Athens, Greece has a reputation as a dirty, chaotic city that’s easily skipped in your travel to Greece – a dreaded pit stop on the way to the stunning Greek islands. But there’s so much more to this city than a hurried glimpse of the Acropolis and a cab to the Santorini ferryboat. With the perfect Athens travel guide, you can enjoy the energy, excitement, and incredible food this hidden gem of a city has to offer.
What to know about Athens
Athens is both ancient and very modern. The glories of the Acropolis and other temples and stadiums from the glory days of ancient Greece are scattered almost carelessly around the city – cats sun themselves on stumps of Ionic columns in the soft sun as chattering tourists walk by.
It’s long had a reputation as a place of culture, decadence, and pleasure – Mark Antony loved coming to Athens to revel in the party scene here. Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world.
Modern Athens has kept that feeling of joy and pleasure in life even through catastrophes – the Nazi occupation in WWII where over 40,000 people died of starvation, the brutal American-backed military dictatorship of 1967-1974, the economic crisis of 2008 that was more severe than America’s Great Depression. Today the economy in Greece is improving, but wages are still very low and government spending is low as well.
You can see the results of the crisis in the cracked sidewalks and graffiti-covered buildings, the lined faces of people picking through the trash bins, the sagging buses and the rattling cars of the streets. And the abandoned neoclassical buildings all around, which are stately even in their sadness. Athens is not a shiny clean Disneyland of a city – it’s dirty and sometimes dark and a little worse for wear. I’ll just be honest.
But despite all of that, it’s a vibrant and fascinating city with so much to offer. It’s full of contradictions – it’s so youthful as it’s one of the easier places for younger Greeks to find work, but it’s also full of old traditions.
It’s a massive sprawling urban center with a population of 3 million, but the neighborhoods often feel like little villages with shoemakers, instrument menders, and open-air markets with produce from all over Greece.
So let’s get down to the details: how to spend three perfect days in Athens.
Day 1: The big spots
This is the day of the heavy hitters – and everything you shouldn’t miss even if you just have one day in Athens.
Morning: The Acropolis and the museum
This is a packed day, so grab a double cappuccino and a spanakopita or fluffy sugary donut at a nearby bakery to eat on the go. We start with the star of the city: the Acropolis. You can’t miss it, in a figurative and also a literal sense as it rises above the city on the large, flat hill. No Athens travel guide or traveler can skip this ancient wonder.
My best Acropolis visit tip? Go early – as early as possible. In the high tourist season of summer, the crowds are vast and the unshaded hill is sweltering in the strong Greek sun. I went in October at mid-day and left with a shirt so drenched in sweat I had to actually wring it out (sexy times!!). Don’t mess with the sun here.
But do wander the whole of the Acropolis – the massive glory of the Parthenon, the stately beauty of the Porch of the Caryatids at the Erectheon, the somehow mystical Theater of Dionysius, and the views from the porch at the back of all of Athens.
The scale of it all can’t be explained, only experienced – even the Cyclopean Walls built by the Mycenaeans look reasonably sized here, though they’re really so massive we don’t know how they were built. (It doesn’t help that the Mycenaean civilization was as far removed from Plato’s time as Plato’s time is from us today.) Bonus points if you can manage to pet one of the many cats who live here, because cats have the best lives and they act like they don’t even care.
Once you’ve had your fill of massive marbles, head down the hill to the Acropolis museum and wonder at the real pieces themselves – they’ve been moved inside to protect them from the weather. The museum is sleek and beautiful, built to await the return of the Elgin marbles from the British Museum, which has been very busy in the last few years coming up with excuses for not returning them to their home.
My favorite part of the Acropolis museum is at the top – the rooftop cafe where you can sip a few espresso freddos (iced espressos) and gaze back at the Acropolis while sitting in the shade. After the sun, it’s the perfect respite.
Afternoon: Tiny village on a big hill
Now you need to refuel – time for some meats. O Thanasis is a classic and quite good souvlaki joint right in the center of Monastiraki. Get a kebab or souvlaki (grilled strips of meat) plate or a gyros (roasted meat) on a pita, an Alpha draft beer and watch the crowds go by. In a sea of over-priced touristy joints, this one delivers real flavor.
With your stomach full and your feet a little rested, you’re ready to shop and stroll. The Monastiraki flea market and the Plaka shops are touristy but so fun. The light linen clothes are a good buy for protection from the strong sun, and I love stopping into Flaneur for cool stationery and postcards.
Wander up the hill to Anafiotika, a little village of houses clinging to the north side of the rocks that look straight off a Greek island (because the builders were). There are no shops or cafes here – just even more cats to pet and charming whitewashed houses and steep stone steps under a hanging curtain of bougainvillea. It’s Instagram heaven. Then continue down to the Ancient Agora marketplace, filled with ruins and cats lounging on the ruins.
