Athens is one of the world’s oldest cities. It has over 3,500 years of recorded history and at least 5,000 years of human habitation. Its successfully preserved a lot of that history – from ancient Greece, to the Roman Empire, to Persians, Ottoman rule and Nazi occupation – there are historical points almost everywhere. Athens feels unique in that you can go shopping in a modern area and stumble upon an Ancient Greek temple.
If you’re a history enthusiast then Athens is most definitely for you. But it’s also a great place to visit if you’re not. There are photo opportunities aplenty for those who like good views, amazing food, and a hospitable and proud local population who are so happy to share their amazing city with you.
Greece as a country has had its fair share of challenges over recent decades, from the extremely high cost of the Olympic Games, to high unemployment, the debt crisis and immigration. It’s fair to say that a lot of the people I met are angry at the Politicians and want better for their country, feeling like they’ve almost been cheated. But at the same time, were welcoming, friendly and happy to share their opinions.
Other interesting facts about Athens: It’s the oldest capital in Europe, you can’t fly a plane over The Acropolis, you can’t build higher than The Acropolis (hence why there are no skyscrapers in Athens), and most importantly…..the orange trees which line the streets aren’t actually orange trees (they are a bitter version of a fruit which are not suitable for eating, so don’t be tempted!)
Here are my Athens highlights. I cover enough to spend 3 days in the city. If you have longer than that, then I recommend a day trip to Delphi as included in my ‘A day trip to Delphi’ post.
ONE. The Acropolis (recommended for Day 1)
Acropolis literally translates as ‘high city’, and that’s exactly what this incredible ancient citadel was. On the Acropolis hill is the world famous Parthenon, Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Erechtheion and various other temples. It really is an incredible place – The Parthenon has been everything from an ancient Greek temple, to Ottoman mosque, to an armoury. It’s also lost its Marbles – stolen by Lord Elgin who visited Athens and took it upon himself to bribe the local leadership of the time to visit The Parthenon and take whichever bits interested him! Undeniably it’s dramatic, it’s beautiful and it’s got to be the number one attraction in Athens. Go early though, and check the cruise ship schedules if you want to avoid the crowds.
TWO. The Panathenaic Stadium (recommended for Day 2)
This stadium, also known as Kallimarmaro (‘beautiful marble’) is the only stadium built completely of marble, and is the home of the modern Olympic Games. For those of you who’ve read my blog posts, you know I LOVE the Olympics so this was a huge bucketlist item for me and I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED it. The stadium was incredible, with a great audio guide you could follow if you want.
THREE. Mount Lycabettus (recommended for Day 3)
For epic views out across Athens and to the Acropolis, visit Mount Lycabettus. You can choose to walk up it, or get the Cable Car which runs every 10-30 minutes, depending on the time of year. There is a restaurant and a little church at the top. I personally recommend getting the Cable Car up and then walking down. The main reason for this is that whilst the top does give good views, it gets very busy. My advice would be to walk down one level and then you get the same view, same outlook, but with no people and the same photos all to yourself.
FOUR. Changing of the Guard (recommended for Day 2)
The Changing of the Guard happens outside the Presidential Mansion (just off Syntagma Square) every 30 minutes. It really is a spectacle – we learned the white shirts of the Guards’ uniforms symbolise purity, the pleating is made from over 30 metres of fabric and features 400 pleats to represent the liberation of Greece from the years of Ottoman occupation, and the colours include blue to represent the greek flag.
For the best experience, visit the Changing of the Guard at 11am on a Sunday, where there is a full military parade including marching band. It really was fun and unique to watch.
If you want the front row seat we had, then arrive about 15 minutes before at 10.45am and watch the end of the previous changing of the guard which starts at 10.30am. I recommend watching this to take photos like the below right in front of the guards without the crowds. The marching band, followed by procession of more guards, then comes through at 11am so they clear the Square. The best view of the band and guards in the procession is actually from the other side of the street because they close the road for the band to come down. So watch the guards in front of Parliament first for photos with no crowds, then head to the main road to get photos of the procession…also with no crowds! Perfect!
