Athens should be easy to love, but sometimes she isn't.
From ancient romance to skyscrapers and edgy street art, Athens is all the better for being a city that's hard to define.
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. Her hidden gems, if you haven't tired of the phrase. (Also, quite literally, there are some hidden gems.)
Here's an inside guide to finding unusual things to do in Athens, all tried and tested over decades of travel to the city.
Disclosure - some of these activities were hosted by the places mentioned, but not all were. They were only included if I thought you'd enjoyed them! Plus, if you book through the links on this page, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you (this is known as an affiliate link.) Cheers!
Meet up with a volunteer local guide from This Is My Athens to discover, well, anything you want. They do it driven by a passion for their city and for meeting other people. And, boy, do they know the places to go.
Take the cool and curious parts of Plaka, the cutesy neighbourhood close to the Acropolis that I'd dismissed as being too touristy.
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!
Erm. Again, this is easily done with a This is My Athens guide! Check out the burgeoning wine bars in the area around Electra.
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.
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 :-)
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.
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.
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.
Insider Tip for Athens
If you bring your passport with you to the National Library, you can enter the reading room and, well, read! Perfect for book lovers.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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?!)
The Acropolis Museum also has a sun and shade soaked terrace that serves super strong Greek coffee
What have I missed? What do you think are the best things to see and do in Athens?
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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