The 2004 Summer Olympics sparked the transformation of central Athens, making it a more welcoming place for locals and visitors alike. Buildings that were once dingy dirty gray were painted in cheerful shades of yellow, green and orange. Public squares were pedestrianized, including the lovely Syntagma Square.
The Metro underground system was overhauled too, now providing a safe and efficient way to get around. Cafes are flourishing throughout the city, as is the arts and crafts scene, which offers a number of fabulous (and largely Greek-owned) boutiques and galleries.
And yet the city has retained the soul of its ancient heritage, with spectacular classical sites such as the Parthenon, Acropolis and Temple of Athena. The Grecian capital city has long been known for its role in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. as the seat of the world’s art, culture and history, and so much of it is here, on display. This idyllic time period didn’t last forever — the Roman Empire gobbled the city up in 146 B.C. — but no matter, now. The city offers a marvelous opportunity to walk in the footsteps of ancient Grecian legends, while at the same time celebrating what, despite normal urban stresses, reflects a modern city with a sense of soul.
The Acropolis: At 2,400 years old, the Parthenon is the largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece, built of Pentelic marble. Designed to house the giant statue of Athena commissioned by Pericles, it also served as the treasury for the tribute money that had been moved from Delos. (Hint: Arrive here when it opens at 8 a.m., and you’ll have it nearly to yourself.) The Theatre of Dionysus, located on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis, once seated 17,000. Of the original 64 tiers of seats, about 20 tiers still survive. The Roman Forum (Agora) was the happening place back in the day where one could hear Socrates expounding on his philosophy or St. Paul converting the marketgoers to Christianity. And the Temple of Hephaestus, on the western edge of the Agora, dates back to the 5th century B.C. and is the best-preserved Doric temple in Greece. To the northeast of the temple are the foundations of the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, one of the places where Socrates spoke to the masses.
Not far from the Parthenon is the Acropolis Museum, where you can see artifacts discovered on the slopes of the Acropolis as well as numerous other treasures. The National Archaeological Museum is an Athens showplace, known for its premier collection of ancient Greek art.
Stroll around the Central Market to get a real flavor of Greek food and drink. Be warned though, some of the food stalls — featuring slaughtered whole lambs and skinned rabbits — are not for the squeamish. You’ll also find decent flea market stalls near the food market if the sight of all that meat gets too much.
The oldest part of Athens (save for the Acropolis) is Plaka, a neighborhood of many identities. Its winding, narrow streets are lined with houses and shops that date back to the 5th century B.C. Cafes and restaurants abound — many are touristic tavernas, but are great stops for a quick refueling.
Other neighborhoods worth a visit include Monastiraki and Thissio, charming historic districts with fine 19th-century neo-Classical buildings and a good array of shops and restaurants. If you head north from Monastiraki, you’ll find yourself in Psiri, a former industrial zone that has been transformed into a haven for the trendy and avant-garde, with lots of alternative restaurants and offbeat shops. Artsy types will also love Bohemian Metaxourgeio (northwest of Psiri), which is home to Athens’ Municipal Gallery on Avdi Square.
The Byzantine and Christian Museum is in an 1848 mansion that once belonged to the Duchess of Plaisance. The collections show the course of Greek art from the 3rd to the 20th century.
The Benaki Museum showcases the collection of Antonis Benakis, including icons, costumes and a room from an 18th-century northern Greek house.
The Athens War Museum is next to the Byzantine and Christian Museum and is worth a visit if you’re interested in Greek history or in displays of weapons, aircraft, military uniforms and other war-related memorabilia.
The Museum of Cycladic Art, located two blocks from the Byzantine and Christian Museum and the Athens War Museum, focuses not only on the ancient art of the Cyclades but also on other ancient art from around Greece and Cyprus.
The Numismatic Museum is the former home of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, the man who unearthed the ruins of Ancient Troy and declared “I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon.”
When you’ve had enough of peering at ancient artifacts, you can bring yourself up to date at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, now in a new location in a former brewery.
