A rough travel guide to Athens

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Athens is undoubtedly worth visiting; this ancient city serves as an immortal reminder of just what humanity can accomplish and maintain. Whether you’re there for one day or five, or longer, read our top travel tips for things to do in the Greek capital

Via the airport or the Port of Piraeus, Athens is known primarily to foreign sunseekers as the gateway to the Greek islands. But the capital shouldn’t be overlooked — this ancient marvel of a city is worth a vacation in and of itself. Here’s our rough travel guide to Athens: its history, the best places to go, and the most striking things to see.

Practical tips: the best time to go and how to get around

June to September is the busiest time to visit Athens; accommodation prices are at their highest in the summer. July and August are the hottest months, when temperatures peak well into the 30(C)s. Meanwhile, be aware that due to heavier precipitation in winter, some sights and tourist information centers might close earlier and sea travel is more likely to encounter disruption. Temperatures are consistently pleasant in May and October, with considerably less rainfall than in the winter months.

Athens International Airport is a significant hub, with flights arriving from all over the world. From there, you can take an express bus or the metro line number 3 directly to the city center. The center itself is well-connected by an integrated transport system of buses, trams, trolleybuses and the metro. For more details on how to make use of this, see OASA’s official website.

What makes Athens so unique

Monastiraki Square in Athens — ShutterstockIt’d be trivial to call Athens Western or Eastern — Shutterstock

When strolling through its streets, one cannot miss the variation in the faces of Athens. With its tall buildings and contemporary shops, you might well feel like you’re finally in Europe, if you’re coming from the east. Yet, from the opposite direction, its food, music, and bustling street life can seem undeniably Middle Eastern. It’d be wrong to call Athens merely a memory of the Byzantine or the Ottoman Empire, as it would be to call it Western or Eastern. Athens is the epitome of Greek unique: demonstratively Athenian.

Despite their societal development being interrupted a few times in history, the people of Athens have always managed to start where they were forced to halt, to rebuild their heritage and place it on a podium for the world to see. In the middle of the 19th century, Athens was but a few villages scattered around the ruins of ancient temples. Now the capital of Greece is home to more than 3.7 million people counting its metropolitan area — almost one third of the country’s population.

The metropolis now serves as the country’s political, economic, educational and cultural center and attracts a huge number of visitors and expats.

Ancient history

Temple of Zeus with the Acropolis in the background — ShutterstockThe Acropolis was built over 2,000 years ago, and much of it still stands proudly today — Shutterstock

With a plethora of temples, archaeological sites and museums throughout the city, Athens is a paradise for true history enthusiasts.

Dionysiou Areopagitou is a long, pedestrianized street lined with trees and shrubs, that provides easy access to Athens’ major historical sights. Take yourself on a tour around the Acropolis citadel and the Ancient Agora (just to name a couple), and you’ll be treading in the very footsteps of the likes of Pericles, Socrates and Plato.

Like other hilltop sites in Ancient Greece, the Acropolis — meaning “High City” — was built in the 5th century BCE and became both a place of worship and of refuge when under attack. Crowned by the Parthenon temple, the Acropolis looks over present-day Athens as its historical, cultural, and well, literal highpoint. Once dedicated to Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom and war, the Parthenon might have easily been the mightiest temple in the ancient world, but now it relies on the support of modern cranes. Still, it’s a masterpiece to behold — it’s not in every city that you get to see structures of this magnitude that are over 2,000 years old.

View of the Acropolis and the Ancient Agora — ShutterstockView over the Ancient Agora — Shutterstock

At the foot of the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora — a kind of versatile public space — sprawls out from the Temple of Hephaestus. Athenians gathered here to exchange goods as well as news and gossip, making it the buzzing center of everyday life in Ancient Greece. Believe it or not, this grassy patch of ruins is precisely where the roots of Western philosophy, politics, culture and science emerged.

Plaka

Flower-adorned street in Plaka — ShutterstockIf you suddenly woke up one morning in Plaka, you wouldn’t believe that you were in the heart of a metropolis — Shutterstock

Like many major civilizations, Ancient Greece peaked and then slowly vanished under the rule of its usurpers. To regain a majestic facade, Athens underwent huge development in the 1800s. To roam through the neoclassical architecture of this period, you should head to Plaka.

 

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Plaka exhibits a calmer, more intimate side to Athens, with cozy, colorful streets of swathing flora, cute restaurants and modest souvenir shops. You’ll notice that the relaxed pace of Plaka is mainly thanks to the lack of traffic in the area, and yet it’s still a stone’s throw away from the city center. Nestled beneath the walls of the Acropolis, Anafiotika is one of Plaka’s most tranquil neighborhoods, originally populated in the 19th century by workers from the island of Anafi — hence the name. This quaint collection of little white-stone houses makes the hustle and bustle of the city seem many miles away.

National pride

Changing of the guard at Athens's Old Royal Palace — ShutterstockGo to Syntagma Square and you’ll catch the guards in their interesting attire — Shutterstock

To soak in all the sense of the modern Greek statehood, get yourself to Syntagma (“Constitution”) Square. A dignified place of national importance, it was right here where the first Greek constitution was established following independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Guarded by flamboyant soldiers in peculiar uniforms, the Old Royal Palace now serves as the house of the Greek parliament. 

Today, Syntagma Square is the most crowded spot in Athens. It has the city’s largest metro station and it’s scattered with lively restaurants and cafes, as well as benches shadowed by trees that offer front-seat views of life simply going by.

The Panathenaic Stadium — ShutterstockThe Kallimarmaro opened the first modern Olympics — Shutterstock

Wellness is all the rage now, but the Athenians have been taking care of themselves for centuries with the concept of kalokagathos — the careful balance between a healthy mind and a healthy body — and you’d expect nothing less from the birthplace of the Olympic Games. The city prides itself on a multi-purpose sports center made entirely of marble, the only such construction in the world. After being refurbished, the Panathenaic Stadium (or Kallimarmaro) hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympics in 1896, and four of the nine events even took place here. The venue was used once again in this way at the 2004 Games.

Woman eating dolmades — ShutterstockDolmades, stuffed vine leaves, is a quintessentially Greek dish — Shutterstock

And of course, a visit to Athens would not be complete without the sampling of the colorful national dishes. Greek cuisine is famously tasty as well as healthy, the nation’s high life expectancy being a testament to this. The diet is underpinned by fresh, typically Mediterranean ingredients such as vegetables, olives, cheese and fish. Feast on mouth-watering souvlaki, moussaka or dolmades pretty much anywhere in the city, and don’t forget your side of fresh salad consisting of the juiciest local vegetables smothered in the richest olive oil. These delights alone will keep you coming back.

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