In this article we will talk about the most central, famous and busy neighborhood of the city of Athens: Syntagma. You may have already heard about its big square, in fact this is where (almost) all the transports coming from the airport arrive, however there are also many other interesting spots that you SHOULD see or visit in the same area in Syntagma.
Are you planning your trip to Athens and you DON’T want to leave anything interesting unseen? Do you want to know EVERYTHING about the neighborhood of Syntagma? I hope so because I also bring you several curiosities, although I will tell you that not all of them are good… LET’S GET TO IT!
Looking for something specific?
The first important place that every tourist should visit is Syntagma Square, which we could say is the nerve center of Athens. It can be easily reached from anywhere in the city by metro and/or bus. I recommend you to go there one day at night, as I consider this is the time when it looks the most beautiful:
There is a large water fountain in the middle of the square that is illuminated at night, plus (and this is the most important), the majestic Greek parliament can also be seen illuminated presiding over the highest area of the square. I’ll tell you more in detail about the parliament, the guard and everything related.
“Syntagma” means “constitution” in Greek, so this square is nothing less than “the square of the constitution”.
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Let me tell you that here the Hellenic citizens made history: after the Greek war of independence, against the Ottoman-Turkish empire in the early 19th century, the great powers that had “helped” the country (Great Britain, France and Russia) wanted to put in place a ruler let’s say… IMPARTIAL!
After some failed attempts, finally at the London conference it was decided that Greece would be a monarchy, whose first king would be Otto I (Prince of Bavaria to date). I don’t need to tell you that the Greeks were unhappy with all this….
I personally wouldn’t call that “independence” either, in fact I doubt it even today (for also many others that I won’t tell here). This is another story, let’s continue with our guide of places to see in Syntagma:
And what has all this to do with the said square? Well: It was here that the Greeks began to demonstrate against the imposed king, to the point where he was forced to accept and sign a constitution that he did not like at all. As a commemoration of this “victory” by the Greeks, they gave this square the name “Syntagma” (constitution).
Later I will tell you more curiosities that happened in this square, but I prefer to leave it for the end and continue telling you about more interesting places:
What to see around Syntagma area.
I bring you a list with ALL the places you must see, both in and around Syntagma square:
The Greek Parliament
As I have told you before, the Greek parliament is presiding Syntagma square (on the other side of the road in the highest area). However, I have not told you everything before… It is not by chance that the Greeks demonstrated in this square, they chose this place because here was the presidential palace, which later became the seat of the Greek parliament. That’s right, what we now call parliament was once the royal palace (fact: Greece today is a republic).
I don’t want to confuse you, but this place is also known by the beautiful name of “the council of the Hellenes“. Now, though, it’s our turn to talk about its main attraction:
The Evzones, the vast majority of travelers who approach the parliament is to see the “peculiar” soldiers who protect it. These tall boys, with such a “special” uniform, have been chosen among ALL the young men doing their military service to perform this job. – Yes, military service or “la mili” is still compulsory for all boys when they turn 18 – they are in charge of honoring the tomb of the unknown soldier and performing the very famous changing of the guard at the parliament.
I’ll tell you more in detail about what these two things mean in a bit, I have a lot of work to do hehe LET’S GO!
What is most striking about the Evzon soldiers is the uniform they wear, and although there is a lot of myth about it (for example a very widespread and funny one is that King Otto wanted to transform his guard into horses), I think I should tell you the reality about it:
The uniform of the Evzones is the same one used by the Kleftos; that is to say, the soldiers who started the revolution against the Ottoman Empire, before ]this movement derived in the war of independence that would give the Hellenes the precious “independence” of which I have spoken to you before.
I have to make it clear to you that at present the Evzones perform symbolic protection, as they have not been trained for that purpose and even the weapons they carry are not loaded. Yet they DO have a VERY important function: to worship at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
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The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
EVERYTHING revolves around this monument, the tomb of the unknown soldier refers to the Hellenes who died fighting against the Ottomans (during the Greek war of independence that I mentioned before) and who also could NOT be recognized (either because of lack of resources or because people simply disappeared). I want to point out that, what is today the country of Greece, had been under the influence of the Turkish-Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years.
Knowing this, who better than the Evzones themselves to honor the fallen during the war in which they were born?
There is a very special moment when we can see these soldiers in action, but above all when we can observe the respect and admiration they have for the tomb of the unknown soldier. I am referring to the changing of the guard:
The Changing of the Guard
Perhaps this is the main attraction of the parliament, or at least what tourists who come to the square like the most. The changing of the guard at Syntagma happens when the Evzones finish their one-hour shift and are ready to be replaced by the fellows who come to relieve them.
I didn’t tell you before, but the Evzones stand guard in front of the parliament 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This means that the changing of the guard takes place 24 times a day, and always at every hour ON TIME.
It is at this time then that the 5 Evzones, who participate in the changing of the guard at the same time, render a minute of silence (approx.) in honor of the victims of the war of independence. – Clarification: They are silent ALWAYS, let me explain hehe – These soldiers stand in front of the grave of the unknown soldier, remain motionless in their positions, and finally dedicate a salute with their rifles. Sometimes when this process is over, I mean the whole changing of the guard, applause is heard from the audience 🙂
IMPORTANT: The photo of the Evzon I have shown you before corresponds to the changing of the guard on a Sunday, as this is the only day when these elite soldiers wear the ORIGINAL dress (in theory the same one worn by the Kleftos in the 19th century).
