Living History in Athens
“The best part of being in Athens is the ability to explore across centuries,” says Eleni Vainas, a Greek-American poet, animator, and longtime resident of the capital of Greece. “Walking around Athens is a living history lesson. Modern is juxtaposed with ancient, and art is featured throughout the city in ways that touch people on an everyday basis.”
Any child who has taken basic world history classes knows about Athens and its indelible contribution to Western civilization. But studying a place and its heritage is far different from actually being there, especially if you are on a flat-topped hill called the Acropolis, gazing up at one of the most perfect structures ever built by man — the Parthenon.
Where indeed would we be without the ancient Greeks, their legacy of philosophy and democracy, their obsession with figuring out how Earth and the heavens function, their groundbreaking strides in mathematics and medicine?
Greek civilization didn’t start in Athens, but it reached its greatest height here in the fifth century B.C. under legendary figures like Pericles, Sophocles, and Socrates.
Kids who clamber across the Acropolis and enter its new museum — which displays statues of a three-bodied monster and the goddess Nike leaning over to tie her sandal — gain a tangible connection with a bygone world that gave us so much of our own civilization.
The Parthenon alone is worth the trip.
Dedicated to the goddess Athena, the temple arose between 447 and 438 B.C. The roof may be gone, but nothing can detract from the building’s graceful, geometric lines.
Focal point of the Acropolis hill, the Parthenon was later turned into a Byzantine church, a cathedral, an Ottoman mosque, and a warehouse to store gunpowder for the Turkish army, before it was resurrected as a global icon after Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire.
The shimmering, white structure is one of 20 atop or attached to the sides of the Acropolis, including two open-air theaters. In a flashback to those ancient times, families can attend performances at the hillside Odeon of Herodes Atticus during June’s annual Athens Hellenic Festival.
This piece was adapted from Editor in Chief Keith Bellows’s book 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life and appeared in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.
- National Geographic’s Guide to Greece
- National Geographic’s Guide to Athens
- TripLit: Adventures at the Greek Table
- I Heart My City: Katherine’s Athens
- Nat Geo Expeditions