Top Attractions, things to do & places to visit in Athens
The first impression of Athens, and not just in my view, is usually awful. The smog is intolerable, traffic congestion enervating, people are noisy, and once you check into your hotel room the city looks… just plain unsightly from above.
But don’t be put off by what you’ve just read: it only gets better from here.
Athens might not be a city where I would like to live, but it’s certainly a city I’d like to visit again.
If you’re going to enjoy yourself in Athens, you better get in shape and bring comfortable walking shoes and plenty of water.
Most of the famous sites in the city require either walking uphill or walking along a stony path. And beware of the marble stairs, wherever you go: they are dreadfully slippery!
I took a city bus tour on my first day in Athens and it was worth the money.
The tour included the Acropolis and took in the region of to the Olympic Stadium, Syntagma Square, Zeus’ Temple, and other important tourist sites.
It was a nice way to make an introduction to the city and plan out the rest of my trip.
How about the food? Modest neighborhood restaurants are your best bet. They dish up inexpensive, delicious and truly local fare.
Fancier restaurants in spots like Plaka are expensive, and you’re more likely to see fried chicken on the menu, than a gyro or souvlaki. And a word of warning: go easy on the OUZO!
That stuff goes down way too easy, and after finishing half a bottle with dinner, I slept for 12 hours and had a hangover the next day.
Where to stay?
Hotels and hostels are plentiful in Athens. Rooms do get booked up during high season – so book early. Quality and standards may vary just like any other destination.
Location and price should be your main priorities. A good website for client reviews is www.tripadvisor.com.
For good deals on a range of Athens hotels and other Greece, hotels check out Cybertravel Network’s Greece website at www.hotels-greece-athens.com.
How to Get Around:
Athens has allegedly more taxicabs per capita than any other city in the world. Having said that, the fact is, it’s almost not possible to hail down an empty one during the rush hour.
Often a cab will slow down and pull up to a curb and cabbie will ask ‘Pou?’ which means ‘where.’ Just yell out where you want to go to (in Greek preferably), and if you’re fortunate it will be on his way.
I can’t say anything in good faith about the truthfulness of cabbies in Athens. I took a cab three times, and twice I got ripped off, so make your own conclusions.
In my view, the best way to get around Athens is by bus or trolley. The tickets are not expensive and available at kiosks along any street.
Just make sure you cancel the ticket in a ticket machine immediately after you enter the bus or a trolley. There are plenty of ticket controllers around to catch you if you travel without a ticket, or if you forget to stamp it.
Things to see in and around Athens:
The Acropolis is Athens’ most recognizable, breathtaking and astounding site. The Acropolis is, in fact, the name of the hill upon which there are three main temples:
- Erechteion and
- Temple of Athena Nike; as well as
- The Acropolis Museum and Propylaea, which was the original entrance to the Acropolis.
Being a fan of archeology and Greek classical studies, I was absolutely enthralled by the place. The total size of the Parthenon is extraordinary when you comprehend it was built 2,500 years ago.
The museum houses artifacts found in the temples on the Acropolis, which were put there to avoid weather damage.
Acropolises is a hill and a pretty steep one, so take good quality walking shoes and bottled water with you when you go. And take careful steps, because the marble steps are very slippery.
I introduced myself to the marble the hard way: face first, and let me tell you: it’s not an enjoyable experience.
On the path to the Acropolis, there are many souvenir peddlers that sell postcards, papyrus drawings, and other trinkets.
They sell the same type and quality of souvenirs at the museum gift shop but at half the price. I recommend loading up on souvenirs from them on the way out of Acropolis.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
The temple is one of the only two remaining parts on the Olympieion site. The utter size of this monument is incredible!
There are only a few of the original Corinthian columns left of the original 104! This is an ideal site to sit down on a sunny day with a gyro in your hand and just admire its beauty.
Interesting fact about the Temple of Olympian Zeus is that it took almost 700 years to construct. It was started in 515 BC by Peristratos and completed in 125 AD by Roman emperor Hadrian.
Close to the Temple, on Amalias Avenue you can take a closer look at the other remaining monument – Hadrian’s Arch built a few years later by the same emperor.
During my visit it was all covered in cellophane for reconstruction, so wasn’t very inspiring.
The Agoras – Ancient and Roman
Ancient Agora (Arkhaia Agora) was the gathering place of the ancient Athenians. It’s hard to tell now, considering almost nothing is left from the original structures.
Hephaisteion (Temple of Hephaistos) is the exception. It’s quite a monument and probably the best conserved of all Greek temples in Athens.
Stoa of Attalos, which was entirely reconstructed, houses the museum of Ancient Agora and is a resting place for most of the artifacts found here.
