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What Is Athens, Greece Known For?

Athens was one of the most potent and culturally-rich cities in the ancient world. At its zenith, the city was instrumental in the development of art, literature, science, math, and drama.


Athens is known for having played a pivotal role in developing Western civilization and for being the center of culture and philosophy. The city is popular for harboring the ruins of architectural marvels from ancient Greece.


In this article, we’ll explore what specifically the city of Athens was known for so you can enjoy a wholesome, enriching experience the next time you decide to pay it a visit.



The Historic Beauty of Athens

A city loved by the Gods of Greek mythology, Athens was the epicenter of cultural and social advancement in ancient times. Aside from being one of the most progressive cities in ancient Europe, here are some of the things for which Athens is famous:


  • The Acropolis
  • Being the World’s First Democracy
  • The Agora
  • The National Garden
  • The Temple of Zeus
  • Being the Birthplace of the Marathon
  • The Home of Philosophy
  • Its Unyielding Sunshine



The Acropolis

Historically, the Athenian Acropolis was a fortress and military encampment built during the neolithic period. It was crucial to the city’s protection as it overlooked both land and sea routes of invasion.


The Acropolis doesn’t refer to a single building but the entire citadel that rises above the Plaka district in Athens. 


The word ‘acropolis’ in Greek refers to the highest vantage point in a city, and the site contains the ruins of several ancient monuments of archaeological and historical significance. Here are three important buildings that were an integral part of the Acropolis in ancient times.



The Parthenon

The Parthenon is perhaps the most popular and well-known monument in the Acropolis. The building was dedicated to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, and was constructed in 447 BC


That’s right, the Parthenon was built over 2500 years ago, and its ruins remain to this day.

The monument was constructed or carved entirely out of 22,000 tons of white marble and is an architectural marvel even by today’s standards.


Old Temple of Athena

The old temple of Athena was often referred to as the Old Parthenon and destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC, during the Persian invasion of Greece. It was located near the center of the Acropolis, a site where the Athenians would regularly convene for worship. 


The ruins of this temple can still be found to this day.




The Propylaea was a massive gateway constructed at the entrance of the Acropolis, heralding the magnificence of what lay within. 


The statesman Pericles ordered for it to be built along with several public construction projects to restore Athens to its former glory, nearly a generation after the Persian War. In ancient times, the Propylaea was heavily guarded as it was the gateway to the most important area in the city.


The city’s gold and various artifacts were also kept within the Acropolis, and the security and presence of the Propylaea ensured everything within was safe.


Even today, you’ll find several columns of the Propylaea lying around in ruins. While the gateway is a mere remnant of what it used to be, it still commands an element of respect and admiration among those who gaze on it.



Being the World’s First Democracy

The city of Athens has been inhabited for over 4000 years, with numerous civilizations and people making it their home for extended periods. It has experienced every form of government known to man, including:


  • Capitalism
  • Socialism
  • Monarchy
  • Communism


Democracy, the most treasured political ideal of today’s world, was first introduced in Athens in the 6th Century BC. Of course, to a significant extent, it was unlike the kind of democracy we know today.


This crude form of democracy gave people power based on where their houses were located, while women and slaves were entirely excluded. Only Athenian males who had completed their military training were allowed as members of parliament and granted the right to vote.


However, even with its drawbacks, it was the first example of a government by the people and laid the foundation for democracy as we know it today. 



The Agora

In Greek, ‘agora’ translates to ‘gather together’ and is loosely translated as ‘assembly’ or ‘marketplace’ today. A visit to the ruins of the agora can give you an idea of the lifestyle of ancient Athenians and the emphasis they placed on beauty and the good life.


The beautiful grounds were a meeting place where Athenians would convene to discuss social and political matters with friends, share a meal with loved ones, and buy food and wine for their homes.


Here, you can wander around the grounds and examine the ‘tholos,’ a beehive-like structure that housed government representatives and where weights and measures were stored.


At the agora, you can also catch a glimpse of the famous ‘klepsydra,’ or hydraulic clock, which was used during assembly speeches to keep the time.


These grounds were also home to the Athenian assembly house, gymnasium, and a few temples. 


The Thission is the most well-maintained temple in the agora, dedicated to the Greek God Hephaestus, the patron of fire and metalwork. The temple was falsely named after the ruler Theseus, but the name remained.


Many Athenian artisans and metalworkers would convene at the Thission so their patron god would watch over their creations and ensure everything went well as they worked.



The National Garden

The National Garden is located at the heart of Athens, and it’s the perfect recluse from the hustle and bustle of the city. This Garden is the ideal space to relax, ponder, and marvel at the genius of the architectural designs in the city after a day of sightseeing.


The Garden spans over 24 hectares (59.3 acres) of land and is a veritable tropical paradise. 

Filled with lush vegetation, the National Garden is home to over 500 species of plants, containing nearly 7000 trees and over 40,000 bushes and shrubs. 


It was the favorite spot of Greek queen Amalia, who would spend three hours every day in the Garden while going about her duties.


The National Garden also houses six small lakes inhabited by multicolored ducks and freshwater turtles, species brought to the garden years ago and bred ever since.


