Ancient history, modern art and even more to explore
When you have something as iconic as the Acropolis for a city backdrop, it’s easy to overlook cultural treasures that pack a lesser visual punch. But Athens, teeming and ancient, is home to an eclectic mix of museums that can definitely add to your itinerary, whether that's on the ground or virtual. The heavyweights are still the National Archaeological Museum and newer Acropolis Museum, but check out these other places to plunge even deeper into the intriguing worlds of art-oriented Athens:
The name might not scream enchantment, but that’s exactly what this off-the-beaten path museum exudes. It’s located just a tetradrachma’s toss from Syntagma Square, inside a rambling, ornate building from 1880 that belonged to legendary archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.
It’s a fitting and elegant setting for half a million objects and coins that date from the 14th century B.C. right up to the present. Whether it’s a head of Athena or humble sea turtle, the attention to detail evident in the ancient coins’ designs are astonishing up close. The museum’s garden café makes for a nice respite from the roar of Athenian traffic. Take a short virtual walk-through here.
If you could frame museums in airplane terms, this one would be business class all the way. First there’s the location, in the tony Kolonaki district, plus it has a sleek design, no crowds, and a killer collection of artifacts from the heart of the Aegean. On display are several of the Picassoesque white marble figurines discovered in ancient Cycladic Island tombs, lots of intricately painted amphorae (vases), and a mesmerizing exhibit on the top floor that blends Classical artifacts with video re-creations portraying Athenians of yore. The exhibition on the second floor gives a comprehensive overview of historical, artistic and technological developments in the course of ancient Greek history. One temporary exhibit was called “Princesses of the Mediterranean in the Dawn of History.”
The Benaki was the first private museum in Greece and could loosely be considered the Athenian answer to MoMa—it’s got a fabulous collection of classic works in the center of town plus compelling stuff in scruffy-hip satellite locations. The difference is that while MoMa is very much of New York’s DNA, the Benaki traces the urban genetics of Athens. That applies most fundamentally to the main museum, located in Kolonaki. There are artifacts on display from Greek pre-history right on through the Mycenaean and classical eras, continuing with items related to such pivotal events as the Fall of Constantinople and Greek War of Independence.
Shopping alert: The Benaki also has the best museum gift shop in Greece.
A large contemporary building at 138 Pireos Street, originally built for industrial purposes in the 1960s, is used for rotating exhibitions by contemporary Greek artists. The location straddles the line between the city center and the edgier Gazi neighborhood; fittingly, this section of Pireos Street is home to some of the city's most vibrant street art. And in the Kerameikos district (at 22 Agios Asomaton and 12 Dipilou streets), a small complex of Neoclassical buildings houses the Benaki’s outstanding 5 collection of Islamic art.
The Greek Jewish community was one of the world’s most ancient, and it was almost completely decimated by the Germans in WWII. This museum houses the requisite Judaica, mostly from the 14th to 19th centuries, but also revisits the stories of some of the Greek Jews who perished—and it’s those human dramas that will stick with you long after you leave. It's very pretty from the outside, but have a look inside.
Bathhouse of the Winds
One of the upsides to visiting what essentially amounts to a 300-year-old bathroom is that it makes the need to renovate your own seem much less urgent. This evocative, well-preserved Turkish hammam is the only one remaining from a time when Ottoman rule held sway in Athens, from 1453 to 1669. It ceased to function in 1965, but now serves as a reminder of a slower time when urban bathing was a more communal, and probably more revitalizing, experience. There are exhibits on both the history of hammams and how the water supply system functioned in ancient Athens. Here's a virtual tour.
With a name like Onassis behind it, you pretty much know in advance that this cultural space aims to be a tastemaker. And the building itself is a good starting point: Occupying a whole city block, its exterior bands of white marble are a dramatic yet sober nod to the Parthenon itself.
Not a museum in the strict sense, the center has a state-of-the-art performance space and mounts exhibits by both leading contemporary Greek artists and international names (for example, a Helmut Newton show through March 3). Don’t miss a drink on the rooftop Hytra Bar for the Acropolis views and that Greek yacht-in-the-city ambience.
With its beautiful location in a historic building in the Plaka just below the Acropolis and small but extraordinarily beautiful collection of antiquities, the Kanellopoulou collection could be thought of as the J. Paul Getty of the "mini" museums in Athens.
Actually Paul (see? such similarities!) and Alexandra Kanellopoulou didn't really set out to amass ancient treasures but somehow they did, bequeathing it all to the Greek state. The highlight is the large "blue" room on the lower level where all manner of Minoan, Mycenaean, Archaic and Classical era figurines, vases, coins, jewelry and other objects are displayed. Not many people know about this place so it's usually very quiet in here.