Many people pass through Athens on their way to the Greek Islands. Is it worth stopping to take a look? We look at the best things to see and do in Athens (including where to eat) and where to stay and I share the one thing that really surprises me about Athens!
Athens, Greece is one of those places many people pass through on their way to the Greek Islands. And you’ve probably been wondering if it’s worth stopping to take a look. So, before we answer that question and share some of the great things to do in Athens (including where to eat), I just want to share with you the one thing that really surprises me about Athens. And it is probably not what you’d expect.
The One Things that Really Surprises Me about Athens
It’s the graffiti- really bad, crappy graffiti on everything. Not street art, not anything with any redeeming artistic value, just bad spray painting on everything. When I sat down to write this article, and started thinking about my visits to Athens, the bad graffiti is the one thing that really makes an impression. And it is something other visitors to Athens discuss with when they talk about the city.
I just want to buy a can of paint and a paintbrush and start painting. The bad graffiti makes Athens look seedy and rundown (which it is not) especially when the shops are closed, and the roller doors are down. You walk around a corner on a street and think you walked into the wrong neighborhood! It is that bad.
In Australia, we have a program called Tidy Towns. It is about getting the residents to take ownership of their street scapes and have some pride in where they live. Athens is desperately in need of a Tidy Town program. It would give the whole place a face lift, and I am sure improve the local’s view of their city as well. It would definitely improve a visitor’s impression of the place!
As an outsider, and a visitor, I have formed the view Greece is a pretty bureaucratic place and some central program to attack the graffiti may never happen. But I would think a few committed business people could get something done. If nothing else, stop selling spray paint in the city. (This has worked well in other places.) Greeks are some of the hardest working people I have ever met, just direct some of that energy toward some paint!
Okay now that I’ve had my rant, let’s look at the big question, should you stop to explore Athens or just pass through on the way to the Greek Islands?
What to Do and See in Athens
Graffiti aside, I think Athens is worth a stop on your way through to the Greek Islands or elsewhere. Athens is considered to be the oldest city in Europe, with records dating over 3400 years. It is home to the world’s first known democracy, established in 500 BC, in its almost 4000-year history. Athens has tried every known form of government including monarchy, democracy, socialism, capitalism, and even communism. So, there’s a bit of history, as well as a vibrant, modern city to visit. Plus, great food and friendly locals. So, here are the best things to see and do in Athens.
If you do nothing else, visit the Parthenon. It is touristy, crowded and hot (depending on the time of year), but it is also amazing! And it is amazing to see in person. The scale and complexity, and the uniqueness of the building must be seen to be appreciated. You can read more about the Parthenon, including tips for planning your visit to the Parthenon in this post.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
Using a bit of imagination, you can picture how large and magnificent the Temple of Olympian Zeus would have been. It is the largest of all the Greek temples and construction lasted almost 1000 years. And it was never fully completed. Of the 104 original Corinthian columns, 15 remain standing.
Ancient Agora of Athens
Nearby and visible form the Acropolis is the Ancient Agora. All Greek and Roman cities had an Agora, a place to gather for markets, commercial activities and to socialize. It was the center of public life. Altas Obsura has a good history and overview of the ancient Agora in Athens.
The Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum
If you are looking to learn more about ancient Greek history, the Acropolis Museum or the National Archaeological Museum are both top rated museums. The Acropolis Museum is at the bottom of the Acropolis and has artifacts found during the excavations and restoration of the Acropolis.
The National Archaeological Museum is the largest, archaeological museum in Greece (there are several other well regarded archaeological museums in Greece) and houses what is regarded as the world’s finest collection of Greek art.
Meaning “Constitution Square”, the square was named in commemoration of the constitution the first king of Greece, King Otto, was forced to grant after a popular and military uprising on 3 September 1843. Today Syntagma Square is the central square of Athens. Located just in front of the 19th century Old Royal Palace, since 1934 it has been the home of the Greek Parliament. A frequent location for civil protests and ant-establishment demonstrations it is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Athens.
