Well what can I say about Athens, one of the most historic cities in the entire world besides that it is just simply one of the most underrated cities in Europe. I spent three nights here as a bridge between visiting the islands in the Ionian sea ala Zakynthos and Kefalonia, to all the little islands in the Cyclades.
Athens was the birthplace of democracy and the beating heart of Ancient Greece. It is aptly named Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom. Athens has had one of the most storied pasts in the known world having been conquered by the Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, etc. In modern times, it’s changed hands numerous times through various Western powers before arriving to what it is now, the capital of Greece.
I will admit, Athens is perhaps not the most picturesque European city that exists. The streets aren’t perfect like they are in Vienna or as filled with Baroque architecture like Barcelona. However, the Acropolis is certainly one of the most amazing ancient monuments in Europe and is a must see for any history buff. The vibe and energy in Athens is unstoppable with the streets constantly filled with people looking for a good time.
How long to spend in Athens?
Oh my how tough this question is. I’ll keep it simple. If all you care about is just seeing the main sites like the Acropolis and other ancient monuments, you only need a day to see the town.
However, if you want to see the real Athens, then you’ll need much longer. I spent three nights in Athens and felt like I barely scratched the surface. Athens is one of those towns like Mexico City that I feel like is less of a touchdown and check off all the sites type of town but rather one that I could spend weeks or even months living in to really get a feel for the energy of the city.
In essence, it’s the juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern that really enthralls travelers like myself. The modern concrete Jungle every which way until you look up and see an ancient monument almost 3,000 years old.
The city is absolutely gigantic and houses 1/3 of the entire population of Greece. From the top of Mount Lycabettus, you can see Athens stretch on as far as the eyes can see which makes you feel like you’ve seen so little just walking through the typical Monastiraki streets.
Where to stay in Athens?
Athens is blessed with so many different accommodation options. From the ultra luxury hotels to the most basic hostels, you will find what you need in Athens.
The best part? It is very cheap here. I highly recommend staying in and around the Acropolis. This includes neighborhoods like Plaka and Monastiraki square. This is where all the bars, restaurants, and tourist attractions are so it helps to stay close to everything. If you’re staying in the center, you can pretty much walk to all the points of interest.
Athens is blessed with a plethora of stunning Airbnbs. I was visiting in July and had my pickings of amazing listings all for under €100. You can even get apartments with rooftops or balconies that have a view of the Acropolis. I specifically targeted these because I had always envisioned staying next to the Acropolis after staying next to the Great Pyramids of Giza in Cairo.
My specific Airbnb was located just a 5 minute walk south of the Acropolis and offered unobstructed views! This neighborhood is definitely more of a local’s neighborhood but I loved it. It was only a 15 minute walk to the main part of Monastiraki square as well.
Visit the Acropolis of Athens
Without a doubt, the main sight of interest in Athens will be the Acropolis. This is one of the original seven wonders of the world and is one of the most well preserved ancient Greek monuments in the world.
The name Acropolis is Greek for the highest point in the city (Akro means high, and polis means city). Essentially, every town in Greece has an Acropolis because it is just the highest point in the town but of course Athens is a bit more famous than that.
The Acropolis consists of the Parthenon which is the iconic ancient Greek temple that is pretty much the only picture necessary to describe Greece, various other temples, and theaters. It’s very impressive and will check off all the boxes for your Ancient Greek fix. However, in the end, I’d still say the Pyramids of Giza were much more impressive.
How much to visit the Acropolis?
The cost of entry to the Acropolis is €20. It is a one time use only (so can’t come back in later in the day) and allows you to visit all the sights in the Acropolis. The lines can be very long to get in even after you’ve purchased a ticket. Another option is to purchase the Athens City Pass for €30 which is worth it if you plan on visiting the other sights like the temple of Zeus and the Agora (both highly recommended). You can pay with Credit card and you can even purchase the tickets beforehand on their website.
The shining jewel of the Acropolis is definitely the Parthenon. It’s visible throughout Athens and is the symbol of the city (at least from a tourists point of view). The temple was constructed originally as a temple to Athena (no surprise) and has been used as a church and even a Mosque in the past. There are a total of 58 pillars on the Parthenon and each pillar is 3m wide! Crazy to think how this thing was constructed thousands of years ago.
The Parthenon was destroyed in the 1600s as Venetians and Turks fought over Athens with the entire interior being destroyed. Nowadays, you recognize the building with almost 1/3 of the pillars half destroyed. It has been reconstructed and is still being reconstructed regularly and you can see the results of that in the color differences from the pillars. I’m not sure what’s original or new anymore. In fact, I think Greece should just reconstruct the whole thing and restore it to its former glory.
It’s hard to take a bad photo here so shoot away!
The other sights in the Acropolis
The Acropolis isn’t just the Parthenon. Upon entry, the first thing you see is actually the Roman theater of Herod Atticus built by the Romans in 161 AD and still used today for classical concerts and performances. Further on is the Theater of Dionysious the first stone theater and home to Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes.
