Classic and Contemporary Come Together in the Capital
Athens. Is awesome. It is. Maybe it’s hard to believe me. I love every place you might think. (That’s entirely not true by the way. Pisa. I did not love Pisa. At all. Or Madrid, the first time. Luckily, there was a next time to make Madrid mine.) But honestly, we truly adored Athens. We had such wonderful interactions with so many welcoming friendly and enthusiastic people. We dined on delicious food, beheld icons of architecture, and traipsed through neighborhoods chock full of charming winding streets and colorful houses and cafés. I’m in love. Come see why.
TOP THINGS TO TAKE IN WHEN VISITING ATHENS
Because when you come on a Greek holiday, you have to visit the capital. It’s the perfect place to meet Greece. And I promise you it’s worth it. Here are ways to adore Athens on your own. Orient yourself with the map below and you’ll have a better idea of where you should go.
A great city, whose image dwells in the memory of man, is the type of some great idea. Rome represents conquest; Faith hovers over the towers of Jerusalem; and Athens embodies the pre-eminent quality of the antique world, Art.
– Benjamin Disraeli¹
1 | See icons of architecture atop the Acropolis
From almost every vantage point in Athens, you can see the Acropolis. A seat of civilization since ancient times, the Acropolis still showcases the classics of Western architecture. And there is no better place to start your authentic Athens tour than at its top. I may have forced my children to point out the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns that adorn the temples and facades. They may have groaned. Out loud. Can’t help it. My inner art historian was moved and there may have been a glisten in my eye. They’ll thank me one day. Right?
Tickets to the Acropolis afford visitors access, but not entry inside the iconic temples and structures. You can walk around, but not into the famous Parthenon, Erechthion, and Temple of Athena Nike. And as part of your entrance fee goes towards the preservation of these amazing structures, you will see that work in progress as scaffolding covers some parts of the buildings. These are buildings are old people. Like ancient to be honest. A little facelift every now and again is perfectly acceptable.
When we visited in October, the weather was perfection with sunny blue skies and consistent temps at a mild 23°C (73°F). During peak tourist season in summer, come to the Acropolis prepared with water, hats, and sunscreen already applied as temperatures can soar to 33°C (92°F), and shade up here is limited.
What you’ll see atop the Acropolis:
ODEON OF HERODES ATTICUS
On the southwest slope of the Acropolis is this impressive amphitheater where you can still enjoy live performances between April and October. Imagine listening to the likes of Frank Sinatra or Luciano Pavarotti from these historic seats. Check out the Why Athens website to see what is on when you are in town.
PROPYLAEA AND THE TEMPLE OF ATHENA NIKE
Enter the Acropolis up the giant marble steps and through the columns of the Propylaea and imagine how many people have stepped these same paces. And while you can’t see the goddess of victory where she would have stood taking tributes, you can still enjoy the petite perfection of the Temple of Athena Nike. Hailing from the home of the more modern Nike – you know the one that makes all that athletic apparel – we, of course, paid our respects.
In the center of the Acropolis sits the granddaddy of all the Greek temples, the Parthenon. Huge, impressive, and hulking. And while it disappointed the teens not to be able to step inside, it is still amazing and inspires awe. Even in the hard-to-please teens.
ERECTHEION AND THE CARYTIDS
On the north side of the Acropolis is my favorite structure, the combined temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon, known as the Erechtheion. Don’t miss the classical poses of the Caryatids, each of the six female figures that act as columns is unique. See if your kids can spot the differences.
TIP: For € 30, you can buy a combined ticket that is valid for 5 days and gives you entrance to the Acropolis of Athens, Ancient Agora of Athens, Archaeological Museum of Kerameikos, Archaeological Site of Lykeion, Hadrian’s Library, Kerameikos, Museum of the Ancient Agora, North slope of Acropolis, Olympieio, Roman Agora of Athens, South Slope of Acropolis
2 | See the views from Aeropagus Hills | Mars Hill
Right down and across from the exit of the Acropolis is a small rock outcropping. Climb up or take the stairs for stunning vistas over Athens. From here you get great pictures of Mount Lycabettus and the Ancient Agora.