The Panathinaiko Olympic Stadium
If you visit the Temple of Olympian Zeus, keep walking to the nearby Panathinaiko Olympic Stadium. This is the site of the original stadium built for the Panathenaic games in 330 BC. The stadium was rebuilt (from marble) in 1896 for the first, modern, Olympic games and also used in the 2004 Olympic Games. Seating about 50,000 people today, it is a venue for concerts and other events. If you climb to the top of the seats on a clear day there is an excellent view of the Parthenon.
Visit the Central Market
Located between Athinas And Eolou Streets, the lively, Central Market is also known as the Dimotiki Agora (Public Market) or Varvakios Agora. It is where many Athens residents and restaurants go for their shopping. The market sells meat, fish, cheese, deli items and all varieties of fresh food and vegetables.
It has many market stalls and nearby eateries selling food prepared with the freshest ingredients from the market at very affordable prices.
Since we had a kitchen and a rooftop terrace, we bought wine and mezze (small deli items and nibbles) for a sunset view of the Parthenon. Everyone was very friendly, most people speak English, and we had a great time shopping with the locals.
A Quick Overview of the Neighborhoods of Athens
The oldest part of Athens, Plaka is now largely pedestrian. Close to the Acropolis, Plaka makes a nice place for a wander to have a cool drink and explore the shops after a visit to the Acropolis.
One of the landmarks in Plaka is the colorful bottles and lights decorating the walls of Brettos Distillery . Around since 1909, it is the oldest distillery in Athens and claims to be the 2nd oldest in Europe. Brettos produces ouzo, brandy and many flavored liqueurs including cherry, peppermint and masticha, using original, family recipes from Izmir, Turkey. You can try any of their products at the bar next door and purchase something to take home.
Plaka is also home to Cine Paris, where you can watch a movie on the walls of a building with the lit Acropolis as a backdrop. There is plenty of late night activity with many places open until 2 am.
Kolonaki is an area known for two things: its upscale shopping and Mt. Lycabettus. Kolonaki is home to many of the international, designer labels, as well as local, Greek designers and art galleries. Many trendy restaurants are also found in this neighborhood.
Many people will come through Kolonaki on their way to Mt. Lycabettus (also known as Lycabettos, Lykabettos or Lykavittos) the highest point in Athens at 300 meters and a popular spot for sunset.
You cannot drive to the top of Mt. Lycabettus, you can walk up or take the funicular train from the corner of Ploutarhiou and Aristippou Streets. There is no view from the train, but kids seem to love it! You might take the train up and walk down (The train runs every 30 minutes.)
At the top of the hill there is a café and an amphitheater. The café is reported to have spectacular views and many famous acts, including Peter Gabriel, have performed at the amphitheater. It looks like it would be a great venue for a concert. (The ancient Theater of Herod Atticus near the Acropolis also has live performances in the summer and looks fantastic.)
Psiri features small streets full of cafes, ouzerias, restaurants, dance clubs, bars, galleries and shops. It is very close to Monastiraki Square, and a good place for a bite to eat after visiting the Monastiraki Flea Market. Psiri became popular for Athens nightlife during the 2004 Olympics and is considered a pretty hip area to hang out.
A lively neighborhood and walking distance to most of the main attractions in Athens. Monastiraki is home to several Athens landmarks including the Ancient Agora and the ruins of Hadrian’s Library.
On Sunday mornings the neighborhood bustles with the Monastiraki Flea Market. Here you can browse for used books, albums, artisanal soaps, handmade sandals, T-shirts and lots of old knick-knacks. The area has many traditional tavernas and restaurants, some with Acropolis views.
The Tzistarakis Mosque, an Ottoman mosque, built in 1759, is in the center of Monastiraki Square.
What to Eat and Drink in Athens and Piraeus
Watching the sunset over the Parthenon is a unique experience. You are only going to find it in Athens. You can watch it from a rooftop bar. The Rooftop Guide has a great list of rooftop bars in Athens, many of which have a great Parthenon view. Some hotels also provide a view.
We watched sunset from the rooftop terrace of our hotel room while we enjoyed a bottle of wine. Our room at Live in Athens provided the perfect, sunset venue. With a kitchen for convenience, we had three outdoor terraces, and the top one provided a fantastic view of sunset on the Parthenon. It is also well located in Psiri, walking distance to everything and in a good area for eateries and nightlife if you are looking for a place to stay. Our wine and mezze from shopping at the Central Market were perfect.
