Although the Parthenon may be Athens’ most famous building, it is by no means the only building that Athens is known for. The Parthenon simply sets the tone: Athens is full of Neoclassical architectural treasures that were built in the years after the liberation of Greece after the War of Independence of 1821.
These landmark buildings celebrate the architectural language of classical Greece, establishing and expressing the spiritual identity of the new Greek State. These neoclassical monuments are joined by other celebrated buildings, including examples of 20th-century modernism and industrial architecture, and excellent examples of contemporary design. Here are some of the most famous buildings in Athens (starting, of course, with the Parthenon):
17 Amazing Buildings to Visit in Athens
The Parthenon, 447 – 432 BC
Architects: Iktinos and Callicrates
If this isn’t the most famous building in the world, then it is certainly among them. This temple to Athena is a symbol of the Golden Age of Athens and all that Classical Greece stands for. The eternal monument to perfection is an architectural triumph, inspiring centuries of loving imitation.
Considered the finest example of the Doric order, with sculptures – by the great master sculptor Phidias – that represents a high point in Greek artistic achievement (and the present possession of which is much contested – many belong to the “Elgin Marbles” – currently in the British Museum), the Parthenon is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Be on the lookout for the optical refinements – the delicate curves that make the temple look as perfect as it is. A visit to the Parthenon is a cultural and spiritual pilgrimage, serving as the foundation for the rest of your architectural tour.
Temple of Hephaestus, 450 – 415 BC
Architect – Iktinos (possibly)
The Temple of Hephaestus, on a hill that rises on the grounds of the Ancient Agora, is beautifully preserved. The Doric temple was built in honor of the god Hephaestus – the gold of metalsmithing, and Athena Ergane, the patron goddess of craftsmen and artisans. Its excellent condition is owing to the fact that it had many uses over the years – including as a Christian Church. It was finally a museum, which it served as until 1934.
The temple is also called the Thiseon – lending its name to the adjacent neighborhood. This was owing to the notion that it had served as the final resting place of the Athenian hero Theseus. Inscriptions within the temple have caused the theory to be refuted, but the name has stuck.
The Stoa of Attalos, 1952 – 1956
Architects: W. Stuart Thompson & Phelps Barnum
The current Stoa (Arcade) of Attalos is in the Ancient Agora and serves as the on-site Museum. The structure we enjoy today is a reconstruction, commissioned by the American School of Classical Studies of Athens. The historic Stoa of Attalos was built by King Attalos II of Pergamon, who reigned from 159 – 138 BC.
This original Stoa was his gift to the city of Athens in gratitude for his education with the philosopher Carneades. During the excavations of the Ancient Agora, carried out by the American School of Classical Studies of Athens, it was proposed to rebuild the famous Stoa to house the many findings from the excavation.
As was not uncommon in Stoas of the Classical and Hellenistic periods, the stoa makes use of two orders – the Doric, for the exterior colonnade, and the Ionic – for the interior.
The “Neoclassical Trinity” of Athens: The National Library, The Panepistimiou, and The Academy, 1839 – 1903
Architects: Christian Hansen, Theophil Hansen, and Ernst Ziller
A definitive, splendid expanse of Neoclassical architecture stretching over three blocks along Panepistimiou Street in the heart of Athens is one of the most famous sights of the city. The style – which you will see all over Athens – is an architectural celebration of Greek identity, the visual expression of the new Greek State, which was founded after the Greek War of Independence of 1821. The Trilogy was the centerpiece of King Otto’s vision for modern Athens.
The central building – the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens – was the first of the three, begun in 1839 and designed by the Danish architect Christian Hansen. The facade has a magnificent mural, depicting King Otto, surrounded by the personifications of the Arts and Sciences, in classical dress.
The Academy of Athens was begun in 1859 and designed by the Danish Neoclassicist Theophil Hansen, the brother of Christian Hansen. He used as his inspiration the works of 5th BC century Athens. The Academy was completed by his student, Ernst Ziller. It is considered Hansen’s finest work and generally held up as a masterpiece of Neoclassicism.
A notable detail is the tall pillars flanking the entrance, topped respectively with statues of Athena and Apollo, are the work of the sculptor Leonidas Drosis, who also did the sculpture on the pediment. The Academy of Athens is the building on the right as you face the trilogy.
On the left is the final building of the trilogy – the National Library of Greece. It was begun in 1888 and, like the Academy of Athens, designed by Theophil Hansen. The semi-circular staircase is a distinctive feature. The National Library of Greece itself has since been housed at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
The Iliou Melathron – The Numismatic Museum of Athens, 1878 – 1880
Architect: Ernst Ziller
You do not need to have an interest in coins – although the displays are extremely interesting – to make a visit to the Numismatic Museum of Athens worthwhile. It is housed in one of Athen’s most famous buildings, which was in turn designed for one of Athens’ most illustrious residents.
The Iliou Melathron was designed by Ernst Ziller (the student of Theophil Hansen, as mentioned above) for Heinrich Schlieman, who excavated Mycenae and who discovered the real Troy – of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The name of the mansion – the Palace of Troy – commemorates his successful quest.
