Recently, we took a fantastic cruise with Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd. through the Mediterranean which was departing from Athens. We decided to fly in a day early so we could spend one day in Athens, taking in as much as we could of this splendid city.
We were actually in Athens for 28 hours, which included one overnight, so it gave us the opportunity to see Athens during the day as well as evening. But if possible, I would recommend spending two days in Athens.
Athens at a Glance
The capital of Greece and the country’s largest city, Athens was also at the heartbeat of Ancient Greece. Its claim to fame is that it’s known as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy. With a history spanning over 3,400 years, the city is still dominated by ancient landmarks, including the Acropolis, a hilltop citadel featuring the multi-columned Parthenon temple.
Culturally, Athens is remarkable. It hosted Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, was a center for philosophy and the arts and became the first city to host the modern-day Olympics.
Athens is a city of many layers, unique in how it seamlessly blends the old with the new. Ruins with a complex history dating back thousands of years old are juxtaposed next to cosmopolitan restaurants, theaters, and upscale shopping. Resilient and proud, the city overcame a crippling financial crisis from 2007 to 2008. You just can’t visit Athens and not leave fascinated.
- Electricity: plugs are type C and F, 230 V and 50 Hz.
- Language: 1st Greek, 2nd English
- Currency: Euro
- Population: 664,046
Some people have asked me, “is Athens safe?” It is, provided you use the same common sense as you would in any other large city in Europe.
Here are some tips to avoid pickpocketing in Europe.
When to Visit
Athens is a popular tourist destination. We traveled in August, and I can attest that the summer months are hot, very crowded and more expensive. Since winter can be chilly and rainy during the winter months, spring and fall would be the best time to visit if you are seeking a land-based vacation. If you’re in Athens to embark on a cruise to the Greek Islands or the Mediterranean as we were, then it’s still worth visiting, even with the crowds.
Where to stay
Our overnight flight from the U.S. arrived in Athens in the morning. We took a taxi to our boutique hotel, the B4B Athens Signature Hotel. The staff could not have been nicer! It was too early to check-in, so we checked our luggage and went to the rooftop terrace to relax. Next thing we knew, they brought us up some coffee and pastries to snack on while we took in the spectacular view of the Acropolis.
After our coffee revived us, we set off to explore the Plaka, which was just a 10-minute walk from our hotel. The location of the B4B could not have been more convenient.
But I think the best thing about our hotel was that same rooftop terrace later that day where we watched the sunset and subsequently saw the Acropolis all lit up. Just spectacular. We also had a similar view from our room.
Top 10 Things to Do
To get the most out of your day, I suggest you see Athens with a local guide. We booked a full day city tour with GetYourGuide and got to see a lot of Athens and hear details and history. Our tour included entrance passes to all the major attractions. If you have more than one day to spend in Athens, lucky you! Click here to for a 3-day Athens itinerary.
Of course. The Acropolis. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is not only the No. 1 most popular and important site in Greece, but it’s on most people’s must-see-before-they-die bucket lists, with the likes of the other ancient sites such as the Roman Coliseum, Angor Wat, and Machu Picchu. Make sure to devote at least a couple of hours when visiting the Acropolis.
Acropolis comes from Greek words ἄκρον or akron which means “highest point/extremity” and πόλις orpolis which means “city.” The ancient citadel stands sentry on a high craggy ridge overlooking the city of Athens sprawled out below. The complex of ruins contains what’s left of several ancient buildings of great architectural and historic significance, the most well-known of which is the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to Athena, the goddess of War and Wisdom for whom the city was named.
Pericles (c. 495–429 BC) directed the construction of the Acropolis in the fifth century B.C. including the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike.
One of the first sights to unfold before us as we climbed the path, was at the foot of the Acropolis, the Theatre of Dionysus (see photo under Athens at a Glance). The site is considered to be the world’s first theater. Cut into the cliff face of the Acropolis, it is reportedly the birthplace of Greek tragedy.
We got to the Acropolis shortly after it opened. I highly suggest that you do the same…in fact, if you can get there slightly before the 8 am opening, all the better. About an hour after opening, the busses arrived depositing the hordes of tourists. Getting up and down the steps got worse and worse, and in a few spots, it was a very slow single file.
As if the magnificent ruins themselves are not enough, the views of the city are incredible. As if to return the favor, you can see the Acropolis from almost everywhere in the city.
2 Ancient Agora
Once the main road of old Athens where goods were bought and sold, the Agora ruins is a sprawling site and one can easily spend some time here exploring the ancient vestiges. An agora is an open-air gathering place used for political and artistic events.
The well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus is a must-see. Also on-site is the Stoa of Attalos reconstructed in the 20th century and the Museum of Ancient Agora.
3 Hadrian’s Arch and Roman Agora
You can walk right up to and through the Arch of Hadrian on the outskirts of the Plaka without a ticket. In fact, it’s right on the main street!
Next to Hadrian’s Arch is the Roman Agora, aka the Roman Forum, which you need a ticket to enter. The large courtyard and structures were built between 19 and 11 B.C. from donations obtained from Julius Caesar and Augustus and was where commercial activities took place. The site also contains the Tower of Winds and the Gate of Athena Archegetis.
4 Temple of Olympian Zeus
Ornate, towering Corinthian columns are the trademark of the ruins of the temple dedicated to the god Zeus. He was referred to as “Olympian Zeus” because of his position as head of the Olympian gods. Construction began in the 6th century BC but was not completed until the 2nd century AD under the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian. Only 16 columns remain of the original 104 which was once the largest temple in Greece.
We went during mid-morning, when everyone else was at the Acropolis and literally had the whole place to ourselves, making for a great photo op.
