Athens may appear a little rough around the edges at first, but the Greek capital gets a lot more interesting when you look under the surface.
Of course, Athens is steeped in ancient history, so even if you’re on your way to the Greek islands for some sun and fun, it’s highly worth staying in Athens for the museums, the Acropolis, and the opportunity for taking walking tours and day trips.
Here are 20 of the best things you can do in Athens.
First, a few tips for 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 but with a small historical core.
- Most tourists prefer staying in the lovely areas of Plaka, Monastiraki or Koukaki.
- The best time to visit Athens is really any time outside of August, as this is the busiest (and hottest) time of the year. I love Athens in the low season when it’s less hectic. In August, consider visiting the air-conditioned museums during the hottest time of day.
- The ruins of the Acropolis and Parthenon are not half as good without a proper guide! (I say this having done it with and without.) I recommend this Acropolis guided tour as it will truly speak to your imagination and bring the old ruins to life.
Plan your stay in Athens
Things to do in Athens
1. Explore the Plaka neighborhood
If it’s your first time in Athens, it’s nice to start in Plaka to get your bearings. (It’s also a good area to book your hotel as it’s very central.)
It’s 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.
Plaka is a neighborhood full of shops, restaurants, and cafes that’s well worth exploring on foot.
2. Visit the Acropolis
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.
The Acropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Europe, is easily at the top of the “To See” list for anyone visiting Athens.
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 a great idea to tick the Acropolis off the list on your first day, as it’s easily Athens’ most epic sight.
However, if you’re visiting at the height of summer, try to leave it for the morning or end of the day, as there is barely any shade and the sun can be brutal at midday.
3. Visit the Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis ruins and the Acropolis Museum are actually two separate sights in Athens.
The museum is in a modern building on the south slope, about a 20-minute walk from the Acropolis itself.
It’s here that some of the most prized sculptures and other works of art are stored. It opened in 2009 and now houses over 2500 artifacts from the archaeological site that were collected from various excavations since the 19th century.
Besides the artifacts, the museum also gives further insight into the history of the site. At its entrance, there is a model of ancient Athens, which really gives you an idea of how it looked 2000 years ago.
Admission costs 10€ (half price from Nov 1 – Mar 30)
4. Take a graffiti tour of Athens
Many first-time visitors to Athens are surprised by how gritty it can be outside the Acropolis area.
It’s true, Athens is not always the most beautiful city (I wrote about what to expect from Athens here). If you’ve come to expect to see only classical buildings and cozy historical streets, you may end up a bit disappointed, as this is limited only to a small area.
But this also presents an opportunity to get to know some of the unique aspects of modern Athens, such as its vibrant graffiti and street art culture!
Athens is filled with art everywhere you turn your eyes. You can see some on your own while you explore the city, but if you want to learn more, consider joining Greek street art and graffiti tour.
There are quite a few companies offering this experience and they will show you around some of Athens’ best street art.
You’ll learn a lot about the city’s street art culture and see parts of the city that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
5. Stroll around Monastiraki Square
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 which gets recommended a lot is sadly not a real flea market, but there are many Greek souvenir and art shops in this street that are fun to browse. There are shops selling jewelry, clothes, and local ceramics, as well as typical Greek liqueurs and brandies.
While you’re here it’s nice to pick up some gifts or some Greek products to take home. Last time I stocked up on some bottles of Mastika, a highly distinct liquor from the island of Chio, which is made from the resin of a mastic tree. I love this stuff and have never been able to find it sold anywhere at home!
Even if you’re not buying anything, it’s fun to stroll through Monastiraki Square, where you’ll find street performers and plenty of people mingling around souvenir stands and markets.
6. Visit the National Archaeological Museum
I know, Athens is a tad heavy on archeological museums…
You may well be getting itchy feet to get to that Greek island destination that may be next on your itinerary!
But if you have any time to spare after the Acropolis Museum, definitely spend it on the National Archaeological Museum.
