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Named after Athena, goddess of wisdom, ancient Athens is considered to be the cradle of Western civilisation. Some scholars date the earliest traces of settlement found on the Acropolis as far back as 5000 BC.

The Ionian kings who ruled Athens until c.1000 BC were replaced by an aristocratic regime that governed rigidly until 594 BC. At that time Solon legislated liberal reforms abolishing serfdom, modifying harsh laws, altering the economy and the constitution thus establishing a limited democracy.

Building on the system of Solon, in c.506 BC Cleisthenes established a democracy for the freemen of Athens, which was retained during the era of the city's greatness.

Emerging victorious from the Persian Wars (500-449 BC), Athens became the strongest Greek city-state, enjoying a cultural explosion that lasted until the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), which eventually signalled the city's downfall. The rise of the Macedonian power heralded the demise of Athens, which was defeated by Philip II at Chaeronea in 338 BC.

Nevertheless, despite troubled times in the Peloponnesian Wars and the wars against the Macedonians, Athenian achievements in philosophy, drama and art continued even when the city's glory faded in the 3rd century BC. The city's cultural legacy conquered the world as Hellenistic culture.

During the Byzantine period, Athens became a provincial capital and the centre of religious learning and devotion, to be seized by the Turks in 1546, three years after the fall of Constantinople. One year after the last Turks were driven from the Acropolis in 1833, the small town of Athens became the capital of modern Greece and hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

More recently, Athens was occupied by Italian and German forces during World War II.

The prospect of hosting the Olympic Games in 2004 led to major reconstruction projects in Athens. The city has recently undergone a multi-million-euro "face lift" with the expansion of parks and pedestrian zones, the restoration of historic neoclassic buildings and the construction of walkways that link its main archaeological sites.

The city's major ancient sites are linked in a vast pedestrian network, a modern Panathenaic Way closed to all vehicles but public transport, starting at the site of the new Acropolis Museum and eventually reaching the ruins of ancient Eleusis 22 kilometres away. A 1.7 kilometre stretch of tarmac from the Roman Arch of Hadrian to the classical Dipylon Gate, paved in Cycladic marble and stone, is the walkway in the heart of a web extending from the site of the first modern Olympics to the overgrown foundation of Plato's Academy, four kilometres to the west. Walkways link the Temple of Olympian Zeus with the Acropolis, the Philopappos Hill, the ancient and Roman Agoras, Hadrian's Library and Kerameikos cemetery with all six sites spruced up, the ancient structures conserved and restored to a degree.

No trip to Athens would be complete without a visit to the sacred rock of the Acropolis, an obvious choice for a fortress and sanctuary in ancient times. Recently undergone extensive restoration, the new Acropolis Museum hopes eventually to display the collection of the 5th century BC Parthenon Marbles currently housed in London's British Museum after they were removed from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin in early 19th century.

The city boasts over 50 museums, the most important being the recently renovated National Archaeological Museum that houses more masterpieces of ancient art than any other in the world, with exhibits spanning some 7,000 years. The Benaki Museum, the Byzantine Museum and the National Gallery are well worth a visit.

The Olympics have brought some welcome improvements to Athens and the ancient capital has reclaimed much of its former beauty. Thanks to an Olympic-related beautification program, building facades are painted in fresh colours, ugly billboards were removed, sidewalks were repaved, new pedestrian precincts were made, hundreds of thousands of trees and flowers were planted, lighting was installed on all historic buildings and the city's parks and squares were redeveloped.

Not far from the capital, there are many attractions in Attica that are ideal destinations for leisurely day trips. Popular destinations include the 11th-century Kaisariani Monastery, the battleground, tomb and museum at Marathon, the archaeological site of Ramnous and the splendid Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion.

Gregarious, hospitable and relaxed, Athenians enjoy life to the full. As in any other major city, the visitor will come across people from all walks of life, most of whom are very friendly and willing to offer assistance.

Athens is a city of hedonists and consumers who are proud of their capacity to enjoy life. Late at night, people are out all over the city, and this is one of the first things that strikes visitors. The excellent climate allows Athenians to indulge in their favourite pastime - socialising - outdoors nearly all the year round.

All over the city there are coffee shops and snack bars ranging from very basic to very chic. Visitors will be surprised and charmed by the energy with which Athenians engage in conversation about politics, football and, perhaps not unsurprisingly, philosophy.

 
 
 
 
     
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