Where do you start when it comes to all the history and culture on tap in the Greek capital? Well, we’ve done the groundwork for you by exploring 20 of the best museums in Athens, so you can decide which to put on your wish list … and reveal a few gems you’d probably never have heard of otherwise.
15 Dionysiou Areopagitou St
Number one on your list of best Athens museums for good reason. The Acropolis Museum completes the experience of visiting the Parthenon (right next door). The 14,000m2 exhibition space is beautifully laid out, bringing ancient Athens (particularly the 5th-century Golden Age of Pericles) to life through sculptures and artefacts, as well as replicas of buildings on Acropolis Hill, such as the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion. Don't miss the top-floor Parthenon Gallery, including original and replica marbles that recreate the full Parthenon frieze.
National Archaeological Museum
44 28th October St, Exarhia
If you want to know why Greece is referred to as the cradle of western civilisation this is the museum to visit. All of Greece’s history (Neolithic, Cycladic, Mycenaean, Classical, Hellenistic Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman and Modern) is represented through statues, miniatures, gravestones, tools, weapons and items from everyday life. There is also a comprehensive public library in what is Athens’ largest museum. The southern wing (through a separate entrance) houses the Epigraphic Museum, with more than 14,000 inscriptions, revealing the astonishing detail of record-keeping in ancient Greece.
Museum of Cycladic Art
4 Neophytou Douka St, Kolonaki
A fascinating assembly of some of the oldest artefacts in Greece. Collectables from as long as 5,000 years ago from Greece’s Cycladic islands – such as Andros, Naxos, Antiparos, Amorgos and Thera (Santorini) – are on display, including the smooth and graceful marble figurines of men and women from the Early Cycladic Period that are the museum’s signature artefacts. The museum is housed in the Stathatos Mansion, a beautiful example of neoclassical architecture in Athens and one of the finest works of architect Ernst Ziller.
50 Vassileos Konstantinou Ave, Pangrati
A must for all art lovers, with works by Greece’s best-known painters as well as European masters (such as Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse) in a recently reopened building that’s as eye-catching as some of the artwork on display. But the real attraction of the National Gallery is that it traces all the pivotal moments of modern Greek history – from the post-Byzantine years to the revolution against the Ottomans and the establishment of the modern Greek state – through more than 1,000 works of art. It’s hard to think of a more beautiful history lesson.
Benaki Museum of Greek Culture
1 Koumbari St, Kolonaki
One of the most popular private museums, with artwork and collectables from the 6th millennium BC to the 20th century. Prominent politician and art collector Antonis Benakis donated his astonishing collection (and beautiful neoclassical family mansion) for the creation of the museum, which now houses an even larger display of jewellery, ceramics, marble portraits, manuscripts, religious icons, household utensils, costumes and textiles from all stages of Greek history.
National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens
Kallirrois Ave & Amvr. Frantzi St, Koukaki
A gem for art lovers in one of Athens’ most iconic buildings (the fully refurbished former FIX brewery in lively Koukaki). The 18,142m2 of minimalist, beautifully lit gallery space is the ideal setting for exhibits that explore timeless themes such as democracy, identity and exclusion – as well as contemporary issues such as the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and racial discrimination.
The permanent collection includes 172 works from 78 Greek and foreign artists.
Goulandris Museum of Modern Art
13 Eratosthenous St, Pangrati
It’s incredible to think that the 180-odd pieces from mainly 19th and 20th-century masters including Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, El Greco, Gaugin and Pollock were once the private collection of an Athenian couple.
That, however, was the dream of Basil and Elise Goulandris, a ship-owning couple who amassed an astonishing amount of artwork and bequeathed it to this and the smaller (original) Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art in their native Andros. Realism, impressionism, cubism, abstract – all the movements of modern art are there.
Museum of the Ancient Agora
24 Adrianou St, Monastiraki
The Museum of the Ancient Agora is found in the restored Stoa of Attalos, the 2nd-century BC building gifted to the Athenians by King Attalus II of Pergamon that has been likened to ancient Athens’ first shopping arcade, given that it once housed covered stalls for traders to sell their wares. It displays artefacts unearthed during excavations of the Ancient Agora, including everyday items as varied as identification tags, a clay water-clock and official bronze voting ballots, all the way to portrait busts from the Roman period.
Byzantine and Christian Museum
22 Vassilissis Sofias Ave
An archive of over 30,000 artefacts (either displayed or stored) from Greece’s Byzantine and Christian heritage, dating from the 3rd century AD to modern times. Icons, wall-paintings, manuscripts and ceramics, textiles, mosaics and other objects are assembled chronologically according to five broad ‘thematic routes’: The Water Path, Woman, Peculiar Objects, Walking Beyond and Gold, offering glimpses of the material culture as well as the spiritual life of their times.
National Historical Museum
13 Stadiou St, Syntagma
The oldest museum of its kind in Greece, the National Historical Museum houses the artefacts of the Historical and Ethnological Society of Greece (founded in 1882). It is located in the Old Parliament Building (serving as the Hellenic Parliament from 1875-1932) and before that was in Athens’ National Technical College. It contains artefacts such as weapons, manuscripts and a large collection of traditional costumes from the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Second World War, with a special emphasis on Greece’s 1821 War of Independence.
