Athens can have a reputation as a run-down city. With widespread graffiti and crumbling buildings, it can take a keen eye to see past its rough exterior. However, take some time to look a bit closer and you'll find there are many reasons to spend a few days in Greece's capital city.
In summer, the city can be extremely hot, and crowded, especially in July and August, but in the shoulder seasons, Athens is an affordable, walkable, and pleasantly temperate city to explore. Athens is especially great for a European winter city break, with temperatures remaining much higher than in the rest of Europe and year-round festivities that keep visitors busy even in the darkest of months.
Almost everybody who comes to Greece will pass through Athens at one point or another, and it would be a shame to miss spending some time exploring the city. Beyond the Acropolis, there is so much more to see in this diverse, historic place. Here are just a few reasons why you should visit.
It may come as no surprise that Athens is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Acropolis attracts visitors from far and wide.
The Parthenon was built between 447 and 438 BCE and has become a symbol of the city and of the Greek civilization itself. It’s visible from just about everywhere in Athens as it’s perched on top of a hill, overlooking the sprawling metropolis below.
If you're interested in history, there’s a plethora of museums in which to learn everything there is to know about the ancient world. Top places to visit include the Acropolis Museum, the National Archaeological Museum, and the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture.
There’s no shortage of other sites - many of which you will just stumble across while exploring the city. Make sure not to miss the Ancient Agora and the Temple of Olympian Zeus while you're visiting.
Another must-see is the site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the horseshoe-shaped Panathenaic Stadium. It was built completely out of marble in 330 BC and remains one of the most impressive stadiums in the world.
Modern Athens is just as interesting as its ancestor, with a warm and friendly culture, a world-renowned food scene, and festivals and events that bring locals and visitors together in celebration.
It would be easy to miss the heart of Athens if you only stuck to the tourist sights. Sure it may be falling apart in places, but that all adds to the charm of this working capital.
Athens is an unwaveringly cool city, with trendy cafes and eateries popping up all over the place. Some of the best spots to encounter Athens after dark are the Psiri and Gazi neighbourhoods, filled with trendy tavernas, casual bars, and some of the best nightlife in the city.
One of the most famous local events is the Athens & Epidaurus Festival, which takes place from May to October every year. Festivities centre around music, theatre and dance, with unforgettable performances being held at the open-air Theatre of Herodes Atticus - an ancient theatre perched on the side of the Acropolis with outstanding views over Athens.
Athens has all of the trappings of any modern European city, with the main shopping street of Ermou offering everything your heart could possibly desire (situated in between Syntagma Square and Monastiraki Square).
The pedestrianised neighbourhood of Plaka is home to more traditional souvenirs like sandals, olive oil and handmade soap, as well as some modern boutique shops and delightful lunch spots. Or, if you're after luxury shopping, head to Voukourestiou St in Kolonaki where you'll find a variety of high-end boutiques and brands.
For finding a bargain, Monastiraki Flea Market is one of the best places to shop in the city. Similar to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, it’s packed with jewellery, clothes, fake designer goods, and stalls filled with exotic herbs and spices - not to mention mouth-watering baklava!
The ancient Greeks gave the Western world so much that we often take for granted today. Athens was the birthplace of democracy and Western philosophy, harbouring famous thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
Like everywhere else at the time, Athens was ruled by aristocracy when it emerged in the 7th century BCE, which caused a great amount of inequality and suffering. Revolutions amongst the Athenian people and Sparta during the 6th century sought to change all that, pushing forward the principles of equality among all men and the abolishment of slavery of the poor.
Of course, the Ancient Greeks left behind a legacy of thoughts, inventions, and customs many of which can still be felt in Athens. Today, the city is filled with museums of classical art, impressive architecture, and historical sights that rival that of Rome or Paris.
It is a place that has to be visited to be fully appreciated, and the more you unravel, the richer the experience.
While Athens is vast, with a population of over 3 million, the tourist sights are relatively close together in the centre of the city. Stay near Syntagma Square, and it’s possible to see many of Athens’ sights on foot. It’s a great city to walk around with historical architecture and pop-up street food hidden around every corner.
For those who prefer not to walk too much, there is a comprehensive and affordable metro system and public buses that run throughout the city (plus, some of the metro stations are like mini-museums). Taxis are also well-regulated and affordable but can sometimes be hard to flag down outside of the main tourist areas. The Athens hop-on hop-off bus is a stress-free way to see the highlights.
Though the city has recently tried to make itself more accessible to all, there are still some considerable challenges, like uneven pavements and historical sites that aren’t wheelchair friendly. The 2004 Olympics and Special Olympics helped to instigate improvements in Athens - visit Wheelchair in Athens for more information on disabled travel in Athens.
Being the capital and the main transport hub of the country, Athens is a fantastic base for taking day trips to other attractions in Greece. The main roads are modern and well-signposted on the mainland, making long journeys easy with a hire car or on an organised tour.
The KTEL bus network and high-speed trains also mean that travel is cheap and easy, while regular ferries from the ports of Piraeus and Rafina and domestic flights make travel to the islands easily accessible.
An easy day trip from Athens is the temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, just an hour's drive south of the city. Other options include the sacred sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, the charming coastal town of Nafplio, and the soaring monasteries of Meteora.
If you’re short on time but still want to sample island life, Aegina, part of the Saronic islands, is just a 40-minute ferry ride from Piraeus port.
With major ports just a stone's throw from the city, Athens is connected to a host of amazing Greek island hopping routes.
Fast and slow ferries offer regular services throughout the summer, with both the prices and frequencies dropping off in the winter months. Catch easy transfers to the nearby Saronic Islands like Hydra and Poros, or venture a little further afield to visit big hitters like Mykonos, Naxos and Santorini in the Cyclades.
The Dodecanese Islands are closer to Turkey, but can be accessed by taking a one-hour flight from Athens to Rhodes. From the UNESCO-listed old town you can make your way by ferry to other gems like Kos, Leros, and Astypalea. Wherever your journey takes you, Athens is a fantastic introduction to your time in Greece.
Last Updated 11 September 2023