When you’re through admiring the glories of the ancient past, it’s time for another pick-me-up: an ice cream at Full Spoon. If they have a mastiha flavor, get it – it’s the resin from a tree that grows only on the Greek island of Chios, with a sweet flavor and healthy properties.
Evening: Drinks, views, and dinner
And before you know it, it’s time for a drink. Watch the sun setting over the Acropolis with that unusual and stunning Athens purple light at the rooftop bar at the Hotel Grande Bretagne, right in historic Syntagma Square overlooking the Greek Parliament building.
They make a great French 75, but sometimes I just go for a classic glass of champagne and toast to Athena’s sparkling city. The cocktail prices are steep, but worth it for the beauty of the hotel (I often sneak into the lovely bathroom for my on-the-go beauty ritual) and the views. Plus they give you almonds and olives for a little snack.
Then head to Tzitzikas kai Mermigas just a few blocks away for a hearty Greek dinner. I usually go for their daily specials – interesting pastas, some great bean dishes, and whatever is fresh.
If you still have energy and want a taste of Athenian nightlife, take the ten-minute walk over to Pysrri and snuggle into a booth at very hip six d.o.g.s among all the cool young things. Even their bathrooms are hip. Or turn in, because you’ve had a big day, and more excitement awaits you tomorrow.
What to know:
Everything in this day’s plans are close together and quite walkable. The subway is also a good option if you’re hot, tired, or just lazy (no shame! The Acropolis hill is a lot of steps).
While Athens is quite safe, Monastiraki and around are where most of the pickpockets and general scammers hang out and try to glom onto unsuspecting tourists. So do be a bit wary – just keep an eye on your bag and don’t put your wallet in your back pocket (don’t do that in any city!).
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Day 2: Alternative and art
Today’s adventures will be a whole different side of Athens from the sleek touristy spots of yesterday’s itinerary. Exarchia is the anarchist neighborhood – full of students, antifa graffiti, crumbling Neoclassical mansions full of refugee communes, and beautiful lively cafes.
If you want to see a side of the young Athenian life that you won’t get in the touristy haunts of Monastiraki, it’s the place to go.
Morning: Coffee and culture
Start by grabbing a double cappuccino from Coffee Tree to fuel yourself for the day ahead. They have coffee beans from all over the world, and sometimes give you a cookie to go with it. A true Greek breakfast is a lot of coffee and a little something sugary (and a few cigarettes), so you’re off to an authentic start.
Once you’ve caffeinated while doing a little people-watching, it’s time to head to the best museum in Athens – the National Archeological Museum. My first time here I went through every single room and it took me six hours, but you don’t need to hit it as hard.
Don’t miss the spectacular Mycenaean grave treasures as you enter – the famed death mask of Agamemnon, gold jewelry in the shape of bees and octopi and bulls, and gleaming swords. And the statues in imposing white marble are coolly impressive, though in their day they were painted in a rainbow of lurid colors.
When you need a rest, take a break in the courtyard cafe and watch the Athenian light play in the trees as you nibble a koulouri (sesame bread ring).
And pop in to see the Cycladic figurines before you leave. They’re strange, sculptural figures in white marble that are about 5,000 years old created in the Cycladic islands of Greece (think Santorini, Naxos, Paros, and more), and we still don’t know what they were for. Ponder the beauty and the mystery on your way out the iconic porch.
Afternoon: Greek classics and a climb
Now you’re hungry – time for lunch. Stroll back to Exarchia to Giantes and order classic Greek dishes like pastitsio done in a fresh and organic way, and wash it down with a little excellent wine (hey, you’re on vacation!) while you sit indoors under the spreading branches of a tree. Don’t miss the mastiha liquor that comes at the end – a sweet sharp drink you can sip and savor.
Refueled, you’re ready for a little leg-stretching and some gorgeous views. Stroll through the streets of Exarchia taking in the sights and graffiti (careful of the scooters!) until you reach Lycabettus Hill. You can’t miss it – it’s the tallest hill in Athens and looms over the neighborhood. You can take a tram up, but the walk is not too taxing and full of beautiful and interesting vegetation.
The views from the top are stunning – from the Acropolis to the shining Mediterranean Sea. Sunsets here are beautiful but quite crowded on the small top platform, so you may or may not want to wait. But it’s a stunning view at any time.
Evening: Wine bars and Cretan delights
Once you’re back down at the bottom, you’ve earned a pre-dinner glass of wine or a boost of coffee. Perch yourself at Warehouse, a wine bar with a huge wine list and friendly servers, plus excellent coffee served on the big patio. Check out the cool youths snuggling and laughing all around (I like to play “count the neck tattoos” as they’re super popular in Athens).
