Athens is the capital and the largest city of Greece, dominates the Attica region and is one of the world's oldest cities, with its recorded history spanning over 3,400 years and its earliest human presence started somewhere between the 11th and 7th millennium BC.
According to the ancient Athenian founding myth, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, competed against Poseidon, the God of the Seas, for patronage of the yet-unnamed city; they agreed that whoever gave the Athenians the better gift would become their patron and appointed Cecrops, the king of Athens, as the judge. According to the account given by Pseudo - Apollodorus, Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and a salt water spring welled up. In an alternative version of the myth from Vergil's Georgics, Poseidon instead gave the Athenians the first horse. In both versions, Athena offered the Athenians the first domesticated olive tree. Cecrops accepted this gift and declared Athena the patron goddess of Athens.
Classical Athens was a powerful city-state. A center for the arts, learning and philosophy, home of Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum, it is widely referred to as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy, largely because of its cultural and political impact on the European continent, and in particular the Romans. In modern times, Athens is a large cosmopolitan metropolis and central to economic, financial, industrial, maritime, political and cultural life in Greece. Athens is a Beta global city according to the Globalization and World Cities Research Network, and is one of the biggest economic centers in southeastern Europe. It has a large financial sector, and its port Piraeus is both the largest passenger port in Europe, and the second largest in the world. The Municipality of Athens, also City of Athens, which actually constitutes a small administrative unit of the entire city, had a population of 664,046 (in 2011). The Athens Urban Area (Greater Athens and Greater Piraeus) extends beyond its administrative municipal city limits, with a population of 3,090,508 (in 2011). Athens is also the southernmost capital on the European mainland and the warmest major city in Europe.
The heritage of the classical era is still evident in the city, represented by ancient monuments and works of art, the most famous of all being the Parthenon, considered a key landmark of early Western civilization. The city also retains Roman and Byzantine monuments, as well as a smaller number of Ottoman monuments, while its historical core features elements of continuity through history. Athens is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Acropolis of Athens and the medieval Daphni Monastery. Landmarks of the modern era, dating back to the establishment of Athens as the capital of the independent Greek state in 1834, include the Hellenic Parliament and the so-called "architectural trilogy of Athens", consisting of the National Library of Greece, the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and the Academy of Athens. Athens is also home to several museums and cultural institutions, such as the National Archeological Museum, featuring the world's largest collection of ancient Greek antiquities, the Acropolis Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art, the Benaki Museum and the Byzantine and Christian Museum. Athens was the host city of the first modern-day Olympic Games in 1896, and 108 years later it hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics, making it one of the few cities to have hosted the Olympics more than once.
Athens sprawls across the central plain of Attica that is often referred to as the Athens Basin or the Attica Basin. The basin is bounded by four large mountains: Mount Aigaleo to the west, Mount Parnitha to the north, Mount Pentelicus to the northeast and Mount Hymettus to the east. Beyond Mount Aegaleo lies the Thriasian plain, which forms an extension of the central plain to the west. The Saronic Gulf lies to the southwest. Mount Parnitha is the tallest of the four mountains (1,413 m), and has been declared a National Park. Athens is built around a number of hills. Lycabettus is one of the tallest hills of the city proper and provides a view of the entire Attica Basin. The meteorology of Athens is deemed to be one of the most complex in the world because its mountains cause a temperature inversion phenomenon which, along with the Greek Government's difficulties controlling industrial pollution, was responsible for the air pollution problems the city has faced. The Kifissos river, the Ilisos and the Eridanos stream are the historical rivers of Athens.
The City Plan
Below the well-sited but very plain palace, a large garden square, Síntagma (Constitution) Square, was laid out. Today it is garnished in the tourist season with some of Europe’s most luxurious cafe chairs, and at all seasons it is hemmed in by tall new buildings and elderly luxury hotels. Broad avenues were created and are still the city centre’s principal thoroughfares (Stadíou and Panepistimíou), between which an orderly grid of narrow side streets was laid out. The housing that developed was generally the sort of architecture familiar in Victorian London: solid, porched, rather imposing, the later imitations graceless and monotonous. In Athens it is called the Ottonian style, but there is little of it left as the centre encroaches on old residential areas. Omónia (Harmony) Square had been built at the western end of the two main streets, with other broad avenues radiating from it, but it did not develop as the hoped-for balance to Síntagma.
