The National Archaeological Museum of Athens is home to some of the most beautiful art in the world. You will see amazing 2500 year old statues, and you will get a good understanding of Greek art from the Stone Age to the Greco-Roman period.
In the National Archaeological Museum of Athens there is so much to see, it can take a couple of days to take it all in. But if you don’t have this kind of time, you can concentrate on the highlights in a two to three hour visit.
If you prefer, use our self-guided tour on your mobile device to get a brief background on the highlights. It’s designed to give you just enough information to enjoy viewing the exhibits, rather than to provide a thorough review.
It would be helpful if you read our History of Greece beforehand.
As you stroll through the National Archaeological Museum’s halls, get ready to be dazzled by the spectacular golden artifacts of the Mycenean age of heroes, to pay a visit to the Kore Phrasikleia and to admire the individualism of Archaic Art. She is not a hero, or a god. She is a simple human being that happened to die young!
Circle around the Zeus of Artemision to be enchanted by the realism and idealism of Classical art, and let your imagination gallop in front of the Boy Jockey and Horse statue as you ponder the dynamism of Hellenistic art.
In between, contemplate the genius of a society that conceived and built the Antikethera Mechanism–the analogue computer that calculated the motion of celestial bodies and events. It was built two thousand years ago, around the end of the 2nd century BCE.
Overview and Significance
The museum’s exhibits are arranged mainly in chronological units, each covering a major period of ancient history. There are a few exceptions, with some exhibitions including thematic collections such as “bronzes”, or periodic temporary events.
The flow of the museum encourages the visitor to venture on a time journey from the depths of Stone and Bronze ages, to the Roman era. The journey illustrates the stages of Greek antiquity through art and historical objects.
You will probably start your visit with the extensive Ancient Mycenaean art collection, which along with the Archaic sculptures, represents a period during which ancient Greece accepted and assimilated external, aesthetic influence while it grew secure in its own beliefs.
On a similar path, the Cycladic Art collection illuminates a culture that was exuberant and self-reliant. The artifacts of the national museum complement the exhibit of the National Museum of Cycladic Art which can be seen also in Athens.
Your journey in the National Archaeological Museum will show you the sculptures of the Classical period, where you will witness the unique vision of ancient Greeks. They emphasized rational thinking, and centered their attention on the individual human as a vital unit of a coherent society.
Classical sculpture puts flesh on the importance of humans as living beings, and treats the world as an entity which can be observed and explained in rational ways for the first time in human history.
Classical Greek Art worships reason almost as if it were a metaphysical entity, and it remains highly idealistic despite the strong current towards naturalism.
The ideals of the Classical world of Greece find their logical conclusion in the highly expressive statues of the Hellenistic period, and reach their end in the realism and pragmatism of Roman art and architecture.
It was this art of Greece that influenced in later times a rebirth of the Greek ideals, and the shift of focus towards the world and mankind during the Italian Renaissance.
In the museum’s upper floor visitors can enjoy the superlative bronze age frescoes from Akrotiri (Thera or Santorini), and the extensive collection of ceramic artifacts! In particular, the frescoes from Santorini should not be missed.
Self-Guided Walking Tour
The National Archaeological Museum of Athens is the largest museum of Greece. It can take a while to visit all its rooms in one visit, so we recommend two visits for a thorough view of it’s exhibitions.
However, often time is limited, so if you want to see only the highlights in a visit that would take about one hour, we have developed this handy walking tour of the Athens National Archaeological Museum.
It is designed to give you a good perspective of Ancient Greece history through the artifacts, as well as to show you the most important pieces of art included in the museum’s collection.
This guide will allow you a quiet walk where you get to enjoy the artwork without much distraction.
If you prefer more explanation for each artwork, you may rent one of the audio guided tours at the National Archaeological Museum, in which case you can use our walking tour as a planning tool before you go.
Stone Age Greece – 7000-3000 BCE
From the main entrance, get your tickets and walk to the large room opposite the main entrance. The room with all the gold artifacts is the Mycenaean era room which we will visit a bit later.
