In Athens, you can time travel through millennia, visiting the romantic ruins of ancient temples on the Acropolis hill or viewing archaic artworks in the 21st-century Acropolis Museum. Even the Athens Food Walk highlights the complexity of Greek history, with Ottoman-inspired culinary delights and fragrant spices from Asia. You can also spend time in the glorious Mediterranean sunshine, chilling on Athens’ sandy beaches, exploring out-of-town archaeological sites and making boat trips to nearby islands.
Explore the ancient temples of the Acropolis
The ‘sacred rock’ of the Acropolis, rising above the concrete jungle that is modern Athens, is crowned by three temples dating from the fifth century BC, attracting three million visitors per year. The obvious starting point for a first-time visit is the largest and most impressive temple, the Parthenon, supported by 46 Doric columns and considered classical architecture’s most influential building.
Insider tip: Be sure to walk below the Acropolis at night too – it is magnificent, bathed in golden floodlighting. If you’re an archaeology enthusiast, buy the block-ticket covering all the main sites (Acropolis, Ancient Agora, Kerameikos, Hadrian’s Library and the Roman Agora).
Contact: 00 30 210 321 4172; odysseus.culture.gr
Opening times: Daily, 8am-8pm (summer); 8.30am-3pm (winter)
The Acropolis is considered classical architecture’s most influential building CREDIT: ANYAIVANOVA
Stroll along the cobbled streets of pretty Plaka
Built into the hillside below the Acropolis, Plaka is Athens’ oldest residential quarter. Retaining a quaint village atmosphere, despite the hordes of tourists, its pedestrian-only cobbled streets are lined with pastel-coloured, neoclassical mansions draped with bougainvillea, many now hosting small hotels, souvenir shops, cafés and bustling pseudo-rustic tavernas. It’s nicest in winter, without tourists, when Athenians reclaim it their own.
Insider tip: Notable free sights include the Museum of Traditional Greek Instruments (see below), the 12th-century Byzantine Little Mitropolis Church and the neighbouring 19th-century Mitropoli (equivilant of an Orthodox cathedral), and Anafiotika, a cluster of whitewashed cottages, built by islanders of Anafi in the 19th century.
Visit Plaka in the winter to get a taste of how Athenians live
Discover Greek folk music
The Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments, in a 19th-century neoclassical mansion in Plaka, has a vast array of Greek traditional regional musical instruments, dating from the 18th century to present), including drums, tambourines, flutes, bagpipes, lutes and mandolins. Each exhibit is accompanied by a headset with a recording, so you can listen to the (often haunting and tragic) sounds the instruments make.
Insider tip: There’s also a small museum shop that stocks a carefully curated selection of traditional Greek music CDs, and an adjoining walled garden that hosts occasional folk music concerts on summer evenings.
Address: Diogenous 1-3
Contact: 00 30 210 3250 198
Opening times: Tues, Thurs-Sun, 10am-2pm; Wed, 12pm-6pm
Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments
Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments houses a collection of drums, tambourines, flutes, bagpipes, lutes and mandolins
Admire ancient Greek artefacts in an ultra-modern museum
The glass-and-concrete building of the Acropolis Museum was designed by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi. Archaic and classical finds from the Acropolis site are displayed here – proud statues and life-like stone carvings of animals. The top floor is devoted to the marble frieze that once graced the Parthenon. About half of the pieces are originals, while the remainder are white plaster copies. The missing pieces were removed by Lord Elgin in 1801 and are now in the British Museum in London. The Greeks have wanted them back for decades, and hope that this blatant presentation will finally convince the British to return them.
Insider tip: The museum can get very busy in the morning with tour groups. To dodge the crowds, combine culture with dining – visit on a Friday evening when the museum stays open until 10pm, then have supper in the restaurant, open until midnight.
