As the birthplace of modern civilization, Athens boasts a rich and enviable historical and artistic heritage. But it’s not all ruins and mythology… the Greek capital has great shopping, amazing views and alfresco dining.
Athens is the first port of call for many travellers visiting Greece, many of whom choose not to spend too long in the city before ferrying off to the islands of the Aegean. So here are my tips and recommendations on the five things you should do in Athens in a day.
1. Marvel at the Acropolis
There is something magical about the way the Acropolis hill rises above the city – an everlasting piece of ancient world right in the heart of a modern, bustling metropolis.
What’s not magical at all is the crowds you will have to negotiate to admire (not to mention photograph) the ruins. The Acropolis receives almost 3 million tourists each year, and it will feel like they are all there the day of your visit.
The cranes used to restore the Parthenon also take some of the atmosphere away (they have for decades), yet this building remains one of the most iconic and spectacular landmarks in the world.
The buildings and temples that survive today – including the Parthenon – were mostly built by sculptor Phidias under the reign of the most prominent Athenian statesman in history, Pericles. Under his rule, Athens came to lead an empire and became the cultural heart of the ancient world.
Budget around 90 minutes for your visit of the Acropolis – and if you are visiting in the summer, make sure you carry water. To see some of the artifacts from the site, you can check out the New Acropolis Museum, considered one of best additions to Athens’ cultural scene in recent years.
2. Bargain-hunt in Monastiraki
I am normally not big on the shopping, but I must admit the flea market in Monastiraki is one of the best I have ever seen.
You can easily reach it walking down from the Acropolis and through the Ancient Agora or getting off at the Metro station Monastiraki. If you are walking from the Agora, you’ll find yourself on Adrianou Street right after you pass the Stoa of Attalos. Most of the market is concentrated in and around the blocks between Adrianou and Ermou Street.
Old phones and typewriters, furniture, lamps, paintings, old records, belts… Monastiraki has it all – including the usual array of stalls and stores selling I-heart-Athens T-shirts, fake sunglasses and trinkets. The best day to visit is Sunday, when Monastiraki is actually a flea market and individual sellers showcase their goods on blankets laid down on the ground. Just grab a koulouri (a delicious sesame bread ring) from one of the omnipresent stalls in Athens and explore.
No doubt, you will find things you will want to take home with you. Somehow, when you are in places like this, buying a throne-like Louis XV French tapestry chair or a hand-painted Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary seems like a great idea, and you simply cannot live without a rudder. You will never ever use any of those things, but impulse buying is a real hazard in Monastiraki! Good news is that, unless you have driven down to Athens on a moving truck, chances are you won’t be able to carry big pieces of furniture with you to show off at dinner parties.
But don’t let this put you off – just enjoy Monastiraki’s busy streets and buy as many things as you can fit in your suitcase. Just watch out for fakes and don’t forget to bargain!
3. Explore Plaka and walk to Syntagma Square
Easily the best-looking neighborhood in central Athens, Plaka lies at the foot of the Acropolis’ eastern side. You can reach it from Monastiraki walking past Hadrian’s Library and the Roman Agora.
Plaka feels like a village, with almost no traffic and picturesque alleys lined with luxuriant bougainvilleas. Shops abound around here, as do restaurants with rooftop terraces (a must-do when in Athens during the summer months).
My favorite part of the neighborhood is the “steps” just off Lisiou Street, a couple of steep staircases lined with restaurants and cafes and their colorful tables and chairs. For lunch, we ended up at a taverna called Sissifos. There, in the shade provided by the vines, we enjoyed a cold beer and a Greek salad and watched the world go by (mainly old men smoking and sweaty tourists panting their way up the stairs).
Plaka may not have a lot to offer in terms of sights, but it is a great place to relax for a couple of hours, grab a bite to eat or go for a stroll. You simply have to spend some time here.
To continue your tour (during my visit, mastering the strength to leave our seat and venture out again in the afternoon sun was a miraculous achievement), find Mitropoleos Street, walk down it past the Metropolitan Cathedral until you reach the heart of modern Athens, Syntagma Square, dominated by the orange-y building housing the Greek Parliament.
This past summer the square was on the news a lot (the riots, the negotiations between Greek government and the EU, the celebratory demonstrations after the referendum on austerity, and so on). Things are quieter now and a stop in the square is highly recommended, even if it is just to see the evzones standing guard next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in their traditional kilt-like uniform.
4. See a couple more ancient buildings (or a museum)
Syntagma is also the city’s main transportation hub: two Metro lines meet here and several trams depart from the square.
At this point in the tour, you have a choice to make.
If you feel like staying indoors for a while, you can hop on the red line of the Metro (Line 2) for two stops, get off at Omonia and go visit the National Archeological Museum, which offers the world’s largest and richest collection of artifacts from Ancient Greece. Here, sublime sculptures (like the Antikythera Ephebe, the Artemision Bronze or the Jockey of Artemision) stand side by side with shelves full of vases and famous piece, like the golden Mask of Agamemnon. It’s a museum you cannot miss.
Alternatively, you can spend your afternoon visiting more ruins (which you will do a lot of if you have chosen Greece as your holiday destination). A short walk (and an even shorter tram ride) from Syntagma lies the gigantic Temple of Olympian Zeus. Only a few (impressive) Corinthian columns remain today, but the temple once had 104 and was the largest in Greece.
A couple extra stops on the tram (which runs along the beautiful National Gardens) will take you to the Panathenaic stadium, the only one in the world to be built entirely out of marble. This truly remarkable structure housed the first Olympic Games of the modern era in 1896 and currently holds 45,000 people.
If you haven’t spent too much time in Monastiraki or in Plaka, you might be able to do it all (the National Archeological Museum, Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the stadium). If you need to leave one out, I would pick the temple.
When I visited, we left the museum out, but we had a good excuse. Having flown in on a red-eye and not having slept all night (so we went for a power nap at the hotel instead).
5. Enjoy the sunset from Lycabettus Hill
I would never leave out a good sunset from a tour! You should know this: your visit to Athens wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the top of the Lycabettus Hill to admire the jaw-dropping spectacle offered by the setting sun as its warm light languidly hugs the city.
Hail a taxi in front of the Panathenaic stadium and ask the driver to take you to the top of this 300-metre limestone hill (there is also a funicular railway that departs from Kolonaki, but the taxi is quicker and will only set you back €5 or €6).
There is still a 5-minute walk (some would call it a “trek”) to get to the top, where a cute chapel and the panoramic terrace are, but I promise you it’ll be worth it. Even with all the couples smooching (if you are travelling as a couple, this is the place for you). Athens will be at your feet, shiny and immense.
This concludes the tour. All you need to do at this point is grab some dinner. Bustling Plaka is a good choice because most restaurants have a rooftop terrace there, and savoring moussaka with a view of the Acropolis is simply awesome, but keep in mind food can be overpriced around here.
Click here for practical information to organize your trip