The Iliou Melathron unites the styles of Renaissance Revival and Neoclassicism, while the interior – magnificently frescoed – depicts themes from the Trojan war and ancient Greek inscriptions. The mosaic floors reflect Schlieman’s findings. Visiting the Iliou Melathron offers insight not only into the works of Ziller but also into the mind of the great archaeologist.
Agios Dionysus Areopagitou Church (Catholic), 1853 – 1865
Architects: Leo von Klenze, modified and completed by Lysandros Kaftanzoglou
The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite is Athens’s main Catholic Church, located just up the street from the Neoclassical Trilogy. King Otto engaged German architect Leo von Klenze – the court architect to Bavarian King Ludwig I (the father of King Otto of Greece) to design this grand Neo-Renaissance church for the Roman Catholic community of Athens.
The interior has splendid frescoes – the main fresco by the painter Guglielmo Bilancioni. The main pulpits are the gift of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria on his visit to Athens in 1869, while the stained glass windows are from the royal workshops of Munich and a gift of King Ludwig I.
Villa Ilissia – The Byzantine and Christian Museum, 1840 – 1848
Architect: Stamatis Kleanthis
This building dates from modern Athens’ earliest days, just a few years after the city was declared the capital of the new Greek State in 1834. This site, close to the royal palace (the present-day Parliament building), was at the time just outside the city limits. The villa takes its name from the now covered river Ilisios.
Stamatis Kleanthis was a student of the famous Karl Friedrich Schinkel, at the Academy of Architecture in Berlin. He built the complex of the Villa Ilissia in a style that unites Classicism with Romanticism
The Stathatos Mansion – The Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, 1895
Architect: Ernst Ziller
Another defining building of Neoclassical Athens, this magnificent mansion was built for the Stathtos family. It’s one of the most prominent buildings of Vasilissis Sophias Avenue, notable for its dramatic corner entrance with an elaborate portico. The Stathatos Mansion is now home to the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art and is connected to a contemporary building via a glass-roofed corridor.
The Zappeion Mansion, 1888
Architect: Theophil Hansen
The Zappeion, a Neoclassical masterpiece in the National Garden, is tied deeply with the history of modern Greece and, above all, with the history of the modern Olympic Games. You’ll notice it is close to Panathinaiko Stadium Kalimarama. That is because the Zappeion was built in conjunction with the revival of the Olympic Games.
This was the dream of the great Greek benefactor from Epirus, Evangelis Zappas. The Zappeion was built to house an exhibition of Greek Art and Industry – following the concept of the first world’s fair in London – to coincide with the rebirth of the Olympics, and to highlight the achievements of the new Greek State.
The Zappeion has played an interesting role in contemporary Greek culture ever since, hosting for example exhibitions of influential Greek painters as well as historic and international artists like Carravaggio, Picasso, and El Greco. It has hosted political conferences and even served as the location for the Athens Radio station.
Theophil Hansen also designed the Parliament Building of Austria, and is similar in its exterior design.
Syntagma – The Parliament Building (The former Royal Palace), 1836 – 1842
Architect: Friedrich von Gartner
Shortly after the establishment of the modern Greek State, following the War of Independence of 1821, a monarchy was established (in 1832). The Royal Palace was their home, adjoining what was then called the Royal Gardens – commissioned by Queen Amalia in 1836and completed in 1840. This is today’s National Garden.
The neoclassical palace is somewhat austere compared to some other places of European royalty, but very well suited in its dignity to what it is today – home of the Greek Parliament. In front of it is one of the main attractions of downtown Athens – the changing of the Evzones, in traditional costume – standing watch at the tomb of the unknown soldier. It is truly moving to watch.
The Hotel Grande Bretagne, 1842
Architect: Theophil Hansen, Kostas Voutsinas
The Grand Bretagne enjoys the singular status of being the undisputed Queen of Athens Hotels. Its pedigree is entwined with the founding of the new Greek State. It was commissioned as a mansion for Antonis Dimitriou, a Greek businessman from Lemnos. Directly across from the Royal Palace, this was the most prestigious spot in Athens.
It was purchased in 1974 by Efstathios Lampsas and renovated, by the architect Kostas Voutsinas, to open as the Grande Bretagne. In 1957, the original mansion was demolished and a new wing of the hotel built in its place. Nonetheless, its historic stature persists.
The Grande Bretagne has been witness to many major cultural and political events in Athens. It has hosted illustrious guests, but also played a role in the affairs of the state. It was the Greek General Headquarters in the beginning of WWII, then – when the city fell to the Axis – this was the Nazi headquarters. Upon the liberation of Athens, it was the headquarters of the British forces. Across from Syntagma square, the hotel also witnessed all of the protests of recent years.
The neoclassical interior is sumptuous – even if you are not staying here, you can enjoy afternoon tea, or a drink at the bar – Athens’ most luxurious and sophisticated.
The Blue Apartment Building – The Blue Condominium of Exarchia, 1932 – 1933
Architect: Kyriakoulis Panagiotakos
This modernist apartment building – no longer blue – overlooks Exarchia square. Famously praised by Le Corbusier, it has been home to various Greek intellectual and artistic figures over the years and played a significant role in the ”December Events” during the Metaxas dictatorship.
