Athens wasn’t high on my list to visit, even though it featured prominently in my schoolboy memories from my seventh grade Ancient Civilizations class. I imagined it was a city that was, to borrow a friend’s phrasing, coasting along on its past. In other words, nothing really new or modern to see. That wasn’t an entirely unfair characterization, but after my visit in the summer of 2018, I would recommend at least a few days in Athens.
What follows here is a collection of my insights and observations from the trip – the kind of advice I would give to friends. Please feel free to leave your comments and suggestions. And you can check out my Google Map, which has on it many of the places I talk about.
The lay of the land
The biggest challenge for me when planning a trip to a new city, is to get a sense of the lay of the land. And the biggest decision is, where to stay? Let me use the map above to share how I came to understand Athens after six nights there.
(A) is the Acropolis, the main attraction in the center of Athens and kind of the southern edge of the ancient area of the city. (B) is Monastiraki Square, the northern edge of the ancient area of the city. Between these two is the Plaka, a maze-like collection of streets with the most touristy area. It is a charming place to wander through and there are tons of outdoor dining options in the evening. If I was staying just two nights or so in Athens, it might be worthwhile to stay in this area, just for the convenience of it.
(C) is Syntagma Square, in front of the Parliament building. Pretty much all transit lines lead here. Many larger (and some quite nice) hotels overlook the square and there are many Air BNB places not far away. Head towards (E) and you move into the tonier area of town with the higher-end shopping and some chic neighborhoods.
(D) is, in my opinion, starting to get into a pretty sketchy neighborhood. There is an excellent, long-standing restaurant called Tavern Klimataria there, and our taxi driver was explicit that we should head directly inside the restaurant. After dinner, just around dusk, we did walk back to Monastiraki Square and the first few blocks were quite worrying. Then suddenly we crossed an invisible line of gentrification and the neighborhood was inviting and lively.
(E) is a bit further out and, according to our hosts in Santorini, the area in Athens that is nice to stay. If you were staying a bit longer or wanted a more residential location, this would be good. Similarly, (F) and (G) are more residential areas. We stayed five nights near (F) and two nights near (G).
At first, we found the neighborhood at the base of Filopappou Hill (F) not so inviting, but as we started exploring, it turned out to have its charms. So much so, that I drew this map of it showing the highlights. I guess all neighborhoods have their charms; you just have to get to know them.
Finally, the neighborhood around (I) looks on a transit map to be convenient but is in fact too far away and isn’t a very nice neighborhood. It didn’t feel dangerous, but just didn’t strike me as a place I would want to stay.
In terms of distances, between any of these points and the next nearest point is about one kilometer. There are some hills but the streets mostly work around them and aren’t too bad.
Public transit is easy to use – the busses are a little less intuitive than the metro and trams, though – and there is are options for passes covering one day or multiple days. You can also get a stored value pass from self-service machines that are easy to understand. However, given that most of the attractions are in a fairly compact area, you may not find yourself needing the metro.
We also made use of the inexpensive and generally good taxis. Tip: you can use Uber to book and pay for your taxis – they do not allow private drivers but we found it more convenient than just hailing taxis on the street.
Transportation from the airport: Taxis are a flat rate into the city, which is reasonably priced and takes about 40 minutes. Trains run into the city, too, and are much less expensive but take a lot longer and seem to make many stops.
Safety: Athens is generally a safe city. Like all big cities, especially ones with large numbers of tourists, you should be especially vigilant of pick-pockets, bag snatchers and the like, especially in the crowded touristy areas and on public transport.
How long should you stay in Athens? Two days seems a bit rushed, especially if you want to do a day trip to Delphi. On the other hand, we stayed six full days and I found that we could have easily cut that down. If you are traveling with younger or older companions, or just want a more leisurely pace, I would suggest three full days, maybe four.
What to see and do
Free walking tour – our first day in Athens, we arranged for a free guided walking tour (gratuity suggested) booked through Eureka Athens. I don’t know if there is more than one guide, but the young woman, Agathi, who led our small group around was a font of knowledge, very personable and eager to share her knowledge with us.
We met in the late afternoon at Syntagma Square to watch the changing of the guards and then did a nearly three-hour walk, covering most of the old area of the city. By the end of the walk, we had a good sense of the layout of central Athens and had a clear idea of what we wanted to see. Note to myself for all future travel: look for free walking tours led by locals – what a great way to get to know the place you have arrived and get your bearings.
Acropolis and Acropolis Museum – If there is nothing else you do, these are the must-visit. There are debates as to whether to visit the museum or climb the Acropolis first. I feel like the museum helped give me some context.
