The 11 best things to do in Athens

Greece’s capital is a feast of ancient architecture and cultural institutions
PHOTOGRAPH: Milan Gonda / Shutterstock.com ATHENS
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When exploring Athens – the rule is the same for visitors and locals – everything needs to be discovered.  Here modern traffic-filled roads lie just around the bend from cobbled lanes of bougainvillea drenched cafés and tavernas. Neoclassical buildings are home to trendy galleries. The plainest of entrance ways can lead to an outdoor movie theatre serving ouzo under a starry night sky. All the while, marbled archaeological sites stand twinkling, telling stories of early Western civilization and the birth of democracy.  Athens is a city of the ancient, historic, hip and modern. Go and soak it in.

Best things to do in Athens

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Acropolis

What is it? These ancient buildings are the defining landmarks of Athens. Sat at the of a rocky outcrop for 2,500 years, a sprawling modern metropolis has grown around them.

Why go? The monuments here are considered the greatest architectural feats created in Greek antiquity. The Parthenon temple, dedicated to the goddess Athena, is perfect in its proportions and is considered to be one of the world’s finest Doric masterpieces.

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National Gardens, Athens
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Rossan Delev

The National Gardens

What is it? Located in the heart of Athens, the National Gardens are a beautiful retreat from the hustle and bustle of the concrete metropolis that surrounds it.  

Why go? Queen Amalia, the first queen of Greece, commissioned the creation of a national garden and by 1840 it was completed.  The park covers 16 hectares of narrow graveled paths, ponds as well as a small zoo with wild Greek goats, peacocks and chickens.  

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Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens
Giorgos Sfakianakis © Museum of Cycladic Art, 2018

Museum of Cycladic Art

What is it? A grand museum that’s home to more than 3,000 artefacts of Cycladic, ancient Greek and Cypriot art.

Why go? To see the distinctly shaped slender marble figurines and statues, that date back to the Bronze Age. Or one of the 150 objects from the ancient Greek art collections, including vases, figurines and weapons that are grouped by theme: Gods and Heroes, Eros, the World of Women, the World of Men, and the Underworld.   

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EMST, Athens
Photograph: Courtesy Giannis Vastardis

The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens

What is it? Reopened in 2016, the EMST is Athens’ answer to the Tate Modern (London), Centre Pompidou (Paris) and Museum of Modern Art (New York).

Why go? This space is filled with art that gets people talking. Expect exhibitions of Greek and international art in all media, from painting to video to experimental architecture. Plus the museum’s vast home has its own story: it’s actually a former brewery  – Greek beer Fix was made here.

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Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, Athens
SNF - Yiorgis-Yerolymbos

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC)

What is it? An oasis of Mediterranean greenery.  a 170,000 square-meter park complete with playgrounds, gardens, cafés, a manmade river of filtered sea water, performance lawns and a massive glass eco-minded complex which houses the state-of-the-art home for the Greek National Opera, and a new National Library of Greece boasting a two-million-book capacity.  

Why go? A view of the Acropolis is also part of the experience here, all designed by famed architect Renzo Piano, known for the Pompidou Center in Paris.

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Lycabettus Hill, Athens
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Paul Raven

Lycabettus Hill

What is it? Lycabettus Hill is one of the highest peaks in Athens. It’s reachable by short hike up a forested slope (thankfully, shady!) or if you’re feeling lazy you can get a cable car to the top.

Why go? At the peak you’ll find one of the most sweeping panoramic views of the city. There’s also a pretty whitewashed church called St. George, café and Orizontes, a gourmet Greek restaurant with the most scenic outdoor dining balcony in the city.  Concerts are held at the Lycabettus open-air theatre, built on another part of the hill, in the summertime.

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Varvakios Agora
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Tomislav Medak

Varvakios Agora

What is it? Monastiraki district’s indoor and outdoor food market grabs the senses. Starting early in the morning, Greek vendors bellow out their sale prices in an attempt to sell fresh meat, fish, fruit, spices and products from around the country.

Why go? The atmosphere is unlike any other as travelers and locals traverse the narrow aisles lined with hanging meat carcasses, stalls of Greek deli delights and fresh seafood iced down in colorful displays.    

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Plaka, Athens
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Stephen Fulljames

Plaka Neighbourhood

What is it? Sprawled under the shadow of the Acropolis, Plaka is one of the oldest continuously inhabited neighborhoods in the world.  

Why go? Duck into the side streets here and explore the lovely, narrow old lanes. They’re lined with a mix of crumbling buildings from various historic eras as well as beautiful restored buildings turned into stately homes. Plaka boasts a wealth of ancient sites, small museums, historic churches and picturesque little squares buzzing with activity from restaurants and cafés.    

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Monastiraki
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Weekend Wayfarers

Monastiraki Neighborhood

What is it? Monastiraki is one of the oldest and busiest areas of the capital featuring rooftop bars, ancient sights and endless market shopping.

Why go? The Monastiraki metro station is situated right off the picturesque main square. (You can also catch a glimpse of stunning views of the Acropolis from here.) Go shopping at the Monastiraki Flea Market, a series of tightly lined pedestrian lanes for the quintessential ‘I Love Greece’ tourist trinkets or pop into shops filled with antiques, handmade jewelry and Greek handicrafts.   

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Temple of Poseidon
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Ava Babili

Temple of Poseidon

What is it? On Cape Sounio, a rocky headland on the southernmost tip of Athens, stands a temple built to honour of the god of the sea, Poseidon.

Why go? Perched at almost 60m above the sea, its gleaming marble columns once welcomed the ancient Athenians home as they sailed home. The site inspired nineteenth-century English poet Lord Byron who included Sounio in his poem ‘Don Juan’, and his signature is allegedly carved on a marble column. Go at sunset for the best views.

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Cine Paris, Athens
Cine Paris

Cine Paris

What is it? Athenians know it’s summer in the city when the local outdoor cinemas begin to open up under the stars. Operating since the 1920s, Cine Paris is known for its incredible night time views of the Acropolis.

Why go? For a proper Athenian night out! Cine Paris is one of around 90 outdoor movie venues in the city where patrons can watch classic, Greek, foreign movies or the latest Hollywood releases.

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