The theater is very impressive and exhibits the classical Roman styles that I saw when I was traveling around Italy. Specifically, this reminded me of the theater in Taormina, Sicily with the views of the volcano!
After this, you will be greeted with by the Temple of Nike which is extremely well preserved, as well as the smaller Temple of Athena next to the Acropolis.
When to visit the Acropolis?
The Acropolis is the most visited sight in Athens, and perhaps all of Greece. Tourists and locals alike flock here at all times of the year. However, the best time to visit is in the early morning when it first opens or in the evening when it closes.
The operating hours are 8am to 8pm daily and I would recommend trying to come here when it first opens. The tourist numbers are definitely the lowest during this time. Sunset is the best time for photos however as the colors of the sun reflect off the white marble of the Parthenon. There are workers here that kick everyone out as the closing hours approach. The secret is to hide somewhere until everyone leaves and then snap some photos. You’ll have people berating you to leave but they won’t stop you from taking a photo.
Since I visited during the age of Coronavirus, I didn’t really have this problem as there weren’t many tourists to speak of even at 7:00.
Alternatively, come in the middle of the day when the temperatures are crazy hot and you probably wont’ see many people as most won’t want to brave the heat.
The Agora, while not in the Acropolis, is a must visit sight as well. It’s the most well preserved Ancient Greek temple in all of Greece. After seeing the Acropolis which is almost half gone, the Agora offered a glimpse of what these buildings looked like fully standing.
The Agora, translating to “a place of gathering”, was once dotted with statues, shops, markets, schools and it was the place Socrates used to lecture his young disciples.
The whole complex only takes about 20 minutes to see but is well worth the visit especially if you’ve purchased the Athens Pass.
The Plaka Neighborhood
After spending ample amounts of time exploring the Acropolis, end your day by walking around and having dinner at one of the oldest and beautiful neighborhoods in Athens. The streets of Plaka are located at the steps of the Acropolis and is closed off to just pedestrians.
You’ll be walking through neoclassical houses, beautiful views of Athens as its on a hillside, cobblestone streets, and more. Nowadays, it’s filled with restaurants, bars, cafes, shops and anything else you can think of.
The Olympic Stadium
I had totally forgotten Athens was the home for the 2004 Olympics (and of course the original Olympics). They built this giant stadium modeled in the traditional sense for the opening and closing ceremonies in 2004.
It has since been largely unused and just a relic from that those games. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t use such a beautiful structure but I guess it’s the same reason they don’t want to reconstruct any of the Ancient buildings?
Nevertheless, it’s largely just a giant stadium in the middle of the city nowadays that tourists can visit. It is €5 for the entrance fee and you can walk around the stadium to your desire. There weren’t many visitors at all during the times I visited so you can bet on taking some fantastic photos.
Temple of Zeus
Another must visit sight is the temple of Zeus. It’s probably the next most recognizable monument after the Acropolis. The construction started in the 510 BC and took centuries to complete after one ruler was overthrown by the other.
The building during its glory days had 104 Corinthian columns which is actually two times more than the Parthenon so this structure was absolutely massive in its day. It was also surrounded by various statues and fountains of which none are visible today.
Nowadays, there are only 15 columns left and no statues. It’s unknown how the building collapsed but most bets are on an Earthquake during medieval times.
The entrance fee is €8 for a one time visit or you can purchase the Athens City Pass for €30 which allows access to this temple, the Acropolis, and more.
Nearby is the Arch of Hadrian which was erected in 132 AD as a gate between the ancient city and the Roman city of Athens. This one is free to visit and even has views of the acropolis through the arch.
See a show at the Odeon Theatre
In the summer months, the Odeon Theater at the Acropolis puts on regular concerts and shows. I didn’t even know about this until I tried entering the theater on my first day in Athens thinking I was going into the entrance of the Acropolis. Someone stopped me and told me you need a ticket to the concert.
After entering the Acropolis, I could see into the theater and how they were setting up for a concert in perhaps the most amazing concert venue of all time. I had to book my own tickets. I promptly booked tickets to the next show which was a classical concert including Vivaldi’s four season (who doesn’t like this?).
The cost was €25 for a very good ticket. I actually think this is one of the only venues in the world that it is better to sit in the very back so you can have views of the entire semi-circular theater, as well as the city of Athens in the background. Simply stunning place to watch a show!
Go to Mount Lycabettus
Don’t miss a visit to Mount Lycabettus which is the ultimate sunset spot in my opinion. It’s near to the city center and can easily be reached by foot or taxi. You can either take a cable car from the entrance for €5 or walk yourself to the peak. From the entrance of the cable car, it is only about 200m to the top and is not a difficult hike.
The views here are simply stunning as you can really grasp just how massive of a city Athens is. You can even see the Mediterranean from the viewpoint.
There is a cafe and restaurant here where you can buy cocktails to enjoy the view. The restaurant is very expensive but could be worth it if you’re keen for some nice views!
Where to Drink and Eat in Athens
There is no shortage of top class food and drinks in Athens. It’s home to thousands of restaurants and of course you can expect to have the finest Greek cuisine here.
