As a child, I was always fascinated by ancient Greece and dying to visit Athens. Where could you be closer to the ancients than in Athens. After all, some of their buildings or ruins are still standing! With so many things to do in Athens, I was dying to visit this city for the longest time.
But just before my long-awaited trip, my brother put a damper on my anticipation. “Athens is the dirtiest capital I’ve ever seen!” he said. And my brother has seen plenty of capitals.
So I flew to Athens with mixed feelings. Would it really be that dirty? Or, like Naples, does the city have charm at second glance? Or would my childish notions of antiquity be confirmed?
Athens is a city that’s less dirty than advertised. I liked the city already at first sight – when we looked over Athens on the roof terrace of our rented apartment and saw the Acropolis towering in front of us, it was just incredible!
But even my childish ideas of such an ancient city weren’t 100% met. Because of course, Athens has many ancient buildings that really blew me away.
However, the city has understandably also gone with the times, so it has some modern influences. The modern influences, though, are quite different from what I remember from Northern Europe. In part, the structure reminded me of Spanish cities; in part, Amman in Jordan. Not surprising given Greece’s very southeastern location within Europe.
I was pleasantly surprised by my first impression of Athens and even more impressed by the second!
I really enjoyed my time in the city, both during the day and at night. It’s an interesting, diverse, and vibrant place.
During the day, tourists dominate the cityscape, squeezing through the narrow streets from one sight to the next in the blazing sun. In the evening, however, this picture turns and the locals live their lives on the streets of Athens. Good music, great conversations, and the best wine are preprogrammed.
So take your time in Athens for both: the tourist days to get to know all the sights; and the vibrant nights to experience the real Athens!
Related read: A Guide to Athens, Greece
Visit the famous Acropolis
The Acropolis is one of the most famous landmarks of Athens, so a trip here is a must! But what is actually behind it?
The Acropolis is not just a building, but probably the most famous city fortress of Ancient Greece, whose ruins on the castle hill of Athens still watch over the city today.
The entire complex includes several buildings. Most likely the most famous among them is the Parthenon, the ancient temple complex that gives the Acropolis its face. In addition, however, there are several other ancient buildings such as the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia and the Dionysus Theater. These will all make you dream of an ancient time.
For the famous view of the Acropolis, you should also go to Areopagus Hill. The hill is known as a “tourist mountain”, but the view of the Acropolis from here is unmistakable.
By the way, the entrance is free for EU citizens under 25 years old.
Read as well our travel tip about how to buy tickets to the Acropolis.
Enjoy views over Athens
You can’t get enough views over Athens. So, we were especially happy that our apartment had a rooftop terrace with a terrific view of the Acropolis. However, don’t fret! If your accommodation doesn’t have a rooftop terrace, there are plenty of options for you to enjoy a great view of Athens.
There are 100 addresses for that rooftop terrace feeling. One popular one is the rooftop of Hotel A for Athens. My favorite in terms of views, however, is the view from Lycabettus Hill, as you can look over the Acropolis to the sea from here. The hill is very popular, especially at sunset. No wonder because it is too beautiful. But then it is also crowded.
The view from Philopappos Hill is similarly good. Here it is less crowded. So if you want to enjoy some peace and quiet while looking over Athens, then you are at the right address.
Explore the streets along the Acropolis
The Acropolis is definitely worth seeing, but don’t miss out on the neighborhoods of Anafiotika and Plaka below it. Both are known for their cute, Greek-style alleyways.
Anafiotika is called “Little Mykonos” for a reason. You’ll feel like you’ve escaped the city for a moment and are on a Greek island. The streets are so picturesque that it’s fun just to stroll through here.
Similarly picturesque, but much busier, are the streets of Plaka. In addition to some eateries, there are mainly small shops selling Greek souvenirs, etc. Plaka is certainly one of the most touristy places in Athens, but not without good reason–tourists are always attracted to beautiful places.
Old buildings are part of Athens
If you’re as impressed by old buildings as I am, then you’ll love the Athens Academy.
It’s the leading institution of non-university academic research in Greece, and its work is divided into three sections: science, literature & fine arts, and ethical & political sciences. There’s a beautiful building for each section, and they just keep getting better.
Oh, and the Central Market of Athens is not far from the Academy. You can buy all kinds of food there, from fish to fruit. It’s open every day from 7 am to 6 pm, except Sundays.
Off the beaten track in Exarchia
Exarchia is the alternative neighborhood in Athens. The hub of the neighborhood is Exarchia Square. From here you can explore the surrounding streets.
On the one hand, you will stroll past empty, run-down buildings. On the other hand you will discover cool graffiti and bars. I would recommend you to go on a little discovery tour through this very different quarter of Athens and then sit down in one of the restaurants.
After a little rest you can go to the Archaeological Museum of Athens, which is just a stone’s throw away. Here you will be able to follow in the footsteps of ancient Greece.
Walk through the National Garden
The National Garden and the surrounding area make for a great walking tour. In addition to the park’s beautiful greenery, you’ll also get to see some of Athens’ most famous sights, like the Zappeion, the Olympic Stadium, and the Greek Parliament. The Zappeion is a historic congress building from 1888 that was originally built to be the site of the Committee of the Olympics.
The Panathenaic Stadium, where the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896, and the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus are also nearby.
On the trail of antiquity
To learn more about Ancient Greece, my main goal was to visit the site of the ancient Agora of Athens on my vacation. Because the central marketplace was once the economic and political center of Athens, today you can find many well-preserved remains there.
However, the entire complex has more to offer than just the old marketplace—you can also admire the temple of Hephaestus with its impressive view over the city. You will feel transported back in time.
By EU citizens under 25 years old get in for free!
Monastiraki – exploring the old town of Athens
Monastiraki is the aged quarter of Athens, abode to some of its most renowned attractions.
Recalling Monastiraki brings one particular vision that lingers in my mind – The Flea Market which meanders from Monastiraki Square into the adjoining lanes. There you can find a variety of retailers peddling goods other than fleas merchandise such as soaps and oils made by hand, sandals and hats crafted with great care, along with casual t-shirts plus souvenirs for your collection.
I had an enjoyable time wandering through these streets while avoiding popular fashion outlets!
Not far away lies Pittaki Street; this road was once neglected and used mainly as a public toilet but has now been transformed beyond recognition after designers gave it an exquisite makeover!
The home of the Olympic Games
Greece is the birthplace of the Olympic Games, which means a visit to its iconic sporting hub in Athens should be at the top of your list!
We were excited to explore and hopped on a tram that took us straight there. The complex was almost deserted except for an occasional jogger here or there but it still made for some lovely photos.
A word of caution however – unless you’re lucky enough to catch a special event taking place, this spot may not offer much else than scenic views so don’t expect too much from your trip.
Join the Ancient Olympia private day tour.
Conclusion on things to do in Athens
If you’re looking for a city that has something to offer during both the day and night, then Athens is the place for you. It’s a city with a unique and vibrant atmosphere, which can be experienced in different ways depending on the time of day.
During the day, tourists can explore the wealth of historic sites, while in the evening the locals come out to enjoy good music, great conversations and delicious wine.
So, if you’re in search of an unforgettable experience, spend some time in Athens and enjoy all it has to offer!