When you’re ready to eat again, it’s time to head towards Exarchia Square to Atitamos for authentic and delicious Cretan food. It even looks like a house in Crete – all stone walls and flagstone floors. Get the fava dip and the grilled octopus and the boiled greens (horta) and you’re basically in Crete without the overnight ferry ride.
On your way home, stop in one of the bakeries lining the streets that are open late (and sometimes 24 hours) for a final sweet treat, and be careful on the dark and uneven sidewalks.
What to know:
I’m not going to lie – the first time you visit Exarchia, it looks dodgy. It’s poorly lit, with crumbling sidewalks and even more falling-down abandoned and burnt-out mansions than the rest of Athens. Graffiti is EVERYWHERE – some of it is beautiful and some of it is just noise.
But it’s quite safe – I just avoid Exarchia Square at night when alone. Also the students and anarchists of the neighborhood are prone to sometimes violent clashes with the police, who you’ll notice as a constant presence in their riot gear. I just avoid the police and stay aware of any large gatherings – no one is out to hurt tourists.
The biggest danger here is the main danger in Athens – careless scooter drivers! (And eating too many fluffy, sugary donuts in lieu of an actual meal.)
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Day 3: Hidden spots
Athens, like any city with a fair number of tourists, has plenty of too-pricey and bland things to do and eat and buy. Those wooden key chained shaped like dicks they sell in the Monastiraki flea market? You can buy those in every tourist market from Cambodia to Chicago – they’re not an ode to the Ancient Greek penis art (which, there is a lot of, in fairness).
So sometimes you need something a little more off the beaten path – a day full of things locals do, without the massive tourist hoards. Here’s your Athens travel guide to a different kind of exploration.
Morning: High heights and chic haunts
Start your day in central Monastiraki before the big crowds arrive. Head to Couleur Locale, an Athenian rooftop bar I am not cool enough to go to but love and visit often anyways. Soak in the sun and the vibe and the views of the Acropolis shining not far off – and get an excellent coffee and some breakfast too. Maybe another coffee if the mood strikes – you’re in Greece, it’s practically illegal to rush over coffee here.
Walking back to Syntagma Square along the pedestrian Ermou shopping street, hit up Freshline for the coolest Greek bath products (the Cleopatra lotion is heaven) and Korres for all your skin needs to take a taste of Greece home with you.
Head over to upscale Kolonaki – full of shops like Gucci and Sephora (you know I love a Sephora visit). It’s a 10 minute walk from yesterday’s spots in Exarchia but like entering a whole other world. Sit down with a freddo cappuccino at Filion and take in the very chic scene full of local intellectuals.
Pop into some of the little local boutiques selling Greek products – they’re chic but affordable too. Kolonaki has some of the best boutiques in Athens, just the ticket for picking up a memorable and untouristy souvenir or three.
When you’re shopped out, head to one of the two best little museums in Athens (or both! Live your best life!).
Afternoon: Tiny museum gems
The Benaki Museum of Greek Culture is housed in a restored Neoclassical mansion and has the most incredible collection of jewelry and textiles I’ve seen in a museum. They even have several fully restored Macedonian parlors – it’s incredible and uncrowded and cool in the heat of the day.
But don’t worry – they also have plenty of Classical Greek statuary too. You can have a very civilized lunch at their top-floor restaurant, and pick up funky postcards at the shop on the way out.
The Museum of Cycladic Art is my favorite little museum in Athens – because I’ve long been obsessed with the mysterious little white marble figures. It’s a tiny gem of a museum, perfect if you’re short on time or attention. Four quiet and gleaming floors filled with the upturned faces and crossed arms of the figures from the Cycladic islands of Greece (Santorini, Naxos, Paros, and the like) and a recreation of the daily life in the ancient Greek islands complete the day.
You might have seen a few of the little figures at the Archeological Museum, but this is an in-depth exploration of their beauty and mystery and has several very unusual figures you won’t see elsewhere. Don’t miss lunch or a coffee at the slightly pricey but really beautiful cafe, and a stop in the tiny beautiful gift shop which I plan to pillage once I have a place of my own again.
Evening: Art strolls the local way
You’ve gotten your culture fix – now let’s do a little more pleasure-seeking. Head right up (via cab, since the metro doesn’t go there) to the arty neighborhood of Kypseli. We’re going to be roaming the pedestrian area known as Fokianos Negris – a verdant and lively strip with almost no careless scooters.
My favorite spot to recaffeinate or have a glass of wine after some serious strolling and browsing of the many little local shops there is SCRY, with really excellent coffee and comfy seats to watch the neighborhood life.
