The First Cemetery of Athens - A Cultural Gem in the Heart of the Capital of Greece
Most of us think of death, mourning, and pain when hearing the word "cemetery" - however, the atmosphere in the First Cemetery of Athens is not quite like that.
Often characterized as an open-air museum, this place homes a plethora of unique sculptures, monuments, and tombs.
Many renowned individuals have been buried here, including artists, politicians, and philanthropists, such as Melina Mercouri, Andreas Papandreou, and Georgios Averof.
It is also one of the largest cemeteries in Europe. Thanks to it, Greece became a member of the European Cemeteries Route in 2011.
The cemetery is not very frequented, especially during spring and summer. Some people pay a visit to admire its cultural side while others prefer a leisure walk along the greenery.
Cypresses and pines lie around the area, making it ideal for an exhilarating stroll.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into this amazing place’s features…
History of the cemetery
The First Cemetery of Athens was established in 1837, shortly after the founding of the modern Greek state.
That makes it the oldest cemetery in modern-day Athens.
Note that burial was forbidden in churches within the city center during the Ottoman dominance so each municipality needed to construct a cemetery at a minimum distance of 100m.
The burial ground was built by Tinos’ craftsmen - an island of the Cyclades complex famous for its marble sculptors - who used the fine marble of Mount Pendeli almost exclusively.
During the 1940s the cemetery was expanded twice to include an area for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.
The graveyard grew to 222 km2 with over 10.000 family graves and 2.077 tombs.
Sculptures, Monuments, and Tombs of the Cemetery
The First Cemetery of Athens hosts several historical exhibits in terms of architecture and art, as well as some magnificent examples of Romantic and Neoclassical features.
Stunning sculptures are "watching upon" the buried in equally beautiful tombs.
I Koimomeni (Sleeping Maiden) may be the most famous sculpture. It depicts a dead girl and adorns the tomb of Sofia Afentaki, an 18-year-old young lady. The sculpture was created by Yannoulis Chalepas, one of the most well-known modern Greek sculptors, and is located close to Saint Theodore church, the main church of the cemetery. Halepas also happens to be buried in the cemetery.
The Mourning Angel, created by Ioannis Vitsaris, is another famous sculpture in this open-air museum. It’s considered by many as one of the best depictions of real pain. The sculpture adorns the family of Nikolaos Koumelis’ tomb.
Of course, there are many more sculptures to admire, such as the statue of Theodoros Kolokotronis - the hero of the Greek War of Independence - and the Mother of Occupation statue.
Moreover, one of the most interesting exhibits you shouldn’t pass through is Henry Schliemann’s tomb. Schliemann was the archaeologist who discovered Troy and excavated the ancient Mycenae.
His tomb looks like a mausoleum, giving the impression of an ancient Greek temple. It is also decorated with several scenes of the Trojan war.
In addition to Halepas and Schliemann, many other renowned people have the First Cemetery as their eternal home.
Some of them include: • Melina Mercouri (Greek politician and actress) and her husband Jules Dassin (film director) • Andreas Papandreou (former prime minister of Greece) • Georgios Averof (philanthropist) • Aliki Vougiouklaki (actress) • Odysseas Elytis (poet) • Georgios Seferis (poet) • Vasilis Tsitsanis (musician) • Ernst Ziller (architect) • Sir Richard Church (general of Greek troops in the War of Independence) • The Goulandris shipping family
Fun Fact: Legend has it that the cemetery is haunted by the ghost of a miserly undertaker who argued with his co-workers about carrying funeral wreaths; today he roams the place with a wreath around his neck!
The cemetery is open 24/7 and the entrance is free for everyone.
Position of the Cemetery - How to get there
The First Cemetery of Athens is located near the Temple of Olympian Zeus in central Athens. The entrance to the cemetery lies at the end of Anapafseos Street.
For those who want to approach it on foot, it will take around 15 minutes to get there from the Acropolis. It’s a small distance, but if you pay a visit during the daytime be sure to have some water with you; the temperature skyrockets during the summer.
By means of transport
The best option is the bus, as a bus stop lies along the west side of the cemetery. You can use routes 227, 790, 856, and A3. The 227 route is preferable since it passes through Syntagma, Monastiraki, and Omonoia, so you can jump on the bus at various central points. However, the 790 route is also convenient since it stops at Metaxourgio Station, Syntagma, and Omonoia. The station you’ll have to stop at is “Proto Nekrotafio”.
We recommend using the metro only if you stay outside the city center. That’s because the metro stations closest to the cemetery - “Sygrou Fix” and “Neos Kosmos” - are around 10 minutes away by car, so you’ll probably need to use a taxi if you want to avoid walking that distance.
As aforementioned, you’ll probably need a taxi if you take the metro. Except for that, it may be preferable on hot summer days. Fortunately, the cemetery isn’t far from Syntagma Square, which means that the fare will be affordable.
The First Cemetery of Athens composes a truly tranquil ambiance while holding great historical significance at the same time. Whether you are history obsessed, an art lover, or just enjoy wandering in new places, this cemetery should be on the bucket list of everyone who plans on visiting Athens.
We assure you that this graveyard that mixes the ancient with the modern times will provide you with a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you’ll never forget!