If the guidebooks are to be believed, there are surprises hidden around every unassuming corner in pretty much every city. We know that’s not true: it’s tourist board sloganry at its worst. But in higgledy-piggledy Athens – where ancient and modern, nature and civilisation, tradition and trends mingle – perhaps the cliché could hold. The very best things to do in Athens certainly suggest so.
Traffic-filled roads mask cobbled alleys with bougainvillea-drenched cafés and restaurants. Inside neoclassical buildings, cutting-edge galleries are thriving. The plainest of entranceways can lead to an outdoor cinema serving ouzo under the starry night sky. And then you turn one way, and chances are the twinkling Parthenon’s staring right back at you. Athens is the cosmopolitan heart of Greece, and indeed all of Western culture. Here’s how to get the best out of it.
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Best things to do in Athens
What is it? When you think of Athens, you think of these ancient buildings. You’d struggle to name a more iconic sight in any part of the world. Perched on top of a rocky outcrop for 2,500 years, they’ve now been absorbed into a sprawling modern metropolis, but you’ll still be dazzled.
Why go? The monuments here are considered the greatest architectural feats of Greek antiquity. The Parthenon temple, dedicated to the goddess Athena, is perfecly proportioned and considered the world’s finest Doric masterpiece (and there are many).
What is it? Tucked away in the heart of Athens, the National Gardens offer a beautiful retreat from the bustle of the concrete capital.
Why go? This grandiose park was commissioned by Queen Amalia, the first queen of Greece, in 1838 and completed two years later. The Gardens cover 16 hectares of narrow gravel paths and ponds, as well as a small zoo with wild Greek goats, peacocks and chickens.
What is it? A lavish museum that’s home to more than 3,000 artefacts of Cycladic, ancient Greek and Cypriot origin.
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 grouped by the themes ‘Gods and heroes’, ‘Eros’, ‘the world of women’ and ‘the Underworld’.
What is it? An oasis of Mediterranean greenery.
Why go? For 170,000 square metres of parkland, complete with playgrounds, gardens, cafés, a striking eco-friendly glass complex (also home to the Greek National Opera), a manmade river, and a new National Library of Greece. Plus, there’s a great view of the Acropolis.
What is it? Monastiraki is one of the oldest and busiest areas of the capital, packed with rooftop bars, ancient sights and huge markets.
Why go? The Monastiraki metro station is right off the picturesque main square (which also has brilliant views of the Acropolis). Go shopping at the Monastiraki flea market, squeeze your way through thronging pedestrian alleys, and peruse shops filled with antiques, handmade jewellery and Greek handicrafts.
What is it? The Monastiraki area’s indoor and outdoor food market delights the senses. Starting in the wee hours, Greek vendors bellow out their best deals 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 travellers and locals traverse the narrow aisles lined with hanging meat carcasses, stalls of Greek deli delights and fresh seafood iced down in vibrant displays.
What is it? Lycabettus Hill is one of the highest peaks in Athens. You can get to it by hiking up a forested slope – only briefly, mind – or, if you’re feeling lazy, there’s a cable car to the top.
Why go? At the peak you’ll find one of the most sweeping views of the city. There’s also a pretty whitewashed church called St George, a café and Orizontes, a gourmet Greek restaurant with surely the capital’s most scenic terrace. Concerts are held at the Lycabettus open-air theatre, built on another part of the hill, in summertime.
What is it? Stretching out under the shadow of the Acropolis, Plaka is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited neighbourhoods.
Why go? Duck into the side streets here and explore the charmingly narrow old lanes. They’re lined with a hotchpotch of crumbling buildings from various eras, as well as beautiful restored buildings-turned-stately homes. Plaka boasts a wealth of ancient sites, small museums, historic churches and picturesque small squares buzzing with restaurants and cafés.
What is it? Athens isn’t short on treats for fans of Greek mythology. This is the temple you should visit first.
Why go? He may be the god of oceans, but Poseidon's palace stands 60 metres above sea level on Cape Sounio. This marble temple was first built by ancient Athenians to honour Poseidon and guide sailors safely home. All that remains now is a series of towering columns which don’t half look beautiful against a glorious Greek sunset.
What is it? Reopened in 2016, the EMST is Athens’s answer to the Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou or the Museum of Modern Art.
Why go? This space is filled with art that gets people talking. Expect exhibitions of Greek and international art across all media, from painting to video to experimental architecture. Plus the museum’s vast home has its own fascinating story: it’s actually a former brewery – Greek beer Fix was once made here. As of early 2019, the museum was closed for renovation. Check the website.
What is it? Athenians know it’s summer in the city when the outdoor cinemas begin to open up. The legendary Cine Paris, which has been going since the ’20s, is best known for its striking Acropolis views.
Why go? For a proper night out the way Greeks do it. Cine Paris is one of around 90 outdoor film venues in Athens where patrons can watch old Greek and foreign classics, plus the latest Hollywood releases.
Oh, and there’s no shortage of good food...
Like its alternative culture and attractions on offer, Athens’ energetic dining scene has matured in recent years. You’ll still find traditional tavernas in the city, but they’re joined by trendy restaurants offering premiere versions of Greek classics and 'olde worlde' recipes fused with modern touches (moussaka made with crayfish, for instance).