Athens Architecture Tour: Ancient to Modern

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.

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Marble details in Athens. Total elegance

 

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.

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The “modern” face of Athens

 

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A street of lines, angles and confused walls

 

 

Athens City Pass
It has been said that the landscape of Athens is an architectural challenge. Unregulated city growth and planning led to cookie-cutter housing, a lack of green space and grand centuries’ old buildings falling to the developer’s wrecking ball. Once elegant homes remain simply abandoned.

I just feel sorry just looking at buildings like these.

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Forgotten and abandoned but still charming

 

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.

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Cavoulacos points out the huge marble piece foundations. A sign of wealth and historical value

 

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.

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Ancient walls are enclosed within these modern walls in Plaka

 

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.

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Some Turkish influence in the distance

 

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.

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A picture of Athens Architecture. Colors and styles galore

 

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!

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Look down while you sip your cocktail. This was once a doorway during ancient times. You see the top of the doorway. The city was much lower back then. The door frame is now preserved as part of the wall at The Clumsies in Athens.

 

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.

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At the National Bank of Greece. A modern building built on ancient city walls of Athens

 

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.

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A change of plans to show off the ancient city walls

 

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.

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Kotzia Square is built on top of ancient walls. You can view the ancient site at the gate on the left

 

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.

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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?

 

Comments (6)

  • Avatar

    Kathy by anthomeli

    Great article! Athens from an other point of view!
    Kathy

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      Marissa Tejada

      Thank you, Κathy! 😀 It is an interesting topic!

      Reply

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    Alison

    What a treasure Mr Contantine Cavoulacos is! How lucky to go on that tour. Loved the post!

    Reply

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      Marissa Tejada

      Hey Alison, Oh, I’m so glad you liked the post. Yes, Constantine is great. You should arrange a tour one day too — if you are interested. There’s stuff you see then when passionate people lead the way, you really *see*!

      Reply

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    Paul

    Wonderful article! Loved reading it and learn’t alot.
    Look forward to more….

    Reply

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      Marissa Tejada

      Hi there Paul! Thanks for the nice words. I am glad you learned a bit from my post. I definitely have a new perspective on architecture in Athens.

      Reply

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