Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio, Greece
travel tips

8 things to know before visiting Athens

Planning a trip to Athens? Here are our top picks...

Stay: Asomaton, a boutique hotel near the major sites

Walking tour: Athens highlights

Experience: the sunset at Cape Sounio

Day trip: cruise to the Saronic islands

Food tour: Athens for foodies

Dating back to roughly 3000 BCE, Athens ranks as one of the oldest cities in Europe and the world. Named after Athena, Greek Goddess of Wisdom, myth maintains the goddess won a competition with Poseidon, God of the Sea, to name the city. To win, she gifted the fledgling city an olive seed, which grew into a tree and can be seen to this day on the Acropolis.

Visitors often spend little time here, choosing to visit the ancient sites before heading to the Greek islands. With summer temperatures often reaching over 40 degrees C, this is unsurprising, however, there's much here to tempt you to dig deeper, beyond the most popular ancient ruins.

Spring and autumn are good times of the year to visit. Otherwise, come in summer if you can stand the heat, as the city empties this time of year.

Alongside the famous Acropolis and Parthenon lies a city with several unique spots to visit, meaning Athens is growing in popularity as a city break destination. Here are a few things you should know before you visit.

The Parthenon in Athens

1. You need to book tickets for the Acropolis in advance

If the Acropolis is on your must-visit list (and it should be!), there's an important update you'll want to know about. Due to an influx of visitors to the site post-pandemic (think over 17,000 visitors a day in summer), Greece has introduced a new system of time slots and electronic ticketing.

Tickets and timeslots can be booked online, and you're advised to be at the entrance half an hour before your booked time. Entry is allowed 15 minutes before to 15 minutes after the time you've booked.

If you're visiting during a peak period or if you have limited time in the capital, it can pay to book in advance to make sure you have the timeslot you want. Another option is to book a guided tour, particularly if you want to learn more about the ancient sites.

This approach is not only a crowd-control measure, but also a way to enhance the overall visitor experience, especially during those scorching summer days when temperatures can soar up to a sizzling 40 degrees Celsius.

The changing of the guard in Syntagma Square, Athens.

2. There are free things to do in Athens

Exploring Athens doesn’t have to be expensive. For example, the best view of the Parthenon is from the Rock of Areopagos, located at the foot of it. Many people also gather here at sunset for the far-reaching views down to Piraeus port and the distant island of Evia. Wear sturdy shoes, though, because the rocks can get slippy.

Every hour, the changing of the Guard occurs outside the Parliament building in Syntagma Square, and every Sunday at 11 am there’s a ceremonial changing of the guard, replete with a military band, where they march from their army barracks to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

From November to March, most museums are free on the first Sunday of the month. Usually, the August Full Moon sees several city museums stay open well into the night to welcome the moon, with free admission at certain times.

White houses and colouful flowers in Anafiotika, Athens.

3. There’s a Greek ‘island’ under the Acropolis

Plaka is a very popular tourist district under the Acropolis.  What not many people know of is Anafiotika, a neighbourhood consisting of cute bougainvillaea-clad sugar cube homes reminiscent of a Greek Island, hidden amongst Plaka’s cobbled alleyways. 

In 1832, the first King of Greece — King Otto of Bavaria — brought in workers from the Greek Island of Anafi to build his Presidential Palace. They were homesick, so they built themselves houses at the base of the Acropolis monument to resemble those found on their island, creating their own neighbourhood with an island feel. 

Today, 45 houses remain with their own feeling of peace, solitude, and fantastic city and Acropolis views.

Exhibitions of ancient artifacts at Syntagma metro station, Athens.

4. Metro stations in Athens resemble museums... but watch your belongings

Clean, piped classical music and ancient relics on display come to mind when the Athens Metro is mentioned. Syntagma Metro has presentations behind glass cases of relics found during its construction. The same is true for the Acropolis Metro and several others across the network.

They range from ancient pipework under glass flooring to rudimentary tools behind display cases, all found on-site during the relevant station’s construction.