Wandering around the Plaka was our favorite thing to do! Charming and historic, the pedestrian-only neighborhood is characterized by clean, narrow alleys flanked on both sides with restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops. It’s colorful and lively and gives a glimpse into what Athens was like in times-gone-by. We ate and drank our way around the Plaka (see #6 below), took lots of photos, and bought some truly lovely handicrafts (and the ubiquitous Spartan warrior tee-shirt for my son!).
If you love unique artwork, here’s a guide to street art and graffiti in Athens.
6 Traditional Greek Food & Drink
As you probably know, there are so many incredibly delicious things to eat in Greece! We loved eating our way around Athens, mostly in the Plaka. Here are some things you should try:
Gyro. Our favorite eatery was a meal in a rooftop restaurant with a view of the Acropolis – what could be more idyllic? We ordered a gyro here, but surprisingly, they didn’t offer it with lamb which is what we wanted. We substituted skewered pork and it was still tasty stuffed inside pita bread with vegetables dipped in tzatziki yogurt.
Oysters. We ate delicious grilled oysters drenched in butter and spices at Heliaia, a tiny restaurant outside of the Agora with a spectacular view of the Acropolis.
Ouzo. You have to have ouzo, right? We found this little ouzo bar called Brettos in the heart of the Plaka selling all kinds of ouzo and other spirits. We were immediately drawn in by the colorful bottles and lights that decorate the walls. Brettos is the oldest distillery in Athens, dating back to 1909, and I must admit, the ouzo was delicious!
Moussaka. It’s is also one of the most popular Greek dishes, similar to lasagna but instead of pasta, it’s made with layers of sliced eggplant.
Spanakopita. One of my all-time favorites, we found a bustling little restaurant right in the middle of the Plaka where we could snack on spanakopita outside and enjoy the activity.
Yogurt. Greece is well-known for its thick yogurt topped with fresh honey and walnuts.
Baklava. Last but certainly not least is one of my top three desserts of all time: baklava. This absolutely mouth-watering pastry is rich and sweet, made of layers of filo dough filled with chopped nuts and dripping with honey. I wasn’t leaving Athens without getting my baklava; we lucked out in that there was a tiny bakery just down the street from our hotel. They were getting ready to close, but I slipped in just in time to snag a 2-euro piece of baklava that was the size of my head. I did not manage to eat the entire thing, but I gave it dang good try.
7 Changing of the Guard
Syntagma Square, aka Constitution Square, is the center of the city and anchored by the Greek Parliament building across the street. Built in 1842 for Greece’s first King Otto and Queen Amalia, it’s ground zero for political protests.
In front of the Parliament building, you’ll find the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s here that tourists can witness the changing of the evzones (presidential guards). Their traditional uniform is striking, unusual, and a bit comical (no offense intended) – a kind of kilt and big clunky shoes adorned with pompoms. Every hour on the hour two guards participate in precision choreographed movements that mirror each other.
8 Monastiraki Antique Flea Market
We loved it here and wished we’d had more time to explore and shop! A bit frenetic and a lot eclectic, it’s a labyrinth of tight alleys jammed with antique shops, jewelry, housewares, furniture, old books, and various treasures and oddities spilling out into the streets. Aromas of grilling meat waft out from the street food carts, and vendors beckon you to come over and haggle for their goods.
9 Lycabettus Hill
You can hike up Lycabettus Hill, the highest point in central Athens, but with our tight schedule, we chose to take the funicular instead. At the top, we were treated to a spectacular view over Athens with the Acropolis on the horizon. There’s also a café and a small but charming chapel at the top.
10 Panathenaic Stadium
We didn’t actually go inside the stadium because we were pressed for time and it was at the bottom of our to-do list. The stadium hosted the very first Olympic games in 1896, and then again in 2004.
You can tour it on your own without a guide if you pay five euro for admission with an audio headset. It’s the only stadium made entirely of marble, and you can sit in marble chairs or stand on the award pedestal.
More than One Day in Athens?
There are so many more things to do if you have more than one day in Athens and/or prefer more cerebral activities. We always would rather spend our time exploring outdoors (plus short attention spans), but there are some great indoor tourist attractions such as the National Archeological Museum, Library of Hadrian, Acropolis Museum, and the Zapieron.
If you are not boarding a cruise then you’ll probably want to experience a beach in Greece. Beaches on the south coast of Athens are easily accessible by taxi, tram, and bus. Be sure to pack a quick-dry, lightweight beach towel, just in case.
Why not add even more beaches and adventure to your Greece trip by island hopping the Cyclades with Yacht Getaways!
5 Tips for Visiting Athens
Be sure to wear good walking shoes. Not only is there a lot of exploring by foot, but the streets are uneven, and especially at the Acropolis the marble is very slippery with no traction.
2 Rent a Car
If you don’t want to take a guided tour, it’s entirely possible to see all the sights on your own by renting a car.
3 Travel Insurance
4 Pickpockets and Scams
Similar to Barcelona and Rome, Athens is known as a haven for pickpockets and scams like putting bracelets on your wrist or handing you a flower, then asking for a high payment. You need not let these things deter you from visiting; take these precautions and you will have no problem.
5 Squat Toilets
Don’t be surprised if some of the restrooms – especially in the old parts of the city – have squat toilets. Always have your own paper with you, but be advised, some of the older restrooms do not want you to flush the toilet paper, so choose your bathroom break wisely.
I’m sure by now you’ll agree there are enough things to do, see, and eat to spend more than one day in Athens. It was my second visit to this über-fun city and I can’t wait to go back!
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.