This past summer I received a few emails from people looking for recommendations for things to do in Athens and I thought I’d put everything together in one list before my time in Greece settles into a hazy, pleasant memory.
If you’re visiting Greece, I doubt you’re going to spend as much time in Athens as I have – you’ll probably be in the city for 3 or 4 days bookending your island hopping excursions. You could easily spend more days in the city, but I understand if you’re eager to hang out by the beach and swim in the sea.
Here’s the thing about Athens: as far as European cities go, it’s a hard one. If you want simple, stick to the Plaka/Acropolis bubble, but if you want to see something beyond that (and trust me, you do), you’ll have to keep in mind that it’s easy to get lost, the streets might be dirtier than you expect, you won’t see as much grand architecture as you would roaming around say, Paris or Rome. But it’s worth it, and if your plans get derailed, shrug it off, stop for a drink or a frappe to regroup. It will be an adventure either way.
So, here’s my list of things you should do, tips, tangents, etc.
- The best time to visit is in early June or September. Tourist season officially starts around June 20th, and after that date flight prices shoot up. If you can get a cheap ticket to Athens before then, the weather will be beautiful – not too hot – and things won’t be as crazy on the islands. May is also a great month, but can still sometimes be a little cooler if you’re expecting lots of beach time. September is also good because summer is still going strong, but not too strong. Don’t come in August if you can help it – it’s hot! Also, like in many European countries, all of Greece is on vacation so many stores and restaurants are closed and the islands will be even more busy.
- If you’re still planning your trip, think beyond the island hopping itinerary. The islands are fun, but there are beautiful things to see on mainland Greece too. If you can handle driving standard on some twisty mountain roads, do some research into driving through the mountains in the Peloponnese (we were able to visit the gorgeous naval town of Nafplio, wind through green, lush mountain roads, spend some time in Monemvasia and visit the ancient theatre of Epidavros within 4 days). Or, head down towards the Pelion area where the beaches are stunning, the mountains are beautiful and you can also check out the rock formations of Meteora (another 4 days).
- You’re going to visit the Acropolis, of course. Have a look at the weather report before your trip – if there’s a forecasted cloudy or overcast day, choose that day to visit. It will be less crowded and not as hot. Save the Acropolis Museum for that sweltering part of the day.
- Plaka is overrun with overpriced, mediocre restaurants with pushy staff, but if you walk towards the edges of it, especially going up towards the Acropolis, it will start to calm down a little. So persist! A wonderful place for a drink in the middle of the tourist bustle is Brettos. It looks striking (hundreds of glowy bottles lining the walls on one side, barrels of ouzo on the other), the wine is amazing, and you can buy bottles of their own distillations to bring home. We bought pomegranate liqueur.
- Climb Filopapou Hill to get an incredible view of the Acropolis and for some surreal and lovely peace and wilderness in the middle of the crazy city. Athens isn’t a picnic friendly city, but if there’s one place you could have one, it’s here. Bring a blanket and your supplies, and settle in. It might be a bit dusty, though. (Another potential picnic spot that doesn’t require climbing any hills is the National Gardens. Unlike the rest of Athens, it’s grassy, lined with tall leafy trees, and there are interesting sculptures scattered throughout. You might find a turtle or two crawling around.)
- Actually, take advantage of all the hills in Athens. The city viewed from above is kind of mind-blowing. Lykavitos Hill is also worth it, but if you don’t want to walk you can take a funicular. There’s a restaurant and a bar at the top too, or you can do what Andrew and I did on our last night, and bring a bottle of champagne, pop it open and drink it while admiring the view.
- Other than the Acropolis museum, there are many museums worth visiting. For archaeological focus, the National Archaeological Museum is a must see, but I particularly loved the Cycladic Art Museum, which in addition to a comprehensive study of art from the Cycladic islands also has other interesting exhibits (we saw Louise Bourgeois sculptures this summer) and a nice cafe. The Benaki museum is also good, and in a gorgeous building. Many of these museums are free one day during the week, so check their websites and plan accordingly.
- If wandering among ruins has left you craving something a little more modern, go to the Benaki Pireos Street Annex. There isn’t a permanent collection, but usually has 4 or 5 exhibits going on, all modern art, and you can buy tickets to them individually if you don’t want to see everything. You can also see a good collection of Greek painting at the National Gallery, and if you’re feeling swanky you can have a drink on the roof of the Hilton Hotel next door afterwards. The Spyros Vassiliou atelier is also worth checking out – his paintings are gorgeous (we bought a print to hang up in our home in Montreal).
