In a city packed to the rafters with historic sites, planning a trip to Athens can be overwhelming. Especially when it comes to knowing the best things to do in Athens – and what to skip. There are several ancient sites in Athens well worth the effort (including the Acropolis of course). However, a lot of the city's charm lies in cafe-hopping in the sunshine, or browsing the huge variety of goods for sale at the Bazaar.
1. Cafe culture in Thissio
The wide streets around Athens' historic Agora are lined with pavement cafes filled with locals drinking coffee and conducting passionate debates. Pick a table and join the throng. Then stroll the pedestrianised Apóstólo Pávlou that takes you past cafes to the edge of the Agora and the Acropolis. The view is particularly spectacular at sunset.
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2. The Acropolis
Rain or shine, the Parthenon atop the rock of the Acropolis stands majestically above the city of Athens. It's undoubtedly one of the most iconic sites in the Western world and one of the best things to do in Athens. The first time you see it you're sure to feel a little shiver of excitement.
Along with the Parthenon, the Acropolis site is also home to several other notable buildings. This includes the Erechtheion, the temple of Athena Nike, and the Propylaia (gateways). It's easy to spend an entire day exploring the site.
Bear in mind that there's little shade here and it can get very hot in summer. So set your alarm for an early start to get the best out of the site (it opens at 8am). Also be aware that various part of the buildings have been covered in scaffolding for the best part of 20 years as part of a major cleanup operation takes place.
In the shadow of the Acropolis, the winding streets of Pláka seem lost in a time warp. There are hand-shaped walls, colourful shutters and tumbles of potted plants outside doorways.
The area is largely pedestrianised and walking around to enjoy the feeling of the city around you is one of the best things to do in Athens. It also makes a welcome change from the concrete rectangles that characterise much of the rest of the city.
We suggest strolling downhill along Odhós Kydhathinéon, from the Anglican and Russian churches at Odhós Filellínon to Hadrian's Street, Odhós Adhrianoú. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and cafes to fill your time along the way.
4. The Bazaar
The area around Athinás and Eólou streets makes up Athens' Bazaar. Here you can find almost anything for sale. The atmosphere will remind you of a North African souk, with different areas of the streets dedicated to different items.
You'll find clothes along Eólou and Ayíou Márkou, tools at the south end of Athinás, and food in the middle, around the Central Market. If you're looking for unique souvenirs to bring home, this is the place. Even if you're not in the market for shopping, the area makes a great people-watching spot.
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5. Temple of Poseidon
OK, the Temple of Poseidon is not technically in Athens (you'll find it 70km away at Cape Soúnio). But if you're a history buff visiting this site should be on your list of things to do in Athens. The 5th-century temple, built in the time of Pericles, has been a landmark for sailors sailing between Piraeus and the Islands for centuries. Today it is still an atmospheric spot to visit.
It captured the imagination in Britain in the early 19th century. When Lord Byron visited the temple in 1810 he carved his name on a pillar (an activity that's strictly discourages these days) and immortalised the site in his poem Don Juan.
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6. National Archaeological Museum
A trip to the National Archeological Museum is among the top things to do in Athens. Yes, you've seen Greek sculptures before, but the wealth of items on display here will please the most jaded traveller.
Try to head here later in the day to avoid the tourist hordes. If you've only got time to zip around the highlights, make time for the gold Mask of Agamemnon, the Acropolis treasure trove of gold goblets and jewellery and the bronze Statue of Poseidon, dredged from the waters off Evvia in the 1920s.
7. Odeon of Herodes Atticus
On the southwest slope of the Acropolis, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (built in the 2nd century AD) is one of the city's most atmospheric ruins. The tiered arches allow glimpses of the city beyond.
The audience seats were extensively restored in the 1950s. The restoration was celebrated by inviting stars including Maria Callas and Frank Sinatra to perform at the venue. There's an ongoing programme of events at the amphitheatre from May to October. It's the ideal way to round off your trip to Athens.
8. Panathenaic Stadium
The old Olympic Stadium or Panathenaic Stadium is a nineteenth-century reconstruction on Roman foundations, slotted tightly between the pine-covered spurs of Ardhittós hill. Originally marked out in the fourth century BC for the Panathenaic athletic contests, it became an arena for gladiatorial blood sports under the reign of Emperor Hadrian.
The stadium’s reconstruction dates from the modern revival of the Olympic Games in 1896. Its appearance and pristine whiteness must be very much as it was when first reopened under the Roman senator. Though the bends are too tight for major modern events, it’s still used by local athletes and marks the finishing point of the annual Athens Marathon.
9. Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009, is a magnificent building, filled with beautiful objects. You'll discover here a wonderful sense of space and light and a glass top storey with a direct view up to the Parthenon itself.
The remains of ancient Athens, uncovered during the building work, can be seen even before you enter. It is protected under glass flooring that continues through the ground floor. The displays start with a ramp described as the Slopes of the Acropolis, as that is where most of the pottery and other objects displayed here were found.
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10. Ancient Agora & Temple of Hephaestus
The ancient Agora, or market, was the heart of Athenian city life from as early as 3000 BC. Approached either from the Acropolis, down the path skirting the Areopagus, or through the northern entrance on Adhrianoú, it is an extensive and confusing jumble of ruins.
The best overview of the Agora is from the exceptionally well-preserved Hephaisteion, or Temple of Hephaistos. This is where there is a terrace overlooking the rest of the site from the west. The display shows the buildings as they were in 150 AD, and the various remains laid out in front of you makes for a great expirience.
11. The National Garden
Visiting the National Gardens, which spread out to the south and east of the Voulí is one of the best things to do in Athens. It's not so much a flower garden as a luxuriant tangle of trees, whose shade and duck ponds provide palpable relief from the heat of summer. It’s a great place for a picnic or just a shady respite from the city streets. There’s a children’s playground and a tiny zoo.
Directly behind Hadrian’s Arch, the colossal pillars of the Temple of Olympian Zeus stand in the middle of a huge, dusty clearing with excellent views of the Acropolis and constant traffic noise.
12. Benaki Museum
Antónis Benákis, founder of the Benáki Museum spent much of his life in Egypt, and this museum, in a converted Neoclassical mansion, was created to house the collection he amassed there. Exhibits in the Benáki Museum of Islamic Art follow a chronological course up through the building, from the seventh century on the first floor to the nineteenth on the fourth.
13. Areopagus Hill
Metal steps as well as ancient, slippery, rock-hewn stairs ascend the low hill of the Areopagus, or “Hill of Ares”. This was the site of the Council of Nobles and the Judicial Court under the aristocratic rule of ancient Athens. During the Classical period, the court lost its powers of government to the Assembly but it remained the court of criminal justice, dealing primarily with cases of homicide.
Today, there’s little evidence of ancient grandeur beyond various steps and niches cut into the perilously slippery rock. However, the crowds come here to rest after their exertions on the Acropolis and to enjoy the views. These, at least, are good – down over the Agora and towards the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos.
14. Sýndagma Square & Parliament Building
All roads lead to Sýndagma – Platía Syndágmatos, or Constitution Square, to give it its full name. You’ll almost inevitably find yourself here sooner or later for the Metro and bus connections.
Roughly midway between the Acropolis and Lykavitós hill, with the Greek Parliament building (the Voulí) on its uphill side, it’s the political and geographic heart of Athens and still the principal venue for mass demonstrations and political rallies.
15. Open Air Cinema
Some of the most interesting up-and-coming areas of Athens – Thissío, Gázi, Keramikós and Roúf – lie to the west of the centre, where the extension of Metro Line 3 has acted as a further spur to the pace of change. You will find some of the best things to do in Athens here: nightlife and restaurants are the chief attractions, but there’s also a cluster of new museums and galleries.
The hills of the Pnyx and Filopáppou offer a pleasant, green escape from the city as well as fine views down over the Acropolis and Agora. On the west side of the hills, the residential zone of Áno Petrálona is a real delight, entirely untouristy, with some excellent tavernas and a great open-air cinema.
16. Mount Lycabettus - one of the best things to do in Athens for views
Mount Lycabettus offers tremendous views, particularly from late afternoon onwards – on a clear day, you can see the mountains of the Peloponnese. After dark, the shimmering lights of Athens spread right across the Attica basin. To get to the summit, you can take the funicular or you can walk.
On the summit, the brilliantly white chapel of Áyios Yióryios dominates – a spectacular place to celebrate the saint’s name-day if you’re in Athens at the time. Just below it, Orizontes is a very expensive restaurant with an equally expensive café, both of which enjoy spectacular views.
- For couples: Hotel Lozenge
- For central location: Athens Raise Acropolis Project
- For modern stays: Heritage Hill Hotel
- For boutique stays: Belle Epoque Suites
- For families: The Residence Aiolou Suites & SPA
Where to stay in Athens:
Ready for a trip to Athens? Check out the snapshot The Rough Guide to the Greek Islands or The Rough Guide to Greece. If you travel further in Greece, read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit and best things to do in Greece. For inspiration use the itineraries from The Rough Guide to Greece and our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.
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