View of Athens from the Acropolis
itinerary

3 days in Athens: an itinerary for first-time visitors

With a history spanning thousands of years, Athens is many travellers’ introduction to Greece. A sprawling city, many people don’t find Athens very accessible when they first visit. However, if you take some time to get to know the city, you’ll discover some vibrant neighbourhoods, quirky shops and a range of modern museums, along with the ancient Greek ruins which are readily visible throughout the city.

This Athens itinerary includes the famous landmarks and gives you a taste of some popular, but lesser visited neighbourhoods which showcase different sides of this fascinating city.

A pretty street in Plaka, Athens with a family walking in the distance

How long should I spend in Athens?

Given the size of the city, three days is a good amount of time to spend in Athens. This gives you enough time to visit the main attractions without being too rushed and allows you to see some of the city.

Saying that, if you just want to see the Acropolis before heading on to the islands, you can do that in one day (see day 1 of the itinerary below). Personally, I would recommend at least 5-7 days to get to know the city well enough to actually enjoy your time there. However, most travellers won't be spending long enough in Greece to be able to dedicate that much time to Athens.

This is a three-day itinerary, which covers major sites and some interesting areas in Athens. If you aren't sure where to stay in Athens, Plaka is a good place to start, although there are a few other less touristy options. Food in Athens is generally very good so I haven't included recommendations for restaurants or cafes - just pick somewhere that looks appealing to you. I have also included a couple more options if you are spending longer in the city.

The Parthenon in Athens

Day 1: Plaka and the Acropolis

Many first-time visitors to Athens will find themselves staying in Plaka, the beautiful neighbourhood at the foot of the Acropolis. The most famous landmark in Athens, the Acropolis is home to buildings which have stood overlooking the city for over 2,500 years.

On your first full day, head up to the ruins after breakfast to avoid the crowds and the heat (particularly if you’re visiting in summer). If you enjoy museums and ancient sites, consider buying a combination ticket which includes entry into many Athenian attractions, including the Acropolis.

At the top of hill, you’ll find yourself standing at the foot of the Parthenon, probably the most famous Greek ruin in the world. Built between 447 and 438 BCE, the Parthenon was a temple to Athena, the patron goddess of the city. The ancient temple is huge and is in a constant state of restoration. No matter how many times you’ve been to Athens, there’s something magical about the Acropolis and the beautiful building sitting high on the hill over this sprawling city.

The Erechtheion porch supported by pillars shaped like Greek maidens

There are other interesting sites on the Acropolis too. Along the north side, you’ll see the Erechtheion, where the porch is supported by six columns in the shape of draped women. The Theatre of Dionysus sits on the slopes of the hill (conveniently on the way to the Acropolis Museum) and is an impressive sight. And don’t be tempted to skip the Acropolis Museum where many of the treasures from this ancient hill are on display. If you don't have a good understanding of ancient Athens, doing a guided tour can be helpful to give you some insight and context into what you're seeing.

Take a break in your hotel after all that walking, then spend the afternoon exploring Plaka. A lovely option is to take a stroll up the slopes of the Acropolis to Anafiótika, where you’ll find a small cluster of white, island-style homes, reminiscent of Santorini. Enjoy wandering the streets, peeking into the odd shop, and stopping for a drink at a taverna, before picking a spot for dinner.

View of the Athenian high street Ermou across Syntagma square in central Athens

Day 2: Syntagma Square, The National Archaeological Museum and Exarcheia

Today, venture out of Plaka and visit some of Athens most important landmarks. Start with the ancient agora, then check out Syntagma Square, the centre of Athens’s modern history and home to the Greek Parliament Building. Visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watch the changing of the guard (it takes place on the hour). And, while you’re in the area, see the Panathenaic Stadium, the marble arena from the first century that hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Then stop for lunch at on Ermou Street, where you can have your pick of local or international food.

After lunch, continue north through the city to the National Archaeological Museum. This museum has best collection of ancient Greek artefacts in the world and is a vital stop on your visit to Athens. The collections are displayed simply and clearly, with many some of remarkable pieces are astounding. You can spend the whole afternoon here if you wish, otherwise look around for a couple of hours, then make your way to gritty Exárcheia.

Historically, Exárcheia was infamously home to revolutionaries, anarchists, students and artists. Now it’s a great place for restaurants, bars and bookshops and makes a great place for an afternoon stroll or evening drink. Then take the metro back to your hotel and take some time to recover from your busy day.

