The heart of Athens doesn’t just pulsate – it thunders. Athens is loud, it’s congested, it’s polluted and it’s expensive. It’s the city Greeks love to hate, yet almost half the people live there. The buzz of Athens may be more of a rumble (in part due to the obscene traffic in the suburbs) but, thanks in part to an Olympic makeover, it’s one that isn’t just tolerable but oddly alluring.
And if you feel the need to escape, don’t hop in the next cab and head to the airport. Athens’ recent revamp has included pedestrian streets being built to replace busy roads, so leave the bustle behind and take a stroll through Archaeological Park and Dionissiou Areopagitou Street, linking the ancient monuments and creating Europe’s longest pedestrian walkway through its historic heart.
Sick of the smog? Climb the bare marble hill of Aeropagus, or scale Mount Lycabettus for views of the city that will make you want to get right back in amongst it. Although, while you’re up there, what could make you forget Athens’ cosmopolitan commotion better than gazing across the modern city to the Parthenon-topped Acropolis?
That 2500-year-old building overshadows Athens both literally and metaphorically. Symbol of the ancient culture that gave the world so much, it casts a pall over a city trying to forge a new identity.
Athens remains a city of contradictions. Simultaneously backwards-thinking and forward-looking, it is both sedate (as befits Europe’s oldest city) and vibrant. The nightlife is wild, the coffee is strong, so drink up and take your fill.
Athen's Top 10
10. Daphni Monastery Built in the 5th Century, it has been occupied in turn by Cistercian and Greek Orthodox monks. Now, it’s home to some of Greece’s best Byzantine mosaics.
5. Agora Athens’ ancient meeting place is just as impressive as the New-Acropolis-Museum, but with fewer crowds.
9. Kerameikos This ancient cemetery remains one of Athens’ most beautiful attractions – probably because it’s less popular with tourists.
4. Syntagma Square Greece’s political centre has seen many famous demonstrations. If you missed them, at least you can still see the important landmarks flanking the plaza.
8. The National Garden A peaceful haven containing a garden, a zoo and small ponds. An oasis amidst the hustle and bustle.
3. New Acropolis Museum Worth seeing for the ‘controversial’ design and display approach, as well as the exhibits themselves.
7. Arch of Hadrian An imposing marble arch with an inscription on each side, to be read by people passing through. You can no longer actually pass through, but it’s still a magnificent sight.
2. National Archaeological Museum Decide which Cycladic pots and Minoan frescoes (the gold mask of Agamemnon is a no-brainer) to see, otherwise it could be weeks before you emerge from its neoclassical depths.
6. Mount Lycabettus Walking to the top of this hill rewards you with spectacular city views. You can reap the same benefits by catching a train up, however. Topped by a church, restaurant and theatre – it offers something for mind, body and soul.
1. The Acropolis Mind-boggling, jaw-dropping – it’s impossible to overstate the importance of both the rock and its ancient monuments.
- Acropolis – Possibly the most famous historical site in the world, this hill is home to many important ancient ruins.
- Agora – This historical site in Athens was once one of the most important markets in the area.
- Parthenon – These ruins of an ancient Greek building are one of the most recognizable sites in Athens.
- Plaka –This ancient neighbourhood is found at the base of the Acropolis.
- Temple of Olympian Zeus – This historical site features a monument to Zeus.
Athens Art & Culture
- Keramikos Cemetery – This Athens cemetery and museum offers a great walk.
- Theatre of Dionysos – The location where some of the great dramatists put on their plays.
- Acropolis Museum – This Athens museum tells all about the history of the ancient Acropolis.
- Parliament Building – Constructed in the ancient Greek style, making it a must-see for lovers of architecture.
- Tower of the Winds – This Athens landmark used to house one of the world’s first clocks.
- Spiliopoulos – A unique and frenzied store in Athens and one of the best places to buy shoes.
- Public – This giant electronics store is one of the best places in Athens for all things related to computers and DVDs.
- Kaliviotis – This women’s shop sells clothing as well as fabric.
- Athens Central Market – If you are looking for fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts, this is the best place in Athens to buy them.
- Harris the Beltman – Hidden away in the back of an apartment, this shop specializes in unique handmade belts.
Gay & Lesbian Athens
- Airotel Statos Vassilikos Hotel – This gay-friendly hotel is housed inside a beautiful old building in central Athens.
- Emmantina Hotel – Located just outside of Athens on the beautiful Glyfada Beach.
- Kinetta Beach – This is an exclusively gay beach outside Athens where one will also find a large number of nudists.
- Athinaikon – This Athens cinema specializes in gay-themed adult movies.
- Baby’s Graffiti – This Athens gay bar features music in a relaxed atmosphere.
- Mountain Parnitha – One of Athens most scenic and popular spots for hiking and trekking.
- Kavi Club – These outdoor enthusiasts will arrange any type of adventure while you are in Athens.
- Mount Ymittos – This majestic mountain can be seen from all over Athens and is home to an ancient monastery and an array of hiking trails.
- Marathon – Just outside of Athens, this is a favourite spot for walkers.
- Alimos – This southern suburb of Athens is a popular place for swimming and water sports.
- Play a relaxing round of golf in Athens at the beautiful Glyfada Golf Course.
- Take a ride around the ancient city with Athens by Bike.
- Swim or play volleyball at the Astir Beach Club in Athens.
- Run in the Athens Marathon in November.
- Catch a football match at Olympiakos Stadium outside of Athens.
The area hugging the ‘hill of wolves’ is no longer inhabited by wolves but by Athenian socialites. It follows that Kolonaki is Athens’ trendiest neighbourhood, with prices that reflect its desirability.
