An Athens walk from Hadrian’s Gate to Pnyka

When I first came to Athens more than 20 years ago, the road that ran along the south side of the Acropolis was a mini highway. Traffic sped down the street, and crossing over to the Makrigianni or Koukaki side was at one’s own risk. Over the past two decades, the south side of the Acropolis has been transformed with the Unification of the Archeological sites of Athens, creating a great “peripatos” or walkway, running from Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus all the way to the Ancient Cemetery, Keramikos. It was a plan first conceived in 1833, but not actually implemented for almost 170 years.
This is the perfect early morning or late afternoon walk and, if you skip going into the sites and museums I mention, makes for a great overview “volta” or stroll. From start to finish (without entering the sites) but going at a leisurely pace and stopping for a coffee mid journey, it will take you about 2 hours. In the spring and the fall, when the sun sets early, ending this walk on Philopappou Hill in the late afternoon offers magnificent vistas over the city and across to the west, over Piraeus and the Argo Saronic gulf islands. It’s a lovely spot to watch the sunset.
The walk begins at Hadrian’s Arch, also referred to as Hadrian’s Gate, standing tall at the corner of Vasilisis Amalias and Vasilisis Olgas Avenues. The entrance to the site itself is located a short distance down Vasilisis Olgas, a tree lined street leading to the Old Olympic Stadium, on the left side of the street as you face the Acropolis.
The gate was built by the Athenian’s in honor of Hadrian, and served as the entrance to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which had been completed by the Emperor Hadrian (117 -132 AD). The Corinthian gate was the border of the old city of Athens and the new city that Hadrian built. And although Hadrian was Roman, he was a true phil-hellene who’s “subtleness” is a trait amongst today’s Modern Greeks. Peering up at the east side of the arch as you face the Acropolis you’ll find his not so subtle message: “This side is Hadrian’s city, not Theseus’” and on the west side, with the inscription “This is Athens, the former city of Theseus”.
And speaking of how things in Greece haven’t changed a lot in the last 2000 years, the Temple of Olympian Zeus actually took 700 years to complete! It was started around 515 BCE by the tyrant Pisistratus, but the project was abandoned 5 years later when the tyrant’s son was overthrown. It remained unfinished, perhaps in no small part due to the belief that tyrannies, as Aristotle wrote “engaged the populace in great works for the state and left them no time, energy or means to rebel”. (And perhaps that would explain today’s modern Greek civil servants,who, according to many of my Athenian friends, are left with no time, energy or means to rebel after spending everything on coffee and cigarettes for their numerous daily breaks).
It was Philhellene Hadrian who took up construction again, turning north-eastward of Athens to Mount Pendali for the marble. The temple was the largest of its time, and was dedicated to Zeus, the father of the Greek gods. Built on the site of an earlier temple to Zeus, on foundations originally laid in the 6th century BCE, it originally had 104 columns. Today only 15 columns remain standing, but at 55 feet tall, they are among the finest examples from this time period. While it’s possible to have good look at the temple without entering the park, your Acropolis ticket gets you inside for free, and exploring the area inside the fences you’ll also find the remains of a propylon, as well as a Roman bath. If you do head into the site, be sure to walk around the entire temple to fully imagine what Hadrian saw when he passed through the gate, entered the temple and the turned to look back towards the Acropolis. Of course, you can’t actually walk within the Temple today, but you can get a pretty good picture in your mind (and on your camera) from the south-east side of the temple.
From here you’ll very carefully cross Vasilisis Amalias (please don’t be Greek about this … WAIT for the traffic light to change, it really will!), after you cross, you’ll head toward your left to the wide pedestrian street (you may see a sign brown sign, “Acropolis,” pointing the way, as if it the large stone temple crowning the “rock” weren’t enough, and you’ll certainly pass the small garden area where a statue of Melina Merkouri stands, clearly the mother of all culture in Greece, and the woman responsible for so many of the modern initiatives around culture in Greece.
Dionysius Areopagitou Street officially starts here at Vas. Amalias. The first few hundred feet of the walkway are lined with cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops. This is a good spot to grab a bottle of water if you haven’t brought any with you, as there is, thankfully, little commercial activity on the remainder of the walkway.
As you continue past the shops and cafes, you’ll see the New Acropolis Museum on your left. You’ll have to make a choice at this point, to visit the museum first, the Acropolis second, or vice versa. If you have chosen to take this walk in the morning, and it’s before 10 AM, I recommend continuing up to the Acropolis returning to the Museum after your descent: You’ll be hungry and there is a great café here, and you may just miss the cruise ship day trippers who by 10:30 – 11:00 AM may be waiting in line at the New Acropolis Museum. Regardless of how you plan your visit, do not miss this museum.
