Things to Do in Athens

Things to Do in Athens George Mouratidis

Most guides describe Athens like you’d want to hear about it: the cradle of European civilization, a city of light, a diamond in the rough. In many ways, it is. However, the truth is far more complex than that.

Best Things to Do in Athens

Athens is a unique place that charms with its contradictions. A city that is still recovering from the consequences of the financial crisis in 2010, Athens is a mix of splendor and grunge; grace and neglect; metropolitan vibes and quaint corners, it is not a city for the faint-hearted.

What to Do In Athens

Roughly 5.5 million foreigners visit Athens each year, which is far less than more trendy European stops like Paris, London, or Barcelona. While Athens may not bring in as many tourist hordes, it has a great travel infrastructure and plenty to do and see.

Athens is a unique place that charms with its contradictions. A mix of splendor and grunge; grace and neglect; modern vibes and quaint corners, Athens is not a city for the faint-hearted. We want to give you honest information about what to do in Athens, including insider tips and practical information. So, get rid of your tourist guide and learn about Athens from the people who live in it!

Things to See in Athens

The very word “Athens” conjures up images of mythological beasts, Olympian gods, and, of course, lots of togas. Just as Zeus gave birth to Athena from out of his noggin, so too did fair Athens give birth the mind of Western man. It should come as no surprise that so many artists, scholars, and general history buffs try to take at least one trip to the Greek capital.

Athens is a huge sprawling city, however you’ll find that the center is surprisingly walkable. The city experienced a complete overhaul in the early ‘00s, as part of its preparation for the 2004 Olympics. As a result, the Athens Metro (the main transportation option in the city) is extremely well maintained. Most Athens attractions are condensed near the Acropolis, Monastiraki and Syntagma stations.

The above three metro stations connect the historical center of Athens. This is the “touristy” part of the city that has seen the most improvement over the last 15 years. We don’t know whether you would call places like the Acropolis and Hadrian’s Library “tourist traps,” but they are definitely worth the visit. For €30, you can buy a combined ticket that will grant you entrance to sites such as:

  • Acropolis of Athens
  • Ancient Agora of Athens
  • Archaeological Museum of Kerameikos
  • Hadrian’s Library
  • Kerameikos

Below you will find information on some of the most important points of interest in the center of Athens. Although meeting hordes of tourists there is unavoidable (especially during the spring and summer months), these attractions are a must if you are in town.

Visiting the Acropolis

Traveling to Athens without visiting the Acropolis is like traveling to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. You literally can’t avoid it. Perched atop a massive hill in the heart of the city, the Acropolis is actually a collection of temples, monuments, and theatres that were mostly built around the 5th century BC. The most iconic of these structures is the Parthenon, which initially served as a temple to the goddess Athena.

Other noteworthy structures at this UNESCO World Heritage Site include the Erechtheion temple, famed for its fine statuary, and the open-air theatre known as the Odeon of Herod Atticus. If you’re into live music or drama, then be sure to check whether any shows are going on at this odeon before visiting Athens.

It’s a good idea to wear your hiking shoes and bring a bottle of water with you on your tour of the Acropolis. You’ll have to walk up about four flights of stairs to reach the top of this complex. Be especially careful if you’re visiting on a rainy day because these rocky ruins can get a bit slippery. You should easily find your way to the Acropolis from the aptly named Akropoli metro station.

Practical information

The Acropolis is usually open between 8 AM – 5 PM except on major holidays or during extreme inclement weather. To avoid the crowds of tourists, try your best to visit the Acropolis when it opens or a few hours before closing.

One ticket to the Acropolis costs €20 between April – October and €10 between November – March. You can order these tickets either online or at ticket kiosks throughout Athens.

For all you thrifty tourists out there, the Acropolis offers free entry on the first Saturday of every month between November – March as well as the following days:

  • March 6
  • April 18
  • May 18
  • The last weekend in September
  • October 28

Visiting the Temple of Olympian Zeus

Located a stone’s throw from the Acropolis, the Temple of Olympian Zeus is another must-see Athenian ruin. Also called the Olympieion, this temple to everyone’s favorite thunderbolt-wielding god took over 600 years to construct. In the 2nd century AD, the Olympieion had just over 100 massive columns and was one of the city’s major houses of worship. After the fall of Rome, barbarians ransacked this temple, so few of the original columns are standing today.

Although it’s not as well-preserved as the Parthenon, you can still get a sense of the glory of this structure on a visit to its ruins. Most days of the year, the Olympieion is open between 8AM – 3PM and tickets cost about €6 per person.

The Ernst Ziller Buildings

Unless you’re an architecture buff, you’ve probably never heard of Ernst Ziller before. By the time you leave Athens, however, you’ll probably never forget the name of this prominent German-born architect. During the 19th century, Ziller designed many elegant buildings throughout the Greek capital, some of which survive to this day. Probably the best Ziller building for tourists to visit is the Numismatic Museum of Athens near the Panepistimio metro stop. Originally designed as a palatial residence, you’ll find an interesting mix of architectural styles in this rare coin museum. Once inside, take a close look at the detailed Pompeii-style mosaic work Ziller incorporated throughout the residence.

Two other Ziller buildings you’ll most likely see on a trip through Athens include the National Theatre of Greece and the Presidential Mansion.

Monastiraki Flea Market

After Plaka, the Monastiraki Flea Market is one of the most famous shopping area in Athens. Located near the Monastiraki metro station, this “flea market” really isn’t a “flea market” except on Sunday mornings when vendors set up various tiny booths. If you’re not in Athens on a Sunday, however, you could still visit the Monastiraki Flea Market to check out what the regular vendors have for sale.