Despite a brief visit, we still managed to eat at some good restaurants in the Psiri neighborhood, as well as one in Piraeus:
A funny name which means, “my home” in Greek. Spiti Mas, true to its name, is a very informal, relaxed and pleasant café-style eatery that can be very busy. It has tables inside and out, where you can watch the world go by. But, be aware the tables are quite small with very low-to-the-floor chairs. It is very popular, so you may have to wait some time for a table (and they don’t seem to have a system to manage the wait for tables). It is a good place to go for breakfast, brunch or lunch.
The highlight here was the Greek-style scrambled eggs (called strapatsada or kagiana). Simply scrambled eggs, with roasted tomatoes, feta and bell peppers. There are many minor variations of this popular dish throughout Greece. The Spiti Mas version was thoroughly enjoyable, including the Greek flat bread. Also, very good was the very large pie with prosciutto and truffle oil.
Spiti Mas is moderately priced, not cheap nor expensive. The food was of a very good standard.
There is nothing pretentious about Nikitas, just honest food at an affordable price, with super-quick service. In fact, they don’t even have a website nor a Facebook page. That’s a good thing by the way, as their only focus is on the food, where it should be! If you are on a tight budget, then this is an excellent choice to enjoy lunch or dinner.
Here you will find traditional, Greek fare including chorta, or horta (wild greens – which vary depending on the season). They were absolutely delicious. If you are pining for some green vegetables, I can highly recommend the chorta. Very good also, was the Greek Salad, as was the moussaka. You can also enjoy very affordable, house wine. Our house red was served in a traditional, copper mug. By the way, local beers go for half the price of the bar next door.
Nikitas is a good option for honest food at a very reasonable price.
When it comes to coffee, Athens may not be in the same class as cities like Melbourne or Bucharest, Romania. (Yes, Bucharest has great coffee!) But one café we did enjoy was Coffee Island. Coffee Island is a franchise operation, who roast their own coffee.
At Coffee Island, there was the correct ratio of milk to espresso in our cappuccinos. In other words, it wasn’t too milky nor too frothy on top. Their ice coffee is made with real coffee, not Nescafe instant. And, an added bonus is they open early, unlike other coffee options in most of Athens. So, if you have an early morning bus, flight or ferry to catch, Coffee Island opens at 6am!
Ruan Thai, Piraeus
We enjoy eating the local cuisine wherever we travel. But sometimes we crave some of our favorite cuisines when it has been too long between drinks! And so, it was by happenstance we came across this Thai restaurant in Piraeus.
Ruan Thai won’t win any awards for its ambience, but the meals were authentic and of high quality. I wouldn’t put Ruan Thai in the cheap category but nor was it expensive. You will find all the usual Thai favorites here including curries, noodles and soups.
If you have a ferry arrival into Piraeus near lunch or dinner time, then this is a great little option for you.
Island Hopping from Athens
You can also spend a day island hopping from Athens for a taste of Greek Island life. We took a day trip which visited three of the nearby islands- Hydra, Poros and Aegina- in a day.
The description for the boat was a “yacht”- this conjured visions of a small, rather modern ship. It was anything but- the boat is a large ferry, which holds hundreds of people. And while queuing to get on and off the boat was a pain, the day was still enjoyable nonetheless. (And it is probably much more affordable than if you were really on a yacht.) We met some lovely people and it was nice to get out of the city for the day.
The Island of Hydra: First Post of Call
First stop is Hydra, a quaint island with no cars. The only way to reach the islands is by water. The waterfront is quaint and filled with boutique shops and waterfront, dining options. And, no chain stores in sight. If you want to do any shopping on the day, this would be my pick. The shops have some unique and high-quality items which would make a great souvenir or addition to your wardrobe or home.
There is an optional, walking tour to explore Hydra’s historic fort or you can just wander around the island on your own. There are clearly marked, walking paths and for the more adventurous, hiking trails. Notice the donkeys on the waterfront? These are the porters, waiting to take luggage to the nearby accommodation, most of it on the hillsides near the port. It all adds to the relaxed vibe on the island.
I think Hydra would be a great place for an overnight stay. I’d like to see it without all the day trippers and spend more time there to go hiking.