3 | Putter the paths around Plaka
From Mars Hill, take the exit below the Acropolis towards Theorias Street and putter your way down through the pretty little alleyways and corridors that make up Plaka. I loved this first neighborhood known as Anafiotika Plaka filled with pastel-colored homes and wrought-iron screen doors decked with flowers, even in October. Little cafes and tavernas sit along the stairs with places for long lunches.
Keep heading down the hill to the main pedestrian shopping streets of Plaka proper. From the intersection of Adrianou and Kidathineon, choose either direction and you’ll find ice cream, souvenir shops, and plenty of places to buy those Greek sandals your family might fancy. You’ll also find lots of tourists down there. While fun to stroll those streets and feel the energy, I prefer the quieter paths of Anafiotika further up the hill.
Need lunch with a view? Try Psara Taverna which had my favorite Greek salad and cold white wine. What more does one need? Simple kebab and pita with fries for the kids? They have that too.
Erotokritou & Erechtheos 16, Athina 105 56, Greece
HOURS: Open daily 12:00 pm – 12:30, Sundays 12:00 pm – 12:00 am
TIP: Psara has a variety of tables to choose from – along the stairs, inside, or up on the roof with views of Mount Lycabettus.
MORE OF PRETTY PLAKA
4 | Meander and munch in Monastariki
Monastiraki is the busy, bright, and bustling heartbeat of Athens proper. Start at Monastiraki Square distinguished by the big Tzistarakis Mosque, an old Ottoman structure from the 1700’s now part of the Greek Folk Art Museum. Stroll up the hill and peek in at the ruins of Hadrian’s Library. Then pick any of the streets streaming off the square and stroll and soak up the vibrant scene that buzzes and hums here. It’s noisy, a little hectic, and all sorts of brilliant. For a bit.
MITROPOLEOS STREET | MONASTIRAKI
We loved little Mitropoleos and the O Thanasis Taverna. With every table packed and the majority speaking Greek, we knew it would be worth the wait. Efficient and friendly, the service was impeccable, especially when the food was so cheap! We tried the gyros and souvlaki and Greek salad, washed down with big cold beers and sodas. Our collective favorite meal of our trip. Found on a whim. Happy day to us.
O Thanasis Kebab
Mitropoleos 69, Athina 10555, Greece
HOURS: Open daily 09:00 – 02:00, Saturdays and Sundays 09:00 – 03:00
TIP: Don’t be confused, O Thanasis stretches almost from Monastiraki Square to the plaza that opens up on Mitropoleos. It’s all good wherever you can get a seat.
ADRIANOU STREET | MONASTIRAKI
At the edge of the Monastiraki flea market that starts at the square along Ifestou, is Adrianou Street, a pedestrian street filled with shops and cafes and some amazingly fancy ice cream. Get your Instagram ready for these cones.
DaVinci Artisan Gelato & Quality Chocolate
105 55, Adrianou 50, Athina 105 55, Greece
HOURS: Open daily 09:00 – 10:00 pm
5 | Catch the Changing of the Guard parade
Undoubtedly one of the most interesting changing of the guard ceremonies I have ever seen. With their white skirts, red hats and pom-pom’d shoes, the Presidential Guard (known as the Evzones) guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that sits on the plaza below the Hellenic Parliament. As a visitor to Athens, you can witness the hourly changing of the guard and all its high-kicking foot-stomping precision. But if you are lucky enough to visit the capital on a Sunday, you are in for a treat. And crowds.
Every Sunday at 11:00 am, throngs and masses of spectators gather at Syntagma Square to watch the full Changing of the Guards parade. Soon enough, an entire regiment regales onlookers marching in their fancy official uniforms, accompanied by a brass band and beautiful tradition. Arrive early if you want a front row along Leoforos Vasilisis Amalia Avenue as the troops stomp in.