For now, find the door (left) that houses the Neolithic art and artifacts to your left.
- The clay figurine called The Thinker,
- Mother and Child
- The Neolithic cirucular ceramic vase from Dimini
Next: Exit the Neolithic room and walk to the door opposite that leads to the Cycladic civilization artifacts.
Cycladic Culture – 3000-2000 BCE
“Cycladic” was a Bronze age civilization that flourished mainly in the Cyclades islands in the middle of the Aegean.
We will see more exquisite Aegean art later when we visit the second floor “Thera” collection, but for now contemplate the nature and disposition of the people who lived 5000 years ago in the Greek islands.
They were a joyous culture with deep religious convictions. Most of the statuettes exhibited in this room and elsewhere were elegant offerings found in their remote island’s cemeteries, mostly in the island of Keros.
- Large Cycladic Marble Statue
- The Flute Player statuette
- The Harp Player statuette
Next: Exit the room and walk to your right through the main Mycenaean exhibition
Mycenaean Civilization – 1600-1100 BCE
Note the big gap between the dates of the Cycladic and Mycenaean eras here.
It’s because all Minoan Civilization (2600-1200 BCE) artifacts are mostly exhibited in Crete, and the most important ones in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
Mycenaean was the first Hellenic culture and the first mainland European advanced civilization.
Most of the legends you have read or heard about, like the Trojan War, Hercules, etc, originated in Mycenaean culture.
The most important artifacts in this exhibition are from the excavations at Mycenae and other powerful centers of the era.
The abundance of gold objects you see in this room are funerary offerings and denote powerful and very wealthy cultural centers.
The reign of the Mycenaeans ended rather abruptly and mysteriously around 1100 when Greece entered what is known as the Dark Ages.
When you finish enjoying the Mycenaean artifacts, exit to the lobby and move to the rooms on your right. From there we will circumnavigate the museum and move through the rooms in a mostly chronological route. You will need to show your ticket to the guards again.
- Mycenaean bull rython
- The Mask of Agamemnon
- Gold Bull-Capturing cup
- Mycenaean bronze weapons
Next: The Archaic Era
Archaic Era – 700-480 BCE
The next three rooms of the National Archaeological Museum (and two more to the right) host a plethora of art and artifacts from the Dark Ages, the Geometric and Orientalizing eras.
You will notice a logical progression in the development of the figurative statues as you move from one room to the next.
Pay attention how the human body appears to progress into more and more naturalistic characteristics and poses from now until we reach the Roman rooms in the end of our tour.
After you go through the first three rooms, you will enter a long hall with some of the most exquisite Kouros statues on pedestals.
In this room you can clearly see the refinement of the human form from geometric suggestions (Sounion Kouros) to more realistic descriptions of fluid muscles and bones (Aristodikos Kouros – the one staring at you as you walk toward the next period: The classical era.
Besides the rapid development toward realism, also pay attention to the “smiley” faces and the lightness of the emotional disposition of the statues. We will compare these with the facial expressions in the next room of the National Archaeological Museum.
- Sounio Kouiros
- Kore Frasikleia
- Kroisos Kouros
- Aristodikkos Kouros
Next: The Classical statues
Classical Greece – 480-323 BCE
The classical era is associated with the most important contributions of the Greek civilization to the world. The first century of this era is known as the “Golden Age” and the change is reflected in the art you will see in the next few rooms.
Note the attention to detail on the human bodies, and contemplate how it reflects the newly discovered concept for this world: the importance of the individual human being as an intelligent part of nature. Man became the center of the world for ancient Greeks during this era.
You can’t miss the Zeus of Artemision bronze statue in the middle of the long exhibition space of the National Archaeological Museum. Most visitors to the National Archaeological Museum spend some time enjoying the details of the newly discovered idea that the human body is a system of bones and muscles and not just a solid object wrapped in skin.
You will note that the smiles have now turned into more somber expressions on the faces of the statues. The Archaic era was a period of rapid expansion and cultural development when Greeks colonized the entire Mediterranean and the Black sea. Perhaps the smiles are reflective of a feeling of limitlessness and vigorous extroversion.
