We all know Athens, right? Greek capital, birthplace of democracy, Plato, Socrates, the Acropolis, and a lot of other old – like, really old – stuff. Well, while all that may be true, contemporary Athens has moved on a lot! It’s also a buzzy city of beer bars, cocktail joints, tavernas, art galleries, and museums that fizzes with life.
The incredible thing to remember about Athens is that the city was all but abandoned just 200 years ago. A handful of residents remained, scratching out a living after the 1821 Fight for Independence left the town bankrupt. Today, Athens is an enthralling place, with come-get-lost-in-me old quarters, striking historic sites, and a bumping nightlife scene.
Cue this guide. It’s all about revealing why we think every first-time traveler to Greece should consider adding Athens to the itinerary. It focuses on nine things that help the capital stand out; things that we think might make you pause before high tailing it to the idyllic Greek islands and sun-splashed beaches the moment you touch down.
The Parthenon at the Acropolis
Nowhere is “the glory that was ancient Greece” more profoundly felt than at the Acropolis in the heart of Athens. A soaring bluff that’s covered in ruins and relics, it can be seen from just about anywhere in the town.
Mhmm…the Acropolis is the highest point in the city (acro-polis is Greek for “high-city”), so it was here that Pericles decided to construct the Parthenon. Other temples were built at the same time, but the Parthenon was the largest and the most lavish. Built between 447 and 438 BC, the Parthenon was a temple to Athena Parthenos, goddess of wisdom and war. But its real purpose was as a display of power and wealth, visible to all who entered Athens.
The Parthenon design is surprisingly complex. For example, there are virtually no straight lines or right angles used in the construction. Architects did this to create an optical illusion so that from a distance, all the columns look perfectly straight. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, and the same techniques are still in use today. In 2017, Business Insider asked an international panel of architects to vote for the most beautiful building in the world, and the Parthenon claimed the title in an instant!
(Fun fact: During the Greek War of Independence, Turkish troops found themselves under siege at the Acropolis. They’d run out of ammunition, and had started to strip the columns of the Parthenon for lead. Seeing this, the Greeks called a ceasefire, and rather than see their beautiful temple destroyed, they gave their own bullets to the Turkish enemy, to fire back at them. That’s how much the Athenians love the Parthenon!)
You may think you know Greek food, but there’s nothing that can prep the taste buds for the real thing on the ground. Athens is a cracking place to start, too, since it’s got tavernas bursting from every corner of every block in the downtown. Plaka district is the one to pick. There, old-world kitchens serve up piles of saganaki cheese, feta salads, moussaka, and more.
Certainly, there are plenty of places that will serve you a gyro or a kebab, but that’s not what Athens is about — at least not anymore. Now, you can find modern, stylish restaurants that still offer Greek classics but presented in a fresh, new way. Check out the deli eatery of Karamanlidika, or the edgy degustation food at Hytra Restaurant.
That said, it doesn’t really matter too much where in Athens you choose. Step into literally any restaurant in Syntagma (the main square) or Monastiraki (the flea market), and chances are you’ll be delighted with whatever you order.
(Fun fact: The Greeks are obsessed with coffee! Seemingly no decision can be made without drinking a cup first. In 1957, a Nescafé employee at the Greek International Trade Fair was desperate for a coffee, but he couldn’t find any hot water. Instead, he mixed his sachet of coffee granules with cold water and ice cubes in a shaker he’d been using. By accident he’d just invented the frappé, which is now the ‘National Coffee Beverage of Greece.’)
The New Acropolis Museum
Opened to the public in June 2009, this award-winning museum was built to house the archaeological remains of the Acropolis. These were formerly kept in the original Acropolis Museum, but it soon became clear that the building was too small, both for the number of exhibits and the large number of visitors.
After years of discussions – no doubt over many cups of coffee! – it was decided that a brand new museum was the answer. And in the year 2000, a mere 24 years after being planned, construction finally started. The idea was for it to be finished in time for the 2004 Olympics, but they hit a snag: Where they were digging, they found ancient ruins of an entire settlement, dating back to 5 BC. Sometimes, there’s too much history in Athens!
The answer was to elevate the entire museum above the settlement. Now visitors can look down through special glass flooring and see archaeologists at work, excavating roads, houses, workshops, and even public latrines! On the second floor, known as the Archaic Gallery, the real prize is at the far end. Here you’ll find five of the six Caryatids, which are exquisitely sculpted female figures from the Erechtheion temple, a small shrine on the Acropolis. There’s one space left deliberately empty for the last of the six, who’s been on display at the British Museum since 1816.
Next up is the third floor, and this one is the most interesting. Known as the Parthenon Gallery, it was built to be an exact copy, inch for inch, of the actual Parthenon. Every recovered part of the temple has been placed exactly where it would have been in the original, although there’s a noticeable gap where the famous Elgin Marbles should be… Glass surrounds the entire floor, which means you can see the actual Parthenon while viewing the exhibit, and when the sun strikes the marble, it’s breathtaking.