By then the railway to Piraeus had been built, its station near the Ancient Agora. Indeed, the city plan projected a logical growth southward along this axis, but a real estate developer beckoned northward and the newly rich followed. The palace garden almost touched the Arch of Hadrian and the 15 mammoth columns (some of them 7 feet 10 inches in diameter) of the temple of Olympian Zeus, last of the Classical buildings built in Athens, and beyond lay empty fields. The slopes of Mount Likavittós, outside the town limits, were still pine-clad. Since then the garden has become one of the painfully rare public parks in Athens. Likavittós now rears up in the middle of the city (as if Hyde Park or Central Park were a 1,112 foot mountain), its lower slopes built upon and many of the trees felled for a road leading to a cog railway and restaurant.
Along Panepistimíou Street rose the Academy of Athens, in marble from Mount Pentelicus, its pediments and colonnades gilded. Its new neighbours were the University of Athens (refounded in 1837), the colonnade adorned with paintings, and the National Library. All were done in Greek Revival style by the court’s German architects. A new Royal Palace (now the Presidential Residence) was built during 1891–97, a little southeast of the old (which is now a Parliament house) on Herodes Atticus Street. This leads to the 70,000 seat Panathenaic (Athens) Stadium, reconstructed by an expatriate Greek millionaire in time for the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896.
In 1921 the orderly progress of Athens was overturned and haphazard development began, for ethnic minorities were exchanged between Greece and Turkey, and approximately 1,500,000 Greeks, most of them penniless, came home from Asia Minor. Despite government efforts to resettle them elsewhere, many swarmed into shantytowns around the fringes of Athens and Piraeus, and the area’s population soared from 473,000 to 718,000. After that the city began to spread in two directions, south toward Piraeus and north toward the village of Kifisiá, which first became a smart suburb when Herodes Atticus built his villa there in the 1st century BCE.
A construction boom began in the 1950s. New apartment houses pushing up everywhere erased old social boundaries (though the Kolonáki district on the southeast slope of Likavittós remained an enclave of respectable fortunes), and villages that had been attached to the city in the previous expansion lost their physical and political identities. A network of major highways was thrown up. The west side of the historic olive grove by the Kifisós River was shorn, and hillside greenery began to disappear under housing, either unauthorized or made legal through political skulduggery. Open space vanished, without provision for parks, playgrounds, or even schools, and Athens spread down to the sea by Glifádha, joining up with Piraeus. Piraeus itself was transformed from one of the world’s celebrated honky-tonk ports into a clean, newly built, flower-decorated city.
The older Athens has not entirely disappeared in all this hubbub. Old Athens occupies the six streets sidling off Monastiráki Square, by the excavated Ancient Agora. Tiny open-fronted shops are hung with tinselled folk costumes and all of the monuments of Athens reproduced in copper, plaster, plastic, and paint. There is an alley of antique dealers, a street of smithies, one of hardware merchants, and another of wildly assorted miscellany.
Close to this lively quarter is the Pláka, on the north slope of the Acropolis. Small, one-story houses, dating from about the time of independence, are clustered together up the hillside in peasant simplicity. There are appropriately tiny squares with tavernas, once celebrated for their folk music, dancing, and simple fare. There are vine - covered pergolas and some unpaved streets too narrow for cars. The baths built by the Turks still function morning and afternoon, but the bouzouki, a local relative of the lute, is giving way to the electric guitar. The taverna signs are multilingual, and the ubiquitous kitchen chair is being replaced by the plastic-ribbed restaurant seat. Progress laps at the Pláka like a vengeful sea, but the Acropolis is just up above, just under the stars.
