Athens is an unusual city. With its eye-watering place in world history, the olive-soaked Mediterranean air breezing through and the Acropolis shining on a hilltop, Athens should be an easy city to fall in love with.
Yet alongside the romance, Athens is a fully functional modern European city, complete with skyscrapers, traffic jams, urban grit and edgy street art.
And a visit there is all the better for it.
It’s a real city, a living city, a characterful city. But it does require a little effort to uncover the best it has to offer.
I first travelled in to Athens as a student at the turn of the century (now, doesn’t that make me sound old: cue vintage suitcases all quirkily stacked one atop the other.)
I did what many do: I raced up to see the Acropolis in the madness of the midday sun before heading straight out of town and onto the lovely Greek blue open sea. This summer, I spent slightly longer in town: exploring the back streets and the magnificent new Acropolis Museum.
And then, this autumn, I returned, with three entire days to roam around town. I had some prearranged work appointments. I had some free time.
I was tasked with coming up with a 72 hour itinerary (that’s a “three day guide” if you’re jetlagged) that highlighted the best things to do in Athens.
Others covered other flavours of the city – like budget travel, nightlife, pure luxury and more. (There’ll be a handy link to the other guides here in a week or so, too, when all the itineraries have been completed.)
But I was after the best. The most unusual.
The things I’d recommend a friend to do on their first trip to Athens.
So, here goes.The best things to do in Athens. According to me.
Yes, everyone goes there, but there’s a good reason for that! These crumbling columns are the tangible memory of a civilisation that gave us more than we can sometimes comprehend: the basis of democracy, the spirit of the Olympics and even the word alphabet itself. Granted, there are other aspects we may be glad the world has forgotten (like exercising naked in the gymnasium, I’d say) but still.
Head up the hill early and seek plenty of shade.
Lunch suggestion: check out the oh-so-peppery fresh virgin olive oil at the NEW Hotel Restaurant. NEW excels at serving fresh, organic mediterranean cuisine and the sculptures made from recycled furniture make a nice twist for the eye. Greek mezze never tasted so good.
Throw yourself completely into the spirit of ancient Greece by following up the Acropolis with the dazzlingly modern Acropolis Museum. This masterpiece based its architecture on the Parthenon itself and uses a range of multimedia exhibits to bring the stones you see to life. (There’s even a lego exhibit: now who could want more than that?!)
Cheeky tip: it also has a sun and shade soaked terrace that serves super strong Greek coffee
Meet up with a volunteer local guide from This Is My Athens to discover the cool and curious parts of Plaka: the cutesy neighbourhood close to the Acropolis that can easily look a little, well, touristy otherwise. I’ll write more about this on a separate post but, essentially, these guides feel that the world news pictures their hometown as “a city in flames” and they’re keen to set the record straight.
Dinner suggestion: the Electra Rooftop Garden Hotel. This glorious hotel drips in cream and gold and, as the name suggests, there’s a rooftop terrace that overlooks the Acropolis. Now, plenty of places in Athens overlook the Acropolis but this one lives right up close … and it serves a delicious pomegranate sorbet!
If you have any energy left after all those Acropolis shenanigans, check out the burgeoning wine bars in the area around Electra. (Ask your This is My Athens guide for tips – or meet up with them and head there together!)
Put on a pair of comfortable shoes and head to the Varvakios Agora to experience the raucous splendour of Athens’ major fresh food market. Walk past hawkers and hampers filled with plump prawns, jostle between the crowd to buy fresh fish and hanging entrails, and then find some slow-paced solace amid the spice mountains outside.
Follow your trip to the market with a stop at the fascinating Museum of Gastronomy and see how well food combines with art.
Lunch suggestion: take a cooking class at the Museum of Gastronomy and leave not only well educated but also well fed :-)
Relish the final stages of your cooking class (eating, chatting with new friends and sampling more coffee) before taking a taxi to the port city of Piraeus.
Take your time strolling along the seafront, watching the waves kiss the shore and local children chase their shadows. It’s a calm and beautiful spot, a world away from central Athens with only 20 minutes spent behind the wheel.
Dinner suggestion: Varoulko Seaside Restaurant
Ah, this lovely place. I almost don’t want to tell you about it! Tucked up right beside the waterfront, this fresh and modern restaurant has the friendliest service of all the Michelin-starred places I’ve ever visited. The menu is creative, combining syringes of olive oil with leaf-wrapped minced langoustine. But even the humble cherry tomato tastes better here than elsewhere.
Like all the best cities in the world, Athens has something of a museum district. This makes it easy to ping pong your way along Vasilissis Sofias Avenue up to Syntagma Square and around to Panepistimiou Street and the holy trinity of learning: the University of Athens, the Academy and the National Library. (Another tip – if you bring your passport with you to the National Library, you can enter the reading room and, well, read.)
Depending on your energy and enthusiasm, you may be able to fly around each of these museums by mid afternoon. Chances are, though, that it’s best to limit yourself to one or two. Particularly when you realise how many of them have fine cafes and restaurants cloistered away at the back…
Benaki Museum – A range of Greek art plus, by appointment, the chance to hold some of the exhibits
Museum of Cycladic Art – contemplative exhibits and a chic monochrome cafe
Zoumboulakis Galleries – private collections of contemporary art bring you back to 21st century Greece
Numismatic Museum – the museum of coins! Pick up an audio guide to translate and immerse yourself in stories of power and pomp through different currencies.
Lunch suggestion: check out the cafe-restaurants at the Benaki Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art
Stay in museum mode if you’ve found your groove. But if you’re looking for something more outdoorsy yet still with that cultural edge, I’ve a nice surprise for you. Head to the outskirts of town to touch the ruins of Plato’s former academy.
I’ve left your last night in Athens to be influenced by the weather. If the sun shines and the orange blossom flutters on the trees, then stroll through the National Garden, dine on the outdoor terrace at Aegli Zappeiou and enjoy the open air cinema if the listings work out well for you.
If the clouds or cool rain have decided to move in, or if you’re yearning for a break from traditional Greek tastes, check out the glittering lights and sushi selection at the Galaxy Bar, Hilton Athens.
It also offers a magnificent floodlit view of the Acropolis…
OK, so that’s my three day itinerary suggestion. But what if you’re only there for a day. Or a week, but you’re at work all day Monday to Friday.
Here, then, is my list of 7 of the best things to do in Athens.
1 – Visit the Acropolis
World class, nothing like it. Has to be done.
2 – Take a Cooking Class
Great flavours, living history, new skills learned by the end of it.
3 – Have Greek coffee with someone
Not only is it a lovely tradition but it’s always more rewarding if you can meet with and chat to people who live in a place.
4 – Visit the Benaki Museum
Beautiful building, stunning art.
5 – Get outdoors
Stroll through the National Garden or along the waterside in Piraeus.
6 – Wander and get lost
Start in Syntagma square and walk and walk and walk to see the different faces of the city.
7 – Feel serene with Cycladic Art
This small museum offers peace and quiet, a tonic for the frenzy outside.
Of course, there plenty of other great things to see and do in Athens if you have more time. I was hard pressed to squeeze the list to be this lean. Come back to check out the itineraries from the other bloggers and to see what else I write about the city!
Although my recommendations come from a mix of trips, this last journey to Athens came about as a project created by Toposophy and The City of Athens CVB. I flew from London Heathrow to Athens with Aegean Airlines and the on demand taxi app Taxibeat and the Athens Urban Transport system helped me to get around. The vintage suitcase photo comes from Shutterstock, all other images are my own. On this last, but not the previous trips, accommodation was provided by Hilton Athens.
With all that said, this would be my own pick of the best things to do with three days in Athens.