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Self-Guided Walking Tour Athens

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This post is a free, self-guided walking tour of Athens historic centre.

You can complete this tour in about 90 minutes, but you may want to take more time to explore the area.


Introduction

Athens is an ancient city and the modern capital of Greece.

This city has a history dating back thousands of years, so there are a number of notable landmarks worth visiting.

This tour will take you to dozens of the most historic locations in the city centre and some of the most photographed.

Experience both the hustle and bustle of large public squares and quieter streets of small neighborhoods.

We will begin the tour at Syntagma Square and circle around the centre of Athens, returning at the end to the same location.

You can expect to visit at least 11+ historic sites along the way.


1. Syntagma Square

Syntagma (meaning “Constitution”) Square sits in the heart of Athens.

It was designed in the 1830s when King Otto moved the capital from Nafplio to Athens. 

Otto a Bavarian prince who the powers-that-be crowned King at the end of the Greek War of Independence

Originally called Palace Square, the spot was chosen because it was the highest point in central Athens.

Its name was changed to Constitution Square in 1943 when Greeks revolted, demanding a liberal constitution.

Today the square is full of trees and statues, a fountain, and marble benches.

Over the years, one has found everything from a concert to a festival to a demonstration, or simply a spot to meet up with friends. 

Other buildings on the square include a 5-star hotel with a rooftop bar, a terminal for the Athens Coastal tram, and even a McDonalds.

Within the surrounding blocks are museums, restaurants, hotels, banks, and government buildings. 


2. Hellenic Parliament

Just off of the east side of the square is the Parliament Building. The cornerstone of this neoclassical building was laid in 1836.  

Royals occupied the building into the early 1900s where, after a fire, it served as a museum and hospital, eventually becoming the Parliament building in 1929.


3. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

In front of the Parliament is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The tomb honors all who died, without name, defending their country.

It is guarded by Evzones, members of the military who wear a traditional uniform that includes a fustanella (a stiff white kilt) and a red baize hat with a black tassel. 

They stand in pairs in perfect stillness until it’s time to change the guard.

This is something they do every hour of every day except on Sundays, when there is a bigger and more popular procession called the Grand Change.

At 11:00 (am), this procession begins, requiring blocked off streets as all of the Evzones gather and march together to music.

Note: Just behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the National Garden, the Garden Botanical Museum, and the National Zoo. 

The Garden is large and peaceful and a perfect place to find shade on a hot day. 

On the west side of Syntagma Square is Ermou street.

It runs between the McDonalds and Nike stores.

Walk through Athen’s most busy shopping district, past international stores like H&M and the Body Shop, and local clothing stores and sports shops.

Take it four blocks down to Evaggeliststias Street and turn left. Walk for one block to Mitropoleos Square. 


4. Mitropoleos Square

Mitropoleos Square sits in the Monastiraki neighborhood of Athens.

The main attraction is the domed cathedral referred to locally as the “Mētrópolis“.

It is the epicenter of Christian faith in Athens, and was dedicated in 1842, although it feels more modern. 

Inside it’s bright and simple in comparison to most cathedrals, with exquisite artwork and marble carvings along with the tombs of two highly revered saints.

Its marble came from 72 other churches that had been demolished. All are welcome although guests are asked to dress respectfully.

To the right of the cathedral is the Church of Agios (St.) Eleftherios, also known as the “Little Mētrópolis.

This tiny little Byzantine church was built in the 13th century, also on the ruins of an ancient temple. 

Its interior is unadorned and simple.

Its exterior shows ancient gods and medieval beasts, although what used to be elaborate frescoes have all but faded away with only one remaining.

Also on the square stand two statues.

One is of the last reigning Byzantine emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine XI.

The other is of the Archbishop of Athens/All Greece who served during World War II. 

The latter was particularly notable because he ordered that churches distribute baptismal certificates to Jews fleeing from Nazis.

Thousands of Jewish lives were saved from sure death due to his courage.

The next stop is about a ten minute walk.

Get back onto Mitropoleos, walking east to a very short distance to the first left. This is Agias Filotheis street.

Stay on Agias Filotheis for a block until you come to Navarchou Nikodimou.

Turn left and walk to the first street, Adrianou.

Turn left onto Adrianou, the largest street in Plaka, bustling and full of handicrafts and cheap souvenirs, safes and restaurants*.

Stay on that until it dead-ends into Lysikratous where you’ll turn left.

Follow that to Adrianous. Our next stop is across the street. 

*NOTE: This is a good spot in which to view the Acropolis and other ruins at night.


