Athens architecture is a jumble of the ancient, historic and new, to the sadly crumbling and the elegantly renovated. A tour with a local architect put it all in perspective.
Athens Architecture Tour
One thing I love about traveling in Europe is the amazing architecture that can be admired in the old towns. It’s wonderful to take in everything from fantastic castles, gorgeous sky high churches with spires and Gothic accents, to the charm of buildings and homes that have lined cobbled lanes before industrial modern times. For an American like me, it is all very fairy tale at times and simply charming.
When I first came to Athens, I imagined there would be that core pocket of stately neoclassical buildings standing proudly among some ancient monuments and temples; classical design that cultures around the globe utilize on their most important of public buildings, including my own country. I found out quickly, such a city plan was a fairy tale indeed.
I just feel sorry just looking at buildings like these.
Explaining Athens Architecture: A Walk Around Old Athens
There’s a continuing “drama” behind Athens architecture, one that This is My Athens Greeters Program volunteer Contantine Cavoulacos unraveled to me as we walked through Plaka and Monastiraki one afternoon. Cavoulacos is an architect, who speaks excellent English, thanks to his years studying and working stateside before returning to Greece.
“You may get overwhelmed with what seems ugly but the grace and uniqueness is there. The architectural beauties in these old neighborhoods are discreet and hidden. When you find them, they are a gem to discover,” said Cavoulacos.
By the end of our tour I agreed with him. Athens’ old neighborhoods (Monastiraki, Plaka, Psirri and Acropolis) are rich with the “hidden.”
I have been walking the city center streets, where I live, for years now and failed to really look closer, only admiring the obvious: the Acropolis and other ancient structures that have survived with grace and the most important neoclassical buildings. However, I always kind of shook my head at buildings that lined the oldest Athenian neighborhoods which were a big old unnecessary hodgepodge of styles (some just ugly), at least to me.
Constantine pointed out the corners, details –simple to find—that changed my perspective on old Athens. What seemed like unsightly mistaken layers were a mark of history, and in their own way add to a charm of a city that chooses its own balance of ancient yet modern.
Those Athens Neoclassical Buildings
Constantine pointed out the true 19th-century neoclassical buildings have heavy marble balconies. Plaster didn’t exist back then. Walking through Plaka or Monastiraki you’ll be charmed by these buildings — even if they may be falling apart. Those that have been refurbished are just eye catching.
Imagine Athens when the streets were fully lined with such beautiful buildings?
According to Constantine that time existed but dissipated over the span of two eras, the 20s and the 60s, when uncontrolled expansion took center stage. The city took in millions migrating for a better life, new homes – to be built fast and cheap – were needed.
As a result, on any given corner, Constantine would name four or five eras of architecture “living” on that very street.
“19th century, Byzantine, 20s, 60s, Bauhaus,” he’d say, as he pointed from one building to another.
Athens Architecture: Ancient Greece Everywhere
Then comes the ancient…
At one of the top bars in Athens, The Clumsies, you can admire the design and details of one very brilliantly decorated refurbished neoclassical building. Constantine pointed out that the venue boasts walls likely dating back to Roman times. Extra large stones dating back to that era, are openly revealed in the design of the new walls.
History was there all along!
Athens: A City Over a City
Athens is a city built over a city, many times over. The ancient Greek world has been buried over time. Fast forward to today, within the past decades even, engineers and architects continue to literally bump into a landscape of antiquities.
For example, we walked to the National Bank of Greece on Aiolou street in Monastiraki which was completed around 2000. During the building process, a fourth century B.C. gate of Athens was found, now highlighted at the building’s foundations for the public to visit. The bank’s structure looks like it is on stilts.
Just down the pedestrian way, on Aiolou street, the main road which led to the ancient Archararnian Gate was uncovered. It can be admired if you stop and take a look.
Touring Athens Architecture
Constantine also pointed out some old churches that were built over ancient temples, and the proof was right in front of me. Where there was a foundation laying around, builders of an era started building on it. Why do extra work? I wouldn’t if I lived back then. There were no companies to hire or industrial machines to make things easier.
Exploring much of Greece, you’ll find this kind of construction where eras are built over eras. Another reason why you can say Athens is truly a fascinating city of layers.
About the This is My Athens Greeters Program
For travelers visiting the capital of Greece, this free-of-charge service is about meeting up with volunteer Athenians and exploring some of the most precious aspects of life in Athens.
This experience was provided to My Greece, My Travels as a familiarization trip hosted by the City of Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Athens architecture is certainly interesting. Have you ever toured Athens and noticed its mix of diverse architecture styles?