The Garden houses seven entrances, with the largest one located in Vasilissis Amalias Avenue. The main entrance is complete with a line of lofty palm trees, nearly 25 meters (82.02 ft) in height, along with a sundial near the entry.


While you can enjoy the mixed canopy in the Garden, it would be best to visit the botanical museum for a more in-depth look at the history of the various plants there. The Garden also houses a library with two reading rooms – one for children and one for adults.


You can get yourself a frappe or the famous Greek ouzo at the Garden cafe while reading or taking a walk.


Here, you’ll also find the Zappeion Hall, an extension of the Garden and a famous exhibition center with an impressive courtyard. This Hall was built to commemorate the first Olympic Games and houses statues of mythological figures and prominent Greek rulers.



The Temple of Zeus

At the edge of the National Garden lies the ruins of the Temple of Zeus, King of Olympus and father of the Greek Gods. This incredible feat of ancient architecture predates the Parthenon, and its construction began back in the 6th Century BC.


However, the temple was finished nearly six centuries later, during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. The emperor also constructed an impressive archway leading to the temple, known as Hadrian’s Gate.


Zeus’ temple comprised a whopping 140 gigantic columns, making it the largest temple in Greece and a monument to spark awe in even the most passive observers.


Unfortunately, the temple was burned down by the emperor Theodosius the second during the Roman purging of Greek pagans. This event, coupled with significant earthquakes between AD 551 and 552, all but demolished the temple, of which only ruins are left standing.


Today, just 15 columns stand erect, but their presence is enough to give people an idea of the sheer size and magnitude of this magnificent temple.


Being the Birthplace of the Marathon

Today, marathons are run in various events held across the globe. Most people assume that the marathon was initially an Olympic sport, and while its lineage can be traced back to ancient Greece, the original marathon was not a part of the first Olympic games.


The word ‘marathon’ has a more interesting history and was actually the name of a city in the Attican region in Greece. The origin of the marathon can be traced back to the 5th Century BC, during the Persian invasion of Greece.


The Battle of Marathon was part of an attempt by Persian king Darius to overthrow the Greek empire. However, the invaders’ efforts were thwarted, and the Greeks dealt a decisive blow to the Persian army at Marathon, stopping them a short distance away from the city of Athens.


News of the Persian defeat needed to be relayed to Athens, which was preparing for invasion and taking drastic measures to evacuate the city in case the Athenian army fell. 


A soldier, Pheidippides, was dispatched to bear news of the victory to the Athenian citizens. The city of Marathon was roughly 25 miles (42 kilometers) from Marathon, and Pheidippides ran the entire length to deliver the good news.


It has been said that upon relaying news of the Athenian victory, Pheidippides succumbed to severe exhaustion and died on the spot. 


Today’s marathon was adapted from this first marathon, and the distance covered is roughly the same as that run by Pheidippides when conveying the message of the Athenian victory.


Today the marathon is also run to commemorate the hero who risked his life to deliver the good news.



The Home of Philosophy

Athenians are known for their obsession with philosophy (the word literally translates to “love of wisdom”), and most citizens are known to pursue a matter till they arrive at the heart of it.


A philosophical upbringing is a part of the cultural heritage of Athenians, and you’re sure to hear a few philosophical statements in even the most casual conversations.


Many of Western Civilization’s current notions of morals, justice, courage, and wisdom were developed by some of Greece’s greatest thinkers, many of whom lived in Athens. Plato and Aristotle lived in the city, and some of their ideas still hold sway to this day.


The ruins of the Academy of Plato can be found in Athens and is a powerful reminder of how Greek thinkers and philosophers influenced the world in which we live.


Aristotle studied in this institution before leaving to tutor one of the world’s most famous rulers – Alexander the Great.


Plato himself was taught by Socrates, and many of his ideas were passed on for generations. A visit to the city will show you how these great minds influenced the people of Athens and played a role in many of today’s treasured principles.



Its Unyielding Sunshine

Athens ranks among Europe’s sunniest cities and is known for its daytime beauty and clarity that’s beyond the ordinary.


You can bet on at least 2800 hours of sunshine annually, which ensures a regular dose of vitamin D throughout the year. 


Even Athenian winters are known for being bright and breezy, a truly delightful experience when the rest of the world seems tucked away and in the dark.



The First International Olympic Games

Athens was host to the first world Olympics in 1896. The games official name was the Games of the I Olympiad. 14 countries participated in the games with 241 athletes, and all of the participating countries were European except for the United States. Greece won the most medals in the games with 47 medals.



Final Thoughts

Athens is known for its historical significance as one of the most important cities in ancient Europe. 


Aside from the historical monuments, temples, architectural marvels, and divine wine, the city is known for literature, drama, opera, and many other arts and crafts passionately pursued in the modern world.


A trip to Athens will give you a glimpse at how Western civilization has been influenced by the outlook this city had towards various fields of thought. And it’s worth the visit.


If you are planning a trip to Athens be sure to check out Rick Steve’s travel guide here or if you are just interested in learning more about Athens and it’s complex and fascinating history check out The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization.