Athens has some beautiful churches, many of which date from the Byzantine era. There are also famous monasteries on the outskirts of the city, which will bring you to some idyllic and historic locations. Many of the Athens; churches are in historic and fascinating settings, such as the Ancient Agora, or the highest point of the city center.
Additionally, although many Athenians are Greek Orthodox, there are also Russian Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant communities, each with beautiful houses of worship of both spiritual and artistic interest. Here are some of the best churches in Athens:
Athens Daphni Monastery – UNESCO
“Daphni” means laurel in greek, and that is where this monastery is – in an idyllic grove of laurel, surrounded by a vast forest. Although it’s now in an Athenian suburb of Chaidari, just over 10 km from central Athens, it’s a magical landscape.
And it always was – this was once part of the Sacred Way – the road connecting Athens to Eleusis was the route of the procession of the Eleusinian Mysteries. These rites of the cult of Demeter and Persephone were the most famous of the secret religious rites of Ancient Greece.
The Daphni Monastery was built on a site where an ancient Temple to Apollo once stood. One of the columns remains. The monastery itself was built in the 6th century, initially in the style of a castle with a basilica at the center, surrounded by the cells for the monks. It was restored and additions were made in the 11th and 12 centuries.
Then, another layer of architectural style was added when the region became part of the Duchy of Athens, and Othon de la Roche to the Cistercian Abbey of Bellevaux, acquiring two Gothic arches at the entrance, plus a cloister.
Today, visitors will enjoy both the architecture – increasingly light-filled as the height of the space increases, with a string of windows below the dome. All the better to see the mosaics – excellent examples of the artistry and craftsmanship of the Komnenian period (early 12th century)
Church of Panagia Kapnikarea
From the pastoral to the ultra-urban: the Church of Panagia Kapnikarea has quietly been holding its ground as the modern city of Athens has built up all around it. And quite literally up – this church is so old that the ground level of the city has risen around it, and it is now sunken slightly below the pavement level in the heart of the city center, on the shopping street Ermou.
We are lucky to have it, and for that we can thank King Ludwig of Bavaria. His son Otto was crowned King of Greece in 1832, and he brought the Neo-Classicist Leo von Klenze to design a new city plan for Athens.
It was thought that the Church of Panagia Kapnikaria must go – you can see how it was resolutely (and delightfully) in the way of the modern street plan. But King Ludwig called for its preservation, as did the Metropolitan of Athens, Neofytos Metaxas.
This 11th century beauty, like many churches, was built on the site of an earlier Ancient Greek temple, like to Demeter or Athena. The church is dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin, and its name could derive from the profession of the original benefactor – a collector of the “kapnikon” tax – “kapnos” is smoke, but this is not a tax on tobacco, but rather on the hearth – a household tax.
This cross-in-square church has dramatic yet intimate interior spaces. The wall paintings date to a much more recent era. They are largely the work of the famous icon painter Fotis Kontoglou, who painted them from 1942 to 1955.
The Panagia Kapnikarea is a wonderful haven of solitude in the busiest area of downtown Athens, as well as a moving contrast, offering an experience of the past in the midst of modern life.
Agios Georgios Church – Lycabettus Hill
Athens’ highest altitude church is a wonderful place to visit. At the very crest of Mt. Lycabettus, the Church of St. George is a popular tourist landmark as well as a spiritual destination.
This classic and simple white-washed church is 277 meters above sea level. The church opens onto a viewing platform from which you can enjoy views of the whole of Athens, all the way to the sea and the ships in the harbor of Piraeus. It was built in 1870. But with a view like this, it is not surprising that this is not the first sacred building on the site – there was once a Temple to Zeus here.
St. George was a member of the Praetorian Guard under Emperor Diocletian. He was martyred for refusing to renounce his Christian faith. As a military saint, he has been particularly venerated since the crusades.
He is often depicted slaying a dragon, and his feast day is celebrated on the 23rd of April – which is a terrific time to visit the church as it is a festive day. Otherwise, try of course to time your visit for just before sunset. The views are stunning, and you’ll also see soldiers ceremonially taking down the Greek Flag for the night.
