Athens (Athina) is named after Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who, according to legend, won the city after defeating Poseidon in a duel. The goddess’ victory was celebrated by the construction of a temple on the Acropolis, the site of the city’s earliest settlement in Attica.
As a city state, the coastal capital of Athens reached its heyday in the fifth century BC. The office of the statesman, Pericles, between 461BC and his death in 429BC, saw an unprecedented spate of construction resulting in many of the great classical buildings (the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Hephaisteion and the temple at Sounion) now regarded as icons of ancient Greece. Physical evidence of the city’s success was matched by achievements in the intellectual arts. Democracy was born, drama flourished and Socrates conceived the foundations of Western philosophy. Remarkably, although the cultural legacy of this period has influenced Western civilization ever since, the classical age in Athens only lasted for five decades. Under the Macedonians and Romans, the city retained a privileged cultural and political position but became a prestigious backwater of the Empire rather than a major player. The birth of Christianity heralded a long period of occupation and decline, culminating in 1456 and four centuries of Turkish domination, which has left an indelible cultural mark on the city. By the end of the 18th century, Athens was also suffering the indignity of having the artistic achievements of its classical past removed by looting collectors.
Modern Athens was born in 1834, when the city was restored as the capital of a newly independent Greece. Greek refugees flooded the city at the end of the Greek-Turkish war, swelling the population. After World War II, American money funded a massive expansion and industrialization program. The rapid growth of the post-war years and the high temperatures of its Mediterranean climate have created a city that can often be polluted and could be described as an urban sprawl. Excessive traffic creates a gridlock on the streets and noxious fumes (néfos) in the air, although great efforts are being made to reduce this. Visitors with visions of gleaming marble and philosophers in white robes are understandably perturbed that the architectural achievements of Athens’ classical past are surrounded by the unforgiving concrete of indiscriminate 20th-century urbanization. Over three million visitors come to the city each year but the majority see the sights as quickly as possible (as if fulfilling some cultural duty) before heading off for the easy hedonism of the Greek islands.
However, Athens repays a closer acquaintance. In addition to the celebrated classical sites, the city boasts Byzantine, medieval and 19th-century monuments, as well as one of the best museums in the world and areas of surprising natural beauty. Despite the traffic, an appealing village-like quality becomes evident in the cafés, tavernas, markets and the maze of streets around the Pláka. Moreover, Athens has the finest restaurants and the most varied nightlife in the country and remains a major European center of culture, celebrated each year at the Athens Festival. The metropolitan area, including the port at Piraeus, is the indisputable industrial and economic powerhouse of the country, while the return of the Olympic Games in 2004 prompted a flurry of new development, including the new Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport, the extension of the Athens metro system, the building of new sports venues, the upgrading of hotel accommodation and the revitalization of the Piraeus port area. In addition, ancient sites within the city center have been linked by a traffic-free ‘archaeological promenade’ intended to enhance the urban environment for locals and visitors alike.