Contact: 00 30 210 900 0900; theacropolismuseum.gr
Opening times: See website
Archaic and classical finds from the Acropolis site are displayed at the Acropolis Museum CREDIT: MARIOGUTI/MARIOGUTI
See the whole of Athens from above in one go
Mount Lycabettus, also known as Lycabettos, Lykabettos or Lykavittos, is the city’s highest vantage point at 970ft. It’s capped by a tiny whitewashed Orthodox church, a restaurant (Orizontes Lycabettus) and a splendid open-air café. From here, you have fantastic views over the entire city, the surrounding mountains and out across the Aegean Sea towards the islands.
Insider tip:From Aristippou street in Kolonaki, a steep path up zigzags through pinewoods and sub-tropical vegetation. Alternatively, Monopati Lykavittou is a tarmacked road that will take you almost to the top, after which you climb steep steps. Wear decent shoes and bring water.
Address: Mt Lycabettus
Mount Lycabettus offers fantastic views over the entire city and the surrounding mountains CREDIT: GELIA
Learn more about the ancients at a world-class museum
The National Archaeological Museum, in a grand 19th-century building with marble floors, displays a superb collection of ancient and classical Greek artefacts. Each section is dedicated to a specific period, with top exhibits including the Cycladic marble harp-player from the islet of Keros; the Boxers, a 16th-century BC Minoan fresco from Akrotiri on Santorini; and the golden Mask of Agamemnon from Mycenea.
Insider tip: Good news for those travelling with children – visitors under 18 get free entry, as do students from EU countries. And it’s free entry for everyone on the first Sunday of the month, from November to March.
Contact: 00 30 213 214 4800; namuseum.gr
Opening times: Mon, 1pm-8pm, Tues-Sun, 9am-4pm
National Archaeological Museum
The the National Archaeological Museum has an extensive collection of Neolithic Antiquities
Eat your way around the city on a culinary walking tour
The Delicious Athens Food Tour, hosted by Alternative Athens, takes you around the Syntagma, Monastiraki and Psirri neighbourhoods, introducing you to traditional Greek specialities at various family-run stores, plus the vast Central Market. After meeting at Syntagma Square, you’ll get to taste authentic Greek coffee, bougatsa (filo-pastry filled with custard cream), baklava (another sweet pastry) and souvlaki (grilled meat), sample olive oil, wine and raki (a potent spirit), and learn about Greek herbs and spices.
Insider tip:Be sure not to eat a big breakfast beforehand and bare in mind that you probably won’t need lunch afterwards. The tour lasts three-and-a-half hours. Children are welcome, and those under-six come free.
Contact: 00 30 211 012 6544; alternativeathens.com
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 10am
Delicious Athens Food Tour
Leave some room in your stomach before going on the Delicious Athens Food Tour
Retrace Greek art and design
Benaki Museum, in a Neoclassical building, traces Greek art right up to the 20th century. Sculpture, ceramics, jewellery, paintings, furniture and costumes are on display, but top pieces include the Thessaly Treasure (a hoard of gold filigree jewellery set with precious stones, dating from the second century BC), two early paintings by El Greco, and the reconstruction of two 18th-century, wood-panelled, Ottoman-inspired living rooms.
Insider tip: You need a few hours to do justice to the full collection. Take a break halfway through for coffee or light lunch as the Benaki’s lovely roof terrace café. There’s also a good gift shop at the end.
Contact: 00 30 210 367 1000; benaki.gr
Opening times: Wed and Fri, 10am-6pm; Thur and Sat, 10am-12am; Sun, 10am-4pm
You need a few hours at Benaki Museum to do justice to the full collection
Wander through a picturesque garden
Overlooking Syntagma Square, the impressive Greek Parliament was originally built as the Royal Palace in 1843, and directly behind it, the National Gardens were the Royal Gardens. They’ve been open to the public since the 1920s, and they’re planted with lush Mediterranean and subtropical trees and shrubs, including towering palms, cypresses and eucalyptus trees, pungent white jasmine and purple wisteria.
Insider tip: The gardens are also home to strutting peacocks and several artificial ponds with ducks and turtles. You’ll also find plenty of benches in shady spots, where locals read newspapers, plus a children’s playground and two informal cafés.
