Reading facts about Athens Greece is a great way to gain background information about the Greek capital before you visit the city for the first time. Even if you consider yourself to be pretty clued up on ancient and modern Greek history, as well as notable philosophers and mythological characters, this article will probably teach you some fascinating facts about Athens that you never knew before.
15 Weird and Wonderful Facts About Athens Greece
There is an Athens neighborhood that looks just like the Cyclades
The tiny little Athenian neighborhood of Anafiotika Plaka is one of Greece’s best-kept secrets. This residential area awaits on the slopes of Acropolis hill, and it is somewhere that you would never be able to find unless you specifically knew where it was.
Envisage narrow, winding cobbled streets filled with blue and white Cycladic-style houses and you are halfway towards picturing what Anafiotika looks like. The district looks almost out of place in the middle of chaotic, congested Athens. It is definitely not what you expect to find in the heart of a bustling Greek city.
Anafioitka was built in the first part of the 19th century by builders from Anafi island. They relocated to the mainland to help King Otto in his efforts to make Athens the capital of a newly liberated Greece after years of Ottoman occupation.
The Anafi settlers built their homes in a style that reminded them of their beloved island. Some of the little churches here are replicas of famous, centuries-old churches on their own island.
The district’s hilltop location means that you can enjoy some of the best panoramas and sunset views in the Greek capital from up here. Aside from the occasional guidebook-wielding tourist, you will seldom see anyone up here.
Athens is home to a mosque that is said to be cursed
Have you ever heard of Tzistarakis Mosque? This historic building, constructed in 1759 sits in the beating heart of Monastiraki Square in central Athens.
Thousands of tourists and Athenian locals pass it every single day and few even give it a moment of their time or attention. But there was a period in time when the mosque instilled fear and concern into the lives of everyone living in the city.
Today, Tzistarakis Mosque has lost its minaret. However, it can be easily recognized as the domed structure that sits across the main square from Monastiraki metro station and flea market.
These days, the mosque contains an annex of the Museum of Greek Folk Art. However, it has been closed to the public for years and seems unlikely to reopen any time soon.
When the Ottoman Turks occupying Athens built the mosque, they did so using materials that they plundered from Ancient Greek temples and shrines. Historic records are a little hazy but legend has it that the Turks took a stone column from either Hadrian’s Library or the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
Shortly after it was built, a plague broke out in Southern Greece. Several more endemics would follow and when the Greek locals caught wind of a piece of their ancient temples being used to build the mosque, they blamed the Turks for unleashing a curse.
The locals became so angry that the Sultan banished Tzistarakis from the city. As the uproar continued, he was eventually assassinated.
The Roman Emperor Hadrian was one of Athens’s biggest fans
The Roman Emperor Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus) was one of just three Roman Emperors that were actually considered to be somewhat ¨good¨. He ruled over the Roman Empire for 21 years and during that time, he placed a lot of focus on improving and beautifying Athens.
If you have spent one or two days in Athens before, you will probably have noticed that several ancient sites in the city are named after Hadrian. For instance, Hadrian´s Library and the Arch of Hadrian.
Emperor Hadrian was a true Grecophile through and through. His love and fascination with Greek history and culture were to the extent that he was nicknamed ¨little Greek¨ when he was growing up in Rome.
His love for the city was reciprocated by the people of Athens. When Hadrian aided the completion of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, he also set up several busts of himself, among the statues of Zeus.
It was almost as though he himself also aspired to be treated as a God-like figure. Emperor Hadrian oversaw the completion of several other projects in Athens during his time as the Emperor of Rome. Aside from the famous projects named after him, he also oversaw the Hadrianic Aqueduct and the Eleusis bridge.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus took centuries to be completed
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is an Athenian landmark and ancient ruin that is often overshadowed by the Acropolis, or the Ancient Agora, from a touristic perspective. It sits opposite the National Garden and is accessible from Leof. Vasilissis Olgas.
Construction of the site was started in 520 BC by Peisistratus. The site was designed by Architects Callaeschrus, Antimachides, and Antistates.
However, at the end of Peisistratus’s rule, the Temple of Olympian Zeus was still not complete. Work on the temple complex was picked up and abandoned several times over the centuries due to things like a lack of funds, or a change in rulers.
It was eventually Emperor Hadrian that finally completed the site in 131 CE. He decorated it with gold busts of Zeus along with statues of himself (!)