Housing some of the most impressive artifacts from ancient Hellenic and Prehistoric times, it will show you an incredible progression of ancient Greek art through all of the eras. As you go through each room, you can see the style evolve.
Besides the incredible sculptures and vases, you can see the exhibit on the Antikythera mechanism, an analog 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.
The Antikythera mechanism is truly awe-inspiring; if you haven’t heard of it, check some videos on it on YouTube and you’ll be amazed this was invented two millennia ago.
A quick visit to the museum will take at least 2 hours while an in-depth visit can easily take 4 hours.
Admission costs 12€ (half price from November to March).
7. Sample the food at a Greek taverna
One of the best things about Greece is clearly the food!
A big part of eating out in Athens are the tavernas — the name for typical local restaurants. There are literally thousands of them dotted around the city. They’re where Athenians go to socialize, drink and eat and spend hours over their meals.
Although this area is very tourist-oriented, a great place to start your evening would nevertheless be in Plaka. This is thanks to its wealth of cute restaurants, many of them with seats along the stairs outside, or with rooftop terraces overlooking the Acropolis. The atmosphere is simply lovely.
It’s the perfect chance to try out some typical Greek dishes, such as Moussaka (a kind of lasagna), Dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves), or authentic Greek tzatziki.
8. Go beyond ancient Greece at Benaki Museum
The Benaki Museum might not be the first thing to do in Athens — that would definitely be the Acropolis Museum — but I may have enjoyed it just as much.
It covers ancient Greece in great depth, but also many of the later eras of Greek history. You’d almost forget it… but a lot more happened after the Hellenistic Period.
I loved seeing the collection of Byzantine art, usually typified by its gold, red, and blue colors.
While the classical Greek period always steals the show as this is what everyone is most familiar with, there is much more to Greek (art) history, which is on full display in the highly varied Benaki Museum.
9. See the changing of the guards
Visit the Changing of the Guards at Syntagma Square and see how the military soldiers parade in front of the Greek Parliament, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The traditionally dressed guards stand proudly in perfect stillness in front of the Hellenic Parliament until they are relieved by the next shift every hour in the day.
On Sundays at 11 am it’s particularly worth witnessing, as this changing of the guards involves an official ceremony.
10. Head to the islands on a boat tour
Feel like you’re taking your own Homeric Odyssey and book a boat tour around the islands outside of Athens. Enjoy a day cruise around the Saronic Islands just south of the city. Excursions typically leave around the Marina Zeas and will take you out of the city and into the Mediterranean.
Tours around the island of Agristi with its pine-covered hills and aqua blue waters make a perfect stop-off point to explore while Aegina Island and Moni’s translucent waters make a great opportunity to jump in and cool off or grab lunch on the beach.
11. Hike up to Philopappos Hill
Tucked away from the more obvious tourist sights in Athens is this natural park south of the old center.
A great little hike will take you to Philopappos Hill, which overlooks the Saronic Gulf and offers a breathtaking view over Athens.
It’s named after a wealthy Roman who bought this place from a prominent Athenian family in order to build his own house here and enjoy this beautiful view.
This area has some lovely walking paths among the pine tree forests. Just be sure to water if you’re doing this at the height of summer as it does require a bit of a climb to reach the best viewing point.
12. Shop like a local at Varvakios Agora
Going to the Agora is a Greek tradition as old as Greece itself. In ancient times it not only served as a place to shop and trade, but it is also a place to meet with people, make deals, and even sometimes discuss politics.
The Varvakios Agora takes the best of the Agora ethos and brings it to the modern age. It’s the local hub of all things shopping and has been an Athenian staple since the 19th century.
The place is huge and is a cornucopia of sights, smells, and sounds. Fresh fruit, meat, and vegetables are in abundance but you’d be amiss if you didn’t check out the local spice traders, exotic tea sellers, and artisanal honey makers.
13. Learn how to cook like a local
No trip to Athens is complete without savoring the local delicacies. There’s a good reason why Greece has a high population of people living over the age of 100, and it is due in no small part to the cuisine.
