When the time comes to switch from winter to summer wardrobe, the time has also come for Athenians to start asking the question “What are we seeing at the Herodeion this year?” This question signals the beginning of summer plans, as it is very common for people to arrange their holidays around the shows offered by the Athens Epidaurus Festival at the ancient theatre.
A night at the Herodeion is something Athenians look forward to every year, and a captivating affair for all types of visitors. Keep reading to learn more about Greece’s biggest arts festival and get tips on how to book, what to expect, and how to make the most of your night out at Athens’ 1,900-year-old concert hall.
A Greek festival with a global appeal
The Athens Epidaurus Festival (AEF) is the leading performing arts festival in Greece and one of the oldest in Europe. It was founded in 1955, in the aftermath of Greece’s long decade of military occupation and political turbulence, as a way to celebrate the arts and attract visitors to the country. “In the early days of the Festival, there were two dominant figures: legendary soprano Maria Callas and master conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos,” says Maria Panagiotopoulou, head of the Festival’s press office. “In the 1960s, due to the lack of arts festivals in Europe, the AEF gained a lot of prestige and attracted some of the most important artists of the day, such as Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Rudolf Nureyef, and Maya Plisetskaya.”
The venue chosen for the festival was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, also known as the Herodeion, an ancient theatre on the south slope of the Acropolis which had been renovated in 1950. Named after Herodes Atticus, a notable citizen of Athens during the Roman era, it was erected in honour of his wife. Some of the world’s most famous artists from various cultural backgrounds and genres have performed at this stunning location: Pina Bausch, Sylvie Guillem, Ariane Mnouchkine, Peter Hall, Romeo Castelucci, Thomas Ostermeier, Sting, Vangelis, Elton John, Fairuz, Patti Smith, Florence and the Machine, Autechre and the list goes on.
“Although the Herodeion remains the Festival’s signature venue, since 2005 we have expanded to Pireos 260, an industrial space adopted for our more avant-garde theatrical and dance performances,” explains Mrs Panagiotopoulou. “While it’s a lesser-known venue, it’s definitely one worth discovering. There is also a café-bar open before and after the shows, making it the perfect gathering spot for culture vultures.”
A quintessentially Athenian experience
A night out at the Herodeion is somewhat of a ritual which starts with the short walk to get there. Performances typically start at 9pm which means that you will be walking under glorious sunset skies while gazing at a skyline dotted with famous Athenian landmarks like the Philopappou Hill, the Acropolis Museum, and the Parthenon. “Walking along Dionysiou Areopagitou Street on your way to watch a show at the Herodeion, means that summer has arrived in Athens”, notes Mrs. Panagiotopoulou. No matter how you choose to get there (see below) there are certain scenes, with which Athenians are well acquainted with, and which you are bound to come across: street vendors selling handmade jewellery, paintings, roasted corn and cotton candy, buskers serenading passersby and glorious neoclassical architecture in the area’s coveted townhouses. Afterwards, a reflective stroll and friendly discussions over nightcaps or a late dinner, are all part of the experience.
Concealed behind olive trees and at the top of a wide flight of steps, the entrance to the Herodeion is almost mystical. As you ascend you are greeted by the magnificent arches of the ancient landmark’s façade, rising 28 metres high into the sky. You then climb the same stone stairs Athenians did almost 2,000 years ago. And once you are up the theatre’s spectacular koilon (the rows of seats), carved in the very rock of the Acropolis and made out of the same Pentelic marble as the Parthenon, is in full view. On a full-house night, 5,000 people sit tightly next to each other in excited anticipation, taking photos before the show or just cooling themselves with a handheld fan. Lights go out, the audience settles and for a brief moment, everything is silent in the balmy evening air. And in that silence, past meets present in the here and now.
It can take a while for the audience to find their seats, so it’s generally advised to arrive at the theatre an hour before the performance starts. Each seat has a small cushion with a number on it. Insider’s tip: bring your own extra cushion to make yourself more comfortable, you’ll notice the veterans do so as well.
Dress code is, there is no dress code. Depending on the show, a little dress up might be customary, but in general casual attire is the way to go. However, in order to protect the monument and its marble surfaces, shoes with narrow heels are not allowed inside the Herodeion. You must wear shoes with a flat sole, otherwise you will not be allowed to enter.
Almost without exception, taking photographs, recording video or audio during a performance is prohibited; you can do so before and after the performance. Food and beverages are not allowed with the exception of bottled water. Make sure to follow the instructions of the theatre staff and the public announcements throughout your visit. It's important to know that one cannot enter the Herodeion unless they are attending an AEF performance.
How to get there
The nearest metro station is Acropolis (Line 2, red), which is at the start of Dionysiou Areopagitou Street. From there, the theatre is an enjoyable 10-minute stroll.
Alternatively, you can take the train to Thissio (Line 1, green), and walk up the hill along Apostolou Pavlou Street. This route goes past the Hill of the Nymphs and offers a sneak peek of the National Observatory as well as a panoramic view of the Acropolis, which by this time is softly illuminated against the sunset sky.
A taxi ride will drop you off a few steps from the theatre’s entrance.
Make a night out of it
Before the show
A night at the Herodeion is surely a memorable experience, but it’s also typical of Athenians to go about it in a relaxed manner. The less of a big deal you make of it, the more you will enjoy it. Have an early dinner or an aperitivo at one of the many rooftop restaurants close to the theatre, before the sun sets. Sense Athens, the rooftop restaurant at Athens Was hotel, and Manouka Athens on Ermou Street are great options for this, both with stunning city views. If you’re feeling more grounded, try some of the cosy, small cafés and bars in Koukaki, such as Lotte, Little Tree, and Kinono. The Thissio cafés on Apostolou Pavlou Street all offer gorgeous views of the Acropolis but expect a more touristy experience.
Earlier in the afternoon you can go window shopping around Koukaki and Plaka for some great souvenirs and design items like handmade ceramics, fashion accessories, jewellery, arty prints and postcards. Remember that extra seat cushion we talked about? Track one down at the area’s numerous textile shops or head to Forget Me Not or Medley for more artful finds.
After the show
Time to let the experience sink in. If you didn’t have an early dinner, have a late one; book a table for around 11 pm, as Athenians do. Head to the Herodion hotel and its lovely Point A rooftop for a 360° view of the city. GH Attikos and Dionysos Zonar’s are also great — though a tad more upscale — choices, both with a smart casual dress code. Keep it simpler by tracking down one of Athens’ best burgers at Tarantino in Koukaki. If you just need to be pointed to a mean souvlaki, check into Kalyvas on Dimitrakopoulou Street for a classic Greek meatery session, or join the hip crowds at Dirty Mani on the same street (spot the bright yellow Mini Cooper and you’re there.)
If dinner at this hour is too late for you, savour the fine evening weather and go for a volta (that’s Greek for aimlessly strolling) around the Acropolis. Volta also applies to aimful strolls, if a nightcap calls. Check into Brettos for a drink and an Instagram selfie at its famed backlit wall — but expect crowds. Mingle with the 30-somethings at Bel Ray, or try Greece’s best beer — according to the locals — at Strange Brew. Going the other way, over to Monastiraki? Head inside the arcade on 3 Normanou Street and up the elevator to one of the area’s grooviest rooftop bars, Couleur Locale, or turn up the volume at grungy Protogenous Street. If you’re wondering if it’s too late to check into a bar, it’s not; most call it a night after 2 am. You’re in Athens, after all.