The birthplace of democracy

Created date

November 5th, 2018
Roman ruins with the Acropolis in the background.

Roman ruins with the Acropolis in the background.

You may not find it in the guidebooks, but the place to begin a tour of Athens isn’t the Acropolis—where the incredible Parthenon overlooks the city below—but on a hill just across from it that you won’t be able to pronounce, Pnyx. It was there that the Athenians gathered to cast their votes beginning in 507 B.C, thus making it the birthplace of democracy.

Yes, Athens has spectacular vistas, excellent museums, fabulous restaurants, and shopping galore, but what it mostly has is history. And while it may be thousands of miles away from your home, its history is absolutely relevant to our lives today. For example, as you climb to the Acropolis (sorry, there’s no other way to reach that magical destination than to use your two feet), you’ll pass the Theater of Dionysus. It’s mostly in ruins so not as spectacular as the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a “newer” (161 A.D.) amphitheater you’ll see a little farther along. But as you take a breather on your way up, look around at the remnants of this ancient theater and keep in mind it’s the first theater in the world, the place where Sophocles used to come to watch his plays performed.

History on all levels

You’ll bump into slices of Athenian history almost everywhere in your travels. Athens has a modern metro, but when you’re down below the streets, you’ll discover that several stations coexist with archeological digs that are still being excavated. In fact, you’ll run into such sites all over Athens, even inside some shops.

Many tourists who visit Athens do so as a rushed visit coordinated with a cruise around the Greek islands. But Athens doesn’t deserve to simply be an add-on to a trip to the Mediterranean. It’s been there for over 2,500 years and needs to be explored in greater depth than merely a hike up to the Acropolis followed by some meanderings through the shop-filled, narrow streets of the ancient Plaka district.

Because so much of what we call western civilization first arose in this part of the world, the history of Athens isn’t limited to that of the Greeks but forms an integral part of all western history. And the continuum will become apparent when you visit monuments erected by the Romans after they conquered Athens.

To get a complete picture of the Acropolis, a visit to the Acropolis Museum is a must. For those who can’t or don’t want to climb all the way to the top, the views from below combined with a trip to the museum provide a substantial and satisfying tour of the Acropolis. The museum is arranged chronologically, so take your time walking the long, gentle slope of the main ramp to admire human handiwork through the ages in the form of vases, sculpture, and jewelry. Other important museums in Athens, such as the National Archeological Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art, are all well worth a visit.

No language barrier

By the way, all the descriptive placards in Greek museums are written in both Greek and English. Equally important, so are the menus. By the way, when it comes to eating in Athens, even in the high tourist areas, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bad meal.

It’s also hard to find a citizen of Athens who doesn’t speak basic English, and among waiters and shop owners, that’s absolutely the case. English is so universally spoken you’ll run into tourists from all over the world using English to speak to Athenians rather than their native tongue.

Many tourists stop by the Greek Parliament to watch the changing of the guard, where soldiers dressed in short tunics, tights, and shoes adorned with pom-poms do a slow, rhythmic routine that’s quite entertaining.

Adopting that same slow, steady pace, rather than rushing through Athens at breakneck speed, you’ll be well rewarded with every minute spent in this ancient metropolis.