Syntagma Square is the most important square in modern Athens. It’s the center of government and commerce. This is where Athenians come to both protest and celebrate.
The focal point of the square is the Hellenic Parliament building. It was completed in 1843 and used as the royal palace until 1909 when it was damaged by fire. It underwent a long renovation, and in 1924, when the monarchy was abolished, it became property of the government. It went through another long renovation to become Greece’s new parliament building in 1934. In front is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a popular tourist attraction where the Changing of the Guard can be witnessed hourly.
The old Hellenic Parliament building sits a short walk from Syntagma. The building served as parliament from 1875 to 1932, and is now the National Historical Museum. In front stands an equestrian statue of Greek national hero Theodoros Kolokotronis.
To the west of Syntagma Square is Ermou Street. About 700m of the street connected to the square is pedestrianized and makes up one of the most popular shopping areas of the city.
South of Hellenic Parliament is the National Garden, which is now a public park that once belonged to the royal family. In 1920, one of the most bizarre incidents occurred that tragically altered the history of both Greece and Turkey. While walking in the garden, the puppet king, Alexander of Greece, was bitten by a pet monkey. He developed sepsis and died three weeks later. His father, Constantine I, who had just been deposed a few years earlier for pro-German sentiment during WWI, was put back into power. A war-weary Greek people helped the king defeat his nemesis, Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, in elections two months later. At that time, Greece was embroiled in a bloody war with the Turks and was making huge territorial gains. The new prime minister, Dimitrios Gounaris, began replacing military officers loyal to Venizelos. The change in the political climate cost Greece the support of France and Great Britain, which in turn saw Greece start losing all of its territorial gains. After that, Smyrna burned to the ground in 1922 and the extremely inhumane Greek and Turkish population exchange followed. Winston Churchill was famously wrote “it is perhaps no exaggeration to remark that a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey’s bite.”
Near the garden sits the Zappeion. It was completed in 1878 specifically for the revival of the modern Olympic Games in 1896. It’s now used for meetings and receptions. My friend Eleni and I admired it from the outside because we were not given permission to enter.
Hidden across the street from the National Garden is Agia Triada Russian Orthodox Church. It’s a Byzantine church built in 1031 and was once the largest church in Athens. It was used as a Greek Orthodox church until it was damaged in 1827 during a siege. The Russians restored it in 1847 and the Russian community continues to use it to this day.
Nearby is St. Paul’s Anglican Church. It opened on Palm Sunday in 1843 as one of the very first foreign churches in Athens. The church has the oldest pipe organ in Greece and often hosts cultural events.
Finally, one museum in the area I would like to visit on a return trip to Athens is the Jewish Museum of Greece.