Kypseli is the most densely-populated area in Athens, and it’s full of artists of all kinds, people of all nationalities, and almost no tourists. Heaven.
If you are still feeling the souvlaki love, grab a healthy but delicious version of gyros at Yeia Kalamaki as you watch the neighborhood pass by from their patio. Or go all out and pop into To Bakalogatos (which translates to the grocery cat) for a big and decadent dinner. They gather the best products from all over Greece and combine them into fresh twists on Greek classics – the lamb pasta is to die for.
Have one final glass of white wine and toast to the gritty intelligent beauty of Athens before you have to say goodbye for now.
Tips for any trip to Athens
This travel guide to Athens for three days will give you a good picture of the unusual and compelling glories of Athens – the ancient history and the modern youthful culture, the traditional and the new all combined into one delicious combo.
But you need more than just a daily itinerary (and some great Greece travel tips) – here’s the full scoop on the rest of your Athens visit.
Where to stay in Athens:
- The Central Hotel Athens is just that – central as hell. It’s tucked away on a quiet street though, so you’ll miss the loud tourist hordes, and it’s affordable for how central it is. I was also very amused by the mirrors all over the walls of my room – when I stayed there after months in cramped hostels, I got a realllllly full-length view of my quite worn-out outfits. What a time.
- The Athens Quinta Hostel is right in the middle of Exarchia, in a charming restored Neoclassical mansion. They have both shared dorms and private rooms, and provide a nice basic breakfast you can eat in their little sunny garden. I stayed there on my first arrival into Greece, and the hosts were so helpful in advice about getting around and what to see in Athens.
- AirBnBs abound in Athens too, much the dismay of the locals getting priced out of their apartments. But there are some lovely and central options – I’ve stayed here twice and love it. It’s fun to stay in an apartment – go to the laiki agora and pick up some olives and things for salads and homemade wine and cook in for a night if you’re staying around Athens for a while. (New to AirBnB? Sign up here and save $55 on your first stay!)
How to get around Athens:
- Driving in Athens is a nightmare – small streets, terrible traffic, and no parking at all. Also, road rules in Greece are really more like suggestions. Instead, take the fast and very clean subway system. It’s a great way to get into the city from the airport – just be sure to buy the airport ticket at the machine for $10, not a normal “around Athens” ticket. It will also take you quickly to the port at Piraeus if you’re taking ferries to the islands, and is a great way to hop around the tourist central areas. As with any subway system, watch your pockets, but it’s quite safe.
- Walking is also a nice way to see most of the city. Just watch out while crossing the street, as drivers often don’t stop. The main tourist areas now have big pedestrian-only paths that are lovely for a stroll with views of the Acropolis. Athens is a really safe city – I walk alone at night pretty much everywhere with no issues.
- Taxis are convenient for further distances or if you’re tired, and they’re cheap too. I like to call them using Uber (it just gets you a cab here, though they tend to be nicer and then I don’t have to give an address in my terrible Greek) or using the Beat app. Your hotel will also call one for you. Occasionally when you get one off the street, they’ll overcharge you a few bucks if you don’t speak Greek. Sometimes it will feel like they’re driving you in circles, but they’re usually not – Athens is a complicated warren of one-way streets.
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Strikes, protests, and delays:
One thing to watch out for while in Athens is big protests and occasional strikes. I tend to stay away from protests when I’m alone – they’re mostly very peaceful, but occasionally they turn a little wild and the police can be quite brutal. The protests usually start in Syntagma Square, and sometimes shut down bus service and roads so it will take a little longer to get around.
Strikes can shut down all forms of transit, including the metro and ferries, so don’t commit yourself to too tight of a schedule. I take any delays as a chance to linger in a nice cafe and make some new friends – it’s the Greek way, and you’re on vacation anyway.
When is the best time to visit Athens?
The Athens weather is mild in winter and warm to boiling hot in summer. I don’t recommend visiting in the extreme heat of August – the close-crowded buildings of Athens and the long stretches of concrete trap the heat and the strong sun until you’re sweating out your freddo cappuccinos as soon as you sip them. Head to an island beach instead.
I do recommend visiting Athens in the rest of the year – Greece is heaven in the off-season. September and October still provide beach weather without the crowds. Winter is mild and even less crowded, but do bring an umbrella for the sudden showers that pop up and blow by quickly. And spring brings festivals and flowers.
Your complete guide to Athens travel
And that’s it – your three-day travel guide to Athens for the glories of my favorite city. (I swear I’m not totally turning this into an Athens travel blog, though it’s a tempting idea.)
You can just do one of the days, or spread each one out into a few days. But there’s so much to explore here, and this itinerary is really just scratching the surface of all the interesting and cool things to do in Athens.