Whether you’re looking for religious icons, handbags, books, antiques, jewelry, or touristy bottle openers, you’ll probably find at least one bargain on your tour of this famous flea market. Walking around Monastiraki Flea Market is well-worth an hour or two of your vacation time.

Walk-In St. Paul’s Sandal Prints: The Ancient Agora of Athens

No, an agora isn’t a monster from Greek mythology…although it kind of sounds like it, right? Agoras were actually public squares that played an important role in Athenian democracy.

The most famous and best-preserved of these gathering spaces is the Ancient Agora of Athens, which is within walking distance of the Thiseio metro stop. For an entrance fee of about €8, you can experience what was once the bustling heart of Athenian public life. Take a few moments to experience the exhilaration of standing in the same spot where Socrates and St. Paul once stood.

A few noteworthy stops in the Ancient Agora include the 5th century Temple of Hephaestus and the 11th century Church of the Holy Apostles. Be sure to stop by the Museum of the Ancient Agora while you’re here to take in some of the area’s most impressive artifacts.

Plaka/Anafiotika

Need a good meal and some serious retail therapy? Look no further than Athens’s historic Plaka neighborhood. Located nearby the Acropolis Museum, Plaka is one of the most colorful and tourist-friendly areas in the Greek capital. Dating back thousands of years, Plaka is filled with stately Baroque-era houses, hip restaurants, and dozens of souvenirs shops. This is also one of the hottest nightlife areas of the city. Although Plaka has now become a huge tourist draw, there are still a few places to enjoy relative privacy on a tour of the area. For instance, take a trip to the northern district of Anafiotika. Once the site of the first Athenian university, Anafiotika is now a relatively peaceful area of the city with plenty of greenery.

Free Things to Do in Athens, Greece

National Gardens

Speaking of greenery, you’ll have a difficult time finding a greener area in Athens than the National Garden. Located directly behind the Greek Parliament, Athens’s National Garden measures almost 40 acres and boasts many Roman ruins and a diverse range of flora and fauna.

To be exact, there are at least 500 different species of plants and trees throughout the National Garden, about 100 of which are of Greek origin. You’ll also find six lovely lakes with playful ducks throughout the National Garden’s grounds.

The National Garden has seven entrances and can be easily reached by the Syntagma Metro Station. There’s absolutely no fee to visit the National Garden.

Pro tip: visit nearby Syntagma Square on the hour to watch the Changing of the Guards by the nearby Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. To see the full ceremony, be sure to claim a spot in this area before 11AM on Sunday.

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center

Another fantastic free Athenian attraction is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) near the Bay of Faliro. Completed just a few years ago, the SNFCC is an ultra-modern public gathering place focused on hosting cultural, educational, and aerobic events throughout the year. In addition its performance spaces and classrooms, the SNFCC also contains a striking garden area with great views of the Acropolis.

Even if you’re not planning on taking part in an event, stop by the SNFCC to take advantage of a free English-language tour. You’re bound to be impressed by the SNFCC’s bold architecture and luxurious garden area.

Luckily for tourists, the SNFCC offers free shuttle transportation to and from the complex. Simply hop on the SNFCC-listed bus at Syntagma Square near Ermou Street and catch the return bus at the SNFCC Canal. For more detailed info on this shuttle bus, check out this official webpage.

Onassis Cultural Center

Anyone interested in the cutting edge in contemporary art must stop by the Onassis Cultural Center (OCC) near the Neos Kosmos metro stop. No matter what time of year you visit the OCC, you’ll find a few thought-provoking art installations to ponder over. The OCC also puts on many fun & free events throughout the year, so check the organization’s festival calendar before visiting.

Whether you’re interested in contemporary art or not, you’ll be impressed walking around OCC’s dynamically designed facility. There’s also a cool bar downstairs and a rooftop garden with a commanding view of Athens.

Usually the OCC is open between 9AM and 9PM.

Weather in Athens

Since Athens is in the Mediterranean region, it enjoys a comfortable Mediterranean climate (duh). For the absolute best weather, consider visiting Athens either in the spring or autumn. Temperatures during these months usually hover between 50°F – 75°F and precipitation is almost non-existent.

If you’re planning on visiting Athens during the summer, then be sure to pack sunscreen and keep hydrated! It’s not uncommon for temps to reach above 90°F between June and August.

For those who want to visit Athens in the winter, expect cooler temps, cloudier days, and slightly higher chances of rain. From November through March, temperatures rarely break above 60°F and precipitation averages about 2 inches per month.

Best Time to Visit Athens

Like most other European cities, Athens experiences a tourism boom in the summertime. So, in addition to battling the brutal Athenian sun, you’ll also have to contend with larger crowds at all the top tourist draws.

Another inconvenience about visiting during the summer is that many Athenians take a vacation of their own during these brutally hot months. This means you might find certain hotels, restaurants, and shops closed during your trip to the Greek capital.

If you don’t mind the heat and the tourist hordes, then be sure to book your summertime hotel well in advance. Also, try to pre-book tickets to all the attractions you want to see online as early as possible.

The best times of year to visit Athens for a mix of pleasant weather and fewer crowds are during spring or fall. During these “shoulder seasons,” you’ll have an easier time getting around the city and pay less for airfare, hotel rooms, and restaurants.

If you really want to avoid high prices and crowds of tourists, then winter in Athens is for you. As noted above, you might have to deal with some precipitation, but the wintertime weather here is very manageable if you’re visiting from northern latitudes. Since winter is the low-point for tourism in Athens, you’ll have an easy time getting to all the main tourist sites and enjoy super reduced rates.

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