Many of Athens’s bequests (all, if the theatre of Herodes Atticus may be regarded as an embodiment of the city’s literature) to the world are expressed in and around the natural centre of Athens, the Acropolis (designated a World Heritage site in 1987). Rising some 500 feet above sea level, with springs near the base and a single approach, the Acropolis was an obvious choice of citadel and sanctuary from earliest times. That it could be something more is evidenced in the Parthenon, one of the brightest jewels in humankind’s, let alone Athens’s, treasury.
The Propylaea, the matchless entryway into the Acropolis, was the only opening in the surrounding wall. Just in front of it and to the left is the 27 foot high pedestal for the thank offering to Agrippa, the victor of the Battle of Actium, who interceded for Athens, which had supported the loser, Mark Antony. To the right was the temple of Athena Nike (Giver of Victory), 27 feet long and 18 1/2 feet wide, which stood untouched until the Turks demolished it in 1686 to use the stones as defenses against the Venetians. In 1836 it was badly restored, and 100 years later its foundations began to slip into previously undiscovered Turkish cisterns, revealing the 6th-century foundations of Peisistratus’s earlier shrine to Artemis Epipyrgidea (Artemis on the Tower). The temple was then more accurately reconstructed. The northern wing of the Propylaea, the Pinakotheke, was used by the Frankish dukes, who reconstructed the interior to make a two-story building. In the 12th century Greek Orthodox bishops lived in the Pinakotheke, and in the 14th century the dynasty of Athenian dukes from Florence turned the Propylaea into a fortified castle with a Tuscan tower, which Heinrich Schliemann, the German excavator who discovered Troy, paid to have dismantled in 1875.
Less than 1,000 feet (300 metres) southeast of the Parthenon is the New Acropolis Museum, which was designed by Bernard Tschumi and opened in 2009. A dramatic glass and concrete structure, it has some 10 times the exhibition space of the old Acropolis Museum. Below the Acropolis sanctuary, on the southwest slope of the hill, Herodes Atticus, a rich Roman, built a 5,000 seat odeum as a memorial to his wife in 161 CE. Across Apostólou Pávlou (Apostle Paul Avenue) are the Hill of the Nymphs, where an Austro - Greek, Baron Sina, built an observatory in 1842; the Hill of the Muses, crowned with the remains of the marble monument to Philopappus, a Syrian who was Roman consul in the 2nd century CE; and the middle hill, the Pnyx (Tightly Crowded Together), the meeting place of the Ecclesia, the assembly of 18,000 citizens who heard the great Athenian orators. (In fact, attendance of more than 5,000 persons was rare at any gathering, but the Pnyx would still have been crowded). The avenue leads down to the Ancient Agora, where the best preserved of all Greek temples, the Theseum (5th century BCE).
The most important locations in Athens are:
1. The Omonia Square is the oldest square in Athens and it is surrounded by hotels and fast food outlets, and contains a train station used by the Athens Metro and the Ilektrikos, named Omonia station. The square is the focus for celebration of sporting victories, as seen after the country's winning of the Euro 2004 and the EuroBasket 2005 tournaments.
2. The Metaxourgio is a neighborhood of Athens, is located north of the historical centre of Athens, between Kolonos to the east, Kerameikos to the west, and north of Gazi. Metaxourgio is frequently described as a transition neighborhood. After a long period of abandonment in the late 20th century, the area is acquiring a reputation as an artistic and fashionable neighborhood following the opening of art galleries, museums, restaurants and cafés. Local efforts to beautify and invigorate the neighborhood have reinforced a sense of community and artistic expression. Anonymous art pieces containing quotes and statements in both English and Ancient Greek have sprung up throughout the neighborhood, bearing statements such as "Art for art's sake". Guerrilla gardening has also helped to beautify the area.
