do and walk. Having grown naturally over its long history, Athens has a maze of irregular streets that follow the natural terrain, many of them narrow unpaved alleyways.
A key thoroughfare and point of orientation is the broad Panathenaic way that leads from the Sacred Gate up to the Acropolis, crossing the large market square at the heart of the city. Branching off here to the left, along the busy Street of the Tripods (lined by monuments erected by the victors in the city's Panathenaic Games), you will reach the far side of the Acropolis with its Theatre of Dionysus and other festival buildings. Branching off right will lead you to the hill of the Pnyx, where the Athenian citizens hold their democratic assembly.
Things to do
As a city governed by the people, Athens lacks the palaces of rulers that you find in many other countries and the houses of its citizens are generally simple. However, the city is rightly famous for its splendid temples, statues and public buildings, which few other cities in Greece can match. The undisputed jewel in the city's crown, and the one sight a visitor is not to miss, is the Acropolis, or 'high city'.
The large rocky plateau that rises from the town is said to have carried a king's palace in the old days of the great heroes. Today though it is the preserve of the gods, being sacred to Athena, the patron deity of Athens, goddess of war and wisdom, and carries her splendid temples.
More than any other place in Athens the Acropolis embodies the spectacular rebirth of the city after Persian troops under King Xerxes had sacked and pillaged the city (480 BC). Following their ultimate victory, the Athenians decided to leave the ruined temples on the Acropolis untouched as a memorial to the barbarians' impiety. It was not until some 30 years later that they began a huge new building programme, the brainchild of the prominent and influential statesman Pericles.
As you pass through the gates of the Acropolis, don't be surprised by the extent to which monuments and dedications clutter every available space – all speak to the importance of this sacred rock. The most impressive is undoubtedly the colossal bronze statue of a fully armed Athena that celebrates Athens' victory over Persia. The statue is one of many works by the famous Athenian sculptor Pheidias, responsible also for the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon, the large temple you will see just behind the statue.
Richly sculpted and brightly painted, the Parthenon is a masterpiece of architecture, one of the largest ever built in Greece and the centrepiece of the building programme. Its sculptural decoration depicts myths and events relating to the city and its goddess, most notably, in the frieze behind the colonnade, a colourful sacred procession of Athenians and sacrificial animals.
Don't forget to catch a glance of the temple's interior, or you will miss out on the most astonishing sight. Though only visible on most days through grilles in the door, in the temple's eastern chamber stands the most elaborate of all of Pheidias' statues of Athena, made from gold and ivory. Gleaming brightly in the dim interior, it is said to have cost the extraordinary sum of about 800 talents, more expensive even than building the temple itself.
Pnyx – the Athenian assembly
The hill Athenians call the Pnyx offers good views over the city, but its main attraction is that it is the place to watch Athenian democracy at work. Every ten days or so Athenian citizens (that is, men from Athenian families – women, resident foreigners or slaves are excluded) assemble here to debate and decide on the fortunes of their city. Don't imagine these to be sombre and dignified gatherings, though. As they tuck into the bread and wine they have brought for sustenance, farmers and city-dwellers, rich and poor, and cobblers and generals alike all hold forth on current affairs while trading witty remarks and insults.
All citizens are allowed to speak and vote, though it is often skilled orators backed by family fortunes who achieve the greatest prominence. It is well worth watching a debate and seeing with what skill and eloquence Athenian orators are able to sway the masses.
Agora – the marketplace
No visit to Athens is complete without a visit to its central marketplace, the Agora, the town's civic and commercial centre – and indeed also its geographic centre, as the Altar of the Twelve Gods serves as the central milestone of the city. In no other place can you watch citizens and foreigners, slave girls and market women, rich noblemen and penniless philosophers mix and mingle, for politics, worship, commerce, or gossip, and indeed nothing will bring you closer to the heart of Athenian life than when you haggle with a fishmonger, get into a dispute with a philosopher, or join the crowd of idle young men who hang out in the perfumer-sellers corner.
The central space of the Agora on most days is taken up by market tables, booths or carts, from which vendors offer everything and anything anyone could ever desire – from bread and figs to garlands and wine, cloaks and perfumes, dining couches and slaves. Athenian shop holders, however, have a reputation for cheating on tourists, so visitors should remember that the Athenian market overseers hold an official set of weights and measures in the Tholos.
To exercise both mind and body, visit a gymnasium. First established more than a century ago as places for young men to take military and athletic exercise, gymnasia have developed into centres of learning, where teachers offer philosophical discussions and instruction in subjects ranging from mathematics and astronomy to zoology, botany, logic and rhetoric. They have also become popular places for men to meet to develop homosexual relationships.
There are three great gymnasia: the Lyceum, the Kynosarges, and the most famous of all, the Academy.
