The Best of Athens

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.

Kidathineon 41, Athina 105 58, Greece
With its walls of colorful glass bottles, this charming little bar can be elusive—nestled deep in downtown Athens, in the warren of streets that make up the Plaka. Day or night, Brettos (pronounced Vrettos in Greek) is frequented by locals and tourists alike—the oldest distillery in Athens. While you can opt for beer, wine, homemade moonshine, or perhaps a cocktail, you might kick yourself later for passing up the chance to have an ouzo, Greece’s signature anise-flavored liquor, in such a storied watering hole. Who knows where that first sip might lead?
Athens 105 58, Greece
You can’t miss the Parthenon, the majestic ruin towering above Athens. Originally painted in vivid hues, this feat of architecture, engineering, and artistry is still as awe-inspiring as it was almost 2,500 years ago. Le Corbusier, pioneer of modernism, called it the most “ruthlessly flawless” monument in the world. Hold on to your admission ticket: It’s valid for several other archaeological sites on the slopes surrounding the Acropolis, including the Agora and theater of Dionysus.

Plaka, Athens, Greece
We picked up some gyros to-go during our stroll through the historic Plaka neighborhood below the Acropolis. Thespidos street was particularly memorable for the cafe we stopped at and discovering Brettos bar, which we decided to come back to enjoy as the end a lovely evening.
Polignotou 3, Athina 105 55, Greece
It’s hard to believe this serene archaeological park, with evocative statues scattered among the wildflowers, oak, and olive trees, was once the beating commercial and political heart of ancient Athens. It’s where citizens came to shop, philosophize, pass laws, and make sacrifices to the gods. Fragments of all this whirling activity are on display at the on-site museum, housed in a photogenic colonnade: ballots used to vote, ‘ostraka’ used to ostracize persona non grata, water-clocks used to time speeches, jewelry, and votives buried with the dead. It’s a great place to introduce kids to the real life of the ancient Greeks, as they can run around among the ruins. Don’t miss the amazingly well-preserved Hephaisteion, a Doric temple built in the fifth century B.C.E., whose ornate pediments are sculpted with the labors of Hercules the Theseus. The temple was converted into a Christian church in the 7th century C.E. and later served as a burial ground for philhellenes who died in the Greek War of Independence.
Athinas, Athina 105 51, Greece
Athens’ Central Market is a home to a tremendous number of vendors selling everything from fresh Aegean octopus, fish and meat of every variety, to spices, olives, and cheeses. The area is surrounded by little eateries, tavernas, and cafes taking advantage of the fresh produce and catering to the bustling crowds. Even if you’re not in the market for meat or fish products, it’s an interesting visit and a great way to experience a slice of local culture. Nose your way to Mokka on Athinas Street for freshly ground Greek coffee roast over hot sand; Karamanlidika tou Fani, a charming deli-cum-ouzeri, for spicy salami, pickled vegetables, and salt fish to accompany your ouzo; and Diporto, a basement tavern that’s been in business since 1887. There’s no sign, no menu, no tablecloths—but the simple food is good and the atmosphere wholly authentic, despite the fact that there are often more tourists than market traders eating lunch there these days.
Acropolis District, Athens 105 58, Greece
See our full list of Where to Go in 2015. According to legend, the ancient gods battled it out to become Athens’ patron deity. The showdown came after the Phoenicians founded a city at a giant rock near the Aegean some two and a half million years ago. The gods of Olympus issued a challenge: the deity who could provide the most valuable legacy for mortals would become the city’s namesake. Athena, goddess of wisdom, produced an olive tree, symbol of peace and prosperity. Poseidon, god of the sea, pounded his trident into the ground and out came a saltwater spring (or a horse, depending on the legend you read). The gods decided Athena’s gift would serve the city better with food, oil, and wood. To this day, her legacy is revered throughout Greece. Named after Erechtheus, a mythical king of Athens, the Erechtheion is Ionic architecture at its finest, easily recognizable by the Caryatids, six larger-than-life maidens modeled on women from ancient Karyai who seem to be casually supporting its southern portico. Those holding up the porch now are plaster casts; the originals are preserved in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.
21 Δώρας Ντ Ίστρια
At 300 meters, Mount Lycabettus is the highest peak in Athens. Every half an hour a funicular whizzes up to the summit. Among other attractions, there’s a restaurant with sky-high prices and views to match. On a clear day, you can see the island of Aegina shimmering on the horizon. The tiny chapel of St. George is a magical place to watch the sunrise (especially on Sundays, when the church service starts at 7:30 a.m.) or sunset.
Filopappou, Athina 117 41, Greece
Marble footpaths meander up pine-clad Filopappou Hill, a peaceful hideout for picnickers and joggers. Hidden in a rocky clearing is the Pnyx, the world’s first democratic assembly, where the great orators Pericles and Themistocles held court in the 5th century B.C.E. The Pnyx could hold 18,000 citizens on wooden benches, with standing room for thousands more. Imagine the scene when the founding fathers of democracy took to the podium—and enjoy the phenomenal cityscape from this historic vantage point, with the Acropolis in the foreground. Climb all the way to the summit of Filopappou (also known as the Hill of the Muses) and you can see all the way to the port of Piraeus, with the promise of nearby islands shimmering on the horizon. Crowning the adjacent Hill of the Nymphs, the National Observatory is Greece’s oldest research institute. Set in lovely landscaped gardens, the charming 19th century building contains rare books and antique astronomical equipment. Occasional evening tours offer the chance to stargaze through a refracting telescope and learn about the Greek myths written into the constellations.
Themistokleous 66, Athina 106 81, Greece
Nosotros is a free social space in Exarcheia where the youth come to discuss politics or to participate in seminars on literature, theater, painting, music, dance, and more. You can even take a cooking or photography class. If you’re a visitor, you can take free Greek lessons here, and during the summer there’s a cinema on the rooftop terrace. The venue will also host live music, and when I was here, a rock show was setting up.
Exarcheia, Athens 106 81, Greece
Exarcheia is the most unique neighborhood in Athens, by far. It’s not for everyone. It’s gritty, graffiti-laden, and crawling with punk rock kids who are far more harmless than they appear.