3. The Psiri, also known as Athens's "meat packing district", is dotted with renovated former mansions, artists' spaces, and small gallery areas. A number of its renovated buildings also host fashionable bars, making it a hotspot for the city in the last decade, while live music restaurants known as "rebetadika", after rebetiko, a unique form of music that blossomed in Syros and Athens from the 1920s until the 1960s, are to be found. Rebetiko is admired by many, and as a result rebetadika are often crammed with people of all ages who will sing, dance and drink till dawn.
4. The Gazi area, one of the latest in full redevelopment, is located around a historic gas factory, now converted into the Technopolis cultural multiplex, and also includes artists' areas, small clubs, bars and restaurants, as well as Athens's "Gay village". The metro's expansion to the western suburbs of the city has brought easier access to the area since spring 2007, as the blue line now stops at Gazi (Kerameikos station).
5. The Syntagma Square, is the capital's central and largest square, lying adjacent to the Greek Parliament (the former Royal Palace) and the city's most notable hotels. Ermou Street, an approximately one kilometre long (0.62-mile) pedestrian road connecting Syntagma Square to Monastiraki, is a consumer paradise for both Athenians and tourists. Complete with fashion shops and shopping centres promoting most international brands, it now finds itself in the top five most expensive shopping streets in Europe, and the tenth most expensive retail street in the world. Nearby, the renovated Army Fund building in Panepistimiou Street includes the "Attica" department store and several upmarket designer stores.
6. The Plaka, Monastiraki, and Thission, lying just beneath the Acropolis, is famous for its plentiful neoclassical architecture, making up one of the most scenic districts of the city. It remains a prime tourist destination with tavernas, live performances and street salesmen. Nearby Monastiraki, for its part, is known for its string of small shops and markets, as well as its crowded flea market and tavernas specialising in souvlaki. Another district known for its student-crammed, stylish cafés is Theseum or Thission, lying just west of Monastiraki. Thission is home to the ancient Temple of Hephaestus, standing atop a small hill. This area also has a picturesque 11th-century Byzantine church, as well as a 15th-century Ottoman mosque.
7. The Exarcheia, located north of Kolonaki, is the location of the city's anarchist scene and as a student quarter with cafés, bars and bookshops. Exarcheia is home to the Athens Polytechnic and the National Archeological Museum; it also contains important buildings of several 20th-century styles: Neoclassicism, Art Deco and Early Modernism (including Bauhaus influences).
8. The Kolonaki is the area at the base of Lycabettus hill, full of boutiques catering to well-heeled customers by day, and bars and more fashionable restaurants by night, with galleries and museums. This is often regarded as one of the more prestigious areas of the capital.
The suburbs of Athens are divided into four zones; the northern suburbs (including Agios Stefanos, Dionysos, Ekali, Nea Erythraia, Kifissia, Kryoneri, Maroussi, Pefki, Lykovrysi, Metamorfosi, Nea Ionia, Nea Filadelfeia, Irakleio, Vrilissia, Melissia, Penteli, Chalandri, Agia Paraskevi, Gerakas, Pallini, Galatsi, Psychiko and Filothei); the southern suburbs (including Alimos, Nea Smyrni, Moschato, Tavros, Agios Ioannis Rentis, Kallithea, Piraeus, Agios Dimitrios, Palaio Faliro, Elliniko, Glyfada, Lagonisi, Saronida, Argyroupoli, Ilioupoli, Varkiza, Voula, Vari and Vouliagmeni); the eastern suburbs (including Zografou, Dafni, Vyronas, Kaisariani, Cholargos and Papagou); and the western suburbs (including Peristeri, Ilion, Egaleo, Koridallos, Agia Varvara, Keratsini, Perama, Nikaia, Drapetsona, Chaidari, Petroupoli, Agioi Anargyroi, Ano Liosia, Aspropyrgos, Eleusina, Acharnes and Kamatero).