Alas, no similar facilities are available to women, unless you count the professional training schools for courtesans that instruct in dance, song and music and that enjoy a high reputation. For intellectual debate, Athenian women resort to meeting in private houses. Best known is the salon kept by Aspasia, the former mistress of the great statesman Pericles.
For those tired of sightseeing, debating and shopping, Athens offers some good recreational facilities. Weary travellers will be glad to soak their tired limbs in one of the city's public bath suites, located mostly outside the city walls. The baths outside the Dipylon Gate are particularly nice, with a pebble-mosaic floor and bathtubs supplied with hot water from a nearby cistern and furnace, but the baths of Diochares and Isthmonikos generally receive good reviews.
With goods from across the Mediterranean world on offer, it is difficult to choose what to bring home from Athens. Popular are local specialities, such as Attic honey or olive oil, or imported spices such as North African silphium. Nor can one go wrong with a bottle of perfume, exotic imports from Egypt such as cinnamon scent, or the Athenian Panathenaikon, sold in miniature bottles imitating the large Panathenaic prize amphorae. Intellectuals will appreciate scrolls with the latest works of Athenian playwrights or philosophers. For those with space in their luggage, a set of exquisitely painted Athenian pottery is a must.
No other city in Greece has as much to offer in terms of entertainment and comforts of life. The best way to enjoy Athens is to visit during a major religious festival, when the whole city comes together to celebrate, and spectacles and competitions are staged that have their equal in few other corners of the known world. With some religious festival or other taking place on average every three days, visitors stand a good chance of catching some of the fun.
The main city festival is the Panathenaia, celebrated every year in the summer on the birthday of Athena. But it is only every four years that it features the spectacular games for which the best athletes, musicians and numerous spectators flock to Athens from all over the Greek world.
For five days there are public competitions in music, in reciting Homer's poetry, in gymnastic and in equestrian contests, including boxing, wrestling, pentathlon, footraces, horse-races and chariot-races. There are also events such as dancing in armour, torch races, a regatta in the harbour, and even a male beauty pageant called euandria.
The other great festival is the Great Dionysia, celebrated every spring – though to participate in this requires some stamina. After a lively procession, sacrifice and much revelry, dancing and drinking as befits a festival for Dionysus, god of wine and debauchery, there follows the highlight of the festival, as the audience settles into an open-air theatre set into the Acropolis hill for several days of watching performances put on by the greatest of Greek playwrights.
And if large crowds and bawdy jokes are not your cup of tea, there are also numerous smaller festivals where visitors may catch a glimpse of local rites or be invited to join the feasting. Of late these even include festivals to deities such as Egyptian Isis or Thracian Bendis, introduced by resident foreigners, or the peculiar Adonia, where Athenian women loudly wail on their rooftops in lament for the death of the Phrygian god Adonis.
Where to stay
Both the city and its port, Piraeus, offer lodgings for travellers at inns or taverns. For most tourists, Athens will be the first choice, though for those with business to conduct in shipping or sea trade, Piraeus will also be a good option. For those arriving from a city or country that has an honorary consul, a proxenos, in town, he should be the first point of call as it will be his business to assist and look after the interests of any visitors. If you cannot call on such services or prefer to make your own arrangements, here is what you need to know about the different parts of town.
Athens has a population of some 100,000 actually living in the city, and twice that in the Attic countryside. Not surprising, then, that the city may seem crowded, noisy and polluted. Inside the city walls is especially densely built up, notably so in the residential districts of Koile and Melite, towards the Pnyx. Leafier areas are found in the residential quarters just outside the city walls and along the three rivers that cross the city, Cephissus, Ilissos and Eridanos. Kolonos, close to the park and exercise grounds of the Academy, is a pleasant district that is best-known for being the home of the playwright Sophocles. Probably the most upmarket district is Alopeke, south-east of the city walls, home to millionaires such as Kallias, one of the richest men of Greece notorious for his lavish lifestyle.
Those looking for a more bohemian flair may be attracted by areas around the city gates. Many have a reputation as red-light districts and are popular with young men in search of a good time. A lively area with workshops in which philosophers and other idlers mix and mingle is also found on the fringes of the Agora, where sculptors, marble workers, iron and bronze workers, bone workers and cobblers, as well as some potters and terracotta figurine makers, have settled.
Piraeus is the port of Athens and one of the largest ports of Greece, served by three harbours. Under Pericles some decades ago the town was rebuilt and has since exploded in size. Piraeus today is far more than just an appendix to Athens – it is a densely populated town with a cosmopolitan flair thanks to the foreigners, from Egyptians and Thracians to Phoenicians and Syrians, who have made it their home. Bustling with sailors and merchants, Piraeus has a reputation for good but simple taverns and a wide selection of brothels.