Address: Leoforos Amalias
Opening times: Daily, 6am-8pm
The National Gardens are planted with lush Mediterranean and subtropical trees and shrubs CREDIT: GEORGIOS TSICHLIS (GEORGIOS TSICHLIS (PHOTOGRAPHER) – [NONE]/GATSI
Drive to a nearby beach
In summer, escape the city heat to swim and sunbath. Head for the Athens Coast, running from the port of Piraeus to Cape Sounio – 64km of spectacular views over the blue Saronic Gulf, with 13 sandy beaches carrying a ‘Blue Flag’ for high environmental standards. One of the nicest is Vouliagmeni, in a sheltered bay equipped with sun beds, parasols and snack bars.
Insider tip: In summer, Athens’ beaches get extremely crowded with locals, especially at weekends, causing traffic jams and tail-backs along the coastal road. Avoid the masses by coming during the week, when most people are at work or school.
Contact: 00 30 210 896 0697; vouliagmeni-akti.gr
Opening times: May-Oct, daily, 9am-sunset
Price: It varies from beach to beach – some are free but charge for sun beds; others charge for entry. Vouliagmeni, for example, charges €5 (£4; Mon-Sun, May to Oct) or €2 entry (£1.70; Mon-Sun, Oct to April).
Vouliagmeni is one of the most beautiful beaches along the Athens coastline CREDIT: SHANSCHE
Watch the sunset at an ancient temple
Built as a place of worship to Poseidon, the god of the sea, earthquakes and horses, the fifth-century-BC Temple of Poseidon stands on the southernmost point of the Attica peninsula in Cape Sounion. Originally made up of 34 white marble Doric columns, 15 of which remain, it commands amazing views over the Aegean Sea, which are particularly spectacular at sunset.
Insider tip: The coastal road from Athens to Sounio passes through the seaside suburbs of Glyfada, Vouliagmeni and Varkiza, and affords fine views over the Saronic Gulf – you could combine a day at the beach with an early-evening visit to Sounio.
Contact: 00 30 229 203 9363
Opening times: Daily, 9am-sunset
Temple of Poseidon
The sunset at Temple of Poseidon will be one of the most memorable ones you’ll ever experience CREDIT: WITR/WITR
Visit an ancient pilgrimage site
Greece’s most beautiful classical site, Delphi, was the home of the fabled Oracle which spoke its prophesies (with the help of trance-inducing leaves) through priestesses. Dating back beyond the eighth century BC, the hillside site, which is two-and-a-half hours from Athens, is scattered with ancient temples overlooking a gaping chasm, and is backed by Mt Parnassos. There’s also an excellent museum displaying bronze and marble sculptures.
Insider tip:On the road back to Athens is the mountain village of Arahova (about seven miles away). It’s an upmarket winter resort and a great place to stop for a late lunch and shop for fluffy flokati rugs and locally produced formaela cheese.
Opening times: Daily, 8am-8pm summer; 8am-3pm winter
Don’t miss Delphi, Greece’s most beautiful classical site, two and a half hours from Athens CREDIT: SSSANCHEZ
Go island hopping for the day
Despite having a spectacular coastline nearby, most wealthy Athenians prefer to escape to the islands in summer. The nearest islands, Aegina and Angistri, lie in the Argo-Saronic Gulf and can be done as a day trip. Both have lovely sand and pebble beaches, giving onto sparling clean sea, and plenty of tavernas serving locally caught fresh fish. The fastest way is with Hellenic Seaways’ ‘flying dolphins’ (catamarans): Pireaus to Aegina takes 40 minutes; Pireaus to Angistri is 55 minutes. They run several times a day year-round.
Insider tip: Ferries, hydrofoils and catamarans from Athens’ port Piraeus to the islands get very busy on summer weekends, as do the islands themselves (booking in advance is recommended). To avoid the crowds, do this as a weekday trip.
Opening times: Daily, 24 hours