Tragically, after all that time and effort, the temple would only be functional for two centuries. It would be plundered and ransacked several times, never to be restored to its previous glory.
In total, it took 638 years for the temple to be completed from start to finish. Today, you can buy a ticket to the temple for €6, or you can purchase an Athens combination ticket which includes entrance to the site along with several others.
The Temple of Hephaestus was misidentified
The Temple of Hephaestus is arguably the most notable site in the Ancient Agora complex in Athens´ Thissio district. It sits on top of a rocky bluff within the old civic centre and its appearance is not dissimilar to that of the Parthenon.
This makes sense, seeing as the two temples were built around the same time (circa 450BC). The Temple of Hephaestus is special as it was the first temple in the world to be built entirely out of marble.
It is widely regarded as being the very best preserved Doric temple in the Ancient Greek world today. Hephaestus, to whom the temple was dedicated, was the Greek God of fire.
The temple is also believed to be dedicated to Athena Ergane, the Goddess of pottery and crafts. However, when it was first excavated, archeologists mistakenly thought that the temple was built in honor of Theseus, the mythical son of Poseidon.
Ever wondered how the Thissio neighborhood got its name? That’s how – due to an error.
Socrates’ prison never really contained Socrates
Filopappou Hill is a pleasant, leafy area to walk around in Central Athens. It is home to the Philopappos Monument, dedicated to the Greek-Roman Commander Julius Antiochus Filopappos.
However, there are several other notable sites scattered around the park. One place that you will find marked on the map is a small cave with two rooms that are labeled as ¨ Socrates’ prison¨.
You will often find tourists posing for photographs in front of the famous cave where Socrates spent his last days. However, the truth is, Socrates was never imprisoned here at all!
For a period, it was believed that this was the site where the famous Greek Philosopher was held before his trial in 399BC. However actually, historians eventually realized that that was not the case at all.
Interestingly at least, the cave was used during World War II to hide precious artifacts and pieces from the Acropolis from the invading Nazis. If you approach the cave, you will note that there are two little rooms within it so it makes sense that someone could have lived within. Maybe it served some other mysterious, currently-unknown purpose centuries ago?
Plaka was once the Turkish district
Plaka is one of the most popular tourist districts in Athens today. Its cobbled streets are filled with Greek tavernas filled with travelers sharing meze platters and carafes of ouzo, and adorable little souvenir stores selling all manner of trinkets.
Despite its popularity, Plaka doesn’t lose its charm. Although the area feels quintessential and unapologetically Greek today, this was once the city´s Turkish district.
During the Turkish occupation of Athens, the Turkish governor resided here. As such, several important mosques, bathhouses, and Islamic schools were set up around the area.
Many of them still remain, although they no longer retain their original functions. Look out for the Fethiye Mosque and the Pelopida Madrassah (Islamic school) as you explore.
Old Turkish bathhouses, known as hammams, were popular in this area. The bathhouse of the winds is the only surviving bathhouse from the first period of Turkish rule (first period of Turkish rule (1453 – 1669). Today it contains the Museum of Modern Greek Culture.
Turkish hammams still exist in Turkey today and could be considered the Turkish equivalent of a sauna. If you want to experience what being an Ottoman noble at one of these bathhouses was like, you can consider making an appointment at Al Hammam Athens or Old City Hammam & Spa.
A gas station once operated in the very center of Athens
Today, the Gazi district of Athens is known as the city’s nightlife and party district. It is the go-to place on a Friday or Saturday night if you are young, hot, and Athenian.
But historically, this was not the case. Gazi was an industrial area (Gazi actually means gas in Greek). You can still see the remnants of the former Gazi gas plant in this part of town today.
This outer shell is often illuminated at night and looks almost like a contemporary art exhibit, rather than the remains of an old gas plant. The other buildings that made up the gas plant have been converted into the Technopolis Cultural Centre.
Interactive exhibits here tell the story of how the gas plant supplied the city of Athens with gas for more than 130 years. (If you are really really bored on a rainy day in Athens, it isn’t the worst way to pass some time!)
Eventually, the gas plant closed its doors for the final time in 1984. That is after people realized having a huge gas plant in the very center of a large city with a population of 3.1 million perhaps wasn’t the best idea.
Athens takes its name from the Goddess Athena
Athens is named after the Goddess Athena, the city’s patron goddess. However, according to a famous story in Greek mythology, Athena, daughter of Zeus, battled with Poseidon, God of the sea, to see who would become the god of Athens.
