Athens may have thousands of years of history to dig into, but you don’t need to feel overwhelmed when you’re exploring it. The main sights are in a compact area and it’s possible to see the best of Athens in about 2 days.
Even though I spent six days in the Greek capital, I’m still writing this as a 2-day itinerary. Why? Because I believe it’s the ideal minimum time to see Athens — at least, if you use your time wisely.
Even if you’re chomping at the bit to get to the Greek islands, I think it’s still worth staying in Athens for at least two full days, especially if you’re into Greek’s ancient history.
A few things to know about Athens:
- Athens is highly worth visiting, but first impressions aren’t everything! If you’re not charmed right away, it might grow on you soon. Read more about what to expect from Athens. It’s a mostly modern city with a small historical core.
- Most tourists will probably want to stay in the lovely areas of Plaka, Monastiraki or Koukaki.
- The ruins of the Acropolis and Parthenon are not half as good without a proper guide. I recommend this Acropolis guided tour. With a great guide, the old ruins truly come to life.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as a perfect itinerary as everyone is different. I also don’t think it’s reasonable to list like 15 things to do in a single day! So, let me instead highlight what I thought were the real must-sees, in this highly imperfect Athens itinerary.
Best time to visit Athens
I’ve visited Athens twice so far, which made me realize that the time you visit can matter a great deal.
My first visit was in August during the frenzied tourist high season. The second time it was some years later in August again, but during a pandemic year when there were just 30% of the usual visitors, which made it feel more like the low season.
Based on this, I can tell you Athens is way nicer when there are fewer people in your way!
There are just fewer queues to deal with, the streets of Plaka are friendlier and calmer, and waiters and other staff have more personal time for you. When I was in Athens during peak season, it felt a lot more hurried.
That’s why it makes sense to try and hit the shoulder season, during which the sun is shining but the crowds are thinner. Consider April to June, or September – October.
July and August can get very hot. At midday, you may want to do some of the indoor museums with AC, and leave the Parthenon for early or late-day.
Find a place to stay in Athens
Ahh, the Acropolis of Athens. It’s literally unmissable, as you’ll see it perched atop the Hill of the Muses from many of the streets down below. It’s from this ancient citadel that Athens (and Greece) were once governed. The site is home to many ruined temples, most importantly the majestic marble temple of Parthenon, which is dedicated to the goddess Athena.
It’s great to tick the Acropolis off the list on your first day, as it’s easily Athens’ most epic sight. But, if you’re here in summer, try to leave it for the morning or end of day. There is barely any shade and the sun can be brutal.
It can take several hours to see everything. Admission costs 20€ (half price from Nov 1 – Mar 30)
Consider doing a guided tour so you get some proper context for what you’re seeing. This 2-hour guided Acropolis tour (small group) includes admission plus a professional art historian guide.
In a separate location is also the Acropolis Museum. It serves a bit as a sidebar to the archaeological site itself and it’s where some of the statues and artifacts are displayed. If you have time, it’s worth checking out too. The museum building looks out onto the Acropolis and has an amazing design. Admission costs 10€ (half price from Nov 1 – Mar 30)
Plaka is the center’s most photogenic neighborhood, thanks to its friendly cafes and tavernas, cobbled steps, and shaded squares. Hugging the slopes of the Acropolis and largely free of motorized traffic, it has an almost Greek-island vibe.
This is Athens’ oldest district, the area having been continuously inhabited for over 3000 years, though much of the architecture has a neoclassical or Ottoman character. Take your time to explore the narrow streets lined with sidewalk cafes, then climb your way up to the adjacent Anafiotika neighborhood, with its cute whitewashed houses with vines and bougainvillea flowers.
Dine in Plaka
One of the best things about Plaka is its wealth of cute restaurants, many of them with seats along the stairs outside, or with rooftop terraces overlooking the Acropolis. This is the perfect time to try out some typical Greek dishes, such as Moussaka (a kind of lasagna), Dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves), or authentic Greek tzatziki.
National Archaeological Museum
If you have time for just one museum, make it this one. Housing some of the most impressive artifacts from ancient Hellenic and Prehistoric times, it shows you an incredible progression of ancient Greek art through all of the eras.
Besides the incredible sculptures and vases, my mind was completely blown by the exhibit on the Antikythera mechanism, an analogue computer dating somewhere between 87 and 205 BC. Invented by the Greeks, the knowledge of this insanely advanced technology was lost and not seen again in human civilization for over a thousand years. I had no idea such intricate clockwork mechanisms were constructed during classical antiquity. Absolutely fascinating.
A quick visit will take at least 2 hours. An in-depth visit can easily take 4 hours. Admission costs 12€ (half price from November to March).
Be sure to stroll the streets in central Athens as you’re sure to find many cozy cafes and interesting shops, especially near Monastiraki Square and on Ifestou walking street.
The Monastiraki Flea Market is sadly not a real flea market, but there are many souvenir and art shops in this street that are fun to browse through. There are shops selling jewelry, clothes, and local ceramics, as well as typical Greek liqueurs and brandies.
Rooftop or hilltop sunset
Before you say goodbye to Athens to see other places in Greece, give the city one last lingering look at sunset.
You can catch an amazing view of the city from Mount Lycabettus, a block or two from the tourist center. There is a cable car that can take you to the top for a great vista of the Acropolis and the glittering waters of the Saronic Gulf behind it. Have a cocktail at one of the bars or bring your own bottle and sit on the steps. The sunsets are incredible.
You can also catch a fantastic view from one of the rooftop bars in Monastiraki. Most guides seem to recommend the 360 Cocktail Bar, though I went to the rooftop bar in the A for Athens hotel, which I thought has a better angle on the Parthenon and is higher too.
More days in Athens
There is more in Athens if you’re staying longer. If you’re into your history, then there’s one other museum you definitely must check out. Take a stroll through the calming National Garden and make your way to the Benaki Museum. It covers ancient Greece in much depth, though also many of the later eras of Greek history. You’d almost forget it… but a lot more happened after the Hellenistic Period!
Other things to do in Athens include:
- The Museum of Cycladic Art
- Ancient Agora of Athens
- The Panathenaic Stadium
- The hilltop views from Areopagus
- Changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
You can also take day trips. The most interesting is surely a trip to Delphi, the famed ancient site, once thought to be a portal to the Gods where people could be told their future by the Oracle. (It’s thought that the priests got high from gasses from cracks in the rocks, giving them visions.)
From Athens’s port, you can also get to almost every island you can think of. If you’re staying on land, I can recommend heading next to Nafplio, a pleasant seaside town about a 2-hour drive away.
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