But don’t worry, if you didn’t make it in time, you’ll have several more opportunities to see them unobstructed. Once the marchers pass and the police allow you across the street, people rush and shimmy for the perfect position. Get ready to dash. It’s challenging to do. We missed it unawares but were still able to see enough through the crowd. You’ll have one more opportunity once the change has been completed and the plebes are pushed back across the street by the police. Be one of the slower ones on the return and voila, the procession will pass right in front of you.
DID YOU KNOW: The traditional uniform has historic significance. It was worn by the troops that fought in the wars of independence against the Ottoman Empire. There are 400 pleats on those white skirts that refer to the 400 years of Ottoman occupation in Greece.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD PARADE
Every Sunday | 11:00 am
Syntagma Square | Hellenic Parliament
6 | Run laps at the Panathenaic Stadium
Home to the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, lace up your trainers and take a turn around the track at the Panathenaic Stadium. While you may not run into as many Athenians in this beautiful stone semi-circular stadium, you will feel the march of history here.
Leof. Vasileos Konstantinou, Athina 116 35, Greece
Includes entry to the stadium, access to the entire site, free audio guide and wait for it … the right to run around the track! Woot woot! All that and almost a bag of chips.
Adults | € 5
Children under 6 | Free
Reduced Fare | € 2,5 (students and seniors over 65)
Visitors with Disabilities and those accompanying them | Free
7 | Roam the Ancient Agora
Besides the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora is another beautiful place to wander through antiquities. Just whatever you do, DO NOT try to stand like the statues. I may or may not have learned that one the hard way. I was simply attempting to show my children the meaning of contrapposto – that slight shift of the weight used by sculptors beginning in Ancient Greece to make figures look more dynamic whilst carved out of stone. NO! No mimicking the statues. But I… NO! Ok. Gah. Moving on to the pottery, where it is more difficult to get chastised.
Don’t miss the enormous old Agora building once a thriving market and center of commerce in ancient Athens. Look at, but don’t mimic the marbles, then make your way through the rubble and olive trees to the Temple of Hephaestus on the hill – a beautiful place of refuge amidst the color and chaos of modern Athens.
Entrance to Ancient Agora, Agora Museum, and surrounding grounds
Adults | € 8
Children under 18 | Free
Reduced Fare | € 4 (See official website for specifics)
NOTE: If you purchased the combined ticket at the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora is included and requires no further purchase.
8 | SOAK UP STREET ART
Not all is ancient in the Greek capital and Athens may well be the new Berlin. Or so they say. When it comes to street art they say. Having been in both places, I can see the comparison. The street art here (as in Berlin) is raw, colorful, creative, and EVERYWHERE. Think less commissioned murals and more true street art, including lots of graffiti. We did not have time to take the walking street art tour that I had hoped, but if that is up your alley, this one came highly recommended:
9 | Take time to toodle through Thissio
On the opposite side of the Ancient Agora from Monastiraki or the back side of the Acropolis, you will find a lovely neighborhood known as Thissio (or Thisseo). We chose this as our base and felt perfectly situated with so much to explore within easy walking distance. What feels like a million cafes and tavernas entreat you to take a seat centered at the intersection of Iraklidon and Apostolou Pavlou.
The walking path that loops from Thisseo to Monastiraki often has small booths for local makers to sell their wares – a perfect place to pick up an authentic souvenir and support the community. Just make sure your gold-leafed crown wasn’t made in China.
At once chaotic and colorful, classic and cultured, Athens is more than ancient. It is awesome. And we adored it. I hope you can see why any trip to Greece should not skip the capital. Have you been? Want to go? Save it for later!
Know someone who is planning a trip? Share this post with them. And download the handy map at the top to take with you for all the sights you don’t want to skip!
Traveling to Athens with a toddler in tow? Get advice on what to do here.