The museum is modern and well-curated. The audio guide is worth doing – or you might consider a guided tour if you really want to understand the history better. I am not a big museum person, so a guided tour can help me get more from the experience. Note that the restaurant on the top floor serves good food at a reasonable price and the terrace outside offers nice views of the Acropolis.
Just across from the museum entrance is the entrance to the Acropolis. I highly suggest you download the Rick Steves Audio Europe app. It lets you download many free written and audio guides to cities and attractions. The audio guide for the Acropolis is about an hour long and is well-done. Suffice it to say, this large rocky mountain is exposed to the sun and even in the cooler months, can get insufferably warm. Hats, sunscreen and plenty of water are musts. Best bet is to go early or go late. We were lucky – it was mostly cloudy and overcast for most of the climb.
The highlight of the Acropolis is the Parthenon, which is quite a wonder to behold. There are a lot of tourists on the top of the hill, but as you can see, it is possible to get a nice picture without the crowds in it. Before you visit, may I suggest you watch a few videos on YouTube about the Acropolis? Discovery Channel, NatGeo or something like that. You’ll appreciate what the site used to be, rather than focusing on the ruins that are left today.
Cooking class – another thing I really enjoyed was taking a cooking class. This excellent class from Viator offers about two hours in a small group with the guidance of a friendly young chef, to create several Greek classics – including rolling your own filo dough to make spinach pie!
After cooking, you go to the restaurant’s rooftop for an al fresco dinner of your own making, complete with wine and a few extra dishes you didn’t make – and a stunning view of the Acropolis as the sun sets. I think there are two chefs who alternate classes. I’m sure both are great but we really enjoyed our time with Chef Stam Zervas.
Central market – in pretty much any city, a visit to the market will give you a good sense of what fuels the city. In the case of Athens, that would seem to mostly be seafood with a good bit of lamb! The market is easy to get to and many local restaurants are nearby, offering satisfying Greek cuisine. I particularly liked the nearby Miran deli, which features a wide range of sausages and cheeses. More on that below in the food section.
National Garden – adjacent to Syntagma Square is a beautiful park, which is worth a wander through. Athens is a city that is not particularly green. This park, which opened in 1840 as the private garden of Queen Amalia, has a cute little cafe where you can take a slightly overpriced snack and enjoy a break from the heat of the day.
Sunsets – Lycabettus Hill or Filopappou Hill both offer nice sunset views with moderate hikes. The former can be reached through a drive up most of the way or a ride on a funicular. The latter requires a hike but is not too strenuous. There are also lots of rooftop bars that offer options to watch the sunset, but getting up on a hill lets you see the spread of the city before you.
What to eat in Athens?
Before the trip, I watched lots of videos and visited lots of websites, ending up with a long list of places to visit. In the end, we visited quite a number of neighborhood places. They were good, but I don’t know if they were so special that you should seek them out!. In general, most Greek tavernas seem to serve decent-quality, reasonably-priced food. It isn’t always fancy, but it is tasty.
In terms of what to eat, Greek food has generally simple, rustic flavors that focus more on quality ingredients than nuanced preparation. Here are some things we ate that are worth seeking out.
Where to eat?
Below are a few places I would recommend based on experience. You can find my complete list of restaurants on my Google Maps list.
Meliartos – a newer bakery and cafe located near Monastiraki Square, Meilartos offers great pies, salads and other foods as well as treats for your sweet tooth. They are also the host of the cooking classes with the rooftop dinner (see above).
Miran – to try some of the best locally-produced sausages and cheeses, as well as a large selection of other speciality products, Miran is a great choice. They have tables and chairs and you can stop by and order a sampling plate to share.
Lukumades – this excellent hole-in-the-wall serves hot, fresh fried Greek donut holes. They are light, not at all oily, and served with you choice of honey, yogurt, ice cream, chocolate and other toppings. As of this writing, just one location near Monastiraki Square.
Restaurant at Acropolis Museum – this might seem an unusual choice, but the top-floor restaurant at the museum offers good food, good service, reasonable prices and the outdoor terrace offers you a stunning view of the Acropolis. Since you are already there, why not?
O Thanasis – souvlaki, the grilled meats that anchor Grecian cuisine, are available everywhere and all of them seemed good. But one stood out: O Thanasis, a shop near Monastiraki Square with more than a 50-year history. Friendly service, excellent food.
Βανίλια bistro – a cute and homey breakfast and brunch place. If you feel the craving for some excellent pancakes, this is a good place to satisfy the itch! They also offer plenty of other food to fuel you up for the day.
Pie Works – this small shop not far from Syntagma Square features freshly made pies in a variety of flavors. Using homemade filo dough, the pies have a crispy, flakey crust and are made with excellent quality ingredients and a lot of love.
Would love to hear from you
I hope you have a great time in Athens. Please share your feedback on the places listed here along with any other suggestions you have.