An enduring symbol of democracy, philosophy and all those big-picture ideals of the ancients, Athens also has a unique way of living in the moment. It is versatile and inventive, alive with the power of possibility day and night and is a city filled with surprises.
Did you know that Athens has beaches less than half an hour from the city centre? And that alongside the museums displaying archaeological treasures are contemporary art galleries as well as parks and green spaces.
So if you’re looking for things to do in Athens with the kids, or you’re visiting as a couple or a group of friends, or even just passing through on your way to a Greek island or elsewhere on the mainland, you’ll find a city that will reward you in ways you never imagined.
The best things to do in Athens to live it like a local
Feel free in a city that loves the outdoors
Athens is a city begging to be explored on foot. With so many cultural sites within easy reach of each other, just walking around is like visiting an open-air museum. So before you start ticking off that bucket list, allow Athens to introduce itself to you.
No one forgets their first glimpse of the Acropolis, standing guard over the city as it has done for millennia and a perfect reference point around which to explore. But you’ll also be struck by Athens’ modern side, with trendy new neighbourhoods like Psirri, Koutaki and Pangrati catching your eye as much as trusty favourites like Plaka, Anafiotika and Monastiraki, Kolonaki, Thissio. You can cover them all in a single stroll. As you walk around (or nip between metro stops), you’ll discover the unexpected green spaces of Athens, such as the National Garden (just behind the Hellenic Parliament) and the likes of Philopappou Hill and Lycabettus Hill, from which to enjoy the skyline of one of Europe’s quirkiest cities.
Athens is the sort of place where you’ll find an archaeological relic unearthed during building works just a stone’s throw from the street art that’s now part of Athens walking tours, as well as impressive neoclassical buildings (a legacy of the 18th and 19th-century architectural marvels from the city’s more recent golden age) comfortably sitting next to office and apartment blocks.
So put on a comfortable pair of shoes and grab yourself an ice cream, and let Athens tell you its story.
The must-see landmarks & museums of Athens
Greek gods, ancient myths and giants of world history such as Pericles, Plato and Aristotle… their tales are all interwoven into the fabric of this famous city. But it’s one thing learning about them and another seeing their legacy in the flesh, as you do in the cultural landmarks and museums of Athens.
The Acropolis and Acropolis Museum
It’s the one monument you’re not going home without visiting. The Acropolis is the symbol of Athens, perched upon the Sacred Hill (as it’s known to Athenians) for more than 2,500 years. You’ll recognise the Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena and built as the focal point of Pericles’ grand reconstruction project for Athens in the 5th century BC, but you’ll also marvel at the craftsmanship of buildings such as the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike.
Take a guided tour and all will be revealed, just as it will be at the Acropolis Museum right next door. It is rightly considered one of the best museums in the world, not just for exhibiting artefacts excavated from the Acropolis and unearthed during the building of the museum itself but for displaying them beautifully over three levels designed to complement the experience of the Acropolis. The top floor Parthenon Gallery allows you to walk around the complete Parthenon frieze (with missing sections having been carefully replicated).
You’ll quickly learn that the Acropolis is just the start of your cultural tour of Athens. Just about everywhere you turn in the city centre, another monument reveals itself in a never-ending narration from antiquity – the Ancient Agora, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the temples of Olympian Zeus and Hephaestus, Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, the Panathenaic Stadium and so many other cultural gems present themselves one after the other by the simple act of just strolling around central Athens.
Feeling the vibes of Athens around the Acropolis
Wherever you are in Athens, there’ll be a museum that tells you something else about this extraordinary city and Greece as a whole. The National Archaeological Museum leaves no stone unturned in revealing the epic story of Greece’s history, fully justifying why it’s referred to as the cradle of western civilisation. Likewise, the National Gallery is a must for art lovers, tracing the evolution of modern Athens through artwork.
There are also private collections like the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture and the Museum of Cycladic Art, both housed in beautiful neoclassical buildings. And for lovers of modern art, there’s the National Museum of Contemporary Art and the Goulandris Museum of Modern Art (with works from Picasso to Van Gogh)… extraordinary collections that rank alongside those in any capital city in Europe.
But that’ just the start. Byzantine culture, traditional costumes, ancient coins, natural history, maritime and Jewish heritage, folk instruments … even ancient technology and illusions. You name it, there’s a museum that covers it in Athens.
Discover 20 of the best museums in Athens
Cultural venues and events in Athens
With such a love of life, Athens lends itself to events in every season of the year at some of the most atmospheric venues in Europe. Some have been entertaining visitors for millennia, like the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, one of the main venues of the much-loved Athens & Epidaurus Festival. And others are exciting newcomers, such as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, home to the National Opera (and National Library) and host of popular summer concerts on the lawn.
Alongside that, the Megaron Music Hall continues to stage concerts and events closer to the city centre and theatre-lovers can enjoy ancient tragedies and comedies in their original form with English subtitles.