After a break, head to the other side of the Acropolis to Thissío for dinner. Here you’ll find many great restaurants and bars, many with rooftop seating and gorgeous views of the Acropolis. If you want more nightlife, walk a few blocks down the road to Iroon Square in neighbouring Psyri where you’ll find bars and clubs open until late.

The Acropolis view from Mount Lycabettus in Athens at sunset

Day 3: Kolonaki, Mount Lycabettus and the Museum Quarter

After a couple of busy days, you can pack as little or as much into day as you wish. After breakfast, spend the morning in Kolonáki, Athens’ most upmarket central neighbourhood. If you enjoy shopping, this is the place for you! If you don’t, Kolonaki is still worth visiting as it’s also home to the museum quarter, Mount Lycabettus and the National Gardens. The contrast between Kolonáki and the commercial centre is also palpable.

For some of the best views of the city, go up Mount Lycabettus, the highest summit in central Athens. You can take a funicular up the hill, if you’ve had enough of walking. At the foot of the hill, stroll past large houses, palaces, embassies and museums. If you enjoy people watching, stop for coffee or lunch at one of the cafes that line Kolonáki Square.

This area is also known for its museums and galleries, making it a great option for wet weather. Highlights include the Benaki Museum of Culture and the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, both which have huge collections of art and artifacts from prehistoric to modern Greece. The Byzantine Museum is also a wonderful place to spend a few hours. One of the best museums in Athens, it has an enormous collection of about 25,000 items from the 3rd century AD through to medieval times. A few blocks down, is The National Gallery, with a wide selection of art. Or, if you’ve had enough of museums for a while, head to the National Gardens and enjoy some natural beauty in the extensive grounds.

Spend your last evening in the rooftop bars and restaurants of Monastiraki Square in the centre of Athens.

The Central Market in Athens

If you have more time in Athens

There are a number of wonderful sites in Athens which we haven’t covered yet in this itinerary. Here’s a couple of the highlights which we’ve missed, which you may want to squeeze into your trip, particularly if you have another day in the city.

  • Kerameikos Cemetery is one of the most important archaeological sites in Athens and is often missed by visitors. The cemetery was used from the 12th Century BCE for a thousand years and many famous Athenians are buried on site. The pottery grave markers are replicas, with the originals being displayed at the National Museum. The ancient walls of Athens are on this site, along with the Sacred Gate which was exclusively used by pilgrims walking the Sacred Way to Eleusis every year. Entry to the cemetery is included in the combination ticket.

  • The Central Market of Athens is a wonderful place to spend some time if you enjoy food. It’s a covered market with a huge range of options and can be overwhelming if it’s your first time visiting. Many food tours in Athens involve a visit to the market and some of the great surrounding eateries.

  • Take your time exploring Ermou Street, browsing through the shops and stopping for coffee, lunch and drinks along the way.

  • Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon is on the Athenian coast and makes a wonderful day trip from the city. You can go independently or join an organised tour.

If you aren’t visiting the islands this trip, another great option is to do a day trip to one of the nearby islands - Aegina, Hydra and Poros are all good options. It’s a wonderful way to get a taste of the Greek Islands, really close to the mainland.

The sun setting over the Mikrolimano Harbour in Athens

If you are planning on visiting some of the Greek islands next, consider spending a night or two in Piraeus, Athens’s port, before you go. Many ferries leave early in the morning, and staying close by is a good idea. Piraeus has a bustling centre with a range of restaurants and ancient sites.

Outside of the centre, the pretty Kastella neighbourhood is known for the 19th Century mansions tucked into the hillside. At the foot of that hill, the secluded harbour of Mikrolimano has a seaside town vibe and feels like it’s a world away from the crowded city.

If you aren’t spending much time on mainland Greece, you can also consider doing a day trip to the Peloponnese. The Theatre of Epidaurus is an easy day trip from Athens and well worth seeing, and is usually combined with Myceane and Nafplio. If you don’t mind spending a long time in the car, you can also do day trip to Ancient Olympia, Meteora or Delphi from Athens, although it is a long way to go in one day.

A view of Nafplio, Greece on a sunny day

Where to next

From Athens, many travellers spend some time on one of the beautiful Greek Islands. Mykonos and Santorini are favourites however there are many other islands to choose from.

If you want to explore mainland Greece, consider spending a couple of days in the beautiful coastal town of Nafplio in the Peloponnese. This is a particularly good choice if you want to visit some of the ancient sites on the mainland – Nafplio is relatively close to both the Theatre of Epidaurus and Ancient Olympia. From then, you can continue on to Delphi in central Greece.

Planning a trip to Athens? Read our guide on where to stay in Athens.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 9 May 2022

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