There are cities with history, and then there’s Athens. Greece’s handsome capital is considered the birthplace of western civilisation, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better place in the world to go gaga for ancient monuments and legendary temples. Of course there’s the iconic Acropolis, which tops most travellers’ lists of sites to see (and for good reason). But Athens isn’t just about history, it’s also a contemporary creative, cultural and culinary force to be reckoned with. There’s a vibrant street art scene, buzzing café culture, colourful neighbourhoods and so much more to explore. Read on to discover the top seven things to do in Athens.
- Be awestruck by the Acropolis
- Get your culture fix at the city’s best museums
- Wander through the Ancient Agora
- Get snap happy in Plaka
- Take a food tour
- Hit the shops in Monastiraki
- Finish up at Lycabettus Hill
No visit to Athens is complete without exploring this iconic UNESCO World Heritage site. The Acropolis is a hilltop complex made up of several honey-hued buildings, each as incredible as the next. There’s the Temple of Athena Nike, the iconic Parthenon, the Old Temple of Athena, the Legendary Olive Tree of the Pandroseion, the Porch of the Caryatids at the Erechtheion and, on your way down, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Set aside a good few hours to walk around the site to fully take in the incredible architecture and sun-soaked city below you. For the best light for your photos, head over first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon when the sun is lower (and less intense), and there are fewer crowds. Another top tip is to enter via the south-eastern gate, which has shorter queues.
Exhibition lovers will be in their element exploring Athens’s incredible museum scene. A good place to start is the Acropolis Museum, home to hordes of sculptures unearthed from the ancient site which are fascinating to see in person. The National Archaeological Museum is well worth a visit too, housing Greece’s largest and most significant collection of items from the Neolithic period, Bronze Age, Cycladic, Mycenaean and Roman eras. Its stunning neoclassical façade is a real showstopper too. Other museums worth meandering include the Benaki Museum, a treasure trove of Greek art and culture, and the Museum of the City of Athens, which tells the story of the city since it became the Greek capital in 1834 (it’s also an excellent place for dinner and drinks after the museum has shut up shop).
Built in the sixth century BC, the Ancient Agora was the centre of life in ancient Athens. This was where you’d find people like Socrates, Aristotle and Plato casually pottering around. Follow in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks by delving into this hugely important area – definitely one of the top things to do in Athens. Accompanied by a knowledgeable local guide, wander around the ruins of the Stoa of Attalos and the Bouleuterion, where the city council met, then head to the Temple of Hephaestus, the best-preserved temple in Athens (pretty impressive considering the company it keeps). The views aren’t too shabby either.
After all that ancient history, you may be craving a glimpse of modern-day Athens. Look no further than Plaka, one of the most beautiful areas of the city. Nestled underneath the towering Acropolis rock, it’s a great place to explore directly after the Ancient Agora. Plaka is all about clean colourful streets, bustling cafes and amazing places to eat. You could spend hours happily wandering (and photographing) the pretty, tree-lined lanes. While you’re there, be sure to check out Anafiotika, a tiny corner of Plaka on the slopes of the Acropolis. The narrow alleys, bursting with white-washed buildings and floral-filled doorways, transport you to the gorgeous Greek islands. It’s a little piece of Santorini in the city.
For many people, visiting Greece is love at first mouthful. From traditional tavernas to trendy rooftop restaurants, Athens offers endless dining options. Savour mouth-watering dishes like moussaka, souvlaki and spanalopita accompanied by a glass of ouzo in a restaurant or rooftop bar, or snack on street food from one of the many markets. Be sure to try the famous Greek desserts, such as baklava and loukoumades, and for a truly authentic experience, join a food tour to explore the city’s culinary delights with a discerning local guide.
If you like your history served with a spot of shopping on the side, head to the Monastiraki neighbourhood. It’s a great area for vintage and antiques, particularly the famous Monastiraki flea market, which sells second-hand clothes, affordable linen, high-quality leather goods and cute souvenirs. And don’t be scared to haggle – it’s part of Greek culture to barter before you buy. Monastiraki is also loaded with top notch historical sites. Head to Hadrian’s Gate for that picture-perfect photo of the Acropolis framed by the archway, and check out the neighbouring Temple of Olympian Zeus, one of the largest temples in ancient Greece. Then wander over to the Panathenaic Stadium to see the world’s only stadium built entirely of marble. Constructed in 330BC, it went on to host the first modern Olympic Games, way back in 1896.
Lycabettus Hill, also known as Mount Lycabettus, offers an unforgettable panorama of the city’s ancient and modern contrasts, making it the perfect place to conclude your Athens immersion. Hop on the cable car or hike up the hill, which takes around 30-40 minutes. At the summit you’ll find the beautiful Chapel of St George where you can step inside to admire the stunning interior adorned with religious icons. Then head to the café and restaurant. The outdoor terrace is the perfect spot to unwind, soak up the atmosphere and reflect on your time spent in this incredible city.