Leaving the museum turn left to continue on Areopagitou Street. The left side of the street is home to several lovely buildings, including a rare art deco building was recent the subject of intense debate as the city had determined it, along with the two buildings next to it, should be razed in order to offer an unobstructed view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon from within the New Acropolis Museum. The building is the home and studio of Vangelis, the Greek composer who gained fame with the music for Chariots of Fire. On my most recent walk in September 2009 it seems like the battle to save this rare Athens art deco building had been won, and it will not be torn down.
Directly adjacent to the New Acropolis Museum you’ll see the entrance to the Theater of Dionysios, once the most famous theater in the Ancient World. As you explore the site, close your eyes and imagine the theater filled with up to 17,000 spectators as some of the greatest Greek poets of the 5th century, Aristophanes, Euripedes and Sophocles watched the premieres of their plays. The once wooden theater was rebuilt in the 4th century with marble, and today stone sections of the ampitheatre still survive (Although in Modern Athens, there is still a Roman built theater, just a few minutes walk from this spot, where you don’t need to imagine a performance, you can actually attend one).
The next block houses the Spanish Embassy, at 21 Areopagitou, in a mansion built by the architect Ernst Ziller. This is also where you can turn left to visit the Lalaounis Jewelry Museum.
As you continue you’ll be passing the entrance to the southern slope of the Acropolis, but for that I will leave you to your guidebooks. Tens of thousands of words have been written about the crown jewel of Athens, and remember, I’m the “beyond the Acropolis” girl.
The Sanctuary of the Nymph is located in front of the Herodian Atticus theater, on your right just below the walkway.
Just past the Sanctuary is the path up to the theater of the Herodian (or Herodian Atticus theater). It was built in 160 AD by Herod, the son of Atticus, in memory of his wife, Regilla. Originally it was a covered theater, although the cedar roof was destroyed when the theater was burned by the Herules in 267 AD. Depending on the time of day, the 5000 seat theater may or may not be open. If you are visiting during the summer or autumn months, check the schedule for the Athens Festival (June and July) or the autumn calendar for select dates (September and sometimes October). A concert in this theater, regardless of the performer, will be a highlight of your visit to Greece.
Returning to Areopagitou street, the path widens at the site of the Ancient Demos (city) of Colyttos. The cobblestone paths that join Areopagitou with Apostolou Pavlou street, were the brainchild of the architect Dimitris Pikionis. It was his dream that a series of paths would leave the hills accessible to everyone, and today, and along these cobblestone paths, toward your right, you’ll find remains from the classical period and late antiquity including houses and sanctuaries. Look for the signs for the Sanctuary of Dionysus, the Vakcheion (2nd Century AD) and the Amyneion, dedicated to Amynos, a doctor and hero. Watch for the amazingly well preserved mosaic in this meadow area to the right below the walkway.
Turning left from the junction of Areopagitou and Apostolou Pavlou streets (just beyond the parking area), you’ll begin your climb to Philopappou Hill. This is Athens’ third hill, rising 147 meters to the southeast of the Acropolis. It was once used as a sanctuary to the Muses, and is still often refered to as the Hill of the Muses. The path to the top is mostly large smooth rocks. These can be slippery whether wet or dry, so use caution when climbing. It’s not steep, and you’ll find a couple of spots to sit and rest as you work your way to the top. Once you reach the top, you’ll find the remaining foundations from a fortifying wall dating back to 294 BC, when Dimitris the Besieger once installed his guards. In Roman times, 115 AD, a burial monument was erected in honor of Philopappos, a descendent of the Seleudices. The monument also offers a stunning vantage point from which to view the modern city, the suburbs and Pireaus, as well as the Argo Saronic gulf. On a clear day you can see across to the Peloponnese.
Descending Philopappou you’ll cross the main path, toward the small church of Agios Dimitrios Loubardiaris. This barrel vaulted ceiling, tiny church dates back to the 15th century. It was restored in 1955 and has some lovely 18th century murals inside. It’s an active church, so be respectful if you decide to take a peak inside.
Beyond the church you can follow the path (and be escorted by the pack of homeless dogs who live around Agios Dimitrios) up to the Hill of Pnyx or Pnika. This is a great spot to get away from the crowds and contemplate … I find it amazing that I’m so often left here peacefully, in this, perhaps the most significant of all the ancient sites in the world. For this is the true birthplace of democracy. This was the assembly of ancient Athens, and here that the world’s first democratic legislature took place. When the assembly (or ekklisia, in Greek) began, the presiding officer would call out to those in attendance and invite them to start their debate, presumably from the flat stone “beema” or “speaker’s platform”. (As a side note, this wandering Jewess has always found it an interesting coincidence that the rabbi’s platform in my hometown synagogue was called a “beema”, from the Greek I suppose … Of course, the ancient Greek for assembly, ekklisia, is today’s modern Greek word for church).
From here you can return to Areopagitou / Apostolou Pavlou crossroads, and begin your walk towards Thisseio on Apostolou Pavlou, or cross and continue the climb up to the Acropolis.