It’s quite a hike to get to the church, but well worth it. You can relax later at the cafe or restaurant just slightly below after your visit. If you are not up to the hike up Lycabettus Hill, you can take the funicular, then ascend the final two flights of stairs to the church.
Church of Metamorphosis Sotiros – Anafiotika
The Anafiotika is one of the most special places in Athens, like a secret in plain sight. This quiet and very charming neighborhood in the foothills of the acropolis above Plaka feels more like a Greek Island than part of a major metropolis.
The Church of the Metamorphosis Sotirios – the Transfiguration of the Savior – dates from the 11th century – the middle Byzantine era. A part of the original tiny church remains – the north side of the church and the dome.
The church was later enlarged. During the Ottoman occupation, it was – like other Christian houses of worship – converted into a mosque. Traces of this period remain – you can see a pointed arch characteristic of Islamic architecture.
This is a Cross-in-square style church, like the Pagaia Kapnikea, which similarly produces an intimate space for worship.
Outstanding architectural features include the cloisonne masonry typical of the Byzantine period, decorated externally with zig-zags, rhomboids, and cufic – an angular form of the Arabic alphabet used chiefly for decorative purposes. The dome is lovely – octagonal, elegant, and quite high, with windows and marble columns.
Metropolitan Church of Athens – The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Annunciation
The official main church of Athens – and therefore of Greece – is the Cathedral church of the city and of the Archbishop of Athens. In the heart of the city center, this is the church where the dignitaries of the nation celebrate the major holidays. It looks the part – a grand and magnificent cathedral in the heart of the downtown.
This beautiful church was initially designed by the great neoclassical architect Theophil Hansen. This architect, originally of Denmark, designed many of the defining neoclassical masterpieces of Athens, including the National Library of Greece and the Zappeion. However, other architects became involved over the course of the building of the church.
These are Demetrios Zezos, who was responsible for the Greco-Byzantine style the church eventually took, and then also Panagis Kalkos and Francois Boulanger. King Otto and Queen Amalia set the cornerstone for the Metropolitan Cathedral on Christmas day in 1942.
This wonderful church is in the style of a domed basilica with three aisles. It is 40 meters long and 20 meters wide, with a height of 24 meters. is built, in part, from marble from 72 other demolished churches, and it took 20 years to construct.
The interior was also decorated by famed iconographers of the era – Spyridon Giallinas and Alexander Seitz, with sculptures the work of Giorgos Fytalis, a sculptor from the island of Tinos. Two saints are enshrined here, both of them martyred at the hands of the Ottomans. These are saints Philothei and Patriarch Gregory V.
Agios Eleftherios Church or Mikri Mitropolis
This small church actually has three names associated with it. It is Agios Eleftherios Church but is also called “Panagia Gorgoepikoos” (“The virgin who grants requests quickly”), for the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary that once was housed here. It also has the name “Mikri Mitropolis” which means “Little Metropolis.” In fact, this more petit church is in Cathedral Square, in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
On the site where it was built was originally a temple to Eileithyia – the Ancient Greek goddess of childbirth and midwifery. This cross-in-square style church is much older than the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens. It’s very petite, measuring 7.6 meters by 12.2 meters.
The church is thought to date from sometime in the 15th century, but elements of the church are older – much older, in fact. Like many structures in Greece, building materials were taken from other structures and in the case of the Mikri Mitropoli some of these building materials are elements of buildings dating from Classical antiquity.
The church was abandoned after the Greek War of Independence, and for a time the building served as the Public Library of Athens. In 1863 it was reconsecretated, as Christ the Savior initially and then Agios Eleftherios.
The church is unusual in that, unlike most Byzantine churches, it makes no use of brick, and has extensive use of sculpture – over 90 sculptures.