Roman Agora (Romaiki Agora) is situated near the other one. It is much smaller, and a much younger site than Ancient Agora.
A couple of interesting things to see here are a Turkish mosque: Fethiye Djami, and Tower of the Winds.
I marked this site as Recommended, not Highly Recommended because unless you have a real interest in archeology or history, you might simply get fed up here.
There isn’t as much to see, besides the Hephaisteion, because most of the monuments are almost completely ruined.
But if you are a history/archeology buff, have an extra day, or happen to get bored in Plaka, than by all means stop here and do a little exploring.
Panathenaic Stadium was the site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Its name, Panathinaikon, stands for “All Athenians Stadium”. It has been reconstructed in the place of the original stadium.
This stadium is one of those places that just give you a good quality feel inside. You’re welcome to run laps around it or to take a look at marble slabs documenting all the modern Olympic Games.
At the front of the stadium is a statue of the Discus Thrower.
This one was quite a stunner! Traditionally I was used to cemeteries being rather solemn places where people come to worship or recollect. Not Kerameikos.
In fact, judging by people sitting on gravestones, or lying around in bikinis getting a tan, you’d hardly know it’s a cemetery. But you can’t fault anyone; no one has been buried here for over a thousand years.
So against my original feelings, I’d have to suggest this site as a nice relaxation place: a place to sit down and read a book, stretch your legs and relax or just get a tan. Oh… there is a museum here as well that exhibits some burial items, gravestones, urns, etc.
The Ruins of Delphi
A visit to Delphi site is an absolute must for any history buff. Plan a whole day for the trip as it is around three hours away by bus or car.
The Temple of Apollo is the main pull of the site. This magnificently preserved temple is where Pythia, the High Priestess of Apollo would be asked to predict the future, and in return, she would give very inexplicable answers (and they weren’t always good).
The Theatre of the sanctuary and The Stadium are located higher up on the site (approximately 10 minutes walk). Not quite as eye-catching, and can be avoided by those for whom the climb proves too much.
And of course, you cannot miss the Archaeological Museum of Delphi, which houses the valuable artifacts found at the site. And fortunately it is situated at the base of the site, so no climbing is necessary.
Plaka is the tourist’s heaven. It’s very similar to Paris’ Montmartre district.
There are hundreds if not thousands of modest souvenir stores, taverns, liquor stores, small churches and open-air stands where you can buy everything from produce to ceramic vases to olive oil soap.
It’s a place you have to visit on your last day in Athens when you want to load up on cheap souvenirs.
You’re not really going to see all that many locals here, at least proportionally to the thousands of tourists passing by every minute.
And by Goddess, don’t forget to bring a map! Plaka is a labyrinth, a network of streets that all look alike.
There are plenty of places to eat in Plaka, but most of the fancy looking ones tend to be terribly costly and don’t really offer that good of the local fare.
Little take-out places or little restaurants are the best bet for food there. Their gyros might grease the wrapper, but they taste fine and you’ll have money left over for those souvenirs.
One thing I discovered when buying souvenirs in Plaka, that the price of the item is almost never the price you’ll pay if you play your cards right.
In some stores, the owners will tell you right away ‘Today discount 20 percent’ or ‘More you buy, bigger discount’. But as a general rule, you should barter.
You’re stupid if you don’t because you’ll simply overpay for everything. Everyone bargains here, both locals and tourists.
And if the store owner is reluctant to make a deal, put down the stuff you’re looking at and say you’ll look somewhere else. They will most likely change their tune and offer you money off right away!
National Archaeological Museum of Athens
If you’re going to see any museum on your trip to Athens, see this one. It is the largest and most inspiring archeological museum in Greece. Even the building itself is quite something to look at.
The museum has quite a few different exhibits, but obviously, the most interesting ones are the Greek pottery and sculpture, which also happen to take up most of the space.
There are also exhibits of Egyptian arts and prehistoric and bronze age artifacts. The Museum is easily reached by various buses from any point in the city.
It’s huge and can easily take up a whole day, but dissimilar to Louvre in Paris, this museum contains such a diversity of things, that I found it very easy to spend several hours there without getting weary of admiring the pieces.
One final note, even though the Type of Museum states it’s an Art Museum, it really is a mixture of an Art/History/Culture Museum. I want to make that clear, so I don’t frighten away art-unconscious people.
National Gardens, which are accessible behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, offer a nice escape from all the hustle and the bustle of the city.
Looking at the crowds present, I have a feeling they are a trendy hang-out spot for the locals. This is a nice place to take a leisurely walk or eat a brown-bag lunch.
In the heart of the park, there is a neoclassical structure called Zappion, which I’ve been told is used for important political and cultural events (a security guard told me Greece’s entry into European Union was signed here).