- It’s an experience to walk through the meat market and watch the butchers carve gigantic slabs of meat with huge cleavers. You’ll be asked over and over where you’re from, but for some reason it’s less annoying than when you’re in Plaka. A good picture taking opportunity.
- See a movie in an open-air cinema. Theatres often show classics as well, and there’s something charming about watching an older movie on a warm summer night outdoors.
- Shopping-wise: Ermou Street is off of Syntagma Square and has stores like H&M, Zara, Mango, etc., plus many more shoe stores selling sandals. It’s good for a quick shopping fix. If you want fancier, walk through Kolonaki. If you need to pick up a handful of cheapo and kitschy souvenirs, walk through Monastiraki and take your pick. The best place for non-tacky souvenirs is at museum giftshops. For something extra-special, head to Monastiraki on a Sunday morning for the flea market. Vendors will be selling anything from 200 euro silver plates to surplus dentistry equipment. We came home with some old stamps, 2 vintage European themed glasses and lots of pictures of the market itself. If you’re like me and like buying books in the cities you travel to, the Eleftheroudakis location not far from Syntagma is a fantastic bookstore. The English fiction collection is amazing, and there’s also a great selection of Greek literature translated to English.
- Exarchia is the college student/anarchist district of the city that is known for being vehemently anti-police (so much so that cops don’t actually enter Exarchia, they only hover around the periphery). This sounds rougher than it actually is, and unless there’s an actual protest going on, it’s a fun place to visit if you’re the kind of person who gets a kick out of public squares where kids set up amps and blast music while others hang around, play basketball or ping pong. Buy a gyros and watch. There are also good open air cinemas in Exarchia, and some good cafes.
- For nightlife without having to stray too far from your hotel, Gazi is the best place to go, and is always busy at night. There are many good restaurants that offer more than the traditional taverna fare, and there are bars and clubs. So go, take your pick.
- Okay, food. There is so much good food to be had in Athens, most of it taverna style where you order a few dishes and share them among yourselves. If you’re wondering how much to order, when it was just Andrew and I, we would generally order a salad, a dip of some sort, a vegetable dish and a meat or fish dish. With bread and a half kilo of wine, this would make a good meal. I love taverna food, but every so often we would crave something a little different.
- Canteen (Iakchou 8 & Efmolpidon in Gazi) – This Gazi restaurant is kind of nouveau Greek cuisine and uses seasonal ingredients to perfection. Things we’ve consumed here: pork with figs, eggplant dip sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and walnuts, excellent fish, good bottles of wine. Highly recommended.
- Kuzina (Adrianou 9 in Thissio): Kuzina also does the modern Greek food thing, but the best thing about it is the view. Make reservations in advance and ask for a table on the rooftop so that you can see the Acropolis in the distance. Good for a special occasion.
- Barbara’s Food Company (63 E. Benaki st & And. Metaxa St in Exarchia) – We would go here whenever we craved barbecue chicken. There’s also a great selection of pasta salads, and other Greek foods. I had macaroni & cheese and mashed potatoes here as well.
- Evergreen (At Panipistimio metro): Excellent salads and juices for those days when you need to eat something that isn’t fried. Very reasonably priced too.
- Chez Lucien (Troon 32 in Petralona): For that day you don’t want Greek for dinner, check out this French restaurant in Petralona. It’s tiny, and if you don’t get a table outside, there are some communal tables inside. The atmosphere is great, the food is hearty, there’s a selection of French wine, and Lucien will probably come by to chat with you as well. When you leave, they ring a cowbell and say “merci!” in unison, and it’s all very charming. (There’s also a great ouzeri on the same corner, and an open air theatre as well, and there are some good bars around the corner. Petralona is a cute little area to explore.)
- I highly recommend reviewing the following sites before visiting Athens:
Kathimerini: The English edition of the Athens newspaper.
Living in Greece is useful for tourists and invaluable for expats living in the country. Kat also updates Twitter regularly, and if you’re wondering about any strikes happening, it will be updated on her site.
Matt Barrett’s Travel Guide to Greece I hope Matt gets paid for the amount of information he gives. So much research, lots of tips, and very comprehensive.
Expat Athens: Good listings of events happening in Athens, including an online movie listings.