In summer, open-air cinemas and music concerts are made twice the experience because of the incomparable Athens night sky and other venues are given a special something because of their concepts, like downtown Technopolis (Athens’ former gasworks), the Onassis Stegi Cultural Centre (where contemporary culture meets aesthetics and science) and the Eugenides Foundation Planetarium (newly digital).
Last but by no means least are Athens’ OAKA Olympic Stadium, hosting everything from music concerts to football matches, and the annual Athens Marathon, held in November and which (whether you’re completing the full 42km or 5km distance) ends – just like the marathon at the original modern Olympic Games in 1896 – at the horseshoe-shaped Panathenaic Stadium.
The foodie and nightlife scene of Athens
Athens has catapulted itself onto the foodie map in recent years, celebrating the city’s spirit of creativity. Tavernas and ouzeries will put a smile on your face with the Greek dishes and meze that you know and love, and you’ll also be introduced to the work of talented chefs inspired by the best local products.
If you’re a foodie, you’ll definitely want to join a food tour of Athens, discovering the meat, fish and vegetable markets and spice shops of the city, as well as dine-in delis and the locals’ favourite street food (it’s not just souvlaki and kebabs). You’ll also learn about wines and beers produced in vineyards and microbreweries around Athens and Greece as a whole.
You’ll learn how new concepts for Greece like brunch, ethnic and vegan food have a growing following, and how neighbourhoods previously off the tourist map have their own foodie and nightlife scene: Keramikos and Gazi (for cool bars and clubbing), Thissio (rooftop bars and dining, ideal for couples), Koukaki (cosy bars for cocktails, sidewalk cafes, tavernas and brunch), Pangrati (an artsy aura and cool cafe & taverna scene) and Petralona (mostly for food and live folk music at what are known as koutoukia and rebetadika).
There are even food festivals (Taste of Athens, Burger Fest and Athens Street Food amongst them) alongside Michelin-starred and other high-end restaurants. You won’t look at Athens in the same way again.
A foodie guide to Athens
Shopping in Athens
You’ll soon find out that there are temptations everywhere when it comes to shopping in Athens. Boutique and designer stores, jewellers, bazaars, specialists in leather goods and handcrafted souvenirs, shopping malls … you name it, they’ll be calling out your name.
It’s one of the joys of getting to know the different neighbourhoods of Athens. The centre is full of shops, especially around Syntagma Square. Pedestrianised Ermou Street is one of the main shopping thoroughfares, leading to Monastiraki’s flea market (under the Acropolis). Or there are the upmarket treasures, like Voukourestiou St (luxury brands and jewellery) and Kolonaki (chic boutiques). But that barely scratches the surface of the Athens shopping scene. Just leave some space in your suitcase, that’s all we’re really saying.
19 Greek designers for high-end shopping in Athens
The beaches of Athens
Beaches in Athens? You’d better believe it! The wider Athens area is home to dozens of beaches that have been one of the best-kept secrets of Athenians for years but are now getting the international attention they deserve. The Athens Riviera is a series of beaches and marinas, from the southern suburbs of Glyfada, Vouliagmeni and Varkiza extending all the way to Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon on the south-eastern tip of Attica.
There are organised beaches with everything from sunbeds & umbrellas to beach bars and tavernas and small sandy coves that will make you think you’re on a Greek island … and even a therapeutic lake in Vouliagmeni you can swim in all-year-round.
Lying on the beach in the morning and dining with a view of the Acropolis in the evening … now that’s a lifestyle you could get used to. Don’t believe us? See for yourself.
Visiting the islands near Athens
If visiting a Greek island is what you have your heart set on then you can easily combine it with your holidays in Athens. You can spot some of the Saronic Gulf islands from the Athens coastline and there are island day-trips that take you to a selection (Aegina, Hydra & Poros). Or you could stay overnight and get to know your choice island in greater depth. Spetses is another island with its own personality within shooting distance from Piraeus. All have regular ferry and hydrofoil connections.
Get to know the islands close to Athens
Day-trips and Athens getaways
Finally, Athens is conveniently situated for getaways that can be combined with a stay in the Greek capital. With a good motorway network out of the city, some of the world’s leading archaeological highlights are within striking distance – Delphi to the north and Epidaurus and Mycenae in the Peloponnese. You could even combine them with stays in some of Greece’s most romantic towns – Arachova (30mins from Delphi and the ski slopes of Mt Parnassos) and Nafplio (35mins from Epidaurus and 25mins from Mycenae) – or easily complete a day-trip to Evia.
Speaking of mountains, there are three that frame the Greek capital (Parnitha, Pendeli and Ymittos) all with hiking and biking trails and hidden gems like Kaisariani Monastery on Mt Pendeli and Bafi Refuge on Mt Parnitha that runs environmental programs and serves great mountain food.
The very best of Athens
So, how did we change your perception of Athens? Pretty packed when it comes to experiences, right? Of course you’re going to see the highlights like the Acropolis and the Changing of the Guard outside the Parliament on Syntagma Square. But how about the beaches and Athens getaways, the modern cultural highlights and the cool new neighbourhoods? And don’t get us started on the food. It puts holidays in Athens in a whole new light.
What to do on a 3-day city break in Athens