Athens… It’s the birthplace of democracy, western philosophy (think Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), and classical art and architecture. But is Athens worth visiting today?
Is Athens worth visiting?
Athens used to have a reputation as a somewhat gritty (indeed grimy) city – a place to fly into just because you had to if you wanted to visit Greece and the Greek islands.
But that was then.
But Athens has cleaned itself up. Trendy bars and cafés have sprouted. New hotels have been built. And it boasts some mind-blowing museums. Athens is now definitely one of the best cities to visit in Greece. It’s worth visiting Athens today for both its ancient treasures – and its modern delights.
So let’s go check out some of the best reasons to visit Athens today!
1) Marvel at the Parthenon
Nowhere is the glory that was ancient Greece more profoundly felt than by climbing the rocky hill of the Acropolis.
Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the Acropolis is home to perhaps Greece’s most famous temple, the Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena.
Built between 447 and 438 B.C., with 65 magnificent soaring columns, the Parthenon is even more impressive in real life than in photos.
The city of Athens doesn’t live in the past though.
Restoration of the Parthenon has been ongoing for years (ironically, longer than it took to build).
Craftsmen have been painstakingly putting together new and old blocks of the columns so they stand tall, strong and proud again. Lighter colored stone is used for the new parts – you can easily see what is original and what has been rebuilt.
Chances are you’ll see scaffolding too. Scaffolding on the site seems to be as old as the Parthenon itself. Funnily enough, the scaffolding and construction equipment don’t take away from the Parthenon’s monumental visual impact, however.
Our most recent visit to the Acropolis was at sunset. Perhaps it was the light dancing on the marble. Or perhaps it was because it wasn’t very crowded (it had been raining on and off that day). But we were mesmerized.
Also don’t miss the Erectheion, another Greek temple on the north side of the Acropolis. It’s adorned with reproductions of the Caryatids, statues of beautiful ladies that stood in place of columns. (See #5 below to read about the original Carytids.)
2) Dream in the Theater of Dionysus
The Theater of Dionysus is found next to the Parthenon, on the south slope of the Acropolis.
Dating back 2,600 years ago, it was the world’s first stone theater ever built.
Sit back on a honey-colored stone row – and imagine watching an ancient Greek tragedy performed in front of you.
3) Run around the Panathenaic Stadium
We’re not done with ruins yet!
Another ancient monument that’s a must-see in Athens is the horseshoe-shaped Panathenaic Stadium.
Paved completely in marble, it used to host the Panathenaic Games to honor the goddess Athena. More recently, it was the site of the first modern Olympics in 1896 and also the finishing line for the marathon in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
What’s really cool today is that the Panathenaic Stadium is open for joggers who want to go for an early run around it between 7:30 am to 9:00 am.
4) Watch the sunset from a rooftop bar
At sunset, you’ll want to be comfortably settled at one of the rooftop bars in Athens.
A for Athens is popular as it has one of the best views of the Acropolis. The cool Galaxy Restaurant and Bar on the top of the Hilton Athens also has gorgeous Acropolis views (just go for a pre-dinner cocktail or late night drink).
The Acropolis view is also great from the King George Hotel’s restaurant (which is especially nice for breakfast).
5) Visit the Acropolis Museum
Designed by a Swiss architect, the huge and very modern Acropolis Museum (completed in 2009) sits at the base of the Acropolis. And it’s absolutely stunning!
The main floor is partially glass – you can see ongoing excavations of archaeological ruins underneath.
Hundreds upon hundreds of marble and stone busts and statues found on the Acropolis are showcased in the Acropolis Museum.
The beautiful Caryatids are the icing on the cake.
These original ladies used to adorn the Erechtheion, the sacred temple near the Parthenon that was built to house a wood statue of Athena. But they were moved to the museum several years ago and given a makeover (hey, if you were that old, you probably wouldn’t mind a facelift either).
Reproductions of the Caryatids now stand in place of the originals at the Erechtheion.
Along with the Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum is one of the top sights in Athens – don’t miss it!