Athens is not an expensive place. With a little bit of planning, your stay here can be pretty cheap. But the “obvious” way to cut costs — by booking a budget hotel — doesn’t always work.
A no-frills hotel on the outskirts will definitely be cheaper than one in the tourist areas, but Athens is a hilly city, and walking to and from your hotel will be tiring. Once you factor in the taxi costs (€5 to €7 for a local trip), you’re actually losing money. So go ahead and book a hotel in Plaka, Monastiraki, or Koukaki — these are the tourist areas and for good reason. They’re all very close to the main attractions. If money’s tight, we suggest you avoid hotels in Syntagma, which, as it’s the main square, commands higher accommodation prices.
Another way to save money is on the admission price for the tourist attractions. Forget those pricy skip the line passes. A lot of times, there are no lines to skip at all. Instead, take a look at the Combo Ticket Pass for Museums, which gives you three days’ access to 15 different museums, galleries, and attractions, including the Acropolis and the New Acropolis Museum. You also get unlimited access to any hop-on/hop-off bus tours, which means almost all your journeys around the city center will be free.
(Fun fact: Greece invented metal coins in the early 6th century BC as a replacement for grain, which up until then had been the unit of exchange. In 150 BC, the Greek scientist Hero designed a holy water dispenser that required the user to insert a large copper five-drachma coin, thus creating the world’s first-ever vending machine!)
Known as “The Port of Three Continents,” Piraeus sits at the ocean crossroads of Europe, Asia,and Africa. It’s Greece’s largest port and, if you have the time, it’s well worth exploring.
Piraeus was developed around a large, natural land basin, and it was the naval stronghold of the massive ancient Athenian fleet from 483 BC onwards. Today it’s a major hub for cargo vessels and ferries, as well as being Europe’s largest passenger port. With space for 12 cruise ships at one time, roughly 20 million passengers visit Piraeus every year, most of them cruisers or ferry passengers on their way in and out of Athens en route to the islands.
At first glance, Piraeus doesn’t seem to offer much. It’s riddled with office buildings and gritty, gridlocked streets. But if you know where to go, there’s a whole different side to the area. Take Mikrolimano, a small harbor with less than 500 residents, which has the feel of a tiny Greek island. The eateries there serve the best fish, some say, in the whole of Athens.
One notable fish restaurant is Zefiro’s, where you’ll get great food that’s reasonably priced and tables at the water’s edge looking out across the harbor. Or, for a truly memorable dining experience, book a table at Varoulko Seaside, home of celebrity chef Lefteris Lazarou. Known for its creative appetizers and spectacular desserts, Varoulko Seaside received its first Michelin star back in 2002, the first one ever awarded to a restaurant serving Greek food in Greece.
There are plenty of other hidden gems to discover, such as the picturesque shoreline of the Peiraiki peninsula, which is one of the nicest places to stroll as the sun goes down. Piraeus is only twenty minutes from Athens by train, and, at only €1.40 for a ticket, we can’t think of a reason not to visit.
(Fun fact: Piraeus might be in Greece, but it’s at least partly Chinese! In 2016, the Chinese shipping firm Cosco purchased a majority stake in Piraeus port. The plan is to transform Piraeus into a massive Europe/Asia transit hub, making it potentially the biggest port in Europe.)
For much of its history, Athens was the cultural center of the world, so you’d expect some great art. Athens doesn’t disappoint, with an impressively wide range of exhibitions, galleries, and museum installations.
For ancient Greek aficionados, we recommend the Museum of Cycladic Art, which exhibits over 3,000 artefacts of Cycladic, Ancient Greek, and ancient Cypriot art. The Athens National Gallery also holds many classical Greek pieces, including art from the 14th and 15th centuries.
A well-known fact amongst art lovers, but not necessarily the public, is that Athens also has a thriving contemporary art scene to boot. The Breeder Gallery, erratically housed in an abandoned ice-cream factory, was a pioneer in that and is still an important space today. There’s also the strangely-named metamatic:taf, which hangs local contemporary art and presents exhibitions, workshops, and film screenings that change throughout the year.
(Fun fact: Although most of us see ancient sculpture as pure white marble, nearly all Greek statues were originally painted in bright colors. Gods and goddesses were always the most vibrant, with metal and ivory used for highlights. Even the Parthenon was once colored red, blue and green.)
Connections to the islands
Athens is just about the perfect place to launch an island-hopping trip through Greece. Yes, stick around for a couple of days to get your fix of ancient history in the Parthenon and the museums. Then, make for Piraeus and hop on a boat. There’s the most comprehensive array of ferry links going almost all over the country from there.
