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History comes alive

Olympic Games showcase 10 Athens sites not to be missed

Posted: Monday August 16, 2004 6:36AM; Updated: Saturday September 4, 2004 3:57PM
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By Matthew Loving, Special to SI.com

  The Acropolis
The ruins of the Parthenon shine atop the Acropolis hill.
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

As the Olympic Games return to their birthplace, the classic city opens up to its guests like a living history book. Fresh from extensive pre-Olympic renovations, Athens' monuments pay homage to one of the Western world's first and greatest civilizations. Here are 10 sites that should not be missed:

The Acropolis

Here, at the highest point of the city, perches the crown jewel of Greece. Its temples reign over the city, making it easy to understand why its high, stone walls provided a refuge for royalty and religion. Climbing up to the Propylaia entrance transports the visitor back to the Golden Age of Athens. From the Temple of Athena Nike to the Parthenon, visitors discover the ruins of the most influential buildings in Western architecture.

National Archaeological Museum

This museum is among the most important archaeological museums in Greece and has one of the richest collections of Greek art in the world. Its collections are representative of all the cultures that flourished throughout Greek history.

The Agora

  Leonidas Kokkas
Leonidas Kokkas carries the Olympic torch by the Agora.
Milos Bicanski/Getty images

Just at the foot of the Acropolis, the Agora area served as the commercial, political and social heart of the city for over a thousand years. Among its buildings and temples once walked great philosophers and statesmen. The restored Stoa Attalos building, originally a second-century BC shopping mall, houses a fascinating museum of historical objects painting a portrait of daily life in ancient Greece.

Museum of Cycladic Art

Opened in 1986, this modern museum contains one of the most important collections of Cycladic art in the world. The striking simplicity of the Cycladic figurines on display has inspired generations, including famous artists and sculptors such as Picasso and Modigliani.

Benaki Museum

This museum was once the home of the wealthy Benakis family. Arranged by historical period, the collection spans 5,000 years of paintings, jewelry, costumes and other Greek artwork. Greece's oldest private museum dates back to 1926.

Tower of the Winds

  A detail of the Tower of the Winds
A detail at the Tower of the Winds.
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Set within the ruins of the Agora, this marble tower was constructed in the second century by an astronomer and was principally used as a weather vane and water clock. Its name is derived by the external friezes that adorn the tops of the tower, personifying the eight winds. In the middle ages, Athenians falsely believed this tower had served as either the school or prison of Socrates.

Kerameikos

This ancient cemetery filled with sculpture and historic funeral relics was the final resting place for many of Athens' most prominent citizens. The statues and reliefs along the Street of Tombs date from the fourth century B.C. and demonstrate the dignified beauty common to Greek funerary art.

Byzantine Museum

Housed in an elegant Florentine-style manor, this lavish home was converted into a museum in the 1930s. On display are mosaics, icons, frescoes and ecclesiastical silverware spanning more than 1,500 years. Many of the rooms in the museum were cleverly created from fragments of lost Byzantine churches.

Temple of Olympian Zeus

  Temple of Zeus
The women's road race passes by an arch in front of the Temple of Zeus.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

This temple is the largest in Greece. Although the building was begun in the sixth century BC, it took 650 years to complete. Begun by the tyrant Peisistratos to gain public favor, it was the Roman emperor Hadrian who eventually dedicated the finished product to Zeus Olympios. The original shrine contained a giant gold and ivory likeness of the chief of the gods.

Filopappos Hill

From this high summit on the southern end of the city, views of the adjacent Acropolis are spectacular. The ancient Greeks called this area the Hill of Muses or Museion. The Greek name refers to the hill's famous inhabitant, Musaeus, a disciple of Orpheus.

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