Greeks love to party and stay up late too so after you’ve had your delicious meal, there are also no shortage of places to keep the party going. Admittedly I did not visit many highly rated restaurants like I normally would. Instead I focused most of my time on getting delicious street food and then drinking at cocktail bars. Oh well, I will have to come back for some more experiences!
Traveling Greece for two months, I ate my weight in gyros and souvlaki. They are some of my favorite street food of all time and hold a special place in my heart. Kostas is one of the most famous places in Athens to eat souvlaki in a pita.
There are actually two Kostas restaurants. The same name, located near each other, both serving souvlaki, but totally different restaurants. This first one is the original (I think?) and it’s the tiniest shop with a picture of the man himself as the facade. They make their pitas in house and grill delicious cubes of pork as well as beef kebab. It’s then combined with tomatoes, onions, parsley, and tzatziki that’s wrapped up in a warm pita. It’s delicious and a must try, especially for €2.50 a pita.
Kostas (the other one)
The other Kostas, which also specializes in souvlaki pitas is located down the street. It’s also a famous place that dishes out delicious pita wraps. Their claim to fame is their red tomato based sauce that is used as opposed to tzatziki. I actually really liked this sauce and thought it went very well with the grilled meat.
In the end, you can’t go wrong with either option!
Rooftop Drinks at Couleur Locale
Athens is blessed with so many rooftop bars overlooking the Acropolis. People here love to drink and have a good time so expect no shortage of hip spots to go. My favorite rooftop bar was definitely Couleue Locale located in the Monastiraki district.
It’s a huge space with one floor as an open air restaurant and the top floor as the rooftop bar area. Both floors offer amazing views of the Acropolis in an industrial chic type of vibe. This bar isn’t the typical tourist hangout but rather caters mostly to locals. The views here are amazing, although no amazing than the Airbnb I was staying in!
I also had amazing cocktails in all the bars of Athens. Bartenders here know their stuff and Couleur Locale makes a delicious Negroni.
Athens is also home to two of the top rated cocktail bars in the world. The Clumsies is one of them! I had to make a visit to try these out. The bar was trendy but not overly so and had a super inviting vibe. I had their world famous Aegean Negroni which was one of the best things I’ve tasted. It’s a dramatic dark baby blue color that reminds me of the time in the Cyclades but with the familiar taste of a Negroni. Not only did it look beautiful but the tastes reflect it as well.
Baba Au Rhum
Down the street from the Clumsies is another top rated cocktail bar called Baba Au Rhum (Father of Rum in Farsi). This place, as the name suggests, specializes in rum cocktails and boy were they delicious.
I grabbed a seat in their courtyard and had at least two of their rum cocktails. On certain nights, they even do an all you can drink rum punch night for €20 and these punches are not what you had in your younger years that’s for sure.
Go on the free walking tour
I’m a big fan of free walking tours in cities and Athens is no different. The free walking tour I did here was incredibly informative and I learned things that I definitely would not have learned if I hadn’t gone.
We walked by all the main sights and got lots of stories from the guide about Greek culture, history, and food. We even visited a neighborhood adjacent to the Acropolis that is a little mini Cyclades within the city. I had no idea this existed but really it felt like I was walking through a village in Milos. This is because builders from the Cyclades were known to be the best and were brought in to construct a lot of the official buildings back in the day. They settled near to the Acropolis and were allowed to build in whatever fashion they wanted.
Getting to Athens City From the Airport
Athens International Airport is well connected to the main center of Athens but it is a little bit of a distance. There are a few ways of getting to the city
This is probably the quickest route into the city. A taxi from Athens airport to Athens is a flat €35 by taxi. There is no Uber anymore in Athens but you can use the App to hail a regular taxi. This isn’t really necessary from the airport since they are all waiting outside and it is a flat rate.
The price seems like a lot since you can travel within Athens by taxi for super cheap. The airport is almost 30km outside of the city though so it makes sense that the price will be higher. It’s roughly 40 minutes to the city depending on the traffic.
By Public Metro
The public metro is another option. Take Metro Line 3 which connects the Athens airport with the city center. Trains run every 30 minutes, 7 days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. The trip from/to the Airport to Syntagma station (Athens center) lasts 40 minutes and costs €10 one way. This is definitely your cheapest option.
Getting around the city of Athens
Once your in Athens, the central part of the city is very walkable. While the city itself is absolutely gargantuan, the city center is quite small. If you’re staying slightly outside of the city center or are just feeling lazy, then you can use the Uber app to hail official taxis as the taxi companies have just adopted Uber as their own app.
The cost of cabs are very cheap. I took one from one end of the city center to the other and it was about €5.
Athens Pireaus Port
If you’re planning to visit the islands after a stay in Athens, then you’ll want to go to the huge main port of Pireaus. This port is where most ferries start their outbound journey to the many islands near Athens.
It is a bit of a way from the main city center but it is easily accessible by bus. There is also a direct bus from the airport to the port which takes about 2 hours.