Often referred to as the cradle of Western Civilization, Athens is an interesting mix of antiquity and modernity with some of the largest collection of Greek ruins and historical artifacts. Athens is a definite must see, from strolling the Plaka to exploring the Acropolis. However, as much as I love the history, the food, the bustling metropolis, it’s not a city I’d spend too much time in. I love Greece, but there are far better places to spend your vacation. Don’t even think about bypassing Athens, just don’t spend more than three days here. It’s plenty of time. This guide will help you maximize and enjoy your time here.
Before You Go
There is a lot to take in in Athens. It will be next to impossible to fully absorb everything without some preparation beforehand.
Brush up on Ancient Greek History If you don’t know much about Greek history, it’s going to be hard to cram for. That’s over 2000 years to catch up on. It’s overwhelming when you’ve underestimated how much you’ve missed. Now don’t laugh, but I found Greece for Kids websites to be extremely helpful. If you’re looking for something a bit more visual (and adult) this video is definitely a good place to start.
Download Walking Tours on Your Phone Navigating the Ancient ruins, even after you’ve brushed up on your history is also an overwhelming venture. How can you possibly appreciate what you’re seeing if you don’t know what you’re seeing. You can hire a guide but to be honest I found downloading a walking tour app to be all you need. I loved the Rick Steves App. Just download the app here and then download the walking tours that interest you. It’s that easy and best of all it’s free! I can’t tell you how many times I was stopped by tourists asking me what I was listening to.
Check What’s Going on When You’re There I loved the This is Athens website. Just type in what days you’re in Athens and you’ll see everything happening in the city. From free concerts to outdoor festivals, to open air theatres. It’s one of the most helpful city guides I’ve come across anywhere
Arriving by Air When you’re arriving at Eleftherios Venizelos airport. Take Metro Line 3 (Aghia Marina – Douk. Plakentias – Airport), which connects the Athens airport with the city centre. Be sure you take the blue line since it’s not well marked. Trains run every 30 minutes, 7 days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. The trip from/to the Airport to Syntagma station (Athens centre) lasts 40 minutes and costs 8€. If your flight is outside these times you’ll have to hop on a 24h bus for 5€ (X93 to Kifissos, X95 to Syntagma, X96 to Piraeus or X97 to Helliniko Station). A taxi to or from the airport has a fixed price of 35€
Arriving by Boat Your boat will arrive at Piraeus, the main port of Athens. You can take either line M1 or P1. Again the trains run every 30 minutes, 7 days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and costs 8€. Outside of these times you can take the bus X96 for 5€ or a taxi that has a fixed price of 65€
Where to Stay
Athens Backpackers As the name implies, this is the place to stay if you’re a backpacker. It is on the pricier side of most hostels, but it makes up for it in location alone between the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Acropolis. There is free wifi, free breakfast and a rooftop bar with one of the best views in the city.
Dorms are clean and start from $40. If you’re looking for something a bit private, the hostel also offers private studio apartments starting at 40€
A for Athens Rooms and Apartments is a great mid range boutique hotel option. I could not stop raving about this hotel. It was modern, clean, lively, and was the rooftop hotel bar was the place to be in the evening. The sunsets here were unforgettable.
What to Do
Get your bearings I highly recommend taking a tour to to orient yourself yourself in the city. This will allow you to get a quick history lesson and plan out your visit. There are a few tours I recommend
- Athens Bakpackers Walking Tour this is an amazing walking tour for 7€. The guides are knowledgeable and you get a comprehensive overview of the city in 3.5 hours where you’ll be taken through most of the major landmarks and also tips on where to find local hotspots, markets and other hidden gems. Tours run every morning
- Athens Free Walking Tour If you’re on a tight budget, this walking tour led by local historians is completely free. The tour lasts 2 hours and also covers all the major sights. But be nice and tip your guide at the end. It really is a great tour
- Athens by Bike If you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous I loved Athens by Bike. For 35€ the tour lasts 3.5 hours, and includes a coffee break. You get to cover a lot more ground than you would on foot and also get to see places you wouldn’t normally see on a walking tour. What struck me about this tour is that even though I was the only person to sign up, the tour still went on as scheduled. So that’s a pretty great score for a private tour and gave me personalized tips on places to check out!
Visit the Acropolis Museum I highly recommend making a visit to the Acropolis Museum before visiting the Acropolis. You’ll get a thorough appreciation of not only the history of the Acropolis, but an appreciation of it’s construction and significance to Athenians. Quick tip…don’t be in such a rush to get into the museum. The entrance and parts of the museum have glass bottom floors so you can look down into the ancient ruins. Expect to spend at least 2 hours here. Entrance into the museum is 5€ and is not included in the Acropolis site entrance fee. If you get hungry, the museum cafe is fairly inexpensive, has free wifi, decent coffee and an amazing acropolis view
Grab a Drink With a View By this time it’s probably late afternoon. I’d take the opportunity to head up to A for Athens rooftop bar and plop yourself down on the roof. Have a drink or two and watch the sun go down over the Acropolis
Grab a Souvlaki Dinner in Monastiraki Once the sun goes down and the streets fill up, head over to Monastiraki for some Souvlaki at one of the many eateries in Monastiraki. My favourite by far was at O Thanasis. You will not regret getting the mixed platter and a beer for around 10€. This place is packed and busy. Grab a seat outside or on the roof
Head to the Acropolis FIRST thing in the morning This is not a day to sleep in. If you must stop for coffee, grab one from one of the shops near Acropolis station and take it to go. I know it might be hard but you won’t regret getting a jump start on the day. You’ll know what I mean when you’re about to leave and you see tour bus after tour bus pull up to the gates waiting to enter. If you haven’t done it already do make sure you’ve downloaded the Rick Steves walking tour of the Acropolis and the Agora. The ticket costs 20€ (half price in the winter). If you plan on seeing more than the Acropolis and Agora, I would purchase a combined ticket for 30€. These prices went up drastically in 2016 so you may see blogs or websites with outdated information (hey it happens). Before 2015 these tickets were 5 and 10€ which considering the importance of these sites was an unbelievable steal.
