It’s the birthplace of democracy, western philosophy (think Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) and classical art and architecture.
And one of the many fun facts about Greece that Athenians are proud of is that the Greek capital is one of the oldest cities in the world.
But is Athens worth visiting today?
Is Athens worth visiting?
If this is your first time in Athens, you may not know that it 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. Considerably.
Trendy bars and cafés have sprouted. Fabulous 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 if you’re wondering what to do in Athens, wonder no more.
Let’s go check out some of the great reasons to visit Athens!
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.
A UNESCO 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 #7 below to read about the original Caryatids.)
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) Stroll about the ancient Agora of Athens
Located beneath the northwest slope of the Acropolis is the ancient Agora, another of the top archaeological sites in Athens.
Agora means “marketplace” or “assembly,” and it was the beating heart of Athens.
It was the place where Greek democracy came to life – where Plato, Socrates and Demosthenes debated, where ordinary people shopped and gathered to voice their concerns and agree on solutions, and where the law courts were held.
(This Agora is different from the Roman Agora, also located to the north of the Acropolis, but to the east of the Athens Agora.)
Over the centuries, the site has been rebuilt countless times, and much of the largely green area is a scattered pile of rocks today.
But two marvelous monuments stand out.
One is the beautiful Temple of Hephaestus, the best preserved ancient Greek temple in the world, built between 450 and 440 B.C.
Surrounded by a row of fluted Doric columns, it was designed by Iktinus, one of the architects who also worked on the Parthenon (see #1).
The other is the Stoa of Attalus, once a trade market and now the Museum of the Ancient Agora, housing exhibits excavated from the Agora site.
Visiting this Agora is another must-do in Athens.
4) See the Temple of Athena Nike
Built between 426 and 421 B.C., the Temple of Athena Nike is found at the edge of a high cliff on the southeast slope of the Acropolis.
It’s dedicated to Nike, a form of Athena.
In Greek mythology, Nike was the goddess of victory. Athena was the patron goddess of Athens. They were so often associated with each other, however, that they were worshipped as one goddess, Athena Nike.
The smallest temple at the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena Nike is no less appealing because of its small size. Built of golden white Pentelic marble, it’s sometimes called the pearl of the Acropolis.
In later years, the temple was used as a church and then, during the Ottoman Empire, a munitions store.
It was also the first building on the Acropolis to be restored (the latest restoration was between 2000 and 2010).
5) Run around the Panathenaic Stadium
We’re not done with ruins yet!
Another ancient monument you must see in Athens, especially if you’re a history buff, 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 Olympic Games in 1896 and also the finishing line for the marathon in the 2004 Olympics 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.
6) 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).
And then, when the sun has set, take in a Greek dance show, a concert at the Athens Concert Hall or one of the other cool things to do in Athens at night.
7) 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 new 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!
8) Shop in the Plaka
We were also taken with the restored historical Plaka neighborhood, located below the Acropolis.
Many of the lanes and narrow 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 one of the best places to go in Athens for people watching too.
9) 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.
10) 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.
11) Eat Greek food
You can devour some great meals in Athens.
We always ordered a healthy Greek salad to start. The salty, tangy feta cheese somehow tastes fresher and more lemony in Greece (probably predictable, since it is the cheese of Greece).
We love Greek moussaka too.
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 a popular street food.
They’re made of soft pita bread wrapped around a filling of lamb or chicken (cooked on a vertical rotiserrie), onions, tomatoes and tzatziki – 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!
12) View the Acropolis from Filopappou Hill
For a particularly great place to photograph the Acropolis, walk up pine-forested Filopappou Hill, also called the Hill of the Muses.
It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to walk up. Go in late afternoon, stay for the sunset, catch the glorious white marble monuments glittering in the golden glow, then head back down again before it gets dark.
13) Admire the neoclassical buildings
During the 18th and 19th centuries across Europe and the U.S., neoclassical architecture was all the rage.
Think buildings designed on a grand scale with ancient Greek or Roman details, like dramatic columns. The White House in Washington, DC, is one such famous neoclassical building.
Not surprisingly, in addition to its wealth of important sites from the ancient world, the capital of Greece is also home to a huge collection of neoclassical architectural jewels.
Among them is a trilogy of beautiful buildings lined up in a row in central Athens.
The first is the National Library of Athens.
Resembling a Doric temple, the marble library has two side wings and two stunning marble staircases leading up to the entrance.
The second is the original H-shaped University of Athens building.
The third is the Academy of Athens.
14) Check out the Benaki Museum
While it’s less popular than other Athens museums, the Benaki Museum is just as interesting.
Housed in a beautiful neoclassical 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.
15) Browse the Monastiraki Flea Market
Don’t think just a flea market.
One of the top tourist attractions in Athens, the 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 here.
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!
16) 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).
17) Walk up Mount Lycabettus
Rising 908 feet above sea level, Lycabettus Hill isn’t really a mountain. Still, it’s known as Mount Lycabettus and it’s the highest point of Athens.
If you haven’t gotten enough exercise from your Athens sightseeing, you can climb up the mountain on foot.
It’s a great walk on a circular path (which takes 30 to 90 minutes, depending on how fit you are).
But as there’s not much shade near the top, we don’t recommend you tackle this in the heat of the summer months.
The alternative is taking the cable car up for the 3-minute ride.
It’s not a scenic ride, as it runs through a tunnel up the inside of the mountain. But not to worry, the panoramic views at the top of the hill are breathtaking!
18) Attend a concert at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus
One of the legendary historic sites in Athens is this open-air theater, located beneath the slopes of the Acropolis on the southwest side.
It was built between 160 and 174 AD by Herodes Atticus, a wealthy Roman philanthropist, in memory of his beloved wife.
In ancient times, the stone concert hall was crowned with a cedar roof and could seat 5,000 people.
When Pausanias, the 2nd century AD Greek traveler and geographer visited Athens, he called the Odeon of Herodes Atticus the “finest building of its type.”
The theater was unfortunately destroyed a century later, only to be restored in the 1950s.
Since then, musical greats such as Maria Callas, Elton John, Nana Mouskouri and Luciano Pavarotti have all performed at the theater.
Book a seat for a summer evening performance to witness a concert as the Athenians would have done some 2,000 years ago.
19) Go on a day trip from Athens
You have plenty of choice when it comes to day trips from Athens. Some ideas:
How about a sailing day trip on a beautiful wooden sailing vessel to visit the islands of Agistri and Aegina? It includes swimming in the Saronic Sea and a Mediterranean lunch.
Or maybe you’d like a sunset tour to Cape Sounion and the white marble Temple of Poseidon? Keep an eye out for Lord Byron’s signature carved on one of the pillars.
Or visit historic Nafplio.
It’s considered one of the prettiest towns in Greece.
On a full day trip to Nafplio, you can gaze at its colorful Venetian houses, climb up the 999 steps to the Castle of Palamidi, taste ouzo at an ouzo distillery and visit the ancient theater of Epidaurus.
Then there’s Delphi, once considered the center of the world. On this top-rated all-day guided tour of Delphi, you learn about the Oracle of Delphi, explore the Apollo Temple and more.
Is it worth visiting Athens? Yes!
The largest city in Greece, modern Athens is no longer just a jumping-off spot to visit the Greek islands.
Athens is a destination in itself, where ancient ruins ooze Greek history and where great restaurants and first-class hotels appeal to today’s sophisticated travelers.
It’s a great city – one we want to revisit again soon and one you’ll enjoy too. And once you’ve been, you’ll never again ask: Is Athens a good place to visit? Because you’ll know the answer!
Where to stay in Athens?
King George Hotel:
We loved our Athens hotel, the luxurious King George, a Luxury Collection Hotel.
With an unbeatable location directly across historic Syntagma Square, it boasts sumptuous rooms, with marble bathrooms and a breakfast restaurant overlooking the Acropolis.
Other top hotels in Athens:
For a stylish but less expensive 4-star hotel, check out the new top-rated B4B Athens Signature Hotel.
Centrally located (a 6-minute walk from the Acropolis Museum), it has an amazing roof bar with Acropolis views.
Have a look too at the boutique Coco-Mat Hotel Athens located in the high-end Kolonaki neighborhood in central Athens.
It also has a smashing roof terrace, along with chic minimalist rooms and a small outdoor pool. And it won’t break the budget either.
Vacation apartments and houses:
If you’d prefer a self-contained apartment or house, Vrbo (which is like Airbnb) offers some attractive accommodations.
This luxurious 2-bedroom apartment on a quiet side street in Plaka, close to Syntagma Square, comes with 2 ensuite bathrooms and gets wonderful reviews.
For other top-rated places to stay in Athens on Vrbo, search here.
More information about Athens
We’re partial to both Rick Steves’ Pocket Athens travel guide and Lonely Planet’s Greece guide. See the complete list of Athens and Greece travel guides on Amazon. (As an Amazon associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.)
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Photo credits: 2, 6, 7, 14 to 16, 29 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 13, 35, 36 King George Hotel | 20, 21 National Archaeological Museum | 31 Museum of Cycladic Art