It is not a rare scenario, as Athens is the gateway city for nearly 16 million people visiting Greece’s countless tourist destinations every year. But the burning questions are “what to see?” and “how to maximize” your Athens experience?
It would be hard for us to surprise you with the starting point. Take a long walk up the Acropolis. Travelling around the globe, we are all fed up with the “must see” places in every city, but Acropolis is on a totally different league of sights. Unlike typical landmarks like the Mannequin piece, Sidney’s Opera House or Big Ben, it sits up there on the top of the list with the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal. So do climb that rock. A good guide and a sunny day will make it a memory you will treasure for a lifetime and you will be smiling on your way out, as you will remember these lines.
Then, it would be a bit hard to pass on the New Acropolis museum, as it kind of completes the Acropolis experience. By the way, if you have a thing for museums we do have a couple of suggestions, but they will be time-consuming as they are all enchanting places, full of things to see.
Next, take a walk around the north slope of the Acropolis –preferably using the road to the right of the hill’s foot, as you face it from the south- to the picturesque old neighborhoods of Plaka and Anafiotika and kill your camera’s battery taking countless pictures of everything including tiny colorful alleys and neighborhoods with numerous stray cats that pose like professional models.
Sit in one of the countless small cafés when your eyes and your feet demand it. Ask them to charge your camera’s battery and put your feet up. Preferably outside to enjoy it the Greek way; lie there doing nothing in particular. Exercise in the art of spending time and unwind sipping coffee, a beer, some ouzo, or tsipouro, looking around or engaging in small-talk. Maybe eat a “meze” (small dishes accompanying spirits) or two at a Kafeneion. Enjoy some more sun. Stroke the cat that has probably come by your table - she is here for the meze, but socializing is not out of her menu - and decide on what to do next.
Roll down the last blocks of the “old city” neighborhoods and you reach Monastiraki square, a small but spicy mix of the typical “agora” with the modernized version of a Middle Eastern “souk”.
From here, there are three routes to choose from:
To the East; you delve in the heart of the modern city, preferably through Ermou street, one of the most visited commercial roads, ideal for window shopping, with a small Byzantine church –Capnikarea- in the middle and the Syntagma square and the Parliament building at its end. All the streets around this route –like Kolokotroni or Mitropoleos street, both parallel to Ermou on each side- are full of cafes, bars and restaurants which Athenians and visitors inhabit around the clock, so if you want to experience the Athenian life they are the ideal stop.
When you reach Syntagma Sqr: See the Evzones perform the changing of the guard and then decide. The main road on the left leads to some of the greatest museums the country has to offer, all within walking distance. Behind the Parliament and to its right you will find the Athens National Gardens. And keep walking to the right to complete a full circle reaching the New Acropolis Museum. Southwards from it there is Koukaki neighborhood full of bars, cafes and restaurants, trendy or “hipster”, touristy or plain. And the roads behind the Acropolis museum will take you either to Fillopapou hill - that has a great view on Acropolis on one side and a majestic sunset to offer on the opposite one - or to Petralona area, a place full of bars and small taverns if you want to end your day eating and drinking like a Greek youngster.
Back to Monastiraki and the routes from there; If you keep walking to the north you will enter Psiri area. It is not as picturesque as Plaka but it has many more cafes and taverns, with a more chaotic layout but a more genuine city feeling and a lot more vibrant atmosphere, especially on weekends. For example if you fancy a dive in Greek folk music –the bouzouki variety- and tavern food, here you will find a more genuine experience than in the tourist-traps in Plaka. But it is always better to ask your guide in advance, especially about timing.
And, thirdly, if you keep walking west from Monastiraki you will eventually reach Gazi, a once poor and deserted industrial area around the main old city’s gas facilities - converted to a nice industrial park where you can enjoy festivals, live concerts, art shows, exhibitions etc - now crammed with bars, restaurants and clubs where all the “cool” city kids go.
So wear comfy shoes, drink water regularly, have an extra battery for your camera and don’t exhaust yourself. This city offers more experiences than your feet can take you to in a day or two. Chances are that after a good two-day visit we will have you back - sooner than you think - because, you know, Greece has this effect on people… and they all come back for more.
Since the proposed routes are quite long, it would be wise to break them up in smaller segments, according to the time you have available and maybe add an extra museum at the end. As an alternative, if you decide that you want to spend one more day (or two) in the city of goddess Athena you can add a quick visit to the Athenian Trilogy.
If you, on the other hand, find the weather too good for exclusively downtown visits, just go down by the beach to the Stavros Niarchos park and cultural center. Or even take a full-day trip to the Athenian Riviera.