Emulate the lifestyle of Greek celebrities with a coffee at Café Zonar – if you’re dressed appropriately, otherwise you’d better head to Tsakalof Street first for some designer threads.
Kolonaki is also home to some of Athens’ top museums, such as the Benaki Museum, while The History of Greek Costume is one of the few places you’re guaranteed not to spot any Prada or Versace.
If you find yourself confused about whether you’re drawn to Plaka’s ancient charm or repulsed by its commercialisation, you’re not alone – locals feel the same way. Although greatly improved by the 2004 car ban, the oldest section of Athens, shaded by the Acropolis, remains inundated with places where you will find the perfect piece of touristy junk for that friend you don’t really want to spend any money on.
Once you’ve shopped the main drags of Kidathineon and Adrianou, get a taste for real Greek fare at Vyzantino Restaurant or Planka Taverna. Just don’t overdo things – it makes climbing the steps to the historic site of Anafiotika far less pleasant.
The bustling atmosphere of Monastiraki is more tolerable than in any of Athens’ other neighbourhoods, probably because it’s caused by Athenians as much as it is by tourists. It’s best to experience Monastiraki on the weekend, when hordes of locals make their way through its winding streets to sell their wares (both junk and quality) at the huge flea market.
During the week there’s also the Metropolitan Church of Athens at the centre of the Homonym Square to check out, and the pretty Agios Eleftherios – one of Athens’ best-preserved Byzantine churches.
Lying at the foot of the Acropolis, Thissio is active yet somehow peaceful, probably also due to the greenery of Filipappou Park. The area is thick with bars, cafés and restaurants, including Kafeneio Thissio where you can find out what Greek food is really all about.
Thissio is also where you will find the Kerameikos cemetery, one of the few cemeteries in the world where you can wander around after dark without feeling like a character in a horror film.
Sure Kolonaki is trendy, but Gazi is just plain cool. Follow Persefoni Street (bordering the gasworks) up to the plethora of cafes, bars and restaurants. Sardales seafood restaurant and the Butcher Shop are both highly rated and air-conditioned. Gazi is also home to the Technopolis of Athens, an industrial museum of modern architecture.
Athens Eat & Drink
If there’s one thing the Greeks do better than drink, it’s eat. Do both at one of these restaurants.
Aleria gives the gritty-cool neighbourhood of Metaxourgeio a seriously upscale edge.
Hytra Cretan-inspired nouveau Greek cuisine.
Café Boheme It’s hard to believe such a cool nightlife spot can be so romantic before 11pm.
Asklipiou Gonia A taverna atmosphere, but a lack of pretention is all you’ll garner from that. Everything else is pure elegance. Attica
Edodi The outside just looks like somebody’s house, though the unassuming facade is probably a good thing – Edodi is popular, and there aren’t many tables. Koukaki
Daphne’s Restaurant This justly famous and excellent spot is conveniently located beside the Coregic Monument of Lysikrates, which more unfortunate tourists (and diners) tend to miss.
Rena Tis Ftelias The brains (and hands) behind this new Greek cuisine, Chef Rena Togia, also writes cookbooks. If they contain menu recipes, we’re buying one. Neo Psyhiko
Varoulko Why don’t more restaurants have tables on the rooftop? Probably because they don’t have views of the Acropolis. Thissio
Dionysos Zonars Location, location, location used to be the catchphrase of this famous restaurant. It still is, but the traditional Greek dishes are fantastic too.
Spondi Athens’ top-rated restaurant is everything you would expect from a 2-3 Michelin star establishment. And, if you book a private dining room, more. Pangrati
The glamorous set sip champagne on the terrace at Akrotiri between April and October, when a huge glitter ball floats in the outdoor pool.
May’s Lycabettus Festival has the most picturesque setting, offering exciting music and theatre events against the stunning backdrop of Mount Lycabettus.
The Athens Festival isn’t exactly the Olympics, but it’s pretty major. Running from June until September, it celebrates national and international culture with opera, ballet and traditional performances.
If you need an incentive to scale Mount Lycabettus, June’s International Jazz & Blues Festival provides a pretty good one.
European Music Day in June is a free event and open to anyone to wants to perform. Luckily those who decide to are usually really good.
June’s Anti-Racism Festival raises awareness of human rights and recognises the work of immigrant artists living in Greece. Dance, listen to music and enjoy art for a good cause.
Athens isn’t just fond of old stuff – in July it holds the raucous Rockwave Festival, which draws some big international acts.
The car ban in central Athens is lifted during July’s World Rally Championship – for official competitors, not visitors.
The International Aegean Sailing Rally in July is now decidedly slower, no longer being racing-only, but is still just as glamorous.
The beauty of the August Full Moon convinced the Greek Culture Ministry to deem that 55 ancient sites should remain open to the public. Hordes of people might detract slightly from their moonlit beauty, but the free concerts are fun.
When To Go
The smog is annoying at most times of the year, but it becomes just plain oppressive when combined with the heat and humidity of summer.
Spring and autumn are the most pleasant times to visit, when temperatures between 8 and 25°C (46-77°F) actually allow you to walk around.
Winter temperatures don’t drop below zero, but Athens does experience occasional snowfall.
What To Miss
Street performances are interesting, but they don’t come free. They don’t even come cheap – watch from a distance.
Don’t plan your day around the famous changing of the guards. It’s so crowded you might not even see it.
Don’t buy your souvenirs on the Acropolis. If you want to buy cheap tat, make sure it’s actually cheap.
Athens is rumoured to have 15,000 taxis, but trying to find an empty one is more difficult than it sounds.
Athens is now blessed with a subway system accessing the city centre. Thanks, 2004 Olympics!
Another benefit of the Olympics is that streets have become pedestrianised – so there’s no excuse not to get a bit of exercise while you check out the sites.