The Top Things to Do in Athens

Under Athens’ modern life are layers of culture, craft, and history reaching back to the birth of western civilization millennia ago. The Acropolis, the temples, the day-trips: Make time for it all. It took a long time to get to this glorious state.

Highlights
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.
Dionysiou Areopagitou 15, Athina 117 42, Greece
There’s nothing old-fashioned about this archaeological museum, where cutting-edge technology is used to clean and digitally reconstruct the statues, ceramics and everyday objects unearthed on and around the Acropolis hill. There’s even a LEGO model of the Acropolis, plus backpacks full of interactive games, to keep twitchy kids happy. The bittersweet pièce de résistance is the Parthenon frieze, partially hacked off by Lord Elgin and sold to the British Museum. In 2019, the remains of the ancient neighborhood unearthed during the museum’s construction (also visible beneath the reinforced glass floors) were opened to the public. Now you can wander among the streets, homes, bathhouses, and workshops where Athenians lived and worked from the Classical to the Byzantine era. The Acropolis Museum stays open late on Friday nights—a great time to admire the artifacts with the modern metropolis reflected in the glass walls. The view from the museum restaurant—its terrace almost touching the Parthenon—is a knockout, as is the regional, seasonal Greek food.
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.
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. Andrea Siggrou 364, Kallithea 176 74, Greece
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC)—new home for both the National Library and National Opera, designed by Renzo Piano and financed to the tune of €630 million—is a wonder to look at, walk through, and relax in. The library and opera are state of the art; the 42-acre grounds include a salt-water canal where you can learn to sail or kayak, fantastic playgrounds and fountains to keep kids entertained, and the Great Lawn where free concerts, open-air screenings and festivals are staged year-round. Take advantage of the center’s location and drink in the 360-degree views of the city and sea from the Lighthouse, a glass-walled lookout and terrace shaded by a vast solar panel that powers most of the sustainably minded complex. This neighborhood is, after all, called Kallithea, which means “wonderful view.”
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.
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.
Athens, Greece
NEON, which started in 2013, has an unusual concept—a Greek art patron, Dimitris Daskalopoulos, mounts large-scale, site-specific exhibitions without procuring a permanent space. The roaming art projects have been exhibited in some of the city’s most interesting and under-used spaces and places, many of which are otherwise inaccessible: Photographer Panos Kokkinias hung unflinching portraits of Athens and its inhabitants in an abandoned bank. Argentine artist Adrian Villar Rojas created his own hilltop world installed earthy sculptures and thousands of plants in the grounds of the hilltop National Observatory, in 2017. British artist Michael Landy invited Athenians to submit graffiti, political slogans, and newspaper headlines, which he plastered onto the walls of a derelict art school. In May 2020, acclaimed Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos will premiere a short film starring Emma Stone and Damien Bonnard, accompanied by live orchestral music at the Greek National Opera.
9 Ethniki Odos 91
About 25km south of Athens, Vouliagmeni Lake is famous for the teensy-weensy fish that nibble on your skin if you stay still enough—tickly for kids, a fun exfoliation-of-sorts for grownups (people who don’t want to be tickled by fish need to keep moving). The Lake is also famous for its hot spring water, long touted for its mineral content and healing properties. The temperate lake is partially surrounded by a stunning landscape of rocky white cliffs; underwater, a system of caves provides fun for ambitious divers (not for the fainthearted or inexperienced). Beach umbrellas, a wooden dock, and a cafe-restaurant make for a relaxing break from the city. And the water never dips below 71 degrees (22 degrees celsius)—so it’s warm enough to swim here year-round.
