The city of Athens is located in mainland Greece and has been inhabited for thousands of years. It is considered one of the oldest cities in the world and the birthplace of western civilization. As such, it offers tourists plenty to see and do – from museums showcasing ancient history to ancient sites, the most famous of which, the Parthenon, is considered the most important landmark in Greece and one of the most recognizable landmarks in Europe.
Read what makes Athens unique, learn about its history, food and places to make the most out of your visit. Read on to find out the most exciting facts about Athens.
The origin of Athens’ name
According to Greek mythology, Athena and Poseidon fought to determine who could become the city’s patron. Poseidon created a spring by striking the ground with his trident, while Athena created the olive tree. The Athenians, believing that the olive tree was more useful and beautiful than Poseidon’s spring, voted for Athena and named their city after her.
Today, it is believed that Athens name comes from a word that means “without rival.”
History of Athens
Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world, with a history that dates back over five thousand years.
Athens became a powerful city in 500 BC. It was already the cultural centre of Greece when under Pericles’ leadership, it became the intellectual and artistic centre of the ancient world. His main contribution was establishing democracy.
During the era of Alexander The Great, Athens lost its power but still was the intellectual centre of Greece. The Romans tried to bring Athens to its previous glory by building aqueducts, drainage, and other important buildings, including Hadrian’s Library and the Roman Agora.
Athens lost its importance totally during Byzantine times (330- 1453), and during the time of the Ottoman Empire, it was nothing more than an outpost containing some small workshops.
Athens became the capital city.
It wasn’t until the 19th century when in 1834 Greece became independent from the Ottoman Empire, and the coincidentally named King Otto of Greece moved the capital from Nafplio to Athens, hoping that the ancient glories of the city would help to inspire his people in their new mission to build an independent nation. At that time, Athens was only a small town (located around what is now Palaka), but the decision to make it the capital of Greece accelerated the development.
What is Athens Famous for?
Athens is the birthplace of democracy
In the 5th century B.C., Athenian men gained full citizen rights and were allowed to vote in public affairs. It was here that the idea of “one person, one vote” came into fruition for the first time in history! The city’s constitution-making body was named Ecclesia (ancient Greek Assembly) and was formed in Pnyx, where anyone could watch the debates.
Originally this was limited to adult males, who would represent hardly 35% of the population.
Athens is a world leader for its number of stages.
The city is known as the birthplace of theatre. In fact, dramatist Aeschylus’ first play was performed here in Athens!
Greek tragedies were performed in ancient theatres around Greece and then spread to Rome, eventually making it a worldwide phenomenon.
Today visitors to Athens can see many ancient theatres that are still in use. The Theatre of Dionysus is the site where ancient Greek tragedies were performed for thousands of years!
With 148 stages including open theatres, Athens beats all other European capitals, though still there are more theatre buildings in Paris and London.
Athens was the first European capital of culture.
In 1985 Athens had the privilege of hosting the first-ever European Capital of Culture. This was a new programme initiated by the European Union to make it easier for people from different parts of Europe to promote and engage with each other’s culture.
Since then, every year, many more capitals have been designated as cultural capitals, including Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam and Reykjavik.
Athens has experienced almost every form of government.
The ancient Athenians were the first in all of Europe to establish a democracy and break away from ancient monarchies.
Since then, Athens has experienced oligarchy, tyranny and less extreme government before reaching its present state of modern democracy within the E.U.
The first games took place in Olympia on the Peloponnese peninsula in 776 BC. They were held every four years from 425BC to 393 AD – more than 800 years later! Athens also had its own Games referred to as the Panathenaic Games.
In 1891 the modern International Olympic Committee organized the Olympic Movement. It proposed the first modern Olympics to be in Paris in 1900, but Athens successfully bid to hold the first Modern Olympic games four years earlier in 1896.
The Acropolis of Athens
The most famous site of Athens is the Acropolis, this “high city” and its buildings have become the icon of Classical Greece and form the most important collection of Greek landmarks. From this rock, more than 20 monuments were erected by Athenians in honour of their gods. The most important monument on the site is the Parthenon. The name means temple dedicated to the virgin goddess: Athena herself!
This was built between 447 and 432 BC with funds from the treasury of wealthy citizens at Delian League to thank Greek Goddess Athena for her support to the Athenians during wars with Persians.
The Acropolis is one of the most recognizable of all Unesco World Heritage Sites.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is a temple atop a different rock. Thought to have been a place for worship in ancient times, this temple was built in Doric order with a large entrance between two columns for its visitors. It became one of the largest temples in Greece and featured ten great columns, which were over 18 meters tall – they were the tallest columns ever built.
During the construction of the Athens Metro, as a part of the preparation for the 2004 Olympics, it unearthed many ancient artefacts from as far back as 4th-century B.C.E.
As a result, the Metro station walls are now lined with relics that date from Athens’ antiquity to modern times, reminding visitors of the city’s rich history.
In 2004, one of the most important discoveries was made in Attica. A major settlement dating back from the 3rd millennium B.C.E. to the 14th-century A.D. was unearthed.
The Marathon is a long-distance running event named after the Greek battlefield of the Marathon. The course was set to commemorate the legendary messenger Pheidippides, who in 490 BCE, ran between Marathon and Sparta to seek troop reinforcements against Persian invaders for what would become known as one of history’s greatest battles. Then after the battle, he ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory.
In 1896 the first modern Olympic Marathon was run from Marathon to Athens, ending at Panathenaic stadium.
Athens is home to over 100 museums and art galleries
Athens has a massive number of museums to explore. These include the National Archaeological Museum and the stunning New Acropolis Museum, which houses artefacts of the Parthenon and other important monuments of Athens.
The National Art Gallery of Athens is a museum of modern art housing some of Greece’s most expensive paintings. One of the finest collections in Europe, it presents all the main European artistic movements from 1860 to 1950.
Our favourite museum when we were visiting Athens with kids was the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology.
Climate in Athens
The climate in Athens is a typically Mediterranean one. It is warm and dry, with a small amount of rain during the months from October to December. The average high temperature in Athens ranges from 15 degrees Celsius to 27 degrees Celsius, while the average low temperature ranges from 1 degree Celsius to 12 degrees Celsius.
Apparently, the highest ever temperature recorded in Europe was in Athens in 1977 it reached 48 degrees Celsius.
Facts about Athens
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