The Best Things to Do in Athens

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.

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.
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.
Leof. Vasileos Konstantinou, Athina 116 35, Greece
Built in the 4th century B.C.E., rebuilt for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and refurbished for the 2004 Athens Olympics, this horseshoe stadium now serves as the finish line for the Athens Marathon. For centuries, nude male athletes competed here in the Panathenaic championships. Follow in their footsteps by running around the track (fully clothed, of course), or admire the views from the Pentelic marble pews, which can accommodate 70,000 spectators. Just outside the top tier of the stadium is a dirt track through the pine forest that’s popular with local joggers—a very scenic and inspiring spot to stay fit while you sightsee.
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.
Pireas, Greece
It’s hectic, crowded, hot, and loud. But Piraeus port is an unforgettable experience—all modes of humanity coming together on this intersection of land and sea. Luxury cruise ships, bigger and whiter than you ever imagined, slowly approach, dock as if in slow motion, and unload their thousands for the day. Greek ferry lines like Blue Star or Hellenic Seaways efficiently shuttle locals to their weekend island getaways. Fisherman, cargo loaders, captains, and all kinds of other workers get busy doing their jobs. And lately, refugees from less fortunate lands are visible, looking for work, connection, or escape. There’s not much glamour in Piraeus Port, but there’s nothing quite like taking a bit of time as you wait for a ferry and watching life pass by.
28is Oktovriou 44, Athina 106 82, Greece
There are dozens of archaeological museums in Greece, but this is easily the biggest and best. Over 11,000 exhibits—including golden death masks, larger-than-life bronze gods and black-and-terracotta pottery—provide a panorama of Greek civilization from prehistory to late antiquity. Standouts are the Antikythera Mechanism, the world’s first analog computer, which lay under the sea for 2000 years, and enchanting wall paintings of boxers and blue monkeys from Santorini, buried under volcanic ash around 1600 B.C.E. Although the curation is somewhat old-fashioned, the collection is truly one-of-a-kind and requires several hours (if not several days) to explore. Afterwards, have an iced coffee among the ethereal statues in the walled garden.
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.
Leof. Posidonos 58, Glifada 166 74, Greece
Sometimes a day at the beach, soaking up the sun and gazing out over sparkling waters, soothes the soul. Athens’ southern districts offer a string of sandy options right in the city. Especially good for children on this “Athenian Riviera” is Asteras Beach. The waterfront is sandy and clean, the water is shallow and generally calm, there are inflatable water toys for kids to play on, and a seaside pool for older kids to lounge around. And for parents there’s a well-stocked beach bar. Asteras is worth the entrance fee, and it’s even reachable via tram from the city center. Easy, relaxing, restorative—and the sunsets here are stunning.
Neofitou Douka 4, Athina 106 74, Greece
This museum is small but perfectly formed, just like the enigmatic marble figurines from the early Bronze Age that are the centerpiece of its collection. Their stark yet sensual forms inspired modern artists like Picasso, Cy Twombly, and Ai Wei Wei, modern artists whose work is sometimes displayed in juxtaposition with these ancient masterpieces. Thought-provoking temporary exhibitions by international art stars are usually held in the Stathatos Mansion, the neoclassical wing that makes a striking counterpoint to the boxy marble main building, constructed in the 1980s. On the top floor, a virtual tour of everyday life in antiquity sheds light on ancient attitudes to desire and death, religion and warfare.

The calm courtyard café, with its marble benches, floating roof, and wall-to-ceiling plants, serves refined dishes such as shrimp ravioli in a lime bisque and microgreens with grilled beetroot, carrots, and goat cheese. The adjacent shop has an ever-changing collection of gifts so eminently desirable that you’ll end up buying them for yourself. Look for the marble paperweights shaped like doves, jugs with the abstract features of Cycladic statues, and numbered prints of Greek antiquities by American photographer Robert McCabe.
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