Apostolou Pavlou 7, Athina 118 51, Greece
Summer doesn’t officially start in Athens until the open-air cinemas open. Most neighborhoods have their local outdoor theaters, squeezed on empty plots between apartment blocks, sometimes even on the roof or in the park. The screen is usually framed by bougainvillea or jasmine, cats may wander nonchalantly down the aisles, the little bar might serve homemade ice cream or souvlaki skewers, and you can drink and smoke your way through the screening. One of the most enchanting outdoor cinemas in Athens is Cine Thisio, strategically placed on Apostolou Pavlou, the pedestrian promenade that runs below the Acropolis. Pick up homemade cheese pies, organic wine, or sour cherry cordial from the canteen and settle in for a vintage classic under the stars, with the illuminated Parthenon as a backdrop. There’s no more quintessential Athenian experience than this. (Except perhaps for a concert at the Roman Odeon of Herodes Atticus, just a little way up the street.) Open from early May to October, depending on the weather. There are two screenings every night, usually starting around 8.30–9 p.m. and 10.30–11 p.m.
Leof. Andrea Siggrou 107, Athina 117 45, Greece
What the Brooklyn Academy of Music is to New Yorkers or the Barbican is to Londoners, the Onassis Cultural Center is to the Greek capital. The stunning building with a slatted facade opened in 2010—it covers an entire city block and in addition to the six above-ground floors are nine subterranean ones. The center offers remarkably international and ambitious programming in dance, theater, music, talks, visual arts, and even festivals. Interior theaters have fabulous acoustics, and the line-up is a daring mix of emerging and established artists. The Onassis Foundation is behind it all (yes, it was the famous Aristotle Onassis who was once married to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, but when Ari died in 1975, the foundation was renamed for his son Alexander). Check their website for current events and tickets. Post-performance, hit up the moodily lit bar upstairs for excellent cocktails (try the Metaxa Sidecar or Aegean gin and tonic with grapefruit soda); or go all out with the tasting menu at Hytra restaurant, this is one of the most cutting-edge dinner venues in Athens.
Κολοκοτρώνη 3-5 &, Voulis, Athina 105 62, Greece
Yorgos Korres founded the first homeopathic pharmacy in Athens. He went on to create a global phenomenon with Korres, an affordable range of natural cosmetics extracted from Greek herbs, flowers, and plants. Now Yorgos and his brother Andonis have created a new beauty brand that pays homage to their birthplace, the island of Naxos. Organic lotions and potions, based on the island’s rich biodiversity, are created on the spot in the Naxos Apothecary, an open laboratory lined with wooden shelves and white tiles. Book a consultation to create your own bespoke cosmetics, tailored to your skin type. You can choose from 54 different ingredients harvested from Naxos, including amaranth, sea lilies, and wild pear. Each product comes with a personalized label listing the ingredients and their properties. As well as homeopathic remedies and deliciously unusual fragrances, there’s a wonderful selection of healing herbs and organic tisanes from all over Greece, ideal for stashing away in your hand luggage. Our favorites: Cretan dittany, chamomile flowers from Naxos, and lemon verbena from Samos.
Kolokotroni 1, Athina 105 62, Greece
If there’s one thing you should bring back from Athens, it’s a pair of handmade leather sandals. Equally flattering on women and men, the natural patina of the leather only improves with age. Monastiraki flea market is full of shops selling affordable sandals in a variety of ‘ancient’ styles, popularized by The Beatles in the 1960s. For a more fashion-forward look, hit Ancient Greek Sandals’ first flagship store, close to Syntagma Square. Beautifully designed with aquamarine floor tiles and hand-woven textiles on the walls, the shop brims with timeless designs named after Greek muses, goddesses, and islands. You’ll find simple classics, metallics, jelly versions for the beach, tasseled, woven, and embellished sandals in limited edition collaborations with fine Greek jewelry designers, such as Yannis Sergakis and Ilias Lalaounis. Their signature winged sandals, inspired by the Greek messenger god Hermes’ footwear, come in kids’ sizes too. For winter, there are sheepskin slippers and smart knee-high boots inspired by Cretan folk costumes. This traditional craftsmanship combined with a high-end aesthetic carries through in the line of leather accessories, all with their signature gold buckle in the shape of a wing. Complete the look with charm bangles, anklets, and necklaces decorated with shells and coins.
Adrianou 24, 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.
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