5. Arch of Hadrian

The Arch of Hadrian, built in the second century AD, once spanned an ancient road as a gateway to Athens.

It made for a symbolic transition between old Athens and a new Roman suburb, Hadrianopolis.

In the 18th century, it became one of the main gates to the city, part of a defensive wall built around Athens by the Turks.

It’s believed that the citizens of Athens originally commissioned the arch’s design and construction, possibly in honor of the Roman emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian was an admirer of all things Greek, and generously sponsored many projects in the city.

The design is similar to typical Roman arches of the time,  built with solid marble although the top is similar to Greek arches.

The marble was mined from Mt. Pentelikon, 5 miles away, from the same quarry which supplied the marble used in the Parthenon.

There are two inscriptions on the arch.

On the western side facing the acropolis, it reads “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus”.

On the eastern side,  it reads, “ This is the city of Hadrian, not of Theseus”.

If you’d like to see the Temple of Olympian Zeus up close, tickets are needed.

Head back out onto Leoforos Casillisis Amalias which runs just in front of the Arch.

Head north to the corner that intersects with Leoforos Vasilissis Olgas and turn right. Walk down the street to the entrance.

 If not, skip to the walking directions under #6.


6. Temple of Olympian Zeus

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was started just shy of 650 years before the Emperor Hadrian eventually completed it.

The original plan was to make it the grandest of temples in the world, in honor of the Greek god Zeus.

Money issues, invasions and belief that the size was too big, prevented the project from being completed back in the 6th century BC.

The site originally stood with 104 Corinthian columns (although the design at large is doric).

The floor of the temple measured 5,000 square meters, about the size of an American football field.

The columns stood 15 meters high, or 50 feet, and the site was adored with statues of gods and numbers of bronze statues of Hadrian himself. 

There was a massive statue of Hadian facing the Acropolis at the back of the Temple and, of course, one of Zeus. 

Sadly only 15 columns remain.

Some columns were taken to Rome, some were used in other projects, an earthquake destroyed others, and a few came down in a storm in the 1800s.

Retrace your steps, back across Adrianous, and down Lysikratous, past Adrianou and to Vyronos. This street dead ends at the next stop

Today it sits as a ruin, although one with a fascinating history.  


7. The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates

In the Plaka neighborhood, one finds a 2.7 meter/9 foot tall monument (a pedestal with a tripod) on what used to be a street lined with them.

These were prizes awarded to choregos.

A choregos was a wealthy citizen, appointed as an honor, who sponsored dramatic productions in ancient Athens.

As a patron they paid for everything from costumes, to the training of chorus members, to props, to feasts for winners of competitions. 

When a drama they had sponsored scored a victory in a competition, one of these tripods would be erected in their honor.

Lysicrates received a prize for his play and commissioned a monument to set it on.

The pedestal base is of marble.

Corinthian-style half-columns stand above, and at the top are friezes of scenes from the play including Dionysus turning pirates into dolphins.

The tripod, long ago lost to history, would have stood atop.

As mentioned, the street, Tripodon street, used to be full of these tripods, although sadly only Lysicrates’ remains.

It is thanks to some French Capuchin monks who incorporated it into their monastery library that it was protected. 

Although the monastery was destroyed in the 1800s during the Greek War of Independence, and the monument buried in rubble, the French government paid for its eventual restoration.

At the south end of the square with the Monument of Lysicrates is  Epimenidou.

Head west, towards the Acropolis, to Sratonos.

Turn right onto Stratanos and follow that, veering to the left just outside of the Holy Church of Saint George of the Rock where the street splits.

You are now in the neighborhood of Anafiotika.


8. Anafiotika

The neighborhood of Anafiotika, part of Plaka, sits below the Acropolis and is one of the most charming in Athens.

Its narrow cobblestone streets and quaint semi-ramshackle homes look out over the ceramic tile roofs and skyline of Athens.

A short distance away are the restaurants, shops, hotels, museums, and historic sites that dot Plaka. 

These were once the homes of the workers who came to help refurbish King Otto’s palace. 

Many of the workers were from the island of Anafi so named their little village on the hill Anafiotika (little Anafi).

The homes are similar to those on the islands, with white washed walls and flat roofs.

These homes were quickly erected under nightfall while during the day they built buit grand homes for the elite of the city.

Sadly many homes were destroyed in the 1950s during archeological excavations and less than 50 remain today.  

Today the residents of this quiet neighborhood are mostly owned by the descendents of those who originally built the homes.

This was directed by a law stating they can only be passed on to family members (or sold to the Greek state).

Bright colors mark some doors and walls.

Flowering bougainville and other colorful plants line the walkways, making this a truly picturesque neighborhood.

