Top things to do and explore in Athens
Greece might be going through a rough time right now, but Athens is as bubbly as ever. Legend has it that Athens was named after the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, who became the patron of the town after winning a competition against her uncle Poseidon, the god of the sea. Athens and Poseidon were invited to present a gift to the inhabitants of the town. Athena’s olive tree won over Poseidon’s salty stream. Athens is not only a land of legends but also of love for life, Greek-style. Here are the top things to do in Athens across the year.
Take in some history
We owe so much to the ancient Greeks, from democracy, philosophy, architecture, the Olympics, theatre, mythology to the Hippocratic oath. Brush up your history and Greek mythology knowledge by visiting some of Athens’ spectacular sights. If you’d like to lay your eyes on the Parthenon up close, the symbol of Athens, an ancient temple from the 5th century BC dedicated to Athena, head to the Acropolis. The magnitude of the construction on the hilltop guarding over Athens will surprise you. Tip of the day: it’s even better at night, seen from a hill nearby, rooftop bar or by walking the streets of Plaka.
A similar-looking but smaller temple, this time dedicated to Hephaestus, the crippled god of the forge, fire and blacksmiths, can be found at the Ancient Agora. The Ancient Agora is a marketplace which dates back to the 6th century BC. It was replaced by the Roman Agora of the 1st century BC after Roman occupation, so when you hear talk about the Agora, be careful: there are two. The Roman Agora is a lot more compact and can be easily seen as you walk down to Monastiraki from Plaka.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus has some nicely preserved columns.
Athens’s got over 3 million inhabitants, but it never feels overcrowded. That might be also because it’s so spread out. Climb up one of the many hills to take in some views of the Parthenon, of the clusters of white buildings and of the blue sea stretching in the distance. From Panepistimio metro station take a bus or walk up to Asklipiou 80. It’s only a 15-minute hike from there to Lycabettus Hill at 277m: take a right straight up past Khora Community Centre. Or if you want to head the other direction, cross the street to the left and head straight to Strefi Hill. The Lycabettus funicular is also an option especially on a hot summer day and takes you up from Aristippou street in Kolonaki. The 19th century Chapel of St. George, a restaurant and a theatre can be found on top of the highest hill in Athens, Lycabettus. Strefi Hill is much more accessible and quite cute. At the time of my visit, there was a phallic graffiti on the stone pillar sticking up at the top, so photo background sorted.
Filopappos Hill offers the best up-close views of the Acropolis. It is located south-west of the Acropolis at only 147m. Walk up the shady paths, past Socrates’s prison where he was held captive before being sentenced to death, to the Monument of Filopappos. The monument was built in the 2nd century in the honour of Filopappos, a Roman consul. From here your eyes can catch sight of the Saronic Gulf and the mountains of Attica. Athens will feel right at your feet.
Equally you could have a nice meal or cocktail in an elegant rooftop bar or restaurant like the Socrates Roof Garden on top of Divani Palace Acropolis Hotel, GB Roof Garden Restaurant on top of Grande Bretagne Hotel, Roof Garden Snack Bar on top of Plaka Hotel or at the Acropolis Museum Restaurant.
Athens has got personality – and opinions. This is even more obvious in the anarchist district of Exarcheia, where you can see all types of graffiti, from ‘the old man and the sea’ type of graffiti in an old tavern to socially and politically charged graffiti protecting the poor or refusing all form of organisation. Potentially the most photographed graffiti in Exarcheia pictures a homeless man lying on one side and reads: ‘Dedicated to the poor and homeless here and around the globe’.
You can even come across colourful Picasso-like graffiti on a backstreet in Plaka if you feel adventurous and go explore.
Live Greek music
Just walk the small streets of Plaka from Acropoli station to Monastiraki and you will find plenty of restaurants, ouzeries and taverns with live Greek music from the very lively to the very sad. Mnisikleous street gets quite busy. If you’re not a smoker and wish to avoid the crowds and heavy smoke, go on a week night for a more intimate experience.
