Culture in Athens: The Facts You Need to Know

BY Maria Pappa

Culture in Athens: The Facts You Need to Know
Photography by Dimitris Lambridis


Born out of myth, Athens has always struggled with her heavy past. As the legend says, a competition among gods gave Athens its name.

Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war won against Poseidon, and Athens was born. In Greek, the word Athens (Athina) has a gender and it’s female. It used to be plural – Athinai – during the Homer times but this was changed later on. One of the oldest cities in the world, she has over 3,400 years of recorded history. So yes, you could say she's ancient. The birthplace of democracy, she is also considered the cradle of western civilisation.

That does not mean that young Athenians walk around reciting Plato or listening to bouzoukia (Greek folk music) all the time. Nowadays the Athenian youth prefer to play loud trap music from cars. Yep, trap is a big thing here, comparable in size to the local heavy metal and punk scene of the 80s and 90s, but you won’t hear it on the radio because of its explicit lyrics. Dance culture never seems to fall out of fashion in Athens, since its appearance in the 90s it has been considered the most popular music scene. Currently, spontaneous raves are having a moment but you’ll only find out about them if you’re following the right people on instagram.

Historically, Athens has lived many lives that have shaped its modern cultural landscape. Here’s some key moments you should know. The classical period marked the age of arts, politics and philosophy; the most famous Greeks lived during this time including philosophers Aristotle, Plato and Socrates as well as all the great tragedians, Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus. The decline of classical Athens was followed by the Byzantine era, check out the small churches dotted around the city which date all the way back to this period; the majority of which were built above the ruins of pagan temples. In 1458 Athens fell under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and Greeks were enslaved for over 400 years up until the war of independence in 1822. Shortly after, Athens became the capital of Greece in 1834.

A century later, in 1922, came another big moment. The first big wave of (Greek) refugees flooded the city after the Asia Minor catastrophe (the defeat of the Greek army in the Greek-Turkish war), bringing their customs and culture with them, such as rembetiko music. Fast forward to the 21st century when Athens ushered in the 2004 Summer Olympics, which took place in the same location the very idea was formed more than a 100 years before. Although the games were successful, showing a city in progress, many would argue that it was disastrous for the Greek economy.

Though the city has been through a lot – just look at the recent debt crisis which prompted a long, harsh period of austerity – Athenian locals continue to push culture forward in new and exciting ways, capturing the attention of creatives all over the world who are flocking to the capital.