The Athens city coastline, extending from the major commercial port of Piraeus to the southernmost suburb of Varkiza for some 25 km, is also connected to the City Centre by Tram. In the northern suburb of Maroussi, the upgraded main Olympic Complex (known by its Greek acronym OAKA) dominates the skyline. The area has been redeveloped according to a design by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, with steel arches, landscaped gardens, fountains, futuristic glass, and a landmark new blue glass roof which was added to the main stadium. A second Olympic complex, next to the sea at the beach of Palaio Faliro, also features modern stadia, shops and an elevated esplanade. Work is underway to transform the grounds of the old Athens Airport, named Elliniko, in the southern suburbs, into one of the largest landscaped parks in Europe, to be named the Hellenikon Metropolitan Park.
Many of the southern suburbs (such as Alimos, Palaio Faliro, Elliniko, Glyfada, Voula, Vouliagmeni and Varkiza) known as the Athens Riviera, host a number of sandy beaches, most of which are operated by the Greek National Tourism Organisation and require an entrance fee. Casinos operate on both Mount Parnitha, the so called Regency Casino Mont Parnes, some 25 km from downtown Athens and is accessible by car or cable car, and the nearby town of Loutraki, the so called Loutraki, accessible by car via the Athens – Corinth National Highway, or the suburban rail service Proastiakos.
The city of Athens has three Metro lines, a network of Trams, buses and trolleys that connect the coastal municipalities with the city center.
Parks and zoos
Parts of the City Centre have been redeveloped under a masterplan called the Unification of Archeological Sites of Athens, which has also gathered funding from the EU to help enhance the project. The landmark Dionysiou Areopagitou Street has been pedestrianised, forming a scenic route. The route starts from the Temple of Olympian Zeus at Vasilissis Olgas Avenue, continues under the southern slopes of the Acropolis near Plaka, and finishes just beyond the Temple of Hephaestus in Thiseio. The route in its entirety provides visitors with views of the Parthenon and the Ancient Agora (the meeting point of ancient Athenians), away from the busy City Centre.
Parnitha National Park is punctuated by well-marked paths, gorges, springs, torrents and caves dotting the protected area. Hiking and mountain-biking in all four mountains are popular outdoor activities for residents of the city. The National Garden of Athens was completed in 1840 and is a green refuge of 15.5 hectares in the centre of the Greek capital. It is to be found between the Parliament and Zappeion buildings, the latter of which maintains its own garden of seven hectares.
The hills of Athens also provide green space. Lycabettus, Philopappos hill and the area around it, including Pnyx and Ardettos hill, are planted with pines and other trees, with the character of a small forest rather than typical metropolitan parkland. Also to be found is the Pedion tou Areos (Field of Mars) of 27.7 hectares, near the National Archeological Museum
Athens' largest zoo is the Attica Zoological Park, a 20-hectare (49-acre) private zoo located in the suburb of Spata. The zoo is home to around 2000 animals representing 400 species, and is open 365 days a year. Smaller zoos exist within public gardens or parks, such as the zoo within the National Garden of Athens.
The oldest known human presence in Athens is the Cave of Schist, which has been dated to between the 11th and 7th millennia BC. Athens has been continuously inhabited for at least 5,000 years. By 1400 BC the settlement had become an important centre of the Mycenaean civilization and the Acropolis was the site of a major Mycenaean fortress, whose remains can be recognised from sections of the characteristic Cyclopean walls. Unlike other Mycenaean centers, such as Mycenae and Pylos, it is not known whether Athens suffered destruction in about 1200 BC, an event often attributed to a Dorian invasion, and the Athenians always maintained that they were pure Ionians with no Dorian element. However, Athens, like many other Bronze Age settlements, went into economic decline for around 150 years afterwards. Iron Age burials, in the Kerameikos and other locations, are often richly provided for and demonstrate that from 900 BC onwards Athens was one of the leading centres of trade and prosperity in the region. The leading position of Athens may well have resulted from its central location in the Greek world, its secure stronghold on the Acropolis and its access to the sea, which gave it a natural advantage over inland rivals such as Thebes and Sparta.