6) Shop in the Plaka
We were also taken with the restored historical Plaka neighborhood, located below the Acropolis.
Many of the lanes and streets are pedestrian-only, making it stress-free to stroll around.
Want to pick up a souvenir? You’ll find one here. Souvenirs include everything from olive oil soaps, worry beads, handmade leather sandals, evil eye talismans and handmade Greek pottery.
Attractive tavernas and cafés are also abuzz late into the night. So the Plaka is a great area for people watching too.
7) Tour the National Archaeological Museum
Another one of the best museums in Athens is the National Archaeological Museum. Extensively refurbished in time for the 2004 Athens summer Olympics, it houses some 11,000 Greek treasures.
You’ll want to see the stunning gold funeral mask of King Agamemnon of Mycenae from the 15th century B.C.
Other star exhibits include the Antikythera mechanism (a hand-powered analogue device that was probably used to calculate the dates of religious holidays), Santorini frescoes, the Jockey of Artemision (a life-size bronze statue of a boy riding a horse) and three exquisite gold hairnets adorned with small busts of Aphrodite and Artemis.
8) Watch the changing of the guards
Head to Syntagma Square on Sunday for the 11:00 am changing of the guards – and you’ll agree that watching this ceremony at the Hellenic Parliament Building is one of the best things to do in Athens.
The elite presidential guards, called Evzones, are dressed in traditional uniforms.
The ceremony is very impressive to watch – be sure to include it in your Athens itinerary if in the city on a Sunday.
9) Eat Greek food
You can devour some great meals in Athens.
We love Greek moussaka. And you’ll find lots of places serving up this mouth-watering dish made from eggplant, ground lamb and cheese. Wash that down with Greek wine (getting better and on the rise).
Oh, and the yogurt! Creamy, thick and heavenly. Pour honey on it for some sweetness.
Gyros are popular too – soft pita bread wrapped around a filling of lamb or chicken (cooked on a vertical rotiserrie), onions, tomatoes and tsatziki. A very tummy-satisfying “sandwich.”
Don’t miss trying loukoumades either. These are Greek donuts. They’re traditionally served soaked in hot honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. Sometimes they come topped with chopped walnuts or toasted sesame seeds too. Delish!
10) Benaki Museum
Less popular than other Athens museums, the Benaki Museum is just as interesting.
Housed in a beautiful Neo-classical building, the museum focuses on Greek culture over the centuries, starting from the Bronze Age, and displays a wonderful collection of jewelry, swords, Greek regional costumes, sculptures, ceramics and historical documents.
11) Browse the Monastiraki Flea Market
Don’t think just a flea market.
Athens’ famous Monastiraki Flea Market is more like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul (which you absolutely have to include on your Turkey itinerary when in Istanbul).
You can find almost anything you can think of. Jewelry (genuine hand-made gold and silver jewelry plus fake stuff). T-shirts, of course! Junky knick knacks. Rare books. Gems like icons painted by the monks who live in one of the most unique places in Greece, Mount Athos. And more.
Brush up on your bargaining skills!
12) Visit the Museum of Cycladic Art
Up for another Athens museum?
The Museum of Cycladic Art showcases contemporary art exhibitions, as well as housing more than 3,000 objects of centuries-old Greek and Cypriot art (marble bottles, pottery, metal helmets, Byzantine icons and more).
Yes, it’s worth it to visit Athens
Athens is no longer just a jumping-off spot to visit the Greek islands. It’s a destination in itself.
And one we want to revisit again soon…
Where to stay in Athens?
We loved our Athens hotel, the luxurious King George, a Luxury Collection Hotel. With an unbeatable location in historic Syntagma Square, it boasts sumptuous rooms, with marble bathrooms, and a breakfast restaurant overlooking the Acropolis.
Photo credits: 6, 8 and 12 to 14 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 1, 10 and 29 to 31 King George Hotel | 19 National Archaeological Museum | 28 Museum of Cycladic Art