Next stop was the island of Poros. This was a quick stop and I am not really sure why we stopped there at all. My tip is to try the ice cream at the first ice cream shop when you come off the boat. It features a huge selection of flavors and the ice cream was fantastic and exceptionally good value!
Aegina: The Last Stop
After a rather relaxing trip from Paros, you arrive in Aegina, the last stop of the day. Aegina is where they grow a lot of pistachios and you can buy them everywhere! There is an optional bus tour to see the Temple of Aphaia, considered the best-preserved temple in Greece. If you stay in town, there are lots of options for dining, drinking or maybe swimming along the beach. The water looks very inviting and there were plenty of locals enjoying an afternoon swim. The view from the beach is spectacular.
The town itself is quite small and you can walk to everything, although there is an option to take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage if you would like a different perspective.
The trip included lunch (a buffet on the boat), pick-up and drop-off from your hotel, and dancing and entertainment on the boat on the way back to Athens from Aegina.
We were guests for the day of Tinggly. If you have friends or family that like to travel or enjoy trying a new experience, Tinggly makes a great way to give an experience as a gift. You buy a certificate and the recipient can choose any experience from Tinggly’s many options. They have other options in Athens, the Greek Islands and all over the world.
The port, Piraeus, about 9 miles (15 kilometers) from the center of Athens, is where most ferries and cruise ships depart from. And, it is huge. It is also the commercial shipping port for Athens and the eighth busiest container terminal in Europe. If you need to catch a ferry or cruise ship, before you leave, make sure you know which terminal (A or B) and your pier. Allow time to get there and to walk to your pier as the distances between piers are long.
There are hotel and accommodation options near Piraeus if you have an early ship departure or a late arrival. But other than that, I wouldn’t go out of my way to explore this area.
What You Need to Know if You Go to Athens
Getting to/from the Airport
If you decide to make the stop in Athens, be aware the airport is not near the city. Hotels near the airport are non-existent. There is one hotel at the airport, the Sofitel, and as it is the only game in town. So, it has a rather hefty price tag.
Your early morning budget flight might be cheap, but check how you will get to the airport. There is train service from Athens to the airport, but it doesn’t run early in the morning. There is a local bus service, which we used from Piraeus. It is slow, so allow plenty of time. (It does run early in the morning, but it is still slow.)
Taxis, Uber and private transfers are your other options. We needed to travel early in the morning several times. There were cabs, but no Uber cars available and we were in the center of town. Uber drivers don’t seem to start early so be aware if you need to be somewhere early you may want to explore other options.
Where to Stay in Athens
Any of the neighborhoods listed above are good options and there is a wide selection of both hotels and apartments for rent in Athens. You can check current pricing and availability on HotelsCombined or Booking.com
In my limited experience, there seems to be a lack of hotel rooms in Athens. For our most recent visit I checked availability of hotels and apartments on our dates. It was not a peak time (late September) and not a weekend when any special event was on to my knowledge. There was plenty of availability, so I delayed making a reservation.
Well I am sorry I did! As the travel dates approached and I went to make accommodation reservations, there was very limited choice and hotel rooms still available were very expensive or large international chain hotels. My advice is to make your Athens accommodation reservations early. If you are not sure about your plans book accommodation with a free cancellation policy.
There are many apartments for rent on Booking.com and AirBnB, we have used both in Athens. If you have not tried AirBnB you can get a discount on your first stay and find tips for using AirBnB for the first time.
Heading on to the Greek Islands
And if you are just stopping on your way to the Greek Islands, we have plenty of information to help you plan your travels in the Greek Islands. Syros and Mykonos are both quick ferry rides from Athens. And Santorini and Naxos are also easy to reach.
Mykonos and Santorini are both well known and well visited islands. Syros, which no one has ever heard of of, including us before we went, is one of the hidden gems in the Greek islands. We highly recommend it. Naxos is our favorite of the Greek Islands we have visited and you can easily spend a week exploring Naxos.
The largest of the Greek Islands is Crete. We spent a wonderful 3 weeks in Crete. Crete has great beaches, wonderful food and fabulous Greek Island (very relaxed) culture. You can read more about Crete here.