Uncover hidden gems and unusual things to do in Athens, the home of democracy and modern heart of Greece. Here's our inside guide.
Don't miss: the Athens Food Guide.
FINDING HIDDEN GEMS, DIFFERENT, UNIQUE AND UNUSUAL THINGS TO DO IN ATHENS
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. When it comes to finding hidden gems in Athens, it's not a cliche. You can really, literally, find some hidden gems.
Here's our inside guide to finding unusual things to do in Athens, based on advice from locals.
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!
VISIT THE SEASIDE: WAVE WATCHING AT PIRAEUS
One of Athens' hidden gems is its seafront. Hardly anyone ever thinks to go there. Head to Piraeus, and 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. When it comes to unusual things to do in Athens, it's hard to beat this unique and off the beaten path spot.
See Athens with a Local: "This is My Athens"
If you're looking for a really unique way to discover the hidden gems of Athens, then meet up with a local. How do you do that? Well, programme This Is My Athens connects you with local volunteers who help you to discover, well, anything you want! They're driven by a passion for their city and for meeting other people. And, boy, do they know the places to go.
Take Plaka, for example, the area close to the Acropolis. I'd dismissed it as far too touristy but my local guide found spots that showed how wrong I was. Glistening interiors of hidden churches with ghostly stories. Handmade arts and crafts with the artists still in situ. Plus, some of the best places for coffee - and later on wine. Highly recommended.
Relax in the National Garden and Catch the Open Air Cinema
- Dine on the outdoor terrace at Aegli Zappeiou and enjoy the open air cinema afterwards.
Hidden Gems in Athens: Unusual and Unique Places to Eat
Watch the Sun Set Over the Acropolis
One of the best things about Athens is that its hilly structure allows for lots of incredible views. It's a unique way to spend an evening and my hidden gem for this is dinner at the Electra Rooftop Garden Hotel.
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!
Drink Wine and Talk Philosophy
Erm. Again, this is easily done with a This is My Athens guide! Check out the burgeoning wine bars in the area around Electra for a mix of hipster cool and cosy vibes. If you are more keen on the philosophy and less so on the wine, then check out the Athens philosophy tours offered by academics. You can even visit Plato's former academy.
Dine Among Recycled Furniture
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.
Hustle in the Food Market of Varvakios Agora
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.
Brunch in Lycabettus with a Skyline View of Athens
I'm no stranger to a hotel with a view but the sixth floor at the St George Lycabettus somehow defies the laws of physics.
Pine so close you could touch it on the one side and a glimmering, shimmering Acropolis on the other. Plus, another side that shows the houses stacked like staggered shoeboxes on the hills and the hubbub of city life in Greece. And finally, the view of the coast and the Saronic Islands. Blissful.
Lycabettus Hill is one of the highest points in Athens, within Kolonaki. It's the well-heeled part of the city, a kind of Sloane Square with sunshine. After all, Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche have both dined on the Grand Balcon (though not together, as far as I know.)
You can walk to central Syntagma Square in 20-30 minutes depending on shoe speed and shoe comfort or, of course, ask the concierge for a taxi into town. If you don't plan to stay at the hotel, you can still head there on Sunday for a brunch with a view. Book in advance is my suggestion.
Eat Sushi with a View of the Acropolis
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...
Imbibe at the Oldest Distillery in Athens
Sip your drink beneath the brightly coloured glass of Brettos in Plaka. As the oldest distillery in Athens, it comes stocked with all the homemade, mysterious flavours you should be afraid of. Cherry, lemon and mastiha ouzo. You have been warned...
Classic Things to do in Athens
In your haste to see Athens' hidden gems, don't miss her unique classics:
THE ACROPOLIS AND PLAKA
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.
The Acropolis Museum also has a sun and shade soaked terrace that serves super strong Greek coffee
THE ACROPOLIS MUSEUM
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?!)
- Also, don't miss our Athens food guide. Working out where to eat in Athens is almost as important as working out what to do. Maybe more...
Hidden Gems in Athens in the Museum District
Like all the best cities in the world, Athens has a museum district. 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.
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...
The Benaki Museum
The Benaki Museum is something of an institution in Greece, taking its exhibits and its ethos to the airport and to the beach resorts of the south. It contains a range of Greek art plus, by prior appointment, you can hold some of the exhibits in your hands. Stemming from the private fortune of the Benakis family, the museum also focuses on state-of-the-art restoration programmes and widespread education. A tour guide here is a must to bring the history alive and to let you hold the artefacts!
The Museum of Cycladic Art
The Nicholas P. Goulandris Foundation Museum of Cycladic Art houses ancient art in a modern setting. Founded in 1986, the museum has one of my favourite cafes in Athens. But I suppose it would carry a little more dignity to talk about the art first. What is cycladic art? It hails from the Greek Islands of Cyclades in the Aegean sea and the most striking feature involves the prehistoric figures and figurines, particularly of women. Greek architect Ioannis Vikelas designed the building and it's a quiet and contemplative place to recharge from the exterior bustle of Athens.
The Zoumboulakis Galleries
The Zoumboulakis Galleries bring private collections of contemporary art to 21st century Greece in a cool and brilliantly white, airy gallery setting. It's often described as a multi-purpose cultural space, with themed exhibitions and events aiming to bring together a community of art lovers in Athens.
Numismatic Museum: The Real Hidden Gems in Athens
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. Now this is where the hidden gems of Athens can be found! Quite literally.
A coin collection may sound rather dull but it's a fascinating expose of how we treat money, which when all is said and done, is only an idea. From seals to mints to jewels and hidden gems themselves. It's one of my favourite unusual things to do in Athens.
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.
Visit Plato's Original Academy - Outdoors!
One of the most unusual things to do in Athens, is to head back to school. From thousands of years ago.
It's completely unique and utterly off the tourist path but without a guide, you'd easily miss it.
Back in the day, Plato and Socrates would teach outdoors. And students would often be in the nude. Head over here if you want to find out what it's all about and to touch the ruins of Plato's former academy.
Technically part of Plaka, Anafiotika feels like a different world and is easily one of the best hidden gems in Athens. Clustered into the steep hills beside the Acropolis, it is almost impossible to describe to you how this area can be hidden and yet so close to the country's main attraction.
It is also eerily, spectacularly beautiful.
The jumble of tiny white houses, seemingly melting out from the mountain in mesmerising white and blue owes its appearance to its residents. Drafted in to help build in Athens, workers from the Greek islands like Santorini and beyond set up their homes in a similar style here in Athens.
AGIOS NIKOLAOS RAGAVAS CHURCH
Find a little piece of the 11th century alive and well in the heart of Athens. This still-functioning church from the byzantine era shimmers its gold through the gloom. If you have no time (nor inclination) to visit other religious buildings in Athens, then pay this one a visit. It's easy to access in Plaka and a beautiful hidden gem in Athens.
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