The next stop is about an 8 minute walk. There will be some great places to stop and take pictures.

Get back onto the un-named road you came in on, following it west, away from the direction in which you came.

At the first corner turn left, and follow that street until you hit Prytaneiou.

Turn left on Prytaneiou and follow that. It turns into Tholou just past the Athens University History Museum.

Follow Tholou to Pansos, just past Orange Pub. 

Turn right onto Panos following it until you come to Polignotou.

Turn left and walk a block to Dioskouron, where you turn right.

Take Dioskouron up a few blocks, turning left before you get to the Gate of Athena, onto Pikilis.

Take a hard right onto Areos. Stay on Areos for a few blocks until you come to the next stop, on the left, the Library of Hadrian.


9. Library of Hadrian

The Library of Hadrian was yet another of Hadrians’ grand projects in his attempt to bring pride back to Athens. 

The library was styled after the Temple of Peace in Rome, with a portico of 100 columns.

It had arge walls, and a garden with a pool in its center, all of it covering an area of about 10,000 square meters.

It’s hard to imagine today how impressive it appeared, with its white exterior walls and columns made of pink marble and green cipollino marble.

It’s believed that statues of gods stood atop the columns, sculpted out of white marble.

The interior was airy and peaceful, with a courtyard for relaxing. There were also reading rooms and amphitheaters for holding meetings or lectures.

Under the porticos there was room for philosophical walks.

And there was a“bibliostasion”, a place where reading materials were kept inside wooden cupboards. 

It’s believed to have housed over 17,000 documents made up mostly of papyrus scrolls.

Over the centuries the library saw damage due to an invasion, became part of a fortification wall, and was renovated by various rulers.

There were also multiple churches and basilicas built/destroyed/and rebuilt within it’s courtyard.

At one point it became an administrative center for the Turks and was the site of bazaars, mosques, army barracks and a prison. 

Today very little remains of what was once a truly magnificent structure.

The next stop on our tour is close. Get back onto Areos, continuing north and downhill, past Tzistarakis Mosque, and into Monastiraki Square.


10. Monastiraki Square


The Monastiraki neighborhood gets its name from the monastery that occupied the area during Byzantine rule.

People have been living in the area for almost 6,000 years. Today Monastiraki Square stands at the center of this neighborhood.

The square is surrounded in and around by restaurants, cafes, bars and hotels and is the perfect spot for people watching.

It’s bustling with tourists and locals, street food vendors and second hand clothing sellers. 

On the square is the Tzistarakis Mosque, the one you just passed when leaving Hadrian’s library.

It was built in 1759 and named after the Ottoman military leader ruling the city. Today it’s a  museum of folk art.

The Monastiraki Flea Market runs along a side street making the square one of the main shopping areas of the city.

It’s not really a flea market in the traditional sense.

It's more like a line of stalls that for the most part sell cheap touristy items (t-shirts, flip flops, hats, trinkets, etc).

One has to dig to find the better quality items - although they are there if you look.

If you’re interested, you might stop into the Monastiraki Metro Station.

On the second floor one can see excavated ruins uncovered when the metro station was built in the 90s.

These ruins date back to the 8th century BC, during Hadrian’s rule.  

Moving on to our final stop, at the north end of the square is Ermou Street.

Take the street heading east for a few blocks. You can’t miss the Church of Panagia Kapnikarea because it’s standing in the middle of the street.


11. Church of Panagia Kapnikarea

This tiny Orthodox church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is one of the oldest in Athens. 

It was built around 1050, in the middle Byzantine period, on the site of an ancient temple.

It is unusual in design.

There are three parts: a main church, the chapel, and the outer narthex - and unique red tiles on the exterior, covering the dome.

It also includes Arabic calligraphic inscriptions.  

The little church was firebombed by Turks in 1689, but survived.

In 1832, after Greek independence and a focus on the rejuvenation of Athens, there was talk of demolishing or moving the church.

Instead it was decided to leave it and build a thoroughfare around it. 

The icons in the church were painted by Photis Kontoglou and his students in the 1940s.

They were hired to replace those that had been destroyed to time.

There are other works in the interior from around 1900 by an unknown artist.

The mosaic of the Madonna and Child over the entrance was created by Elli Viola in 1936.

Visitors are welcome although proper attire is required.

Inside it is dark and quiet - with tall arches, hanging lamps and candelabras.

One can pay a donation for a candle which can be lit and placed in a candelabra while saying a prayer.

To return to Syntagma Square, continue on Ermou until it dead-ends in the Square.

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Updated: June 29th, 2022
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