Though prized for its deep history, pristine beaches, and Olympic celebrity, Athens is a thoroughly dynamic city, celebrated for its shopping, dining, culture, and more. While you likely have already put Athens on your must-visit bucket list, make sure you experience her many offerings. To help you plan your trip, we’ve highlighted our favorite stops and activities below. As they say in Greece, “Yamas!” (“Cheers!”)
A brief history of Athens
Little is known of Athens’ earliest days, but some things come into focus around 1,400 BCE when the Myceneans made a home on the mount we now know as the Acropolis. Much of modern knowledge about the Myceneans is owed to the region’s central role in trade; Athens’ proximity to the Aegean Sea made it a regular stop on Mediterranean trade routes and a central figure in historical records all over the world.
This prominence continued until, as so often happens, invaders, social unrest, and reforms reshaped the Athenian landscape. While the city-state suffered, turmoil eventually gave rise to the Athenian civilization we are most familiar with – one with significant naval power, a love of democracy, and a gift for architecture. Unfortunately, however, this 6th-century BCE iteration of Athens would eventually fall (again) to the Persians and then, centuries later, to the Romans and, subsequently, the Ottoman Empire.
In fact, Greece, as we know it today, didn’t emerge as an independent nation until 1834, but by this point, it had suffered a steep decline under the yoke of oppressor nations. Case in point: Athens, named the capital city of the new country, consisted of only 4,000 some residents in the 19th century.
Gradually, however, owing to steady immigration in the early and mid-20th century, Athens swelled to its current size – roughly 4 million people in the greater metro area. Also during the late-19th and 20th-century, the city enjoyed several landmark events: the first modern Olympic Games, held in 1896; an industrial boom in the 1950s; and the addition of major infrastructure elements – like a motorway, airport, and transportation hubs – in the 1980s and ’90s.
Today, Athens is considered a cosmopolitan city – not to mention a unique meeting place of old and new, chronicling the rich (if occasional turbulent) past of a people who gifted the world everything from political systems to geometry.
How to get there and how to get around
Athens International Airport is how most visitors will make their way to the Greek Isles. Once on the ground, you can easily catch a train, taxi, or bus to downtown Athens, about 30 minutes away by car or 1 hour by public transit. Car rental is also available and runs about €20 ($22 USD) per day. However, as Athens has a relatively compact downtown, consider using public transit, taxi, or ride shares while in the city. If you’re keen on visiting the area’s beaches, many of which are 20-40 minutes away by car, then a rental is a good idea.
Where to stay
Like many world-class cities, Athens boasts plenty of accommodation options throughout the metro area. That said, we really like the area around the Plaka district, just south of Ermou Street. Not only is there an abundance of shopping and dining here, but you’re next door to the National Garden, a short walk from the Acropolis, and in the dead center of the city.
The five-star Electra Palace is a posh choice on Navarchou Nikodimou. Not only does it have an architectural style that oozes classic Athenian (the Doric accents and marble floors give it away), but it gives you everything you need for a luxe stay in the heart of the city: jacuzzi bathtubs, a rooftop pool, minibars, WiFi – you get the idea. Plus, they prepare some seriously refined continental European-meets-classic-Greek fare that will take your palate to new heights. Expect prices running $250+/night.
Another refined stay: Hapimag, a bit south of Electra Palace but still in Plaka on Monis Asteriou. Also capturing the “treasures of antiquity” in style, Hapimag is nonetheless more simply designed than Electra and focused on large families or groups. Their two-room apartments, for instance, feature complete kitchens, balconies with views of the Acropolis, onsite laundry facilities, and other key living amenities. If you plan on staying for a while – or aim to cook your own meals – Hapimag is an ideal choice, running $180+/night.
Our last accommodation pick is a hybrid hotel-apartment facility aptly called Palladian Home on Farmaki. The staff here speaks English so can help with setting up your room (single, double, or two-room) and navigating the city. Plus, rooms come with air conditioning, sound-proofing, WiFi, and are designed with real character – which makes you feel like you’ve moved (albeit temporarily) to the idyllic downtown of one of the world’s most desirable cities. Prices run around $190+/night.
