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athens acropolis detail

The Acropolis: At 2,400 years old, the Parthenon is the largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece, built of Pentelic marble. Designed to house the giant statue of Athena commissioned by Pericles, it also served as the treasury for the tribute money that had been moved from Delos. (Hint: Arrive here when it opens at 8 a.m., and you'll have it nearly to yourself.) The Theatre of Dionysus, located on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis, once seated 17,000. Of the original 64 tiers of seats, about 20 tiers still survive. The Roman Forum (Agora) was the happening place back in the day where one could hear Socrates expounding on his philosophy or St. Paul converting the marketgoers to Christianity. And the Temple of Hephaestus, on the western edge of the Agora, dates back to the 5th century B.C. and is the best-preserved Doric temple in Greece. To the northeast of the temple are the foundations of the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, one of the places where Socrates spoke to the masses.

Not far from the Parthenon is the Acropolis Museum, where you can see artifacts discovered on the slopes of the Acropolis as well as numerous other treasures. The National Archaeological Museum is an Athens showplace, known for its premier collection of ancient Greek art.

Stroll around the Central Market to get a real flavor of Greek food and drink. Be warned though, some of the food stalls -- featuring slaughtered whole lambs and skinned rabbits -- are not for the squeamish. You'll also find decent flea market stalls near the food market if the sight of all that meat gets too much.

The oldest part of Athens (save for the Acropolis) is Plaka, a neighborhood of many identities. Its winding, narrow streets are lined with houses and shops that date back to the 5th century B.C. Cafes and restaurants abound -- many are touristic tavernas, but are great stops for a quick refueling.

Other neighborhoods worth a visit include Monastiraki and Thissio, charming historic districts with fine 19th-century neo-Classical buildings and a good array of shops and restaurants. If you head north from Monastiraki, you'll find yourself in Psiri, a former industrial zone that has been transformed into a haven for the trendy and avant-garde, with lots of alternative restaurants and offbeat shops. Artsy types will also love Bohemian Metaxourgeio (northwest of Psiri), which is home to Athens' Municipal Gallery on Avdi Square.

The Byzantine and Christian Museum is in an 1848 mansion that once belonged to the Duchess of Plaisance. The collections show the course of Greek art from the 3rd to the 20th century.

The Benaki Museum showcases the collection of Antonis Benakis, including icons, costumes and a room from an 18th-century northern Greek house.

The Athens War Museum is next to the Byzantine and Christian Museum and is worth a visit if you're interested in Greek history or in displays of weapons, aircraft, military uniforms and other war-related memorabilia.

The Museum of Cycladic Art, located two blocks from the Byzantine and Christian Museum and the Athens War Museum, focuses not only on the ancient art of the Cyclades but also on other ancient art from around Greece and Cyprus.

The Numismatic Museum is the former home of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, the man who unearthed the ruins of Ancient Troy and declared "I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon."

When you've had enough of peering at ancient artifacts, you can bring yourself up to date at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, now in a new location in a former brewery.

In ancient times, pine-covered slopes jam-packed with wolves surrounded Mount Lycabettus. These days, there are no wolves, but it does offer the finest panoramic views in Athens, including the surrounding mountains and the islands of Salamis and Aegina. You can walk the path to the summit from the northern end of Loukianou or take the funicular from Aristippou. This is where you'll find the chapel of Agios Georgios -- at night, it takes on a fairy-tale aura from the dramatic backlighting.

Corinth, located 55 miles from Athens, is worth a side trip. Stroll the streets of the ancient city, once a significant Peloponnese gateway. Sights to see include the Archaeological Museum, which features Corinthian artifacts, and the surviving structures of ancient Corinth, including the Temple of Apollo and the Roman Agora.

Delphi, the spiritual heart of the ancient Greek world, makes another good side trip. Home to the Oracle at Delphi, this site on the slopes of Mount Parnassus is one of the most famous of the ancient world -- and certainly the most mystical. Don't miss the Castalian Spring, where supplicants to the Oracle purified themselves before entering the sanctuary. Make sure you walk the Sacred Way, which leads to the Temple of Apollo, the ancient treasuries and the 5,000-seat theater. The latter dates from the 4th century B.C. and offers magnificent views and amazing acoustics (have a holler to try them out).

Sounion, about 45 miles from Athens, is home to the majestic Temple of Poseidon, on a crag overlooking the sea.


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