The shortest hops take you out to the isles of the Saronic Gulf. They can be reached in under and hour. The best of them are Poros, a small but unexplored place with pine-threaded bays, and Hydra, a very famous rock of an island that once hosted Leonard Cohen!
If you don’t mind sailing a little further, then you can whiz all the way south to the Cyclades. That’s the most iconic part of the Greek seas, offering whitewashed villages above cobalt water at places like Naxos and Paros. There are even direct ferries from Athens to Mykonos – the party mecca of the Aegean – and Santorini – the honeymoon hub.
The only part of Greece that you might find tricky to get to by boat from Athens is the Ionian isles, which are far in the west. There are, however, excellent bus-boat combo links and good roads going across – the drive usually takes four or five hours.
(Fun fact: Leonard Cohen came to Hydra in 1960 and was due to stay in a house owned by a rich Greek magnate. However, he was turned away at the house and had to find other lodgings, so he put a curse on the building and it’s said to have burned down within a year!).
Cape Sounio and the Athenian Riviera
You don’t have to escape to the wonderful isles of Greece to get your fix of sun, sea, sand, and salt from the big city. Regular bus and tram combos through Glyfada on the southern side of the town can also open up the so-called Athenian Riviera. That’s a run of about 25 miles of shoreline that begins with the arc of golden sand at stylish Vouliagmeni, a haven for SUP boarders and watersports.
Keep going and the beaches get gradually emptier and emptier. You get campsites by the Aegean Sea at Paralia Agios Nikolaos, along with the quiet and chilled stretches of hill-backed Paralia Thimari.
The piece de resistance of the region awaits at its southernmost tip, though. Cue Cape Sounio. The last rock before the water takes over, it’s threaded by a few pebble coves and comes topped with an ancient temple dedicated to Apollo. It’s famed mainly as the best place to watch the sunset in the Athens region.
The Panathenaic Stadium
We’ve left this one until last because it’s unquestionably one of the coolest things to do in Athens. But first, a bit of background: Where the stadium now stands was once just a dirt-track racecourse, with no seating. But it was here that the ancient Greeks decided to hold the Pan-Athenaic Games, a 4-yearly display of cultural and physical perfection to honor the goddess Athena.
In the 4th century BC, an Athenian statesman called Lycurgus re-built the stadium out of limestone and added some stone seating, to show honor to Athena. Not to be outdone, a wealthy aristocrat named Herodes then re-renovated the stadium in white Pentelic marble and upgraded the seating capacity to hold fifty thousand spectators.
The first modern Olympic games were held in Greece in 1896, with the Panathenaic Stadium restored to its former glory just in time for the historic opening ceremony. Since then, the stadium has been the venue for everything from a Verdi opera to the Greek MTV launch party. In 1988 they staged the Greek leg of Live Aid, 2008 saw R.E.M. and Kaiser Chiefs take to the stage, and in July 2018, The Scorpions played their Once in a Lifetime concert to 40,000 Greek fans, accompanied by – rather oddly – the Athens State Orchestra.
We did promise to tell you the cool thing about the Panathenaic Stadium, so here it is: After paying an entry fee of €5, the track is open to anyone. For keen joggers and serious runners, the chance to run on the same course as the original Olympians takes some beating, even if your best days are behind you! There’s even a victory podium where you can pose for a photo, although you’ll need to supply your own medal and champagne!
(Fun fact: Although Athens hosted the first-ever modern Olympic games, the ancient games were never held there; instead, they were held in honor of Zeus at Olympia. Fittingly, when the first modern games opened at the Panathenaic stadium, the date was April 6th: Greek Independence Day.)
And so there we have it: Our nine reasons that make Athens worth visiting. Many people stay two or three days in Athens and then head for one of Greece’s many islands for ‘Part Two’ of their vacation. The choice of island is almost endless: Kos, Mykonos, Paros, Crete, and of course Santorini, to name but a few. If you’re undecided, we have guides for all those islands and more, so why not head over to our Greek section and check them out.
How many days in Athens is enough?
Unlike some other European capitals, Athens doesn’t have an endless list of highlights. We suggest two days in Athens is probably enough, but three is better. Three days will give you enough time to add a beach trip or spend some time in Piraeus. If you’re a keen historian or amateur archeologist, then Athens has a lot more to offer, and five days should be your minimum.
Why is Athens a good place to visit?
Athens is a good place to visit if you want to discover more about culture, art, and basic humanity. Athens is generally regarded as the birthplace of civilization, and it also introduced the idea of democracy (demos means people and kratos means to rule). Athens holds 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the iconic Parthenon at the Acropolis.
What is Athens known for?
Apart from being home to many historically significant buildings, Athens is known for having the best and most comprehensive range of food in Greece. In particular, the seafood restaurants are superb. Athens is also known for being the cradle of western philosophy, as it was home to both Plato and his student Aristotle.