Explore the Agora right after the Acropolis By this time, while everyone is out visiting the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora will still be relatively empty. This was the centre of everyday Athenian life in Ancient life and in my opinion there is so much more to see here. The single entrance ticket is 8€. Again, Rick Steves offers a free downloadable walking tour and I highly recommend it.
Grab a snack in Syntagma Square…you’ve earned it Now is the time to finally sit down and relax. If it’s before 3pm then head over to O Kostas for the best souvlaki pita of your life. I say before 3pm because once he runs out, he runs out for the day and that happened to me. Don’t let it happen to you. Don’t worry though came back the next day and was not disappointed
Take a Stroll around the Plaka Grab (another) bite to eat or sit down for a frappe at one of the many cafe’s at the Plaka. Once you’re ready meander around the streets and alleys and pick up any souvenirs you need
Explore the National Gardens, Parliament and Panathenaic Stadium Considered the heart of modern Athens. Watch the changing of the guard everyday at 5pm then take a stroll in the gardens. Or take a lap around the Panathenaic Stadium and pretend you’re an Olympian
Grab a quick dinner and eat it on the steps of Monastiraki Square I know you did this yesterday but the food here really is that great and cheap. Grab a falafel pita at falafellas. The lineups aren’t wrongThen satiate your sweet tooth with a visit to lukumades for the puffiest little donuts doused in honey (or any other kind of sweet concoction you can think of, but honey is best)
Explore the National Archaeological Museum If there is a museum anywhere in the world you need to visit it’s this one. As the cradle of western civilization, this is a museum that you will not regret visiting. I would spend at least 2 hours here. You won’t even notice the time go by
Grab a Snack of Frozen Yogurt and Espresso This was the best snack ever. Especially on a hot day at Fresko Yogurt Bar
Take a hike up Lycabettus Hill This is without a doubt the best view in all of Athens. It’s not the easiest hike but it’s definitely worth the effort
Splurge on Your Final Dinner It’s been so easy to grab quick inexpensive food in Athens, but if you want a moderate splurge for one meal, do it at Oineas. The moussaka here is just one of the best things you’ll eat.
Where to Eat
I’ve already outlined some places to check out but for the sake of keeping things together and to add in a few other places here are my go to eats in Athens
Meliartos A great place to pick up a cup of coffee (especially frozen coffee and frappe) and pastry
Terra Carpo Best cup of coffee I had in Athens. Right near the Acropolis museum if you need a pick me up
A for Athens Rooftop Bar The best rooftop view in Athens without a doubt. Considering the prime location the drink prices are actually reasonable. The staff also don’t pressure you to leave if you’ve been sitting for a while waiting for the sunset.
O Thanassis This is the place to get a traditional plate of souvlaki and it is no secret. Tables spill out into the street, all floors are full and the rooftop also has a great acropolis view. A plate of souvlaki and beer shouldn’t run you more than 10€. I loved sitting outside. Great for people watching
O Kostas Known around Athens for the best gyro and souvlaki pita in town. Get here before three because when the food runs out they close for the day.
Fresko Yogurt Bar A great place for frozen greek yogurt. The perfect way to cool down. Tons of interesting flavour combos but I recommend the traditional honey and walnut.
Falafellas While falafel isn’t really too well known in Athens, this place has one of the best. Opt for the falafel pita with everything. I wish I was eating it right now. Even in Monastiraki, where there is no shortage of street food there was a sizeable line.
Lukumades to satisfy your sweet tooth, pick up some of these little balls of deep fried goodness also in Monastiraki. These also come with any concoction of sweet toppings but again I loved the plain honey topping
Oineas If you want to splurge on a meal, I highly recommend eating here. The prices are reasonable and the food is incredible. The moussaka was phenominal and don’t skip the kataifi for dessert
Know Before You Go
Is Athens Safe?
Athens, like most other large cities is safe, just keep your wits about you. Syntagma Square and Omonia are a bit shady at night so exercise some caution here. Also be aware of government protests and steer clear as many have turned violent.
Do I need to know Greek?
You don’t need to be fluent in Greek but you should make yourself familiar with some Greek symbols as directions aren’t always clear. For example tourist maps in the airport are all in Greek letters so make certain you hop on the right train. Moreover all subway stations are listed in the stations in Greek, so pay close attention to train announcements so you don’t miss your stop. Streets are also all written in Greek symbols so I would pre download a google map of Athens
Enjoy your trip!
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