- The Acropolis: The beloved 2,400-year-old landmark of Greece’s Golden Age stands high above the city (Acropolis means “High City”), an enduring symbol of perfection that instills pride in even the most hard-nosed Athenians—and awe in visitors. Wars, plunder, pollution, and neglect have taken their toll on the Parthenon, the harmonious temple to Athena, and the smaller monuments that surround it on the hilltop. Even so, in its sun-bleached beauty, the Acropolis continues to show the heights to which a civilized society can aspire. Make sure you set aside time to browse the city's two treasure troves of ancient art, the Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum.
- The Agora: Athens has no shortage of ancient ruins, but those of the Agora, the marketplace and social center of the ancient city, might be the most evocative. Even though most of the shops and galleries have been reduced to rubble, just enough remains (including the best-preserved Greek temple in the world and an ancient clock tower and weather station) to give you an idea of what the place must have been like when Socrates sat with his students on shady porticos, and vendors hawked spices and oils.
- Temple of Poseidon: You only have to make the pleasant trip down the Attic coast to Sounion to appreciate how ancient Greeks understood the concept that location is everything. It’s easy to imagine how the sight of the majestic temple warmed the hearts of sailors returning to Athens after months at sea; you can even recreate the experience with a swim from the rocks below the site.
- Temple of Olympian Zeus: The greatest monument that Roman emperor Hadrian bestowed upon his beloved Athens is this massive temple, the largest in Greece, completed in A.D. 131. Though it lacked the grace of the Parthenon, the place was undeniably impressive, with 104 Corinthian columns standing 16m (52 ft.) tall. The 15 that remain in place are dramatically floodlit at night.
- Theater of Dionysus: A theater has been tucked into the slope of the Acropolis Hill since the 6th century B.C., when Athenians began celebrating a Dionysus Festival to honor the god of wine and ecstasy with several days of dancing, feasting, and drinking. Celebrations became more refined during the 5th-century B.C. Golden Age, and theatergoers came from throughout the land to see the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The ruins you see today are of a vast marble theater begun in 342 B.C. that sat 17,000 spectators on 64 tiers of marble benches. Twenty rows remain, as does a claw-footed throne, carved with satyrs, that was reserved for the priest of Dionysus.
- Roman Forum: These now-ruined monuments—a rectangular marketplace that was the commercial center of the city under the many years of Roman rule—were erected with funds from Caesar and Augustus. In the 16th century, when Athens fell to the Ottomans, Mehmed II the Conqueror was allegedly so taken with the city’s classical beauty that he prohibited destruction of the site on pain of death. Today, the most sought-out remnant is a Roman latrine—maybe only second to the Acropolis as the most popular spot in Athens for photos.
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