It’s quite an eye-catching structure worth checking out if you appreciate architecture. It is also a fine place to talk to the locals if you so desire.
I stopped at a pretzel stand run by a Kurdish immigrant and immediately got into a discussion about the fate of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan (who was being incarcerated at the time by Turkey).
Not that I spoke any Kurdish or Greek, or the stand owner any English, but amazingly enough using hand-gestures, and a combination of English, Greek, German and a word ‘caput’, we somehow came to an understanding that he was a goner and we both supported his cause.
Thereafter, I was promptly ripped off for a pretzel, but… it was for a good cause.
Syntagma (Constitution) Square is centrally positioned in Athens and a pretty good starting point for tourists.
There are banks here where you can exchange money, travel agencies where you could pick up information on what to see in Athens or book a bus tour and some rather luxurious hotels.
Top tourist attraction in the Square is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is watched over by guards wearing EVZONE costumes, which is the customary male Greek costume comprising of a white skirt and shirt, red vest and hat and shoes with pompoms.
They look rather attractive! The best time to see the changing of the guards is Sundays at noon when the big service takes place.
I believe that the early event starts at around 11 or 11:30 AM when a battalion of soldiers starts marching down the street with a military band playing.
When they approach the Tomb, they stop in a systematic fashion, wait until noon, then the ceremony of changing of the guards begins.
It’s really quite interesting as there is so much custom and ceremony involved. The soldiers take these long careful steps: I was amazed to see how they keep their balance while standing on one leg.
There isn’t much else to see in Syntagma Square itself, but from here you’ll have easy access to the National Gardens, as well as Plaka and Omonia Square. Somehow, each of my days in Athens started and ended here.
Three Island Cruise
This was well worth the time and money.
I booked the cruise through Cybertravel Network www.hotels-greece-athens.com one of about a dozen travel agencies offering the identical tour (later I found out many tour agencies use the same boat, which can carry several hundred people).
It was very well planned: in the early morning a van picked me up from the hotel and dropped me off where air-conditioned coaches took us to the harbor.
From there, it was a couple of hours of sailing to our first port of call: Hydra.
What a magnificent, laid-back small place! White houses, red roofs, blue water, and the sky, about 25 Celsius… and that’s in February! Shopper’s paradise of course with souvenir shops everywhere.
We moved on to Poros, during which time lunch was served on board. Poros wasn’t as tranquil as Hydra to me. It was more commercialized, reminded me a bit of Honolulu, Hawaii.
But it was a nice place to grab a bowl of ice cream and just lounge a bit on the harbor. From there we moved to Aegina and were offered to pay for an optional bus tour on Aegina to the Temple of Aphaia.
The bus tour was well worth the money. Temple of Aphaia at Aegina is very well preserved and an outstanding site to take a look at. Aegina is also a very good place to purchase pistachio nuts: there are vendors all over the place, so pick up a bag or two on the way out!
The cruise back was very laid back. There was on board entertainment: live band, comedian, Greek folk dancing, etc. I chose to just kick back with a bottle of Retsina (Greek wine) and watch the display which was quite pleasurable. Upon arrival, the coaches dropped everyone off back at their hotels.
Dealing with Athenians
Athenians (or perhaps Greeks) are one of a kind type of people. Very talkative, not inhibited and most of all very curious.
Now, of course, these are my opinions and they are highly personal to what I have experienced, so anyone who disagrees with this view should bear this in mind.
This mannerism has proven rather out of the ordinary on many occasions. Almost every day, I went to the same small family-owned restaurant in Kifissias called ‘Ta Salona’.
Besides having good quality food, it also had a very curious owner. Every night, we’d sit down over a bottle of Greek beer ‘Mythos’ or a glass of ouzo (killer stuff!) and discuss where I come from, life in Athens, food, drink… etc.
It really made for enjoyable evenings.
Another example of this extrovert nature freaked me out a little bit.
On a couple of occasions, while walking in the Plaka, I asked a person walking by what time was it, or how to get somewhere and after receiving the answer, the person said ‘You want to go to bar, drink ouzo?’
Now… I’m sure there is nothing wrong with asking someone to go drink with you, but it took me aback a little bit.
Coming from the US, I was feeling that if I accepted an offer like this from a complete stranger, I’d probably end up in a biker-bar, arm wrestling with a 300-pound guy called ‘Bulldog’.
A British woman I met couple days earlier on a cruise to the islands told me that she was approached a couple of times on the street by complete strangers either asking her out on a date or making remarks like ‘She’s tall! I bet she’s real good’.
If I drew any conclusions from this occurrence, if you ignore the person, they will in due course drop the subject.
But in a location like a restaurant or a bar, it actually proved really fascinating to talk to the locals and find out a little bit about their daily lives.