The network is relatively new, compared to other European cities, as it was overhauled in time for the 2004 Olympic Games and is being added to.

Food and drink isn’t allowed on board trains, meaning it’s kept clean and tidy, yet do watch out for your belongings.  Pickpockets tend to operate so my advice it to spread out your belongings, don’t wear flashy valuables and wear clothes with hidden pockets.

A plane landing at sunset over semi-rural Athens.

5. The area around Athens Airport is worth exploring

Visitors to Athens don’t really think to explore around where they literally land or depart from. But you should.

The region around Athens airport, called Mesogaia–Middle Land, is made up of approximately six villages and lies in a valley “bowl” in the foothills of Mount Penteli and Mount Hymettus, two of the mountain ranges surrounding the capital.

There’s much to do in this predominantly agricultural area.  From wine tasting, fig and pistachio groves, hidden churches and seeing olive oil production, you can start or round off your trip to the capital in a unique way.

Vouryia can organise a handcrafted experience for you to fit with your flight times. It's a great way to spend a stopover between arriving from the islands and flying to your next destination.

Two frappes (iced coffees) in Greece on a sunny day.

6. Coffee is the staple drink in Athens

Cafés and coffee shops proliferate around the city, and it’s impossible not to find one within a few yards of wherever you stay. Aside from ouzo and rakki, coffee is the national drink. 

Alongside Greek coffee, you have to try a frappe - an iced coffee drink made from instant coffee–generally Nescafé granules, water, sugar and evaporated milk.  It’s whisked to make it frothy and is more like a coffee milkshake. 

Follow the locals by having at least one during your visit. If you're wondering what to eat and drink when you visit Greece, frappes are definitely on the list!

View of the Hymettus mountain and Kaisariani monastery in Athens, Greece

7. You can go hiking near Athens city centre

Three different mountains surround Athens: Parnitha, Penteli and Hymettus - the latter is the nearest one to the centre.

This is further proof that Athens isn’t just a smoke-clogged city. Hymettus is only 9 miles east of the centre and easy to reach by car or even by public transport - Bus 224 from Syntagma (Parliament) Metro until the last stop (Kaisariani Cemetery), which is located in the Mount Hymettus forest.

Places of interest in the 81 acres of forest include the Monastery of Kaisariani and several ruinous churches, all along well-marked hiking trails. 

The beautiful beach of Vouliagmeni at the south Riviera of Athens.

8. Athens has a gorgeous Riviera

Jump in a taxi or the Metro, and within 30-45 minutes, you’ll be travelling along the Athens Riviera coastline. It's worth the drive - Athens Riviera rivals that of France or Italy.

This spreads from the port of Piraeus, 38 miles until the Riviera ends at the Temple of Poseidon in Sounion. Along the way, you’ll find beaches, both exclusive clubs with plush sunbeds and natural coves to relax and swim in.

You'll also pass Lake Vouliagmeni, a combination of a fresh and seawater lake formed several years ago when the roof of a large cave eroded and collapsed. It has a year-round temperature of 25 degrees C and garra rufa, the skin-nibbling fish for a therapeutic experience. 

The Riviera culminates in Cape Sounio at the southernmost tip, where you’ll find the Temple of Poseidon, giving the Acropolis a run for its money. This is where Aegeus, King of Athens, fell to his death.

The temple has 38 fluted marble columns standing 20 feet high and was built between 444 and 440 BCE. It’s surrounded by nature with sweeping views across the Saronic Gulf and olive trees shaped by the wind.  It’s a very popular spot at sunset.

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Rebecca Hall

Author - Rebecca Hall

 Rebecca Hall is a Greece-based travel writer and author who writes about culture, gastronomy and all things Greece for inflight magazines, digital and print media, among others. She is also a Lonely Planet and Rough Guide guidebook updater and creator.

Her debut novel Girl Gone Greek (available on Amazon) has been written into a double award-winning screenplay. When not travelling or writing, Rebecca enjoys spending her downtime sampling the many different coffee shops in Athens.

Last Updated 16 December 2023

Chora village and the old harbour of Astypalea island in Greece


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