By the 6th century BC, widespread social unrest led to the reforms of Solon. These would pave the way for the eventual introduction of democracy by Cleisthenes in 508 BC. Athens had by this time become a significant naval power with a large fleet, and helped the rebellion of the Ionian cities against Persian rule. In the ensuing Greco - Persian Wars Athens, together with Sparta, led the coalition of Greek states that would eventually repel the Persians, defeating them decisively at Marathon in 490 BC, and crucially at Salamis in 480 BC. However, this did not prevent Athens from being captured and sacked twice by the Persians within one year, after a heroic but ultimately failed resistance at Thermopylae by Spartans and other Greeks led by King Leonidas, after both Boeotia and Attica fell to the Persians.
The decades that followed became known as the Golden Age of Athenian democracy, during which time Athens became the leading city of Ancient Greece, with its cultural achievements laying the foundations for Western civilization. The playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides flourished in Athens during this time, as did the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the physician Hippocrates, and the philosopher Socrates. Guided by Pericles, who promoted the arts and fostered democracy, Athens embarked on an ambitious building program that saw the construction of the Acropolis of Athens (including the Parthenon), as well as empire - building via the Delian League. Originally intended as an association of Greek city - states to continue the fight against the Persians, the league soon turned into a vehicle for Athens's own imperial ambitions. The resulting tensions brought about the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), in which Athens was defeated by its rival Sparta.
By the mid - 4th century BC, the northern Greek kingdom of Macedon was becoming dominant in Athenian affairs. In 338 BC the armies of Philip II defeated an alliance of some of the Greek city - states including Athens and Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea, effectively ending Athenian independence. Later, under Rome, Athens was given the status of a free city because of its widely admired schools. The Roman emperor Hadrian, in the 2nd century CE, ordered the construction of a library, a gymnasium, an aqueduct which is still in use, several temples and sanctuaries, a bridge and financed the completion of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. By the end of Late Antiquity, Athens had shrunk due to sacks by the Herulians, Visigoths, and Early Slavs which caused massive destruction in the city. In this era, the first Christian churches were built in Athens, and the Parthenon and other temples were converted into churches. Athens expanded its settlement in the second half of the Middle Byzantine Period, in the 9th to 10th centuries CE, and was relatively prosperous during the Crusades, benefiting from Italian trade. After the Fourth Crusade the Duchy of Athens was established. In 1458 it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire and entered a long period of decline.
Following the Greek War of Independence and the establishment of the Greek Kingdom, Athens was chosen as the capital of the newly independent Greek state in 1834, largely because of historical and sentimental reasons. At the time, it was reduced to a town of about 4,000 people in a loose swarm of houses along the foot of the Acropolis. The first King of Greece, Otto of Bavaria, commissioned the architects Stamatios Kleanthis and Eduard Schaubert to design a modern city plan fit for the capital of a state. The first modern city plan consisted of a triangle defined by the Acropolis, the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos and the new palace of the Bavarian king (now housing the Greek Parliament), so as to highlight the continuity between modern and ancient Athens. Neoclassicism, the international style of this epoch, was the architectural style through which Bavarian, French and Greek architects such as Hansen, Klenze, Boulanger or Kaftantzoglou designed the first important public buildings of the new capital. In 1896, Athens hosted the first modern Olympic Games. During the 1920s a number of Greek refugees, expelled from Asia Minor after the Greco - Turkish War, swelled Athens's population; nevertheless it was most particularly following World War II, and from the 1950s and 1960s, that the population of the city exploded, and Athens experienced a gradual expansion.
In the 1980s it became evident that smog from factories and an ever - increasing fleet of automobiles, as well as a lack of adequate free space due to congestion, had evolved into the city's most important challenge. A series of anti - pollution measures taken by the city's authorities in the 1990s, combined with a substantial improvement of the city's infrastructure (including the Attiki Odos motorway, the expansion of the Athens Metro, and the new Athens International Airport), considerably alleviated pollution and transformed Athens into a much more functional city. In 2004 Athens hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics.