You are never far from Greece’s ancient heritage in this bustling modern European capital, whose lively street life complements the grandeur of its age-old sites. The imposing Acropolis is the most famous of the myriad monuments and museums that will satisfy the most culturally inclined travellers. Yet there are plenty of fine local tavernas and buzzing bars to satisfy those more geared towards a night out and there are sandy beaches just a few kilometres away from the centre. Athens is pretty much a year-round destination, though expect high temperatures in July and August.
No city in the world can boast quite such an imposing centrepiece as the Acropolis, the citadel of ancient Athens, whose crowning glory is the gigantic Parthenon temple. Visible from just about anywhere in the city, the sacred rock is surrounded by other archaeological gems. On the Southern Slope lie the Theatre of Dionysus and the massive Roman Theatre of Herodes Atticus. One of the most unique things to do is attend a performance at the annual Athens Epidaurus Festival here.
Opposite the Southern Slope stands the sleek, modern Acropolis Museum, which contains a treasure trove of relics. Meanwhile, the residential areas of Koukaki and Thissio to the south and east have some great places to eat. You can work up an appetite by rambling across Filopappou Hill that lies in between them and peering into the so-called Prison of Socrates. The adjacent Hill of the Pnyx also offers breathtaking Acropolis views.
On the slopes to the north of the Acropolis, the areas of Plaka and Monastiraki merge into one another and constitute the city’s touristic heartland. Plaka is crammed with shops and restaurants – Scholarhio has some of the tastiest dishes to try, such as flaming sausages, which are as theatrical as they are delicious. There are also fantastic places to visit such as the Roman Forum, the elegant Tower of the Winds, and more contemporary attractions like the Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments and Museum of Modern Greek Culture. It’s all an easy stroll from King George, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Athens.
Radiating out from the eponymous square, Monastiraki is named after the square’s tiny church and is most famous for its bustling Flea Market, where browsing for gifts is one of the most fun things to do. The area also houses Hadrian’s Library and abuts the wide open spaces of the Ancient Agora, where Socrates once debated philosophy. Monastiraki in turn blends almost imperceptibly into Psyrri, where more great places to eat can be found.
Syndagma Square, bordered on its eastern flank by the vast edifice of the Greek Parliament, is the city’s grandest public space. Immediately south of the parliament building, the National Gardens provide a welcome oasis of green. Among the best places to stay in the entire country is the iconic Hotel Grande Bretagne, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Athens, whose GB Roof Garden Restaurant affords sweeping views of the Acropolis and beyond.
A short way east, the chic neighbourhood of Kolonaki is home to designer shops, as well as three of Athens’ finest museums. The Benaki Museum houses an eclectic collection of artefacts from ancient to modern times, while the Museum of Cycladic Art displays treasures from the islands and the Byzantine Museum showcases Greece’s Orthodox Christian heritage.
If you fancy some exercise, climbing Lykavittos (Lycabettus) Hill to the north, capped by a cute whitewashed chapel, will reward you with panoramic views across the Acropolis to the Saronic Gulf and, on a clear day, the distant mountains of the Peloponnese. Or take a shortcut using the funicular railway.
No more than a fifteen-minute walk northwest of Syndagma, Omonia Square is an important city hub. From here Athinas Street runs south towards the Acropolis and is where you’ll find the city’s picturesque bazaar area. Among the best things to do here are picking giant olives from a roadside stall, observing the hustle and bustle at the meat and fish market or admiring the array of vegetables and flowers in the market opposite. North of Omonia the National Archaeological Museum houses some of Greece’s most famous ancient finds.
Up behind the museum and the equally imposing Polytechnic next door lies the student enclave of Exarchia. One of the alternative things to do in Athens is to spend an evening hopping between this area’s wealth of tavernas, cafés, bars and underground music venues such as An Club, perhaps starting the evening with a meal just off Exarchia Square in the airy garden at Rozalia. One of the best places to stay nearby is the comfortable and stylish Academias Hotel, Autograph Collection.
Stretching from the busy port of Piraeus to the golden beaches of Glyfada and beyond, the coast of urban Athens offers a breath of sea air and plenty of fun things to do. Take a day-trip across to the Argo-Saronic island of Aegina or watch the yachts bob in Mikrolimano harbour from a breezy table at the Michelin-starred Varoulko seafood restaurant. Further east you can swim at Edem beach or take a wilder dip at the rocks beyond Varkiza. The best place to stay near the seafront is the Athens Marriott Hotel, whose Made in Athens restaurant serves fresh Mediterranean cuisine.
As you will undoubtedly want to visit the Acropolis, it’s worth taking advantage of the combination ticket, which also allows entry to a number of other sites over a period of five days. These are the South & North Slopes, the Ancient Agora & Museum, the Roman Forum, Hadrian’s Library, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Kerameikos archaeological site and Aristotle’s Lyceum.
Published: July 26, 2022
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