The beginning of the Classical era coincides with the major external threat of a Persian invasion and an almost-certain annihilation. The early period is considered the “Severe” period of Classical art where the facial expression reflect a more introverted and pensive disposition, often interpreted as the result of the Persian Wars.
But the somber expression of all Classical art is also the result of a deeply felt idea Greeks developed where “civilized” humans show absolute control over their emotions. Emotional depictions were not coveted in the Classical era when Logic and Rationality dominated all aspects of cultural development.
This elevation of themselves into superior “civilized” entities is well reflected in the art you see in these rooms. It is reflected in the facial expressions and also in the perpetual perfection in all the statues: perfect bodies in the prime of their lives.
The Greeks themselves moved to the other end of the spectrum within a couple hundred years of the Classical. You will see the change toward the end of this tour in the Hellenistic art rooms of the National Archaeological Museum.
- Zeurs of Artemision
Next: A detour through the Bronze, Egyptian, and Stathatos Collections
The Bronze Collection
The bronze collection of the the National Archaeological Museum of Athens is one of the largest in the world. Surprisingly, the room is easy to miss if you are following the crowds.
When you exit the first Classical room (the one with Zeus in the middle), look to your left and you will see a door leading to the Bronze collection.
In the next five rooms you’ll have the opportunity to see fascinating artifacts from every day life, as well as some more exquisite art made with bronze.
The exhibited artifacts span several centuries, from Archaic to Roman, and range from every day objects like clothes buckles, medical instruments, musical instruments, chariots, weapons, and statuettes of every kind.
Most fascinating of all is the Antikethera Mechanism, a mysterious object that took half a century to recognize as the world’s first analogue computer and orrery. It was built in the end of the 2nd century BCE and its gears show the movement of the celestial bodies, the time of solar and lunar eclipse, decades before they were to occur.
Option: If you have the time, you can visit the two rooms dedicated to Egyptian art, and next to them a room called the Stathatos collection of ancient Greek art. If you don’t have the time, you might want to leave both of these collections for another visit.
- Zeus bronze statuette from Dodona
- Hellenistic gold hairnet with Artemis
- Peploforos bronze statuette
- The Antikethera Mechanism
Next: Either visit the temporary exhibition or head up the stairs to the second floor.
The National museum curates thematic collections of Ancient Greek Art, and most are well worth the visit. They are rare occasions where some of the art in these exhibitions come together under one roof, so reserve some time to browse through these rooms as you exit the Bronze Collection rooms (the door to the right as you stand at the bottom of the staircase).
The Thera Collection
Walk up the wide staircase you see on your left to visit the Thera collection. It houses artifacts from the Cycladic and Bronze eras found in the excavations in Akrotiri in Santorini.
Akrotiri is a Bronze Age town that was buried by volcanic ash when the Thera volcano erupted in the 17th century BCE. Akrotiri suffered the same predicament as the better promoted Pompeii in Italy, except 1600 years earlier.
As you walk through the exhibition you will probably agree that the artifacts speak of a joyous and very advanced civilization.
The large frescoes from Akrotiri at the very back of the exhibition.
Option: If you have the the time, walk the second floor to admire the most extensive collection of ancient Greek pottery (this could take some time), and a small room with gold jewelry.
Next: Down the stairs and straight ahead toward the late Classical and Hellenistic sculptures.
Late Classical and Hellenistic Art
Now we’ll pick up where we left off when we exited the Bronze Collection rooms: the continuity and development of Greek statues and ideas.
When you walk down the stairs from the second floor move directly ahead through the long hallway and toward the large statue of the Boy Jockey and the Horse that you see at the end. This is a Hellenistic statue.
Spend sometime walking around the amazingly dynamic statue and think how different it is, compared with the earlier Archaic statues you saw earlier.
Compare the swift movement of the horse in space with the Zeus of Artemision, or even with the other statues surrounding it around this room.
On the Boy Jockey there is a clear emphasis on time and movement, more attention to detail, as well as more emphasis on the “dramatic”. These all trademark of the later Hellenistic art.
