Best Museums in Athens, a Local’s Choice

Athens is home to museums representing a fascinating spectrum of culture and history. Of course, most visitors come to Athens wishing to be better acquainted with antiquity, and with the history and cultural and artistic treasures of the Golden Age of Athens in particular.

There are wonderful museum experiences in Athens to explore this era. But there is also a host of other museums which focus on history, artefacts, and art from various eras spanning prehistory to the present day.

From the Museum of Cycladic Art to the National Museum of Contemporary Art and the Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art, you can become more intimately acquainted with millennia of culture and history, all in beautiful and unique settings – many of which are in themselves great monuments of Athens.

10 Must-See Museums to Visit in Athens

1. Acropolis Museum

Acropolis Museum - Best Museums in Athens

One of the most recent additions to the Athenian cultural landscape is also the most significant in the history of western culture. The Acropolis Museum opened in 2009, to international acclaim, and it celebrates and honours one of the most significant monuments in the world – the Parthenon.

Here you can see the breathtaking Caryatids up close (5 of the original 6 – one was taken by Lord Elgin in 1801), the Peplos Kore, the Moschoforos (the “Calf-bearer”), and other iconic treasures of Ancient Greece.

The Acropolis museum in Athens is one of the best museums in the city

The highlight, of course, is the 1:1 reconstruction of the Parthenon pediment marbles, arranged precisely as they are/were on the Parthenon, which itself is on view just outside the windows. The missing marbles – most of them now in the British Museum has been taken by Lord Elgin – are reproduced. Seeing them so close to their original home is a deeply moving experience. 

The Acropolis Museum is built over an extensive archaeological excavation. Signs of busy urban life include streets, baths, residences, tombs, and workshops, spanning centuries, from the 4th century BC through the 12th century AD. Entering the museum, you walk over a glass floor with the fascinating excavations beneath. 

In 2018, travelers ranked the Acropolis Museum 6th in the whole world in TripAdvisor’s’ “Traveler’s Choice” awards. 

The Acropolis Museum has a beautiful restaurant and cafe, with – of course – a stunning view of the Acropolis itself.

2. National Archaeological Museum

The splendid National Archaeological Museum is one of the cultural treasures of the world. Vast collections – over 11,000 exhibits – display the culture of Greece from prehistory to late antiquity.

The many, many highlights include masterpieces of Classical and Hellenistic sculpture, a collection of monumental Kouros figures, the famous bronze of Poseidon (or Zeus), the legendary golden “Mask of Agamemnon” from Mycenae, Linear B tablets, the Aphrodite of Syracuse, an astonishing display of red-figure and black-figure pottery, Egyptian antiquities, and the Antikythera mechanism.

You’ll recognize many pieces here, and this barely scratches the surface. The museum itself is beautifully arranged in grand and comfortable rooms providing a classic and quality museum experience. This is one of the most significant museums of archaeology in all the world, an absolute must for your stay in Athens.

3. Benaki Museum

The Benaki Museum is, in fact, a collection of superb Museums. The Benaki Museum of Greek Culture was created by the Benaki family – Antonis Benaki and his three sisters Alexandra, Penelope, and Argine, who donated their collection to the Greek Nation.

Benaki Museum - Best Museums in athens

Housed in a magnificent Neoclassical mansion across from the National Gardens, the Benaki Museum introduces the visitor to the whole of Greek Culture through displays from prehistory through the 20th century. It’s a wonderful crash-course in history, culture, and art. The Benaki Museum of Greek Culture also organizes excellent special exhibitions.

The Benaki Museum of Greek Culture is open until midnight on Thursdays – late evening is a wonderful time to visit. It also has an excellent gift shop.

For more information visit the museum’s website.

Other Benaki Museums include the following:

Pireos 138

This contemporary building on Piraeus street houses fascinating and dynamic exhibitions, including performance art (Marina Abramovic, NEON). The photographic archives and the archives of Modern Greek Architecture are also overseen here. 

The Benaki Museum of Islamic Art

In a complex of lovely Neoclassical buildings in the historic Kerameikos district, the Benaki Museum of Islamic art has one of the most important collections of Islamic Art in the world. The collection span works from as far east as Persia, India, and Mesopotamia, south to North Africa, and east as far as Sicily and Spain, for a comprehensive overview. The cafe on the terrace is lovely.

The Ghika Gallery

This museum is housed in the home and studio of one of Greece’s most famous modern painters of the “generation of the ‘30s” – Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika. Over five floors, you will see his works, his creative process, living spaces, and fascinating displays of his correspondence with other artists and literary figures of the era.

The Toy Museum

By the Flisvos Marina is a fascinating museum for young and old. The Toy Museum displays one of the best collections in Europe, featuring toys, books, clothing, and other items associated with children, with objects from not just Europe but also Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

4. Athens War Museum

War Museum in Athens
War Museum in Athens

In some ways, Greece is one of the oldest countries in the world, and in others, it is relatively new – Modern Greece as we know it rose up after the Greek War of Independence of 1821. The Athens War Museum promotes the continuity of Hellenism and honours the great struggles that this ideal entailed, from antiquity to the present. The fascinating collection includes maps, paintings, uniforms, sculptures, and weaponry.

