Athens: A New Look for an Old City

By Rick Steves
Parthenon Crowd, Acropolis, Athens, Greece
To avoid the crowds at the Parthenon, go in the early evening when the marble turns golden as the sun sets. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)
Agora and Acropolis, Athens, Greece
These ruins are all that’s left of Athens’ historic marketplace, the Ancient Agora. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)
Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece
The new Acropolis Museum shows off treasures from the Parthenon but is missing the famous marble panels housed in the British Museum. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

A century and a half ago, Athens was a humble, forgotten city of about 8,000 people. Today one out of every three Greeks packs into this city of about four million.

The city has been infamous for its sprawl, noise, and pollution. My advice has long been to see the big sights, then get out. But visiting it recently to research my guidebook, I saw a dramatic change. The city has made a concerted effort to clean up and pedestrianize the streets, spiff up the museums, build a new airport, and invest in one of Europe's better public-transit systems.

Athens has a long history. You'll walk in the footsteps of the great minds who created democracy, philosophy, theater, and more...even when you're dodging motorcycles on "pedestrianized" streets. Romantics can't help but get goose bumps as they kick around the same pebbles that once stuck in Socrates' sandals, with the floodlit Parthenon forever floating ethereally overhead. It rises gleaming like a beacon above the gray concrete drudgery of modern Athens. This is where the Greeks built the mighty Parthenon — the most famous temple on the planet, and an enduring symbol of ancient Athens' glorious Golden Age nearly 2,500 years ago.

Along with the stunning Acropolis, there's the Ancient Agora just below, and the remarkable National Archaeological Museum. In June 2009, the city saw the opening of a new sight — one that will stoke a battle over Greece losing her marbles more than 200 years ago (more on that later).

The major monuments of the Acropolis survive in remarkably good condition. While the Persians, Ottomans, and British were cruel to the site in the past, the greatest dangers it faces now are acid rain and pollution. Ongoing restoration means that you might see some scaffolding — but even that can't take away from its greatness. I like to come late in the day, as the sun goes down, when the white Parthenon stone gleams a creamy golden brown.

While the Acropolis was the city's ceremonial showpiece, it was the Ancient Agora that was the real heart of classical Athens. For some 800 years, it was the hub of all commercial, political, and social life, as well as home to much of the city's religious rites. Little survives from the classical period. Other than one very well-preserved temple and a rebuilt portico, it's a field of humble ruins nestled in the shadow of the Acropolis. But that makes it a quiet, uncrowded spot to wander and get a feel for the ancients.

North of the city center is the world's best collection of ancient Greek art, the National Archaeological Museum. It takes you from 7000 B.C. to A.D. 500, from prehistoric and Mycenaean artifacts to the evolution of classical Greek statuary.

This museum now has a worthy competitor — the Acropolis Museum, built in a neighborhood just below the Parthenon. It fills an aching void, preserving and displaying cultural treasures once held prisoner in a musty old Acropolis-top museum next to the Parthenon.

The striking, glassy building — designed by Swiss-born, New York-based architect Bernard Tschumi — gives a postmodern jolt to Athens' otherwise staid, mid-century-concrete cityscape, even as it echoes the ancient history all around it. The building is the boldest symbol yet of the post-Olympics vision for Athens.

This is a world-class space, custom-built to showcase the Parthenon sculptures, along with truckloads of other artifacts, all complemented by modern exhibits. Its two lower levels are aligned with the foundations of the ancient ruins beneath the building (which are exposed and open to the public). The top floor sits askew, imitating the orientation of the Parthenon. Inside, the museum is designed to maximize natural light for illuminating the space and exhibits.

The new museum also serves as a sort of 21st-century Trojan horse, intended to lure the famous Elgin Marbles (the Parthenon sculptures) away from London's British Museum. In the early 19th century, the British ambassador to the Ottomans, Lord Elgin, got permission to strip marble panels from the Parthenon and take them to England.

For years, the Greeks have asked for the marbles back, and for years, the Brits have responded with claims that Greece can't give them a suitable home. And yet, now that this state-of-the-art facility is ready and waiting, it still seems unlikely that the marbles will be returned anytime soon. Britain is reluctant to give in, for fear of setting a precedent...and getting "me, too" notices from Italy, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and all the other nations who'd like the missing pieces of their cultural heritage back. But even without the Marbles, this new museum captures the timeless splendor of ancient and modern Athens.