Option: We skipped three main rooms of Classical art which you can go back and see if you have the time. But if you are only after the highlights, move on with our tour.
- Marble statue of athletic youth
- Female statue
- Boy Jockey
Next: Late Classical (to your right as you face the front of the Boy Jockey’s face).
Late Classical art
Move through the first three rooms toward the large exhibition space and turn right.
The space is dominated by the beautiful Youth of Antikethera statue in the middle, but you will also enjoy the Youth of Marathon statue on your right as you enter the area.
There is a host of other later Classical statues in the room and you can probably decipher the refinement in realism and the more interesting and challenging poses and themes here.
- Youth of Marathon
- Youth of Artemision
- Head of a woman (Hygieia)
Next: The Hellenistic Era
Hellenistic Art -323-146 BCE
As you enter the next two rooms, you will notice the gradual change in scale and thematic preferences of this era.
This is the age that begins with the death of Alexander the Great and a time when Hellenic civilization expanded from the confines of the narrow city-states of mainland Greece to become more cosmopolitan. Commercial and cultural activity shifted to large metropolitan cities that were sprinkled over a huge area, from India to the Mediterranean.
You will note an emphasis on expressive poses, playful compositions, and emotions reflected in the facial expressions.
Take a moment in front of the statue with Aphrodite, Satyr, and Eros, and enjoy a very playful composition that’s designed to bring a smile to your face. The beautiful goddess attempting to slap the brute satyr with her sandal while eros is holding on to his horn. Compare it with one of the first statues you saw in the Archaic room era: Kore Frasikleia.
The transformation of Greek culture through the five hundred years that separate these two statues will become evident.
- Poseidon marble statue
- Aphrodite, Pan, and Eros
Next: The Roman statues
The Roman Collection – 30 BCE and beyond
Move through the last four rooms of this tour to witness the influence Greek art had on the Roman empire that began annexing Greece from the middle of the 2nd century BCE (completed with the triumph of Octavian (Augustus) over the last Hellenistic Queen Cleopatra and her Roman lover, Mark Anthony in 32 BCE.
Early on, Roman art differs very little from Hellenistic art, and you are probably familiar with the term Greco-Roman.
While the Romans took over Greece militarily, the Greeks took over the Romans culturally!
One change you will notice as you go through this collection is the heavier emphasis on accuracy in realism, meaning that there is no need to idealize any longer.
This is more evident in the room with all the Roman portraits where every imperfection of a person’s face is faithfully reproduced on the statue. This is something that you would never see in the earlier centuries of Greek Art.
- Statue of sleeping Hermaphrodite
- Roman portraits gallery
Next: Exit to the main lobby.
In this tour you walked through about 4000 years worth of history and art. As you leave the museum you will probably have a better appreciation for both ancient culture and your own.
Many of the ideas forged in ancient Greece are still with us today in the way we think and act. We enjoy today the same concepts these artists grappled with two-three thousand years ago: innovation, freedom of expression, self-determination, and other such ideals we take for granted today.
The Roman Art, the Italian Renaissance, and the later Neo-Classical movement are vivid examples of how influential ancient Greek Art and ideas have been throughout the last couple of millennia.
Athens has a lot more ancient art and culture to offer, so if you stay for a few days, visit our Athens guide for more ideas.
Visiting the National Archaeological Museum of Athens
The museum is a ten-minute walk from the nearest Metro station, Victoria.
Handicap accessibility is on Vasileos Irakleiou street, (the street to your left as you look at the front entrance).
A visit to the National Archaeological Museum can take anywhere from one to two hours, depending how involved you get with the artifacts, and how much of the museum you would like to see. For a more thorough review, plan on a second visit.
In the summer season the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 8:00 to 8:00 PM, and Mondays 1:00 PM to 8:00 PM (museum hours).
Plan to be there at least two hours before closing time because the staff begins closing rooms and channeling visitors toward the exit about an hour before it closes.
There is a museum shop and a restaurant at the basement next to a pleasant open-air garden that’s adorned with ancient statues. It would be a good place to have a casual lunch during your visit.