If you’re after the real Greek experience, go to a bouzoukia, a nightclub that plays live Greek music, like Club 22. The party starts late in the night (or morning) at around 1 or 2, when the top act comes in, and goes on until 6 or 7, so make sure you take a nap before. It’s quite common for people to dance on chairs or tables and throw flowers they buy at the nightclub at the singer as a sign of appreciation. You’ll need to make a reservation and split an expensive bottle starting at over 100 euros.
Run the true marathon
If you’re around in November when the temperatures drop, why not run the real marathon from the town Marathon to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, one of the largest ancient stadiums? If you’re a dedicated marathon runner, you probably already know that the term ‘marathon’ comes from the 42.195 km run by the Greek soldier Philippides from Marathon to Athens to inform of the victory over the Persians in 490BC. The real marathon can be quite challenging as there is a steeper part but it is nevertheless a unique and very rewarding experience.
Get your groove on in Gazi
Gazi is packed with bars and clubs just outside Keramikos metro station and it’s quite easy to walk from one to the other if you get bored of the music. Not all charge an entrance fee.
Hit the beach
While beaches in Athens are nothing to write home about compared to the beautiful blue waters of the Greek islands, living in a city by the sea makes a world of difference whether you enjoy swimming, beach sports, the sound of the waves or having a drink on the beach. The tram takes you from Syntagma Square in the city centre all the way south along the seafront towards the sandy beaches of Glyfada or northwest towards Piraeus harbour. Just hop off where the beach looks inviting. Kalamaki Beach has a nice beach bar on a private beach. There is a nice boardwalk around Faliro taking you all the way to Flisvos Marina where you can find many restaurants and bars.
If you take the metro to Piraues, walk or take a bus to Kastella for restaurants right on the waterfront next to the gigantic boats. There’s also a beach where you can swim not very far. You will get spectacular views towards Glyfada and the other side of the waterfront if you climb up to street level from the marina.
If you come to Athens for Christmas, Syntagma Square with its changing colours fountain and decorated trees and the Christmas Factory with its toy and sweet factories, rollercoaster, Ferris wheel, games and workshops, are the places to get into the Christmas spirit.
At night, Little Kook teahouse will get you smiling like a little kid in front of his first Christmas tree with its exterior decorations: toy soldiers, Christmas trees, tinsel, colourful flashing lights and a scary rooftop gargoyle. From Monastiraki station walk across the square, take a left and then second right: you will spot this wonderful teahouse at the end of a street with many colourful lamps. You can’t miss it!
Whether you’re after a statuette of Zeus or of the Discobolus, a laurel wreath for your Greek god/goddess wanna-be friends at home, a painting of the Acropolis against the sunset for the romantics, some ouzo for those party people or the latest high-street fashion, Athens has it all. Walk the small streets of Plaka from Acropolis metro station to Monastiraki and you will come across some very cute little shops. Monastiraki flea market gets very busy on Sundays as shoppers browse the many antiques. Ermou street is lined up with the big brand names. The side streets along Ermou street have smaller shops where you can find good bargains. If you prefer big malls, head to the Attica Department Store in Panepistimiou, the largest shopping mall in Greece, The Mall Athens, Heart Mall or Metro Mall.
Athens and Epidaurus festival
Have you ever imagined what it was like to watch a play in an ancient amphitheatre? Now you can do it – if you are in Athens between May and October. This arts festival has been running theatrical, musical and dance performances for over 50 years in top locations across Athens and Epidaurus, including the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an amphitheatre on the southwest slope of the Acropolis which dates back to the 2nd century.
Whether it’s in Plaka, Piraeus marina or Psirri area, here’s what to absolutely try while eating out. Ordering mezedes, small appetizers similar to the Spanish tapas in concept, are a nice way to mix and match. You can’t visit Greece and not have some delicious Kalamata olives, moussaka, Greek salad, feta, cinnamon lamb stew or saganaki with melted graviera cheese. Have some ouzo, metaxa or on a cold winter night when temperatures drop to 5 degrees, rakomelo, a hot mix of raki or tsipouro, honey, cinnamon and cloves. Greek food is indeed the stuff of legends.