Athens is the capital of Greece hosting almost a third of the country population – around 3 milion people. If you’re thinking to visit Athens, mainly because your visit may start or end here, I would suggest to allocate about 3 days for the city itself. Apart from its busy streets, the city has something to offer to everyone, from historical places to nice beaches, good drinks and traditional food.
Now, let’s see together which are the main points of interest, what you should know before reaching the places and how to get the best deals in the town.
Before starting your visit
Archeological Sites – Combo Ticket
Visible from almost all the corners of the capital, there is no doubt why everybody’s first visit is the Acropolis (the upper city). Before start exploring, you should know there is a combo ticket available.
This provides you access to 7 archeological sites across Athens for 30€, with a validity of 5 days. The sites included are the Acropolis and its slopes, Ancient Agora, Hadrian’s Library, Keramikos, Lykeion, Olympieion and the Roman Agora. If you would buy each ticket independetly, it would cost you 64€ – more than double. So, it’s a good thing to take into account when making your plan.
However, if you’re not interested into archeology and you want to visit only to the Partenon, a normal ticket will cost you only 20€ (prices in August 2020).
In terms of time, you need to allocate around 4h for the Acropolis, 3h for the Agoda and half an hour for the Library, Roman Agora and the Lykeion. Also, take into account the distance to travel between the places. In my opinion, it is best to not visit all of them in one day, in order to digest the information properly.
Museums – Combo Ticket
Another good news is that exist a similar combo ticket also for the museums. You can see the Byzantine & Christian Museum, Epigraphic Museum, National Archeological Museum and the Numismatic Museum for only 15€, instead of 30€ by purchasing individual tickets. This one has a validity of 3 days starting with the day of the purchase. Also, bare in mind the Acropolis Museum is not included in this combo and a ticket costs 10€.
Opening hours and days
A last thing to take into account are the opening hours and days. While the archeological sites are normally open from Monday to Sunday from 8am to 8pm, some museums are closed on Tuesday.
Be aware during the national days everything is closed (1st of January, Easter Sunday, December 25th, etc.). On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough to be there on specific dates (European Heritage Days, National Holiday, International Museums Day, etc.) you can visit them all for free. Check the official website for more up to date information here.
During many centuries, the Acropolis and its sacred rock was a place of worship. It was dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patron of the city which gave its name.
Even if the place has been inhabited since the Middle Nepolithic period, only during the 5th century, the site has been adorned with monumental temples (Propylaia, the Erechtheion, the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike). All this thanks to the ambitious artistic program of the political leader Pericles.
The Parthenon is the temple dedicated to the godess Athena Parthenos. Pericle hired the best sculpturs and arhitects of that time to built it. A true masterpiece, today is considered the most perfect Doric temple of the classical antiquity. Inside, it was placed a statue of Athena of 12 meters tall, which didn’t survived until today. A reconstruction on the temple at its glory can be found in the Acropolis Museum, including the famous statue.
During the otoman occupation a mosque has been built inside the temple, left in ruins afterwards. It was also used also to store weapons. As a consequence, a further explosion destroyed the roof, brining it closer to the standing version we see today.
Another sad fact for the Greek people is that some of the sculptures were taken by Lord Elgin in England, during the ottoman occupation, which never returned back home. Today can be seen in British Museum in London.
The temple of Athena Nike
Another temple inside the Acropolis is the one dedicated to Athena Nike, which means the victorious one. Built in Ionic style, the temple depicts, between others, battle scenes between the Greeks and the Persians.
This is my favourite temple in the complex. It is decorated with six Caryatids, one of them taken by Lord Elgin and exposed today in British Museum. The other five, the original ones, are all located into the Acropolis museum. The ones we can see on the Acropolis hill are copies, in order to protect the authentic ones. Don’t miss the olive tree nearby, that grew – according to the myth – when the Goddess Athena touched the ground with her lance for the first time.
Descending the Acropolis hill, you will be able to see two theatres. The first one is the Herod Atticus theater, dating back to the roman era. It was built by a business man from Marathon and it could host around 5000 people. Today, it is still in use during the summer for different festivities and shows.
The second theater is the one of Dionysiou. Even if is in a worst shape than the other, in its glory days it could host up to 17.000 people. It has been used for different purposes, from gladiators battles to the invention of the theatre.
Starting with the 6th century, the Ancient Agora started to be used by the Atheniens for commerce, religious activities, theatrica performances and athletic contests. More than this, is where democracy was born. Therefor, it started to become the heart of the city, having an important role in the administrative, judicial and political discussions at that time.
In time, the site has expended, being surrounded by public buildings, temples, altars, stoas, fountains and statues. Don’t miss a visit to Hefaistos temple. It’s easy to be identified as it is located on a hill and it does look like a mini Parthenon, but beter preserved. The Stoa Attalou is a two storied construction and it has been fully refurbished, thanks to John D. Rockefeller Jr. It has a museum inside containing interesting objects like clay tablets for voting and other objects found during the excavation.
The Roman Agora was built by Iulius Caesar and the emperror Augustus with the aim of transfering the commercial centre of the city from the Ancient Agora, located 100 meters away. The best conserved part of the site is the Tower of the Winds, an octogonal tower indicating the direction of the winds (Boreas, Kaikias, Apeliotes, Euros, Notos, Lips, Zephyros and Skiron).
The Library of Hadrian
The library has been built by the emperror Hadrian to host its huge collection of books, as a donation to the city of Athens.