Local guides and home cooks can help out with your culinary adventure. Whether you’re an experienced chef or not, learning how to cook Greek food from a local is an experience you’ll remember for a while. Stroll through the local market, pick up a few key ingredients and you’ll be on your way to becoming a world-class chef in no time.
14. Explore the wide world of Cycladic Art
While it’s true that there is no shortage of museums in Athens, especially ones that cater to ancient Greece, the Museum of Cycladic Art is a little bit different.
It started in the 1960s by a private couple who over time collected one of the world’s largest collections of prehistoric art from the Cycladic Islands and the Aegean region. By the 1980s, they finally opened a museum and by 1986, it became one of the largest exhibitors of ancient Greek art depicting art from not only the mainland but around the islands and Cypriot artforms as well.
Most of the art ranges from the 4th century B.C.E and the Cycladic marble figurines on display here are amongst some of the favourites by art historians and visitors alike.
15. Get around by Metro
While walking through Athens is a great way to see and experience the hustle and bustle of daily life, getting from point A to point B sometimes requires more than just a walk. If you decide to take the metro, be sure to take notice of your surroundings while you do so, because the Athens metro has something unique about it.
Stations in some parts of the city are veritable museums, especially the ones around the famous Syntagma Square.
In an effort to modernize the city, Athens built a metro system in the early 90s but due to the sheer age of the city, you couldn’t dig a hole without hitting something of historic value. Engineers worked alongside archeologists to bring a modern metro while also preserving found artifacts. Now the metro system doubles as a museum with artifacts found while digging for the metro on display.
16. Retreat to the green of the National Gardens
Located right in the heart of Athens, The National Gardens are a beautiful green space right in the middle of the bustle of the city. Located behind the Greek Parliament building, the gardens take up a whopping 15.5 hectares (38 acres) of space right in the middle of the capital. The gardens were commissioned by Queen Amalia in 1836 and completed in 1840.
Spend some time strolling through the gardens, admiring the ponds, the numerous statues, or even check out the little on-site zoo filled with peacocks, chickens, and Greek goats. The National Garden is a great little retreat in the shade away from the sun and the noise.
A walk through the park combines well with a stop at the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, or the aforementioned Benaki Museum.
17. Catch a movie at the roof garden cinema
The summertime in Athens is special. The weather’s warm, the sun is shining, and the sunsets are to die for. If you find yourself with some downtime but don’t want to head to your accommodation to turn in for the night, consider checking out one of Athen’s favorite summertime activities, Cine Paris.
The story of Cine Paris starts in the 1920s when a Greek hairdresser working in Paris decided to start an outdoor summer cinema experience.
The venue changed over time but the ethos of Cine Paris never changed and now its spot on the rooftop terrace of 22 Kydathienon offers movie nights with an incredible view of the Acropolis. They also have a full bar on-site and a huge selection of movie posters in the lobby to buy and peruse through while you wait for your film to start.
18. Explore the outer neighbourhoods
Athens is a huge city and a big tourist destination so the city center is almost always full of tourists. But if you’re looking for a more “local” experience, just head out of the downtown area.
The Athenian suburbs might seem like a boring prospect to explore at first, but what you’ll find outside of the city is better and cheaper food, local watering holes, and a slower pace of life. The Glyfada neighbourhood on the southern edge of the city offers beaches, nightlife, and restaurants, all with a distinctly local Athenian vibe.
19. Ride the Rails to Meteora
The famed monasteries of Meteora may be quite some way from Athens, in the very center of Greece, but the high-speed rail connection puts it within day-trip reach of Athens (or you can add an overnight stay in order not to rush).
Meaning “middle of the sky”, Meteora was built perched atop the mountains, making for one of the most scenic places in all of Greece. Enjoy a relaxing ride through the country and take in the views before arriving in Meteora.
Monasteries typically range from the 14th to 16th centuries and sit atop hills and cliffsides. If you do plan on visiting, be aware that women and men must cover their shoulders and knees. Make sure to stay for the sunset, wear comfy shoes, and bring your camera.
20. Catch a beautiful 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 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.
You can also 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.
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