by Katherine Poseidon
So, we gave you a guide to time travel to Ancient Greece, but thought it wasn’t fair to let you loose on the ancients without at least a cheat sheet with some useful Ancient Greece facts. As you’ve probably noticed, traces of Greek civilisation have made their way into so many aspects of the modern world, and a visit to Greece allows you to get up close and personal. As we've said before, there is something for absolutely everyone - architecture aficionados, athletes, scientists, artsy types, etc., not to mention both kids & grown-ups. Even if you think you know the basics, we guarantee you'll learn something new - and if 'it's all Greek to you,' our 'Ancient Greece 101' guide will at least help you crack your next round of Trivial Pursuit! Plus it’s a lot easier to get excited about exploring the top Greek tourist attractions once you know a little bit more about why they’re significant.
Here are some fun facts to help you unlock and enjoy some of the best things to do in Greece!
#1 Elaborate (and Crazy!) Greek Mythology
First things first - the ancient Greeks believed a lot of different (and kind of off the wall) things. Most importantly was their system of twelve major gods, who lived on Mount Olympus and were responsible for basically everything that happened in daily life, and helped people explain the unexplainable - like the weather! They also had super complicated and weird relationships among themselves, and with lesser gods and even mortals! Other classic creatures, like Medusa, the Cyclops and the Minotaur, also feature in these stories. One of the best things to do in Greece is explore the various temples - the Parthenon was built as a temple to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, but only after a spat between Athena and Poseidon, the God of the Sea, as to who would be the patron of the city of Athens. There are a lot of mythological figures to keep track of though - join a guided tour of Athens highlights to help you learn who is who!
#2 The Home of the Original Olympics
Greeks invented the Olympics! The first games took place nearly 3000 years ago, in a festival designed to honour Zeus, the king of the gods. Some of the events that have carried over to the modern Olympics include running, boxing, discus, and wrestling, though chariot racing has understandably been discontinued. The victorious Olympians were crowned with an olive wreath, which was such an honour that there were major celebrations when the athletes returned home. You can channel the spirit of the ancient Olympics by participating in (or just watching!) the Athens Authentic Marathon (and afterwards energizing here), or by exploring the Panathenaic Stadium, which was restored for the first modern Olympics in 1896! If you visit Ancient Olympia, you can even sprint across the ancient track, though ancient athletes competed naked...we don't recommend it!
#3 Greek History Snapshot
It may go without saying that history is a big deal in Greece - what with the centre of ancient civilisation and everything, but did you know how much history ‘ancient Greece’’ actually covers? First, you’ve got theoretically ‘pre-Greek’ civilisations, who spoke a different (and mysterious!) language: the Minoans, based on the island of Crete (which you should definitely visit, here’s why!), and the Mycenaeans, who lived in the Peloponnese. Then there was the ‘golden age,' where many of the advancements we outline here took place - along with lots of wars, among the Greek city-states and with outside powers, like the Persian Empire. Then there was the empire of Alexander the Great, which stretched well into the Middle East toward Asia. Finally, Greece became part of the Roman Empire - and it's been influencing Western culture ever since!
#4 Leaps & Bounds in Science & Technology
We can also thank the Ancient Greeks for lots of significant science and technology advancements, including the development of mathematics, biology, medicine and astronomy. That’s the reason so many medical words have a Greek root - any of the English words you know that end in ‘ology’ mean ‘the study of.’ Ancient Greek ingenuity is exemplified in the story of the Trojan Horse - the Greeks trying to capture the city of Troy hid inside a giant wooden horse. When the Trojans woke up and saw the horse outside their walls, they thought it was a gift and brought it inside without a second thought (oops), allowing the Greek soldiers to jump out and capture the city from within. That story is the origin of the phrase 'beware of Greeks bearing gifts!'
#5 Ancient Greek Architecture is All Around!