Archaeological site of Lykeion
This used to be a training place of the hoplites and the cavalry of the Athenians army. It has been founded by Aristotle which taught here for about 12 years. It was during the most productive period of his life.
Kerameikos is the oldest cemetery in the Attic area. It also has a small museum with beautiful artifacts from the excavations. One interesting fact I discovered is that the wall surounding the area, created for the defence of the city, has been built with tombstones from here.
This is the location of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which is the largest of the ancient temples of Athens. After its final construction at the initiative of the emperror Hadrian, the people of Athens honoured him by building an arched gateway. It is located near the entrance to the temple and well known as the Arch of Hadrian.
Probably everybody’s second stop after the Acropolis will be its museum. Located on the South Slope of the Acropolis, it has been recently open to host the treasures of the Sacred Rock and its foothills. Personally, it took me about 4 hours to visit it because I do like reading the descriptions. If you want only to have a look, you should allocated around 2 hours only.
Don’t miss the Archaic Galery from the second floor which hosts magnificent sculptures that graced the first temples on the Acropolis. In the middle of the floor you will also be able to see the original archaic Korai. The third floor walls are made of glass, offering a beautiful view over the Acropolis.
National Archaeological Museum
The most important museum of Greece is the National Archaeological museum. It’s hosting an important exhibition of artifacts from all over Greece, from prehistory to late antiquity (prehistoric collection, sculpture collection, collection of vases and minor arts, terracotta figurines, egyptian collection, gold jewellery and silver vessels, etc.). My favourite area is the one of the gold jewellery, which contains also the gold mask discovered in Micene by the archeologist Heinrich Schliemann.
Honestly, I would had never chose to visit this museum if it wouldn’t had been included in the combo ticket. However, it is a nice one hosting many stones with ancient inscriptions. You will be able to see inscriptions with dedications for Gods, laws, funerary monuments, etc. in different languges, from Greek to Latin, Hebrew, Phoenician and so on.
Byzantine and Christian Museum
If you would like to learn more about the byzantine and the post-byzantine periods, this is one of the best places to start with. The museum has lots of information and art on display.
This museum is located into the beautiful villa of the archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. He has a private collection of more than 500,000 objects, coins and medals, left for us after his death.
Areopagus – Pnyx
After so many archeological sites and museums, for sure you’ll need some relaxation spots. For example, you chose to see the sunset from the Areopagus hill. It will offer you a splendid view, not mentioning about the importance at the place. Here is where politicians and ancient orators used to keep their speech, including Pericles, Temistocles and so on.
One of the most lively neighbourhoods in Athens is the Monastiraki quarter. Here you should stop by for shopping, as its huge bazaar has everythings you may think of.
Probably the most famous quarter of Athens, Plaka is a lovely place to walk around while looking for souvenirs, good bars and restaurants.
Syntagma Square is the heart of Athens. It is basically the Constitution Square, where the Parliament is located. Here, you will be able to see the tomb of the unknown soldier with its permanent guard. The best time to see the changing guard is on Sunday at 11am. However, at every hour is a changing guard and the guards are always on the move.
Located near the Syntagma square, this big park is a true oase of relaxation inside the noisy capital. The garden is the creation of Amalia, the wife of king Otto I. She brought over 15.000 specifies of flowers and trees from Italy to decorate it.
With a height of 277 meters, Lykavittos or Lykabettos Hill is the highest hill in Athens. You can go up with a cable car or walking, in order to admire the city from up. I went during the night and the lights over the city were absolutely beautiful. Look for the Acropolis, then up to the port of Pireus and the islands nearby. Up on the hill you will find Agios Ghiorghios chapel and a nice restaurant.
Food & Drinks
If you’re looking only to enjoy the city life, for sure you’re making a good decision to come to Athens. The lovely bars, terraces and restaurants, have something good for every taste. Not mentioning the greek ambience which trully makes you feel like home!
There are plenty of options for accommodation to chose from. But, if you want to keep a low budget, I highly recommend Hawks Hostel. They offer dorm rooms for about 10€ per night. I personally spent 5 nights here! Not to mention about the position which is very convenient, close to Omonia square.
If you like walking, you can walk the entire city. However, if you want to move faster you can use the metro It is very convenience and cheap – one way ticket costs 1.4€ and it’s valid for 90 minutes.
If at some point you want to escape from the city life, you need to know there are many options. You can chose to go to the beaches nearby (available by public transportation), see one of the Saronic islands (accesible by ferry from Pireus) or deep dive into the Attica region.
Personally, I did chose to go to Cape Sounion to visit the Temple of Poseidon (the God of the sea) and admire the famous sunset from there. You can spend the rest of the day to the beach nearby, staying away from the busy capital.
The place is easy accessible by public transportation from Athens. A return ticket costs 12.5€ and it takes around 1 hour to reach the destination. Consider that a entry ticket of 10€ needs to be purchased to enter the temple.
I do hope now you’re having a better idea about what to expect in Athens. Of course I didn’t covered every single place you can explore in the capital, but I did tried to cover the highlights for a first visit.
Honestelly speaking, if the historical sites of the city would dissaper from the map, Athens would be just a normal capital city with nice bars and food, more like Bucharest. So, if you’re not into archeology and museums, you can skip the capital and go straight to the islands as many other people do.
Meanwhile, continue your virtual visit to Greece by clicking here, many other places are waiting to be seen!