FIVE. Monastiraki Square (recommended for Day 2)
One of the main hubs for restaurants, bars and shopping in Athens, with stunning views of The Acropolis. We particularly liked O Thanasis which did great Souvlaki and kebabs. We also had a cocktail or two atop the A for Athens roof bar which is, in my opinion, the best Instagram spot in Athens.
SIX. The Agora of Athens (recommended for Day 1)
The Ancient Agora is the area where the ancient centre used to be. There is a really well preserved temple and an interesting little museum. It’s easy to spend an hour or so walking around the site taking it all in. As with most things in Athens, there is also a great view of The Acropolis!
SEVEN. Anafiotika & Plaka (recommended for Day 1)
Another very Instagrammable area – Anafiotika and Plaka are areas just at the base of The Acropolis, which house cute shops, little winding lanes and lots of stray cats. If you’re planning to eat in this area, just be aware that it is the most expensive part to eat in as it is the main tourist district.
EIGHT. Filopappou Hill (recommended for Day 1)
Another hill to climb for lovely views out over to The Acropolis and across Athens. If you only have 1 or 2 days in Athens and don’t have time to get to Mount Lycabettus, then this is a great alternative as it’s very close to The Acropolis.
NINE. Roman Forum (recommended for Day 2)
This is the site of the old Roman marketplace in Athens, and includes the Tower of the Winds – an ancient clock considered the world’s first meteorological station. It’s not the most overwhelming of sites, but it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.
TEN. Hadrian’s Arch & Temple of Zeus (recommended for Day 2)
Another couple of ancient monuments which are worth a visit. The Temple of Zeus is in good condition, although covered in scaffolding at the time of my visit (January 2020). Hadrian’s Arch was one of the main gateways in Athens, and presently sits in the middle of a busy retail district; a perfect example of where old meets new.
The best of the rest in Athens
- National Gardens and Zappeion – The National Gardens are a nice area to stroll around, and are right behind Syntagma Square where the Changing of the Guard is. Be careful though as the park is a prime spot for pick pockets. The Zappeion is at the southern end of the park and is a grand looking conference and business centre.
- Areopagus Rock – This is right at the base of The Acropolis slope and is a great place to sit and sunbathe or have a picnic with views up to The Acropolis. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the views from Mount Lycabettus, but is a great option if you don’t have time to get there.
- Acropolis Museum – Again at the base of The Acropolis slopes, this museum documents the history of the area from ancient times, through Roman rule and the Byzantine Empire. We spent about 2 hours in the museum which was enough to take most things in.
- National Historical Museum – This museum is a good overview of Greek history from Ancient times to Independence wars, to Nazi occupation. There isn’t loads of information and you can get round the museum in around an hour.
- National Archaeological Museum – This museum houses some of the most important artefacts from a variety of archaeological locations around Greece from prehistory to late antiquity. If you are in to ancient Greece, this may well be the best museum in the World.
- Greek spa treatment – I booked an olive oil Cretian massage and it was absolute heaven. The spa treatements in Athens are amazing, and I can thoroughly recommend the spa at The Electra Metropolis hotel.
Full Itinerary for those interested
If you have 1 day, I recommend day 1. For 2 days, add on day 2, and for 3 days add on day 3! If you’re lucky enough to have more time than that in Athens, then you may be interested in my ‘A day trip to Delphi’ post – link in the Greece blog posts section.
- Day 1 – The Acropolis, Acropolis Museum, Areopagus Rock, Filopappou Hill, The Agora of Athens, Anafiotika & Plaka
- Day 2 – National Gardens, Zappeio, Changing of the Guard, Panathenaic Stadium, Temple of Zeus, Hadrian’s Arch, Roman Forum, Monastiraki Square
- Day 3 – Mount Lycabettus, Greek brunch, National Historical Museum or Archaelogial Museum, Greek spa treatment
- Day 4 – A day trip to Delphi
Thanks for reading! Has this post been useful for you? Let me know in the comments below.