The Neighbourhood of the Gods
Hugging the base of the Acropolis, the area extends from Filomousson Square, roughly at the intersection of Kidathinaion and Adrianou Streets, down to Monastiraki. The best way to see Plaka is to simply wander its lanes, chasing glimpses of the Acropolis between the neoclassical buildings, Byzantine churches, cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops. The prime sights are, of course, the Parthenon and the Acropolis Museum. But do give yourself time to visit smaller gems that highlight less familiar aspects of Greek culture, like the Museum of Greek Folk Art, the Folk Instruments Museum and the fine private art and antiquities collections at the Frissiras and Canellopoulos Museums.
Squeezing between Anafiotika’s white-washed dwellings is like exploring a Cycladic village. Indeed, this old quarter was founded by workmen from the island of Anafi. The attraction was double: familiar terrain and cheap land, as the area had been inhabited by refugees and slaves since antiquity. Anafiotika’s boundaries are loosely marked by two churches: the 17th-century Agios Georgios tou Vrahou (St George of the Rock) on the south and Agios Simeon on the north. Cats seem to perch everywhere, lace-trimmed curtains ripple in the breeze, the smell of fresh laundry fills the air, and pocket-sized yards are crowded with clay and tin planters brimming with flowers and herbs. Follow the road as it narrows into a path; you’ll see a makeshift sign directing you towards the Acropolis via Theorias, a stone-paved walk around the Acropolis. Double back towards Agios Georgios for a view extending towards Lycabettus ill that brings the city’s landmarks to almost eye level.
Agios Nikolaos Ragavas
Centuries of being battered by rain and wind has exposed the outer walls of Agios Nikolaos Ragavas and the columns of the ancient temple on which the 9th-century church is built. Standing at the corner of Prytaneiou Street and the Epiharmou steps, this small basilica makes an interesting juxtaposition with the sliver of the Acropolis visible behind it. Agios Nikolaos’ worn exterior does not match the rich interior of what was once the private church of a Byzantine emperor’s family. Curiously, the church bell hangs inside. Known as the ‘bell of the Resurrection’, it’s only rung ceremoniously on March 25, Greek Independence Day. The Ottomans had stripped Orthodox churches of their bells, but this one had remained hidden, so Agios Nikolaos was the only church that could toll at independence.
Monument of Lysicrates
The Monument of Lysicrates sits amid an excavated square on the edge of Plaka, almost perpendicular to Hadrian’s Arch and directly below the Acropolis cliff. The square’s shaded cafés are a popular meeting point and offer just enough quiet for some inspired journalling, much like Lord Byron who penned part of Childe Harolde here. The monument tends more towards the odd-looking than the comely: a podium topped by a solid tower with embedded Corinthian columns. In ancient times, the street was packed with many similar monuments erected by wealthy sponsors of the drama festivals at the nearby Theatre of Dionysus as a symbol of their patronage. If the design looks familiar, it probably is: it has been replicated in gardens in the UK, US, and elsewhere. Plaka natives refer to the site as the ‘lantern of Dimosthenes’, as the orator is said to have prepared his speeches here.
The Pikionis Pathway
When Callicrates and Ictinus designed the Acropolis, they probably didn’t set out to create perfection. Yet this is the standard that Dimitris Pikionis had to match when he was tasked with laying the path from Dionysiou Areopagitou to the Acropolis gate. Completed in 1958, the access road ingeniously applied modern technology to recreate an ancient craft, even using chisels and picks to give the shimmering stone carpet an aged look. Pikionis instructed the masons to choose stones of different shapes, sizes, and colour and also did not allow the ground to be levelled so that the builders would have to adapt their work to the terrain. As a result, few visitors to the Acropolis today realise that the road is not ancient but was laid just a few decades ago.
If, like most people, you imagine Athens as a city of columned promenades and temples, the Benizelos Mansion will take you by surprise. The oldest house in Athens presents a completely different picture of its architectural traditions long before the grand neoclassical design of the modern state’s capital. The austere stone façade, with its multiple yet small double windows more closely resembles mountain style than anything classically-inspired. But the beautifully restored 16th-century residence is typical of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine style preserved in the city’s churches, right down to the arched portico around the inner courtyard. High-ceilinged rooms open to the courtyard, preserving the impenetrable exterior—a typical element of Byzantine architecture’s introverted, protective design. Medieval residences were functional too, so look for the storerooms and an olive or grape press in the rear.