Nothing can prepare you for your first view of the Parthenon perched on top of the ancient Acropolis in Athens. Civilisation as we know it began here and the evidence is on display across the city. Francesca Muir checks in with a handy list of amazing things to do on a first visit to the Greek capital…
Athens is sometimes unfairly passed over in favour of the jewels in Greece’s crown — the Greek islands.
However, don’t underestimate this city of contradictions. It can be hot, chaotic and frustrating one moment, and laden with breathtaking culture and history the next.
Here are ten top things to do in Athens.
1. Climb the Acropolis
The Acropolis is synonymous with Athens and the hill must be climbed! Here you’ll find the city’s most famous temple, the Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena, protector of the city. Save time and money visiting this and several other historical sites, including the Ancient Agora, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Hadrian’s Library and the Roman Agora, with an Athens City Pass. A hop on/hop off city tour is also included.
2. Choose a museum, any museum
With more than 60 museums and galleries Athens has something for everyone: archaeology, folklore, science, art and music, maritime and military history, and activities for children. Definitely pay a visit to the Acropolis Museum — an architectural marvel of steel, concrete and marble, with glass floors and facades. Purpose-built to house the history of the Acropolis and its archaeological treasures, it includes a restaurant and café with stunning views.
Check opening times for all museums carefully as many are closed on Sundays and/or Mondays.
3. Dine in the Plaka
The Plaka is a historical neighbourhood at the foot of the Acropolis; a maze of little streets, laneways and stairs leading up, down and around about. It’s renowned for al fresco dining. Just remember — if an eatery is full of locals, it’s bound to be good!
4. Follow your nose on a food tour
Discover the city’s edible delights on a five and a half hour food walking tour with Culinary Backstreets. The tour takes in Downtown Athens and will show you where the locals shop and eat. It’s a fascinating insight into what is known locally as ‘the stomach of the city’. Go hungry!
5. Shop for fresh food at the market
The Athens Central Market (Varvakios Agora) bursts with colour, noise and smells from 8am to 6pm every day. It’s where locals buy their produce, from super fresh fish, chicken and meat, to Greek herbs and spices, cheeses, olives, sweets, honey and fruit and vegetables. You’ll also find some of the best local eateries. They’re strictly no frills, fresh and delicious.
6. Bag a bargain at Monastiraki Flea Market
The Monastiraki Flea Market is an open-air market that’s known for souvenirs and antique shopping. It’s open every day, but on Sundays it’s bigger and takes on a different flavour. Itinerant sellers pack the market, spreading their wares out on the ground.
While you’re there, look for Melissinos — makers of Ancient Greek-style leather sandals. You’ll find them in Aghias Theklas Street, opposite Monastiraki Square.
7. Eat on the street
Eating street food is a way of life in Athens. Start the day with koulouri — bread rings sprinkled with sesame seeds, or enormous doughnuts, which you’ll find for sale on most street corners.
Next, head to Ariston Bakery near Syntagma Square for a huge selection of amazing pies. O Kostas in Pentelis Street, Syntagma serves up the best souvlaki in Athens — but go before midday to avoid the queues.
8. Head for the hill for sunset
During the golden hour the only place to be is at the top of Mount Lycabettus, another hill in the heart of the city. Access the peak by car, on foot (the path starts in Kolonaki), or by taking the funicular. The surrounding views of Athens, Pireaus and the Aegean Sea are exceptional. At the top you’ll find the chapel of Agios Georgios and a great little café (where the prices match the heady heights!).
9. See the changing of the guard
The changing of the guard is a must-see spectacle of synchronised slow-motion moves that takes place outside the Hellenic Parliament on Syntagma Square every Sunday at 11am. Known as Evzones, the guards are part of an elite infantry unit that protects the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Presidential mansion. On Sundays they wear the traditional white kilts, red and black caps and clogs with pom-poms.
10. Stop and smell the flowers
Situated in the heart of Athens behind the Greek Parliament, the National Gardens are a welcome escape from the heat, dust and noise of the city. There’s a small zoo, botanical museum, cafe, children’s library and playground.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Athens? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Sydney-based journalist Francesca Muir fell in love with the Greek blue of the Mediterranean while living on the island of Crete in the late 1980s. She has written about Greece for Living Postcards, Crete Travel, Politismosmuseum, Stigmez, Athens News, TV Soap, Soap World, Gourmet Traveller, Vogue Entertaining, Vogue Living, ITA, Way to Go, Travel Abroad, the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age.