But behind its rough exterior you’ll find a dozen bookshops, tiny cafes where old men sit sipping Greek coffee, and an onslaught of art exhibits with political undertones. The neighborhood’s cultural identity is diverse: you can smoke hookah with Syrians or you can dine with the artsy Greeks. Embrace every second of it.
Ifestou 2, Athina 105 55, Greece
Centered around a flea market, Monastiraki Square is busy with musicians, beggars, street performers, and tourists. Sometimes you’ll hear fireworks going off here, for no particular reason. Sometimes there’ll be full-on drum circles. The flea market itself is diverse. You’ll find all the regular ‘ol touristy souvenirs, but also many locally produced foods. Go to the cheese shop for cheese, the bakery for bread, etc. The meat market and fish market are also nearby, but those are only for the brave.
Pl. Sintagmatos, Athina 105 63, Greece
Syntagma Square is most notoriously known for its political demonstrations in front of the Parliament Building. All the major events in Greece over the past century have been mourned or celebrated here, and it’s a hub of activity. Grassy areas around the square make an ideal place to sit back and people watch. Stick around for the changing of the guards -- the (somewhat absurd) performance is worth it.
Acropolis, Athens 116 36, Greece
Obviously, you can’t visit Athens without climbing up “the rock” (as locals fondly call the Acropolis) to commune with its crowning glory: the Parthenon. Although visible from most places in the city, getting up close to one of the undisputed masterpieces of Western civilization is an experience that never disappoints. Even on a scorching day, with hundreds of visitors around and the concrete city clamouring for your attention, the impact is profound. The Parthenon has a timeless beauty, striking in its symmetrical simplicity. Other glorious monuments scattered around the slopes include the Erecthion, propped up by the graceful caryatids, and the Temple of Athena Nike. To fully appreciate the complex history of the Acropolis—which has been everything from a Christian church to a mosque to an arsenal and a shanty town over the ages—it’s well worth enlisting the services of a professional guide, or investing in Mary Beard’s wonderful book, The Parthenon. That way you won’t make the same mistake as Shaquille O’Neal; when a reporter asked whether he’d visited the Parthenon during a trip to Greece, O’Neal replied: “I can’t really remember the names of the clubs we went to.”

Top tip: Buy a multi-site ticket that gives you single access to the Acropolis and 10 other archaeological sites and is valid for five days. Go as early, or as late, in the day as you can to avoid the summer heat and crowds.
Kolonaki, Athens 106 75, Greece
Kolonaki is Athens’s affluent and posh neighborhood, and the access point to scaling Lycabettus Mountain. Kolonaki is a stunning contrast to nearby neighborhoods like Exarcheia and Omonia; this is where the elite hang out, and instead of graffiti you’ll find art galleries and designer labels. Check out the neoclassical mansions on Leof Vasiliss Sofias, and enjoy some frappe at an outdoor cafe.
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