Athens

Athens—a cradle of western civilization, the birthplace of drama and democracy—is one of those places that resonate with historic importance. But as you take in the glow of antiquity (perched atop a plateau, the stately, elegant Acropolis is visible from most places in the city), Athens’ present-day energy will sweep you up and ask you to eat, drink, dance, sing, talk, and be merry. Local culture is friendly, energetic, and in the face of the country’s ongoing crisis, often enterprising and community-based. Explore and enjoy the city’s many facets.

Athens_Acropolis_Unsplash_Constantinos_Kollias

Acropolis, Athens

Constantinos Kollias

Overview

When’s the best time to go to Athens?

Athens is always inspiring, but it’s very hot in high summer, a time when locals who can decamp to the islands every weekend and for most of August. The best times for city visits are thus April to mid-June and again between early September and November, when days are more bearable, nights are still balmy, and the tourist rush isn’t crushing. In the spring blossoms pop open throughout the city and locals fill the outdoor tavernas with new energy; in the fall a lovely light bathes the city’s whitewashed buildings and glistens on the sea.

How to get around Athens

A cab from the airport to the city center runs about 35 euros during the day and 50 at night; a commuter train (Metro Line 3) also run to Syntagma Station every half-hour for around 10 euros. Once in Athens, the subway is sparkling and efficient, if not particularly wide-reaching (the subway was built for the Athens Olympics in 2004, but archeology precludes a dense network). Buses are plentiful if erratic, and be warned that the city’s few trams are painfully slow. Cabs are inexpensive, but be aware that many cabbies don’t speak great English (locals recommend the TaxiBeat app). Have your destinations in writing to show your driver in a pinch.

Can’t miss things to do in Athens

  • No one should visit Athens without ascending the Acropolis. The complex sits atop a plateau in the center of the city, dotted with far more archeological attractions than just the Parthenon. Take at least half a day to explore the area and drink in the view (depending on season, it can also be very hot, so drink plenty of water, too).
  • On the way down from the Parthenon, stroll through the labyrinthine streets of the Plaka.The Monastiraki flea market offers a buzzing look into Greek culture; the National Archeology Museum gives a broad look into Greek culture.
  • It’s not sexy or posh, but one hub of the Greek capital is undeniably the Piraeus Port: Watching the huge ferries and ships arrive, load, and depart is strangely meditative and transcendental.

Food and drink to try in Athens

Greek cuisine is easy to underestimate—but once you’ve eaten it, hard to forget. Ingredients are simple (a Greek salad is, after all, just tomatoes, cubed cukes, feta, and olive oil) but it’s the quality, and salt-of-the-earth flavor that surprise and satisfy the tastebuds. Baked dishes are hearty, with lamb the meat of choice. Fish and seafood are utterly sublime, as would be expected considering the omnipresent sea. Herbs and spices are often homegrown, and try local iterations of ouzo and raki to cleanse your palate between courses. Remember, Greeks usually eat communally. End your meal with a dessert dripping with local honey, like baklava, to ensure sweet dreams.

Culture in Athens

Cultural history is inescapable in Athens, and we’re talking about classical history going back millennia. At the same time, the city absolutely vibrates with contemporary culture as well, including live music, the visual and performing arts, design and fashion, all produced and heartily consumed by young Greeks alongside an increasing faction of expats settling here. Framing it all is both a strong bohemian, DIY art scene as well as evidence of wealthy patronage—recently built world-class cultural centers carry names like Onassis and Niarchos.

For Families

As chaotic as Athens can be, the Greek capital is a wonderful place to discover with children. Take older offspring to see the city’s endless classical treasures (before arriving, it’s a good idea read about Greek mythology to set up anticipation and understanding); smaller ones always enjoy a day at the city’s beaches, a break in the National Gardens, or an outing to the zoo. And because Greeks are a family-oriented people, kids are generally welcome in restaurants and tavernas, sometimes way past bedtime. Context Travel, a partner of AFAR, conducts special family tours of the Parthenon and Acropolis that includes skip-the-line tickets and a guide who specializes both in Greek history and kids.

Local travel tips for Athens

  • Traveling in yellow cabs hailed from the street can be harrowing. Locals use the Taxi Beat app instead, and its drivers are more likely to speak English.
  • And the best place to grab water, snacks, newspapers, tobacco, or even cheese sandwiches is the ubiquitous Greek kiosk. These small hut-like stands are found all over on street corners. They’ve been an Athenian urban tradition for more than a century; and usually stay in the families operating them for decades.

Guide Editor

Read Before You Go
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If Rome is the eternal city, Athens may be immortal, with its impossibly ancient monuments and vibrant cultural scene. Visitors can choose to stay at one of the world’s most historic and luxurious hotels, fit for gods and goddesses. Neoclassical mansions have been restored with sophisticated modern decor and contemporary Greek cuisine. Choose from a hotel location on Syntagma Square or in the lanes of Plaka for maximum convenience, or venture a bit further west to enjoy bohemian nightlife in Psiri. Acropolis views are always worth the upgrade, especially from a rooftop pool on a balmy Athens summer day.
Athens has plenty of altitude to go along with its attitude—on-high vantage points include not only the Acropolis but also rooftop bars and luxurious hotel terraces. From many of these places, you’ll feel on top of the world.
Athens is infused with counterculture, ranging from the anarchic and graffitied to global-nomad hipster. Bohemia tends to concentrate in a few neighborhoods, notably Exarchia, Kerameikos, Metaxourgeio and the road leading toward Pireaus, but street art and edgy eateries can dot even posher neighborhoods. Of note are Athens’ many wonderful collective DIY art venues combining nightlife, music, art, performance and sometimes even daytime work.
Greeks, especially Athenians, are high-spirited partiers, and don’t stop till they get enough. For those seeking glamour it’s fun to sip cocktails on a rooftop bar, but it’s just as fun to dance in a grungy music venue. Wander near the Technopolis in Gazi or the clubs near the sea during summer, when the party simply spills out onto the streets. Start late, and pace yourself until sunrise, which is when most locals only begin to think about going home.
The best of Athens is sometimes hidden. Athens is gritty; it’s raw; it’s graffiti-filled; and it’s entirely unapologetic. Some hate it, but those who love Athens are those who really understand the city and all she’s been through. How can you fault the birthplace of democracy for her crumbling ways? Real Greece begins here, beneath the Acropolis and over a plate of mezedes. Grab a frappé, join Athenians under the awnings of Exarcheia, and soak up Athens’s city vibe.
Athens is like an onion: it’s multilayered, flavorful, and can elicit tears. Under the city’s vibrant contemporary life are layers of culture, craft, and history reaching back to the birth of western civilization millennia ago. The Acropolis is the absolute, number-one must, but there are many other treasures, old and new, to discover. Remember to take breaks to process it all: Athens, like Rome, wasn’t built in a day.
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