What to see and do
What isn’t there to do in Athens? Over the last century, activities, dining, and shopping have all exploded in the city, giving tourists and locals alike plenty to stay entertained. To start, though, we recommend touring some of the city’s historic landmarks – it is one of the world’s oldest capitals, after all.
First up: the Acropolis. This ancient fixture crowning the city has inspired books, poems, stories, and movies for decades. What most people don’t know, however, is that the Acropolis is a lot more than the famous Parthenon – there are more than a dozen structures on the mount, each with a unique history and culture import. Also, there’s a museum to help you understand the historical context of the area and its many buildings. Read more at Greece’s own site for the Acropolis.
Other key historic spots worth checking out include the Ieros Naos Agios Georgios Church on Lycabettus Hill, built in the 18th century during the Ottoman occupation; and the Panathenaic Stadium – a massive venue built on top of the original 500 BCE Olympic stadium, fittingly serving as the site where the first modern Olympics were held.
Next, we recommend a bit of retail therapy. Most tourists don’t think of Athens as being a hub of global brands, but it is that and then some – a wonderful mixture of internationally recognized stores and Greek-only shops that offer one-of-a-kind Mediterranean flair. Our recommendation: Head to the Plaka district for a healthy mix of posh shops and great dining, and head to Ermou Street if you want a mix of international brand and Greek-only boutiques.
Last, but certainly not least, consider heading a jot out of town for some fantastic, sun-soaked beaches. Most are to the south/southwest of the city and can be accessed via public transit or by car. The best thing about these beaches is their dynamism; most offer water sports, beach sports, or other activities that make your experience as exhilarating as it is relaxing. Learn more about all the fun you can have by reading this article on Athens beaches.
Where to eat
As you might imagine of a city that has enjoyed an influx of immigrants over the years, the culinary scene in Athens is thriving – and charactered. That said, we recommend a few favorites that capture both Greek classics and global influences.
First on our list is the Aleria Restaurant – a concept that feels more like someone’s home than it does a high-end spot for dinner. Quirky and colorful knickknacks line bookshelves; statues dot the dining room; and odds and ends fill sideboards and cupboards. You can go à la carte or prix-fixe here; there’s really no “right” way to do a meal. In either case, you’ll be courted by the likes of Greek-style Beef Tartare, drizzled with avgolemono and garnished with dill; as well as the must-have Lamb, studded with dates and sage. Simple sweets, like White Chocolate paired with yogurt and almonds, cap most indulgent feasts.
More of an experiential diner? Boy do we have something for you: Dinner in the Sky. It’s exactly what you might imagine – a crane-hoisted dining table from which you can enjoy a multi-course feast and take selfies with the dazzling Acropolis over your shoulder. Just pick your time of day (late day, evening/sunset, or night) and settle in at 130 feet in the air to enjoy your Moussaka and slow-braised Beef Tenderloin. How about that for a memory-making meal?
If you’re keen to stay on solid ground and don’t have a big budget, we recommend Atitamos – a cozy, simple fusion concept that dishes up the likes of Fried Chicken and Spaghetti alongside must-have Saganaki (that’s flaming cheese). It’s super affordable for a lunch or a casual dinner out.
Another cozy, affordable stop: Bandiera. This place reminds us of tapas bars in Barcelona, but the portions are much bigger: whole baby octopus, slowly braised and served over rice; juicy lamb steaks atop thick-cut fries; and heaping salads, brimming with fresh greens. This place gets a little noisy and the tables are tight, but the food is definitely worth a trip.
For an authentic taste of Greek fare before you head out of town, stop by 5F – not only are the prices eminently reasonable, but you’ll want to order everything on the menu; from tomato-smothered meatballs to grilled kofta (lamb meatballs) and veggies sautéed in garlicky sauces, everything’s a hit at 5F.
If you still have room, grab an ice roll at the eponymous Ice Roll – the only ice cream haunt in the city worth visiting. And yes, they actually roll up your ice cream. It’s wild. Get the chocolate everything; you’ve earned it. (Oh, and a drizzle of chocolate for good measure.)
Once you’ve exhausted your time in Athens, we suggest heading to Rhodes — where history, pristine beaches, and cozy neighborhoods coalesce.