They battled it out near the Erechtheion at the Acropolis. The two gods would provide the city residents with a gift and then, the people could decide who they wanted.
Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, causing a water fountain to emerge. However, the water was from the sea, salty and undrinkable, much to the disappointment of the locals.
Athena gifted the locals with an olive tree, supplying food and symbolising prosperity. The residents chose Athena and thus, Athens was named after her.
(The Greek name for Athens is actually Athena, Ἀθήνη). If Poseidon had been selected, the city would have been given a very different name.
Socrates and Plato once walked around the Ancient Agora
In Greek, an Agora is a marketplace and a center of commerce. However, the Ancient Agora in Athens served as more of a civic center.
There were several stores selling everything from apparel items and accessories to fruits, vegetables, and other groceries, that was set up in the Stoa of Attalos. But the centre of the Agora complex was where people would assemble to listen to important speeches and announcements.
Even Greek Philosophers such as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, would wander through the Agora. They would impart their wisdom and give classes to anyone interested. So today, when you visit the agora and see the Acropolis in the distance, you are literally following in the footsteps of Plato and Socrates.
Athens hasn’t always been the capital of Greece
Athens has been the capital of Greece for all of our lifetimes but that wasn’t always the case. Prior to the 18th of September, 1834, Nafplio was the capital of Greece.
King Otto I then decided to change the Greek capital from Nafplio to Athens. This was, in part, due to the former ancient glory and history of the city.
Once the decision was made, several of the grand neoclassical buildings that still stand in Athens today were built. Ermou street, Athens’s main shopping promenade was little more than a dirt trail prior to 1834.
When Athens became Greece’s capital, it was developed into a retail area. At that time, it was mostly noble Athenian ladies that would come here in horse-drawn carriages to visit tailors and dressmakers.
There is an abandoned royal palace in Northern Athens
Tatoi Palace, in the foothills of Mount Parnitha, was the former summer home of the Greek Royal family. It has been abandoned since 1967, and after being vacant for more than 6 decades, it has fallen into a serious state of disrepair.
Vegetation has become overgrown around the property and started to reclaim it. As of yet, no preservation work has been done on the palace, nor are there any confirmed plans to transform it into a museum or similar.
Still, Mount Parnitha is something of an unofficial Athenian attraction. It is visited only by the most adventurous off-the-beaten-path travelers.
Its location, in the foothills of Parnitha, makes it the perfect place to stop for a picnic or some exploration during a hike. It is not easy to reach Tatoi palace without your own transport.
However, you can take a bus from central Athens to Mesonychi. From there, you can take a cab for the remainder of the way.
The Varvakios Agora is one of the oldest markets in the country
The Varvakios Agora (aka Athens Central Market) first opened its doors back in 1886 and it has been visited by thousands of Athenians every day ever since. The stalls within the covered market sell everything from meat and fish to fresh olives, perfectly polished fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices.
It takes its name from Ioannis Varvakeios, the Greek businessman that founded it. Laiki agora (λαϊκή αγορά) are smaller-scale farmers’ markets that are found all over the city. They are found in various Athenian neighbourhoods on different days of the week.
Hollywood’s rich and famous once vacationed at the beaches near Athens
The beaches near Athens may not exude the same breathtaking scenery and gorgeous translucent waters as some of the Greek islands. However, they are a nice place to escape the chaos, hustle, and bustle of the congested capital.
The beach towns of Glyfada, Voula, Vouliagmeni, and Vari, in particular, are known for being glamorous and upscale. Up until the 1950s and 1960s, this area was nothing more than a stretch of undeveloped coastline.
Then, a group of local entrepreneurs and hoteliers had the vision of developing it into a luxurious resort area that would become Greece’s very own Cote d´Azur. Several chic hotels, waterfront cafes, and international eateries open, and voila, the Athens Riviera was born.
The glitterati and some of Hollywood’s best-loved actors and actresses fell completely in love with the area. Most notably, Frank Sinatra, Brigitte Bardot, and Sophia Loren.
Did you enjoy reading these facts about Athens Greece? Are you aware of any others that you would like to share?
If you are traveling to the Greek capital for the first time, you might also enjoy reviewing this post on what it is like to actually live in Athens. Have a wonderful trip to Greece!
Safe travels! Geia sou! Melissa xo