While you’re exploring, you may notice that many landmarks in Greece look similar to many other local attractions throughout the Western world. Classical Greek architecture is characterised by lots of elements that might look familiar, especially the famous columns. The three different styles - Doric, Ionian and Corinthian - have been replicated throughout the world. While enjoying a sightseeing tour or exploring some of the more off the beaten path ancient monuments, try looking out for recognisable elements you might have seen back home!
#6 Democracy in Daily Life
In many ways, life in an ancient Greek city was not necessarily so different from our own daily life. Lots of time was spent hanging out in public spaces (especially the Agora, the centre of ancient Greek life!), and during the Golden Age of Athens citizens participated in democratic government. Though women and slaves were not allowed to participate, male citizens voted yes or no on all rules and laws. Try out our ‘A Day in the Life of a Young Athenian’ tour, one of the best things to do in Athens with kids, to find out more about Greek democracy, or take a walk around the Pnyx hill, the site of the ancient assemblies, and also one of the best green spaces in Athens (more are here!).
#7 Unexpected Greek Art
Though we usually think of Ancient Greek art as white marble sculptures, would you believe that most of these sculptures used to be painted with bright colours? Greek history was a lot more colourful than we imagine it. Visit any of Athens’ best museums (our favourites are here) or explore throughout Greece, to see sculpture, bronze, metal, mosaics and pottery. The artistic tradition is also alive and well in Greece today - for more quirky things to do in Athens, check out some of the best new exhibits on now!
It’s hard to write about ancient Greece without mentioning Sparta or the 300. A stroll through the central shopping area of Monastiraki will bombard you with Sparta-related souvenirs (though we have other ideas for the best souvenirs to buy in Athens!), and many travellers are familiar with the legendary battle of Thermopylae, where the vastly outnumbered Greek forces, led by 300 Spartans, held off the huge Persian army for seven days. While the reality of ancient warfare was grim, there are some great legends and stories - seize the spirit of adventure and follow our suggestions for exploration beyond Athens.
#9 Athens, Birthplace of Greek Philosophy
Without going into too much detail, western philosophy owes a lot to the Greeks, the least of which is the word ‘philosophy’ itself. They were the first people to try and understand the world from a non-religious perspective, using logic and reasoning to try and answer the big questions of life (‘why do we exist?’) The big names - Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle - all lived and breathed in Ancient Athens, and you can dive deep into their ideas while exploring their old haunts around the city. Let a pro guide you around the steps of the ancients - this is one of the truly unique experiences you can find in Greece!
#10 Origins of Theatre
Yet another ancient Greek invention! Theatres were a staple in nearly every ancient Greek city, and both tragedy and comedy were born in Greece. The performers were all men, so they wore masks in order to make their performances more convincing. Have you ever seen the iconic 'happy/sad face' mask? That's coming at you straight from the ancient Greek stage! Don't forget, enjoying a performance, ancient or modern, is one of the more unique things to do in Greece (either as a day trip or as something to do on a date, with more suggestions here!).
#11 The Original Alphabet
Last but not least, we have to say something about the language. Greek was the first alphabet to have vowels - and indeed gives us the world ‘alphabet.’ Greek also contributed something like 30% of all words in English. Though Ancient Greek is a complicated language, it was simplified enough so that people could learn to write, which meant that Ancient Greeks were comparatively pretty highly educated (hello philosophy!). Unfortunately, even Modern Greek is not an easy language by any means - but we made you a cheat sheet with 15 little words you should probably know! Try out your language skills on a local for a truly unique experience!
Pro tip: If you’re travelling as a family, it might be easier than you think to get everyone interested in Ancient Athens sightseeing. Ancient Greece for kids is totally doable, and in style. It’s a great idea to join a family tour, which will introduce you to the main ancient things to see in Athens (see our selection here). We also gathered together some of the best kid-friendly activities the city has to offer here.
Now that you know more about the Ancient Greeks, don't miss our time travel guide, but also don't get so wrapped up in the Ancients that you miss the rest that Athens has to offer! If you're on a short schedule, we've collected our tips on how to make the most of your 48 hours in Athens (including highlights of Ancient Greece), and finally our newest suggestions for 50 things to do for FREE in Athens!