Church of Agios Nikolaos Ragavas
The Church of Agios Nikolaos Ragavas has the distinction of being one of the oldest churches in Athens. It was originally part of the Palace of the Ragavas family, the family of Emperor Michael I of Byzantium.
In addition to being the oldest church, it is a curc of firsts – the first church bell after the liberation of Greece was installed here, for the Ottomans had forbidden them, and it rang in the freedom of Athens after the occupation of the Germans in WWII.
A distinctive feature of the church is the brickwork which is in a faux Arabic Kufic style, which was in style during the Byzantine era. The church, which is of the cross-in-square style, was extensively restored and renovated in the 1970s. Due to its beauty, as its location – in the heart of enchanting Plaka – this is a popular Athenian church, and also a popular parish church for celebrations such as weddings and baptisms.
Agios Dimitrios Loubardiaris
The Church of Agios Dimitrios Loubardiaris has a wonderful location of Philopappou Hill, and likely its height is part of the key to its unusual name. Legend has it that a lightning bolt killed an Ottoman Garrison commander named Yusuf Aga, on the eve of Agios Dimitrios (celebrated on the 26th of October) in the middle of the 17th century.
Yusuf Aga had just installed a large canon (“Loubarda”) on the Propylaea of the Acropolis, in order to attack the Christian faithful on Agios Dimitrios’ day. As the commander was killed the night before, the Saint was honored as planned.
This church, part of which dates to the 12th century, has beautiful masonry on the exterior. An inscription on the interior dates some of the frescoes of the decoration to 1732. The setting alone makes this church an interesting place to visit, among the pine trees of Philopappou Hill.
Monastery of Kaisariani
Another church in a wonderful setting, the Monastery of Kaisariani is on Mt. Hymettus on the outskirts of Athens. The Katholikon (the main chapel) of the monastery dates from about 1100, but the site has earlier sacred use. In antiquity, this was a cult center, likely dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite. Later, in the 5th or 6th century, the area was taken over by Christians, and there are the ruins of a 10th or 11th-century Christian basilica very near the site.
The Monastery was a renowned place of scholarship and at one time had a significant library, with works dating possibly even to antiquity. These did not survive the Ottoman occupation, however. The monks sustained themselves from fertile land surrounding the monastery, by keeping bees and producing olive oil and wine.
The Monastery is an entire complex, consisting of the Katholikon, the refectory (the dining hall of the monks), the cells of the monks, and the ruins of the bathhouse, all surrounded by high walls.
Of special interest are the frescoes of the church, which date to various eras. The oldest dates to the 14th century. Later frescoes were painted in the 17th century by the known iconographer Ioannis Ypatos. The ceiling frescoes are particularly beautiful.
Church of The Holy Apostles – Inside Athens’ Ancient Agora
Yet another Athenian Church with a spectacular location, the Church of the Holy Apostles is right inside the Ancient Agora, by the Stoa of Attalos. The church is also called the Church of the Holy Apostles of Solaki, possibly for the family name of the sponsors of a renovation of the church sometime after it was built, in the 10th century and is one of the oldest churches in Athens.
This is a significant example of the middle Byzantine period, and additionally is notable for representing what is called an Athenian type – unting a 4-pier type with a cross-in-square. It is beautifully intactm having last undergone a complete restoration in the 1950s. Given its location, it is not at all surprising that the church is constructed over an earlier significant monument – a Nymphaion (a monument dedicated to nymphs). The frescoes date from the 17th century.
It is particularly fascinating to visit this church as here you have the juxtaposition of Ancient sites, including the Temple of Hephaestus, as well as such a sense of the fascinating continuation of history and culture in Athens – from antiquity through the Byzantine era and into the present.
Agios Dionysius Areopagite, Kolonaki
Dionysius the Areopagite was a judge of the Areopagus high court of Athens, who converted to Christianity in the 1st century AD after hearing the preaching of Saint Paul the Apostle, making him one of the very first Christians of Athens. He became the first Bishop of Athens and is now Athens’ Patron Saint. Two notable churches are named after him.