5. The Museum of Cycladic Art

Housed in two connected buildings – one a modern masterpiece and the other the historic Neoclassical Stathatos mansion by Ernst Ziller – is the Museum of Cycladic Art. It originally was established to house the collection of Nicholas and Dolly Goulandris and has since grown.

The Cycladic museum focuses on the promotion and study of ancient cultures of the Aegean and of Cyprus, with an emphasis on Cycladic Art of the 3rd millennium BC. The museum stages many special exhibitions that explore and illuminate the world of the past.

You’ll also be amazed at the modernity and elegance of these ancient works – they resonate deeply with the contemporary aesthetic. 

The Museum of Cycladic Art also hosts fascinating contemporary exhibitions that take advantage of this unique context, and often focus in part on the inspiration of Cycladic art. Some of these include for example “Picasso and Antiquity,” Ai Wei Wei’s first exhibition in Greece, Cy Twombly’s “Divine Dialogues”, and Robert McCabe “Memories and Monuments of the Aegean.”

For more information visit the museum’s website.

6. Byzantine & Christian Museum

The Byzantine and Christian Museum contains over 30,000 objects that span Christianity from the 3rd century through the present. The collection includes icons and mosaics, manuscripts, sculpture, handicrafts, and textiles – many of which bring the world of the Byzantine empire vividly to life. 

The Byzantine and Christian Museum is also worth visiting for its marvelous building alone – the Villa Ilisia, not far from what once was the royal palace, was built by the Duchess of Plaisance starting in 1840, just a few years after Athens was made the capital of Modern Greece. Save time for the marvelous gardens of fruit trees and fountains – a magical oasis in the urban center – as well as the restful cafe.

For more information visit the museum’s website.

7. Numismatic Museum

Through displays of ancient, medieval, and Byzantine coins and those dating to more modern eras, the relationship of money and society is explored. You can also see the money of the Modern Greek state.

This is another Museum that offers not only the beauty and interest of its collections, but also a fascinating glimpse of the early days of Modern Athens. The fanciful Neoclassical building was built by Ernst Ziller in 1878-1879 for the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.

The name means “The Palace of Troy” – honors the unveiling of that ancient city by the archaeologist, whose passion for the great Epic poems inspired his discoveries. The interior of the museum is absolutely beautiful, with richly-colored walls and ancient Greek inscriptions.

The Numismatic Museum’s garden has a lovely cafe and sometimes hosts concerts and other cultural events.

For more information visit the museum’s website.

8. National Historical Museum 

National Historical Museum  - Best Museums in Athens

Established by the Historic and Ethnological Society of Greece, the National Historical Museum illustrates the history of Modern Greece and its struggles, from the eras of Ottoman and Latin rule through the War of independence of 1821 and the founding of the Modern Greek State, to the social, spiritual, and political development of Greece up to the present day.

National Historical Museum

The National Historical Museum of Greece is housed in the Old Parliament Building, the first permanent headquarters of the Greek national assembly. This stately and beautiful building was founded by Queen Amalia in 1858, and its great central hall now also hosts significant cultural events.

For more information visit the museum’s website.

9. Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art

Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art - Best museums in Athens

This greatly anticipated new arrival to the already impressive Athens museum scene was opened in October of 2019. It is a marvel for lovers of modern art. The Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art houses the marvelous collection of Basil and Elise Goulandris, great benefactors of the arts.

Their stunning collection – one of the world’s most valuable private collections – focuses on 20th century modern art, with emphasis on Impressionist, modernist, and post-war art. You’ll see works by Miro, Chagall, Monet, van Gogh, Cezanne, Rodin, Gaugin, and Modigliani – among many.

The Goulandris name will by now be familiar to you if you are on a cultural tour of Athens. This dynasty of shipowners from the island of Andros are great patrons of the arts. Basil Goulandris was the twin brother of Nicholas Goulandris, whose collection forms the base of the Cycladic Museum of Art. 

Another interesting fact – the Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art was going to be constructed in Kolonaki, to a design of internationally famed architect I. M. Pei (of the glass pyramid of the Louvre, among many world-famous constructions). But ruins of Aristotle’s Lyceum were found on the proposed site – in Athens, the ancient past is ever present. 

For more information visit the museum’s website.

10. National Museum of Contemporary Art – EMST

National Museum of Contemporary Art - EMST - Best museums in Athens

Athens truly embraces a great spa of culture, from prehistory to contemporary and avant-garde. Fans of the latter will enjoy the National Museum of Contemporary Art – also called the EMST (for “Ethniko Museum Synchronis Technis”).

This is a wonderful place to view the works of contemporary International artists and Greek artists of International renown. The collection embraces the diversity of origin and gender. There are works by the installation and multimedia artist Mona Hatoum, the conceptual artist team Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, the artist and filmmaker Emily Jacir, the pioneering video artist Bill Viola, and the conceptual artist Kim Sooja – among many.

The collection is particularly strong in Internationally acclaimed Greek sculptors such as the pioneer of Arte Povera Jannis Kounellis, the sculptor – often in neon – Stephen Antonakos, Costas Tsoclis, Costas Varotsos, and George Lappas.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in a beautifully repurposed industrial structure – the former Fix brewery. The museum also comprises a library, a screening room, a conservation laboratory, and a Media Lounge. 

For more information visit the museum’s website.

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