Before Greece won its independence in 1829, some 130 churches were recorded in Athens. Ironically, many were destroyed not by the Ottomans, but during construction of the modern Greek capital. Churches were often used as a source of building material, much as the ancient temples had been used earlier. You’ll often see sections of columns integrated into the altar or walls.
Orthodox tradition often absorbs the pagan practices of antiquity too. So don't be surprised if you find far-from-saintly figures like Heracles or Hebe, the gods’ cupbearer and goddess of eternal youth, on the frieze of a 9th century church.
Scroll on for more on all the best churches across the city, from where to attend an Easter service to which one to check out for weddings. And, of course, you’ll find a roundup of the most stunning churches from Syntagma to Mets.
This 16th-century church has a history as big as its size is small. It was linked by an underground tunnel to a small gunpowder plant that supplied the Ottoman troops. When the independence revolt erupted, the munitions maker smuggled some of the gunpowder to the Greeks through the tunnel. Aside from its odd location in the belly of the former Ministry of Education (now the Electra Metropolis hotel), another unusual feature is the church’s tiny, crenellated windows.
Panagia Gorgoepikoos (Agios Eleftherios)
Built on the ruins of a temple dedicated to the goddess of childbirth, this 12th-century church is dedicated to both Agios (Saint) Eleftherios and Panagia (Our Lady) Gorgoepikoos, which loosely translates as Our Lady Who Grants Wishes Fast. Although it follows the typical Byzantine shape, apart from the brick dome it is built almost entirely from repurposed stone removed from other sites such as the Agora. Most of its frescoes have been destroyed, but you can see the reused temple sculptures in the masonry. In the mid-19th century, the church was briefly used to house the city library. Public figures often lie-in-state here as it is located next to the Athens Cathedral.
Agia Triada Sotira Lykodimou
The largest surviving Byzantine church in Athens belongs to the Russian Orthodox community. It was originally the main church of a monastic compound destroyed in the 17th century. Restored in 1850, it is notable for its unusual exterior motifs and wall paintings by the German painter Ludwig Thiersch. Renovation yielded a sixth-century church beneath the current structure, Roman ruins, and the city’s only catacombs which can be visited on Sundays, after services, by prior arrangement with the priest.
Built in 1847, using material from destroyed churches as well as the Acropolis, this massive church was intended to serve as the Metropolitan Cathedral. It was the site for many official events such as Othon’s coming of age, groundbreaking for the new palace, and services marking the first anniversary of the constitution. Marble columns support a balcony and deep recesses are decorated with religious scenes, including St Paul preaching to the Athenians.
It wasn’t exactly divine retribution, but close enough: the 18th-century church of Agia Eleousa was converted into a criminal court in 1835 because of a shortage of public buildings needed for the new Greek State. The redesign was overseen by the Danish architect Christen Hansen, who incorporated part of the church into the building. In the 1950s, the two-storey structure was ceded to the Archdiocese of Athens and today houses its library. Visitors can view the church from an atrium balcony. On a literary note, Teresa Makri, immortalised by Lord Byron as the ‘Maid of Athens’, was baptised in Agia Eleousa.
Fotini was a Samaritan prostitute who achieved sainthood by offering Christ a cup of water. This simple basilica in her honour preserves some of the original murals of the fourth-century church, which was reconstructed in the 1870s. Archaeological evidence suggests there were sanctuaries to Hekate and Pan on the site. Next to the steps leading to the church is the only preserved section of an arched bridge over the Ilissos River, built in 1850 on orders of Greece’s first king.
The Ilissos Basilica
Dating to the 5th century, this is one of the earliest churches in Athens.
The site is currently inaccessible to the public while excavations continue, but sections of the basilica’s floor can be seen at the Byzantine and Christian Museum. Sections of the basilica were repurposed by the Ottomans in the late 18th century and used for construction of the city walls.
Agios Dimitrios Loubardiaris
Built in the 12th century, this little chapel features early 18th century frescoes, uncovered during restoration work in the 1950s. Look for the squat ancient column used to prop up the altar and a section of the diatichisma, a fourth-century-BC fortification extending the city walls built by Themistocles.
Notable Churches in Athens
Oldest church in Athens
The ruins of the fifth-century Megali Panagia at the archaeological site of Hadrian’s Library is the oldest known church in Athens. The oldest standing church is the 10th-century Agii Apostoli, located within the Ancient Agora archaeological site. It was originally used for baptisms. The font from the church is at the Byzantine and Christian Museum.
The Ancient Agora and Stoa of Attalos
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Best church for observing weddings
Agia Ekaterini is one of the most popular churches in Athens for weddings. It’s a great place to watch the nuptials, as it sits a few steps below street level, offering a ‘balcony’ for observers around its courtyard. The 11th-century church is built on the ruins of a temple to Artemis.
Most popular church for baptisms
The churches on Philopappou Hill are associated with baptisms. The 12th-century Agios Dimitrios Loubardiaris, with its exquisite stone-paved courtyard and 18th century frescoes, is high on Athenians’ preferences for open-air ceremonies. A short distance away, a rock-hewn 13th-century church within the imposing Agia Marina is equally popular.
Best churches for Easter services
On Good Friday, head to Agios Georgios atop Lycabettus Hill for the candle-lit epitafios procession. As the candlelit vigil snakes down the hill, you can also spot the processions taking place around each of the city’s parishes.
The ‘Holy Light’ from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is received at its dependency in Plaka (Metohi tou Panagiou Tafou) from where it is sent to churches across Greece.
The poignancy of Orthodox Holy Week is captured in its hymns. Experience the moving services at Agia Irini with its Byzantine choir, culminating with the Anastasi service at midnight, symbolising the resurrection of Christ. On Holy Saturday morning, Agia Sotira has a beautiful service accompanied by the church organ.
The only round church in Athens
Designed by Ernst Ziller in 1880, Agios Nikolaos Thon is the only surviving structure of the sprawling estate that belonged to Nikolaos Thon, a wealthy courtier of King George I, who funded several public buildings in Athens, including the National Theatre. He also helped organise the 1906 Olympic Games. Peer inside for a glimpse of the stained glass windows that Thon had imported from Russia.