Athens City Museum
5-7 Paparigopoulou St, Klafthmonos Square
The Athens City Museum is found in two interconnected buildings, with paintings, engravings, sculptures, furniture and important documents of a wealthy middle-class Athenian household in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The neoclassical house at No.7 belonged to Stamatios Dekozis-Vouros (1792-1881), a wealthy banker from Chios, but it is known as the Old Palace as it became the residence of the first royal couple, King Otto and Queen Amalia (1836-1843), when the capital of Greece moved to Athens. The so-called New Building at No.5 preserves the memories and history of the Dekozis-Vouros family.
Numismatic Museum of Athens
12 Panepistimiou Street (El. Venizelou), Syntagma
Housing an assortment of over 500,000 coins, medals, gems, weights, stamps and related artefacts from 1400 BC to modern times, the Numismatic Museum of Athens includes one of the richest collections of its kind. It is also located in an iconic Athens building (known as the Iliou Melathron) that was designed in 1878 for celebrated archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (who excavated the archaeological sites of Troy and Mycenae) by Ernst Ziller (one of Athens’ most prominent architects). The mansion’s restored mosaics and murals are part of the experience.
The Goulandris Natural History Museum
13 Levidou St, Kifissia
Away from the city centre, in the northern suburb of Kifissia, the Goulandris Museum of Natural History plays an important role in promoting natural sciences and encouraging the protection of Greece’s wildlife habitats and species in danger of extinction. As well as displaying large numbers of insects, mammals, birds, reptiles, shells, rocks, minerals and fossils from around Greece, it also has a display of over 200,000 species of plants, including some discovered by the museum’s own research.
Hellenic Maritime Museum
Akti Themistokleous, Piraeus
A must for ship buffs, the Hellenic Maritime Museum, near Zea Marina in Piraeus, contains more than 2,500 items from Greece’s famous maritime history. There are models of vessels from Archaic and Classical times and exhibits from Greece’s Byzantine years and the 1821 War of Independence and beyond. The conning tower of the Papanikolis (a Second World War submarine) is found outside, alongside anchors from ships from the Battle of Navarino of 1827 (an east vs west encounter off the west coast of Peloponnese known as the last major naval battle fought exclusively with sailing ships).
Jewish Museum of Greece
39 Nikis St, Plaka
Commemorating the history of the Jewish population of Greece, which grew to one of the biggest in Europe by the start of the 20th century. The Jewish Museum of Greece displays personal effects, jewellery, documents and synagogue items detailing the history and daily lives of the Jews of Greece, including their participation in wars and rebellion. Excavations on Delos have revealed a 2nd-century BC synagogue, but Jewish numbers swelled in the 15th century and beyond, with persecuted Sephardim Jews finding refuge in Greece (especially Thessaloniki). Having risen to more than 100,000, the Jewish community lost a staggering 87% of its population during the Nazi occupation of Greece.
Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments
1-3 Diogenous St, Plaka
In one of the oldest buildings in Plaka (built in the mid-19th century), the Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments commemorates the rich history of musicology and instrument-making in Greece. More than half of the collection of Fivos Anoyanakis (a musicologist and collector born in 1912) is on display, grouped according to instrument type: membranophones (drums & tambourines), aerophones (flutes & bagpipes), chordophones (lutes, guitars and mandolins) and idiophones (bells & cymbals).
Museum of Ancient Greek Technology
6 Pindarou St, Kolonaki
Robotics and computers, steam-driven and jet propulsion, automotive and automatic navigation, telecommunication, utilisation of hydraulic and wind energy and cryptology were all invented by … you guessed it, the Ancient Greeks. That’s what the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology seeks to prove through original artefacts and reconstructions showing how Ancient Greece was a nursery for many of the inventions and technology of today. Don’t believe it? There’s only one way to find out.
Museum of Modern Greek Culture
4-8 Thespidos St, Plaka
The Museum of Modern Greek Culture consists of more than a dozen 19th and early 20th-century buildings in Plaka, recreating a neighbourhood of Athens from that time. The complex includes The Bath House of the Winds (the only public bath in Athens from Ottoman rule, near the Roman Forum and the Tower of the Winds) and The Museum at 22 Panos St (including an exhibition of objects such as archives, personal testimonies, images and words that encourage visitors to explore the narratives behind them).
Museum of Traditional Greek Pottery
8 Hepitou St, Psyrri
The Museum of Traditional Greek Pottery explores the modern face of this ancient Greek craft. As well as offering ceramics lessons, the museum traces the history of Greek pottery-making in the 19th and 20th centuries through a series of workshop displays. You’ll find re-enactments and representations of different styles of pottery-making (with or without a manual wheel or with a kick-wheel), explaining the cultural context and artistry of the vases and other ceramics created.
Museum of Illusions
119 Ermou St, Psyrri
Something completely different to finish with in our list of best Athens Museums. The Museum of Illusions mesmerises all members of the family by challenging their senses. You’ll enjoy holograms and other optical illusions in an array of specially designed settings (so have your smartphone ready), teasing your brain and then explaining the science behind the effect.
The best museums in Athens
So which museums stand out? You probably don’t need much convincing to visit the Acropolis Museum or National Archaeological Museum of Greece. But those private museums in neoclassical buildings sound pretty special, right? And how about that all that modern art? Bet you weren’t expecting that! Let us know what you choose.
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