The Hilton Hotel, 1958-1963
Architects: Emmanuel Vourekas, Prokopis Vasileiadis, Anthony Georgiades and Spyro Staikos
This post-war modernist beauty, the first international chain hotel to open in Athens, has been a major landmark in Athens since its opening. The 15 story building is tall for Athens. It is elegant in stark white, with clean modernist lines and an angled facade that seems to embrace its stellar views of the Acropolis and all central Athens. The Hilton Athens is a distinctively Greek modernist building – reliefs designed by the famous artist Yiannis Moralis are inspired by Greek themes, asserting the building’s identity.
Illustrious guests have included Aristotle Onasis, Frank Sinatra, Anthony Quinn, and Ingmar Bergman. Enjoy the modern elegance from the rooftop bar.
The Acropolis Museum, 2009
Architect: Bernard Tschumi
A singular synthesis of architecture and archaeology, this magnificent museum had two extraordinary challenges: to house the findings of the Acropolis in a meaningful, contextual way, and to integrate the building into its archaeologically sensitive surroundings. In fact, during the excavation for the foundation – as so often happens in Athens – archaeological findings were uncovered. Today, these are clearly on view – the entrance to the museum has a floor largely of glass. The museum serves as a meaningful continuation of its archaeological surroundings.
Light and a sense of movement shape an unusual dynamic museum experience. This culminates in the exhibit of the top floor, which sits at an angle in front of the lower floors, so as to be oriented perfectly with the Parthenon which is just outside its windows. The columns here in both number and spacing mirror exactly those of the Parthenon.
The pediment marbles are on display exactly where there originally were but at eye level. Some are original, but the vast number of them are plaster casts, with a notation where they now are (the great majority being in the British Museum – the Elgin Marbles – a source of ongoing controversy).
The building serves to create a meaningful and – in the case of the marbles of the Parthenon that are no longer in Greece – a poignant dialogue between the displays and their original home, just outside the glass.
Stavros Niarchos Cultural Foundation, 2016
Architect: Renzo Piano
Truly a glorious compound, Renzo Piano’s work is both a triumph of architecture and of the landscape. Here in Faliro, one is adjacent to the sea and yet cut off – both physically and psychologically – on account of the roadway. The site itself has been modified – an artificial hill creating a slope atop which these glowing glass cubes have been built. The top floor features a covered terrace. From here, one is once again connected to the sea. And also to the Acropolis – also in view.
A great canal on the grounds – running alongside the buildings further brings the theme of water into the site. Dancing fountains – illuminated by night – create a wonderful display of water, sound, and light.
Sustainability has been integrated into the design at every level. All of the building’s systems have been designed to optimize energy efficiency. The buildings’ design maximizes the use of natural light. Roofs are covered in Mediterranean plants which serve as insulation. An energy canopy holds 5,700 solar panels, providing a substantial portion of the energy needs of the buildings and reducing the carbon footprint.
At times of the year, it can even cover them by 100%. Water management has also been designed for sustainability. For example, the canal uses seawater, and there are rainwater harvesting techniques. Finally, the ethos of the foundation encourages sustainability in all who enjoy it – with bike riding and recycling encouraged and facilitated.
These structures are now home to the Greek National Opera as well as the National Library and host countless cultural and educational events and programs throughout the year.
Fix Brewery – EMST – National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens, 1957 – 1961, and 2015 – 2018
Architects: Takis Zenettos and Margaritis Apostolidis, with later interventions by Ioannis Mouzakis and Associates
The National Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in one of Athen’s masterpieces of modernism. The Fix Brewery headquarters was originally designed by one of Greece’s most significant post-war modernist architects. Over the course of his career, he designed over 100 structures – industrial, residential, and municipal – and his work was internationally recognized. The Fix factory is a dynamic structure – characterized by its clean lines, emphasis on the horizontal axis, and large openings.
This significant example of modernist industrial architecture provides the ideal setting for the contemporary and avant-garde exhibitions and events of the EMST.
The Onassis Cultural Foundation (Onassis ‘Stegi’), 2004 – 2013
Architects: Architecture Studio (France). Lighting: Eleftheria Deco and Associates
The Onassis Stegi building makes uniquely effective use of the modernist device of the curtain wall. In this case, it is more of skin – the exterior of the building is completely encased in horizontal bands of Thracian marble (since antiquity, the marble of the island of Thassos has been particularly prized for its luminous, reflective qualities).
By day, the facade harnesses the magnificent light of Greece and imbues it with a dynamic sense of motion from a distance. By night, the bands permit the building itself – lit from within – to be glimpsed between the marble bands. The effect is almost titillating, creating a dialogue with the building’s context – the surrounding neighborhood is known for peep shows and other adult entertainment.
Two auditoria – with capacities of 220 and 880 respectively – host performances, screenings (multimedia, virtual reality), dance performances, concerts, and other events. The top floor is a restaurant with stellar views from the Saronic Gulf to the Acropolis and Mt. Lykavitos.