This one is the Orthodox Christian Church of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite in the chic Kolonaki district. Although not notable for its age – the church was constructed in 1925 – this is nonetheless a very impressive church, set on one of the main streets of Kolonaki in its own charming square.
The large neo-Baroque style cross-in-square church has neoclassical elements in the interior. The architect and Byzantnologist Anastasios Orlandos designed the church, and the finest iconographers and artisans of the era completed the interior decoration, from the ornate and richly colored iconography to the splendid marble inlaid floors.
The wood carving is also an expert. This is a wonderful refuge on a day of Kolonaki sightseeing, truly a spiritual oasis in the city center.
Catholic Cathedral Basilica of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite
The other well-known church dedicated to Athens’ patron saint is not Orthodox but rather Catholic. The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite is one of the architectural treasures of Athens.
It was designed by Leo von Klenze – the same architect who did the city plan of the newly liberated capital. It was designed in a neo-Renaissance style during the reign of King Otto and inaugurated in 1865. The land that the church was built on was purchased with funds collected by the city’s Catholics. It is now the seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Athens.
The location on Panepistimiou avenue places it in proximity to other Neo-Renaissance and Neoclassical treasures of Athens, an inspiring setting.
Agia Irini Church
The Church of Agia Irini is now an important landmark for contemporary Athens, as it is around this square that the renaissance of this formerly run-down commercial area of Athens has begun. This is now one of the most interesting, vibrant, and chic areas of the downtown. The church at its heart is also a beauty. Agia Irini is an impressive church.
It was large enough to serve as the first Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens upon the liberation of Greece from Ottoman rule when Athens was named the capital of the new Greek State (the first capital having been Nafplion).
The impressive church we enjoy today is a reconstruction begun in 1846, to the designs of Lysandros Karatzoglou. The design masterfully minutes elements of Roman, Byzantine, and Neoclassical elements, as well a rich interior decoration.
St. Catherine – Agia Ekaterini of Plaka
Another wonderful church in the Plaka – Athens’ most famous and charming neighborhood at the foot of the Acropolis – is an example of the many layers of this ancient city. The 11th century church of Agia Ekaterini is constructed over the ruins of an ancient temple to Artemis.
On this site, Catherine – the wife of Emperor Theodosius II – built the church of Agios Theodoros in the 5th century. The name of the Church changed in 1767 when the property was acquitted by the Monastery of Agia Ekaterini of Sinai, which was when it also acquired the palm trees that give it a sense of being such an oasis in this charming but densely built neighborhood.
The Church is in one of the most enchanting sections of Plaka – the Alikokkou district, between the Arch of Hadrian and the 4th century BC Lysicrates monument.
Saint Paul’s Anglican Church, Athens
While the majority of Athens’ Christians are Greek Orthodox, other Christian denominations have communities in the capital, and beautiful houses of worship – such as the Catholic Basilica of Dionysus Aeropagitou mentioned above.
Another beautiful Christian church in Athens is St. Paul’s Anglican Church, across from the national gardens. This is one of Athens’ earliest foreign churches and serves as a spiritual center for Athens’ English speaking Christian community.
The Church of St. Paul was consecrated in 1843. It has an engaged congregation and in addition to holding regular church services, St. Paul’s is very active in community outreach, philanthropic activities, and cultural activities, including concerts and other events. Besides being a place of worship for Athens’ English-speaking community, St. Paul’s also serves the English-speaking visitors to the capital.
Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity
This spectacular 11th century Byzantine Church – which is also called Sotiria Lykodimou – was originally the Katholikon of a convent, but the rest of the convent was torn down by the Ottoman governor of the city in 1778 in order to construct a new city wall. Happily this splendid church survived, and it is now Athen’s largest Byzantie church.
The church sustained much damage during the Greek War of Independence, and it was eventually abandoned. In 1847, the Russian Tzar Nicholas I proposed to acquire the church for the Russian community of Athens and was given it provided he could restore it.
Like the Church of St. Paul, the Russian Church of Athens is also opposite the National garden.