In ancient times, pine-covered slopes jam-packed with wolves surrounded Mount Lycabettus. These days, there are no wolves, but it does offer the finest panoramic views in Athens, including the surrounding mountains and the islands of Salamis and Aegina. You can walk the path to the summit from the northern end of Loukianou or take the funicular from Aristippou. This is where you’ll find the chapel of Agios Georgios — at night, it takes on a fairy-tale aura from the dramatic backlighting.
Corinth, located 55 miles from Athens, is worth a side trip. Stroll the streets of the ancient city, once a significant Peloponnese gateway. Sights to see include the Archaeological Museum, which features Corinthian artifacts, and the surviving structures of ancient Corinth, including the Temple of Apollo and the Roman Agora. See Corinth tours from Viator.
Delphi, the spiritual heart of the ancient Greek world, makes another good side trip. Home to the Oracle at Delphi, this site on the slopes of Mount Parnassus is one of the most famous of the ancient world — and certainly the most mystical. Don’t miss the Castalian Spring, where supplicants to the Oracle purified themselves before entering the sanctuary. Make sure you walk the Sacred Way, which leads to the Temple of Apollo, the ancient treasuries and the 5,000-seat theater. The latter dates from the 4th century B.C. and offers magnificent views and amazing acoustics (have a holler to try them out). See Delphi tours from Viator.
Sounion, about 45 miles from Athens, is home to the majestic Temple of Poseidon, on a crag overlooking the sea. See Sounion tours from Viator.
You will never go hungry in Athens. From Michelin-starred restaurants to traditional tavernas, the local dining scene offers tastes to suit all budgets. Fresh-caught seafood, grilled lamb, tangy feta cheese and flaky baklava are best enjoyed from Athens’ many sunny sidewalk tables. When looking for a place for dinner, keep in mind that Greeks dine late (think 9 or 10 p.m.), and that many restaurants will not take credit cards.
For taverna-style dining, head to Plaka. Admittedly touristy, one good choice is Taverna Zorbas, which offers traditional Greek dishes and live music on weekends. We also love Scholarhio, which offers meze-style meals in which you choose from up to 20 different small plates.
Melilotos has a conveniently central location (only a five-minute walk from Syntagma Square) and serves up fresh and colorful salads alongside Greek favorite.
Boasting two Michelin stars, Funky Gourmet offers one of Athens’ most unique fine dining experiences (and one of its most expensive). Choose from several degustation menus that invoke the tastes of Greece in new and creative ways. Reserve well in advance.
A favorite with locals as well as visitors, Psaras Taverna offers a fine taste of old-style Greek hospitality, a cozy open fire and alfresco dining in a pretty courtyard in the Plaka neighborhood. It serves fish dishes alongside Greek classics. We recommend booking ahead.
Gostijo, located in the Psiri neighborhood, draws raves for its kosher Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, including moussaka, schnitzel, falafel and fresh fish. The name means “sharing food” in Ladino (the language of Sephardic Jews).
Shopping in Athens
Looking for souvenirs? Hand-painted Byzantine icons will appeal to your artistic friends, while foodies will enjoy tucking into pastel-tinted sugared almonds (a must for Greek weddings and christenings), designer olive oil, locally made organic honey or a bottle of ouzo (the licorice-flavored liquor that’s a Greek treasure).
In Greece, a sales tax (VAT) is tacked onto almost every purchase; however, if you spend enough money at participating stores, you can often get the VAT refunded (with some exceptions). Be sure to ask when you make your purchase, and retain all of your receipts.
Check out Ermou Street (off of Syntagma Square), a car-free outdoor walkway lined with Greek and European shops, including plenty of international name brands.
Not far from Ermou Street and Syntagma Square is Attica, Greece’s homegrown (and very fashionable) department store. Treat yourself to lunch with a view at the top-floor cafe.
Plaka is home to plenty of tacky tourist shops, but you’ll also find stores selling jewelry, antiques and clothing.
Simply wandering the narrow streets of Kolonaki will yield bountiful finds, with numerous galleries, clothing boutiques and jewelry stores to entice visitors.
–written by Carolyn Spencer Brown and Maria Harding