In addition and only at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, a MUCH more special changing of the guard takes place: on this occasion we can see the entire corps of Evzones, parading towards the parliament and accompanied by an orchestra. – This is a real spectacle attended by thousands of people every week. – If your visit to Athens falls on a Sunday, don’t miss it!
Did you think this was all? There is still one more place you should visit in Syntagma: the national garden.
The National Garden
Next to Syntagma Square is the largest green area in the entire city of Athens, in fact, I am referring to the famous National Garden.
There are approximately 600 different species of trees and plants that make up this wonderful park of 16 hectares, which have been brought from the 5 continents. It is worth noting that the national garden is located in the very center of Athens, so that every square centimeter of this area of the capital is very highly valued. Yet the Greeks decided to occupy a huge space of Syntagma for this garden.
Because of the queen: We mentioned earlier that the parliament building was originally the royal palace of the first modern democracy, that is, after gaining its independence from the Ottomans. However, on this occasion the protagonist is the queen, whose name was Amalia and who was the wife of the aforementioned Otto I. She took the initiative to build (or to build) the parliament building. She had the initiative to build (or rather to send someone to build) this huge green area next to her royal palace, so that it would become her private garden. For many years the national garden of Athens would be known by the name of “Amalia’s gardens”, until finally this place became public and accessible to anyone.
CAUTION: The grounds of the national garden are fenced off and the entrances operate on a “schedule” basis, so all of its gates close along with sunset. I wish I could be more specific with you, but the schedule is NOT fixed, I can only recommend that you leave the park while you still have sunlight. You wouldn’t be the first one to get locked inside…
Two intersting stories
Syntagma square has seen it ALL, but not always for the best… I told you before that the square owes its name to a “victory” of the citizens against an (unjustly) imposed king, and since then this place in Athens has been the scene of MANY more disgruntled citizens who defended what they believed to be fair. I want to tell you two different stories that happened here, which are very representative in their political/social/economic context, but I warn you that they may also hurt the reader’s sensibilities:
1. CAMPING IN FRONT OF THE GREEK PARLIAMENT
This is a relatively recent story (mid 2019) that I had the opportunity to witness: the “New Democracy” government had just won the elections, I had been particularly struck by a slogan used during their election campaign: “Let’s clean up Athens” they said, and so they did….
In the neighborhood of Exarchia there were entire “rescued” or “squatted” buildings in which basic services were provided to a large number of people who had come to the country in search of “shelter”; here they had a place to sleep, eat, wash, dress, they could also receive language classes, psychological support, not very complicated cures … All self-managed and with funding outside the government.
It is well known that those of “New Democracy” do NOT like immigrants at all, so they ordered to evict all these places as soon as they came to government. As of today (mid 2020), these places in which a lot of money and effort had been invested to be rehabilitated, are empty and with all their accesses covered even with concrete. I do not ask to give them for free but, taking into account the situation of the country and its thousands of refugees, why don’t they put a social rent or something similar?
Sorry to keep you waiting dear reader!
All this (among other things) resulted in a several days long camp in front of the Greek parliament, whose protagonists were the families evicted from those apartments demanding a housing alternative. This image of “on one side an elegant and stately parliament approached by tourists and on the other side Syntagma square occupied by the most needy” is one of the most representative I have seen in Greece. A pity…
But what comes next is even worse…
2. A PENSIONER COMMITS SUICIDE IN SYNTAGMA SQUARE
I want to give “value” to this story by telling its context and the message that this poor man wanted to leave us: Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year-old retired pharmacist, stands in front of the parliament on April 4, 2012 and shoots himself in the head shouting: “I have debts, I can’t bear them anymore” and “I don’t want to leave my debts to my children”, before he had also stated that he refused to look for food among the garbage.
Greece had been particularly affected by the global crises and, like Mr. Christoulas, there were many people desperate and VERY stifled by this situation. Only several hours after this tragic event many citizens came to Syntagma square to place candles, flowers and handwritten messages.
I am going to say goodbye to this article, my pleasure dear reader, and I leave you with the content of the letter that this man was carrying in his pocket when he decided to commit suicide, in which he blames the politicians for his misfortune. I know that this article about Syntagma square and neighborhood differs quite a lot from what I usually write here; this website is a guide about the different areas of the city of Athens, however while writing I have been “forced” or with the duty to provide this more critical content (I hope I have not bored you and much less offended you, sorry if that is so).
“The Tsolakoglou (The collaborationist occupation government established after the Nazi Germany invasion of Greece during World war two) government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid for 35 years with no help from the state. And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting (although if a fellow Greek were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance. I believe that young people with no future, will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945″Dimitris Christoulas, April 4, 2012
How to get to Syntagma Square?
Syntagma Square is located in the center of Athens and is really easy to reach, by metro for example: you can take lines 2 and 3, which are red and blue respectively, and get off at the stop named “Syntagma”.
What does Syntagma mean?
Syntagma means constitution in Greek, so Syntagma square would be the “constitution square” in Athens. If you want to know the reason for its name and the history behind it, I tell you all about it in this article.
What is Syntagma in Greece?
This is the name of the most famous square in the city of Athens, which is located in the central area of Syntagma. In addition to the capital, we can also find squares with the same name in other places in Greece, such as Nafplio.