Food and drink
Athenians love to eat well, and travellers will not go hungry. Across town a wide range of establishments, from carts selling drink to well-regarded taverns such as the 'Bald Man' kept by Kallias and Thraitta, serve wine and food and are much frequented by locals. In terms of food there is something to suit every taste and pocket. Visitors will be glad to find plentiful and decent supplies of bread and cheese, to be spiced up with garlic and onions, as well as lentil soup or cooked bulbs to keep them going throughout the day. For variety, small-fry fresh from the sea or sausages are widely available.
Specialities not to miss include tuna (imported from the Black Sea) in cheese and garlic sauce, tender roasted birds sprinkled with olive oil and grated silphion, or pig's belly and sow's matrix, seasoned with cumin, vinegar and silphion. Be sure to also sample Athenian cakes – the Athenian cheesecake is considered second to none!
The Athenians have perfected to an art the traditional Greek symposion (symposium), or drinking party, where dinner is followed by more drinks over cakes and nibbles. An invitation to a private symposium is the surest way to experience Athenian feasting at its best.
Private symposia are usually small, with three to seven comfortable couches on which two diners each can recline. Even if guests will often contribute a prepared dish from home (fear not, this will not be expected of a traveller), your host will have hired a cook and probably some additional serving staff.
Professional female entertainers such as dancers, flute players and acrobats will have been invited, and they are likely to be available for more intimate entertainment as the evening wears on. Expect conversation to be lively and be prepared to perform bawdy ballads, to debate the latest scandals in Athenian politics, and especially to play kottabos, a popular but exceedingly tricky party game that has diners compete in flicking dregs from their wine cups at a target. Later on in the evening you may find that revellers from other parties gate crash your dinner, or that your party in turn takes to the road to continue revelling in the street – this is quite common and generally tolerated, as long as party-goers refrain from serious vandalism and sacrilegious acts.
'Drink' in Athens means wine, which Athenians drink frequently and in some quantity. Stalls and taverns sell wine in bulk, but also by the cup, and will serve anything from the cheap and simple local wines to the highly regarded imports from Mende, Magnesia, Thasos or Chios.
While visitors need to take care not to fall prey to unscrupulous landlords who overly dilute their wines, it is important to remember that some dilution is indeed the norm in Athens: like other Greeks, Athenians, too, will drink their wine only mixed with water, with the mixing bowl – the krater – forming the centre of any symposium. Drinking wine neat is considered just as barbarian as drinking beer and will immediately disqualify any foreigner.
Things to know
Athenians welcome visitors, and with many of the city's residents and slaves coming from abroad, plus numerous passing traders and diplomats, locals are well used to (and generally tolerant of) even the strangest foreign customs. Nonetheless, Athenians are also proud and protective of their own privileges, and so some events and spaces, including some sanctuaries and festivals, are reserved for citizens alone, and unless invited by locals visitors should respect such restrictions. Special care to adhere to rules should be taken also in the religious sphere (see below).
For women travellers Athens may present some inconvenience, as to most Athenian men a respectable wife's place is in the home, far from the gaze of any man, and men generally consider themselves superior and naturally privileged. This means that a travelling couple is likely to have to dine separately when invited to an Athenian's house, and that also the best food and entertainment is reserved for men. Nonetheless, women are able to move around town freely. While some spaces (such as certain sanctuaries, or gymnasia where men exercise) may be barred to women, most attractions, including the splendid theatre festival at the City Dionysia, are accessible, and there is feasting in women-only festivals just as much as in men's.
Things to watch out for
Though crime is generally low in the city, it is wise to take the usual precautions against robbers and pickpockets. More of a problem may be fraud, as prostitutes, shop-owners or landlords are known to try and cheat unsuspecting tourists out of their hard-earned cash, though vigilance is all that can be recommended here.
Given Athenians' views on women, male visitors should take care before approaching a citizen's wife or daughter, as well as avoid getting into arguments with drunk revellers (many of whom will be sons of influential politicians), and refrain from causing any damages to an Athenian's life or property. While all this is sensible in any foreign place, it is so even more in Athens, as Athenians are notoriously litigious.
To visitors from other parts of the Greek world Athenian religious customs will look familiar enough, but also visiting foreigners should encounter few problems. Athenians are tolerant of all foreign religion, but will expect visitors to adhere to basic rules, especially within sanctuaries. Special sanctuary rules are often publicly displayed, but it is useful to remember that generally it is not allowed to remove anything from a sacred precinct, so don't be tempted to walk off with a 'souvenir'!
We hope you enjoyed your visit to Classical Athens!
In the mood for more time travelling? You can read these other blogs in our historical city travel guide series: