Is visiting Athens, Greece on your bucket-list? This iconic, ancient city has never lost its monumental place in our culture. The white temple on top of the hill, narrow old streets and tottering marble columns: Athens occupies an almost mythical place in the world today.
Luckily, it’s easier than ever to get to Athens, whether you’re looking for a short city getaway or a long tour taking in all of Greece. Here’s what you absolutely must do when you get there.
Visiting Athens: The Quick Guide
1. Ascend to the Acropolis
If you don’t visit the Acropolis, did you even go to Athens? Home to temples since Neolithic times, the hill eventually became a city of marble temples representing the height of Classical Greece. You don’t actually have to ascend the Acropolis to see it — the temples gleam above Athens by day and are dramatically floodlit by night — but when you’re this close, you’ll want to get up there for an even closer look.
Your first assignment in Athens? Stroll the colorful, car-free boulevards of the neighborhoods beneath the Acropolis and then climb the steps (or take the elevator) to the hilltop temples of the Acropolis, where you can look out over Athens and beyond. It’s a great way to get acclimated with the city. Then, start discovering the temples and civic buildings left behind over the centuries.
2. Discover the Parthenon
The Acropolis might be about ancient architecture, but the Parthenon is the ancient architecture, if you follow our meaning. High atop the Acropolis, the Parthenon stands as ancient Greece’s most enduring symbol.
It’s an ancient building on an ancient site; before the Parthenon was completed in 438 BC, four earlier temples to Athena stood here. Widely described as “the world’s most perfect building,” you’ll want to give yourself some time to take in the magnitude of this extraordinary structure. It’s had a rough thousand years or so, thanks to various wars, looting and the ravages of weather, but the Parthenon still leaves visitors speechless.
3. Explore the Acropolis Museum
Back down the hill, many original items from the Acropolis are being preserved in the new Acropolis Museum. Exhibitions like the Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis reveal objects from everyday life in ancient Athens, as well as sacred antiquities from the many cults devoted to various gods and goddesses which were scattered along the Acropolis’ hillsides. Sculpture from temples that preceded the Parthenon, as well as a recreation of the Parthenon’s famous Panathenaic Procession frieze (with original blocks as well as cast reproductions). For a true feeling of walking amongst the ancients, this museum is a can’t-miss.
4. Wander the Plaka
Also at the foot of the Acropolis is Plaka, Athens’ oldest neighborhood. And when we say “old,” we mean old. Today, the ancient streets are largely car-free, and wandering this neighborhood, with its flower-hung old buildings, restaurants with beckoning patios, and the odd Greek or Roman ruin scattered about is the quintessential Athens experience.
Here you’ll find specialist museums like the Folk Art Museum and the Jewish Museum, old churches and plenty of cafes, sweet shops and tavernas.
And don’t miss the highest neighborhood on the Acropolis hillside: Anafiotika’s island-style architecture floats above the rest of Plaka, with fantastic views and a village-like atmosphere.
Around the Plaka you’ll find a variety of archaeological sites, including the Roman Agora site. This public space, funded by the Roman emperors Julius Caesar and Augustus, included shops, fountains, and more. Today the columns of the open-air courtyard remain, along with other traces of the past. A nearby highlight is the Tower of the Winds, history’s first meteorological station, thought to be built in the 2nd century B.C.
5. Find a Souvenir in the Marketplace
You’ll want to bring home something special from your Athens trip, so it’s time for the Monastiraki Marketplace. Here, you’ll find street stalls and shops selling everything you’d expect from a first-class flea market, from vintage books to cheap t-shirts.
In this traditional bazaar, which floods into the narrow streets around Avissynias Square, you might just find a jewelry shop recreating ancient Greek designs in gold and gems, original art, antiques, or just that old reliable vacation souvenir: a great hat or shirt.
Nearby, the Psiri district is another warren of ancient streets where excellent shopping, dining and nightlife awaits.
Of course, there is plenty more to fit in when you’re visiting Athens. But if you’re just going for a few days, these are the basics not to miss.
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