Nothing quite stirs the soul like a visit to Athens, the cradle of Western civilization. Athens is happening, intriguing, and who doesn’t fall in love with the homeland of gods, goddesses and history’s great philosophers and athletes? Add in ancient temples, magnificent beaches, and that ‘oh so good’ Greek food, Athens is a place no traveler should die without seeing.
Though it’s one of the world’s oldest cities, Athens’ architectural perfection has never been surpassed in 2,500 years. I have enjoyed so much when visiting this fascinating, but I certainly have my top recommendations for what to not miss on your next visit to αθήνα (have to get a little Greek in here).
- Remains of Ancient Agora
- Theatre of Dionysus
- National Archeological Museum
- Temple of Olympian Zeus
- Benaki Museum of Greek Culture
- Monastiraki Flea Market
- Temple of Poseidon, Sounion
- Climb Philopappos Hill
- Anafiotika, an Island on the Mainland
- Dine at Authentic Greek Restaurants
- Where to Stay in Athens, Greece
On my husband and my first trip to Athens many years ago we wondered whether the Acropolis was everything it was said to be. Rest assured we were not disappointed in the least. As a matter of fact, this millennia-old survivor is one of the most notable structures in the world; we were in complete awe which happens each time we return.
Visitors should allow at least four hours to wander through this masterpiece of time and history. Arrive early in the morning or later in the day to avoid the worst of the crowds – this beloved sight is always a bit crowded.
Likewise, the sight of the Parthenon dominating the Athenian Acropolis high above the city is unbelievably impressive. Greece’s most famous temple’s sheer size is mind-boggling. The structure and was dedicated to the goddess Athena Parthenos who the citizens of Athens considered their patroness.
Unbelievable that this resplendent marble temple built in 5th century BC remains so well-preserved thanks to Greece’s aggressive restoration efforts.
Remains of Ancient Agora
Peering over the sides of the Acropolis and the houses in the Plaka, you can’t possibly miss the impressive remains of Ancient Agora and the Theatre of Dionysus. The Agora and its cultural center were once lined with magnificent statues and fashionable shops and was a mecca for merchants. Foundations of the ancient city remain and the best way to see this area is exploring by foot.
It really is a gem that some visitors miss when coming to Athens.
Theatre of Dionysus
Built on the south slope of the sacred Acropolis hill, this impressive theatre is where works of the great writers were performed. The original Greek theatre was no more than a dirt orchestra with wooden seats, but between 342 and 326 B.C., a new theatre was constructed of stone, the remnants of which are seen today.
Visitors can explore the remains of the theatre alone, but an organized tour is so much better to understand its fascinating history.
National Archeological Museum
Greece’s largest archeological museum contains a staggeringly large collection of Greek artifacts from 15 centuries B.C.E. to the late 5th century Roman period. More than 11,000 objects on display include haunting marble Cycladic figures, Egyptian art, Greek vases, unearthed jewelry pieces, dishes, pottery, masks, frescoes and more.
Visitors can easily spend three hours here and still not see it all, but see it you should and a guided tour makes sure you hit the highlights and make efficient use of your time.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
Hadrian completed this massive temple dedicated to the king of the Greek gods in the center of the capital. Construction began in the 6th century B.C. and continued on and off for 700 more years. The remaining marble columns, along with one lying on the ground, provide insight into just how impressive this colossal area must have been when the temple was in its heyday with 104 columns.
The archeological area is impressive, especially with the backdrop of the Acropolis in the distance.
The oldest historical neighborhood of Athens, the Plaka, also known as the ‘neighborhood of the gods,’ is located right below Acropolis Hill. The picturesque area is renowned for its authentic character and neoclassical houses dating back to the 19th century. Archeological findings, however, indicate this region has been continuously occupied since prehistoric times.
Within the neighborhood, visitors will find monuments, museums, Byzantine churches and charming bars, cafes, traditional taverns, and shops.
Benaki Museum of Greek Culture
Though this museum is relatively small, it is filled with treasures dating from the Neolithic period to the 20th century. The museum was expanded from the private collection of the wealthy Benaki family and now includes a folk-art collection, recreation of an 18th-century parlor with copper vessels, plates, leaded windows, gold cups, portraits, and rare early Christian textiles.
Monastiraki Flea Market
Located in Athens’ old town, Monastiraki isn’t really an every-day flea market, but rather resembles the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul with conventional shops and stalls selling everything from clothing, jewelry, art, handcrafts, and lots of souvenirs. On Sunday, the locals bring out their wares, from what some term “junk” to antiques – as they say, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.
If you need a shopping break, cafes and restaurants in the area offer places to sip, dine, and people watch.
Temple of Poseidon, Sounion
Throughout the centuries as today, sailors returning from sea knew they were getting close to Athens when they spotted the Temple of Poseidon dedicated to the Greek god of the sea and its slender Doric columns. Located at Cape Sounion, the temple is unique as 16 of its original 38, 20-foot-high columns are still standing – unbelievably impressive given that the temple was built during 444 to 440 B.C.
Climb Philopappos Hill
This area of Athens is amazing. Cobblestone streets offer breathtaking views overlooking the monumental sites of the Parthenon and Hill of Muses. The walk to the hill is fairly easy and you’ll get to explore some of Athens’ amazing cultural spots along the way.
Don’t forget to check out the Prison of Socrates, a cave-like room hidden within the hill’s rocky landscape. It’s often missed by visitors to Philopappos Hill.
Anafiotika, an Island on the Mainland
Another hidden treasure, this tiny scenic Athens neighborhood is a delightful pocket on the mainland offering a taste of Greek island vibes. An unsuspecting alleyway leads from the Plaka to this tranquil oasis. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d likely not find it, which is why it remains relatively undiscovered.
Anafiotika is filled with blue and white-washed cubic houses, centuries-old Orthodox churches, narrow passageways and spectacular street art. The architecture here is more reminiscent of the island of Santorini than central Athens. You won’t find tourist shops here or over-priced restaurants. What you’ll likely find in this residential neighborhood is a stray cat or two.
Dine at Authentic Greek Restaurants
If you really want to feel the magic of Athens cultural cuisine, stay away from the tourist traps. Rather, treat yourself to an authentic experience at some of these city treasures.
If you only had one dish to eat in Athens, it should be souvlaki – marinated chicken, beef or lamb heaped on fresh pita bread topped with salad and tzatziki. Our favorite for enjoying this dish is O Thanasis, just off Monastraki Square.
Mavros Gatos offers all the favorites in its humble, sleepy bistro in Pagrati. From cheese saganaki and creamy fava-bean dip, to more delectable Greek delights, this is truly an under-the-radar hidden foodie gem.
Street food is also popular in Athens and you’ll find plenty of gyros.
As for dessert, leave room for pastry treats like Baklava or Karidopita (a walnut pie).
Where to Stay in Athens, Greece
As one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, as you’d expect, Athens, Greece offers a variety of hotel options, most centrally located. Use the map below to find one that’s right for you.architectureAthenshistoric