Often overlooked in favour of jaw-dropping hotspots like Santorini and the party islands of Mykonos, Corfu and Kos, Athens – unfortunately misremembered as a Mediterranean concrete jungle – has garnered something of a bad rap in recent years.
While the city is no doubt home to more than its fair share of concrete flats and offices, its old charm still runs like lifeblood throughout the city, found in the pop-up markets that grace its suburban neighbourhoods, busking bands playing traditional Greek music outside the Byzantine churches of Plaka and Monastiraki, and the omnipresent views of the Acropolis, which serves as a constant reminder that Greece is here to stay.
While the Acropolis is, rightly, still the primary destination on any visitor to Athens’ lists, there is so much more to see in the city and, thanks to constantly-improving public transport, more of the wider Attica region is increasingly accessible from the hub of the city.
Yannis Moschos, Athenian director for the National Theatre,
described Athens as a “European City with an Eastern depth”, and that much is
immediately evident from its architecture. The flea markets and bazaars of
Monastiraki meet Eastern Orthodox churches in harmony, right at the fringes of
the Parisian shopping district of Plaka. This old town climbs its way toward
the Acropolis, winding its way to small alleyways populated by strikingly white
buildings usually associated with the country’s islands. Turkish-style coffee
and baklava can be found almost everywhere, and the narrow streets of some of
the city’s newer neighbourhoods keep memories of the Ottoman Empire close to
It is in these unassuming corners that some of Athens’ modern culinary delights can be found. Smak serves a Neapolitan twist on Peinirli, Greece’s answer to pizza; while Mama Tierra offers an inspired vegan take on the classic moussaka, complete with bechamel sauce from coconut milk. By far the place you’ll most want to re-visit though is Lukumades, located in the heart of Athinaidos Street, the city’s busiest shopping hub. This cute little dessert place serves the namesake lukumades, deep-fried doughnut balls served with your choice of toppings and ice-cream – but the classic honey and nut will always remain a staple.
All that food should give you the energy to take on the steep but rewarding hike up Lykabettus Hill, which offers fantastic aerial views of the city. Though ‘Acropolis’ means the highest point of the city (Lykabettus was originally outside the city’s limits), this staggering hill, covered in forestry, dwarfs its more famous sister, and offers spectacular bird-eye views of historical sites such as the restored Panathenaic Stadium, edging the National Gardens, the primary location of the Zappas Olympics – an early revival of the ancient Games.
But nobody can claim to really have visited Athens until they’ve climbed the Acropolis. Whether the historical site is worth the 20€ entrance fee is really down to how much of a history buff you are – the Parthenon (the largest temple on the site, which has also acted as a church, mosque, and armoury) is doubtlessly much more impressive from the ground, or the ragged rocks of the Pnyka, just opposite the entrance. However, drama lovers will be loathe to miss the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and, next door, the Dionysus Theatre – the oldest purpose-built theatre in the world.
A Greek word used to describe the phenomenon of leaving a part of yourself in whatever you do
If roaming round historical sites isn’t your cup of tea, you might be more interested in the New Acropolis Museum, which is stunningly designed to complement and highlight anybody’s trip to the site. Still, it’s a fantastic museum on its own right, its transparent floors revealing the ancient ruins it’s built on top of and its spacious rooms (showcasing treasures rescued from the Acropolis ruins) displaying treasure-troves of art and sculptures in an engaging way. Formal objects-behind glass affairs this is not: plaster models of the Acropolis’ roof set against transparent walls opposite the ancient site help visitors envisage how the temple complex would have looked in its glory days, while an ingenious LEGO reconstruction of the Pantheon simultaneously showcases historical events which happened at the site, from the serious to the silly and surreal.
But, like Rome, you don’t need to travel to postcard-monuments or museums to find history; antiquity pokes its head at you from every corner. The illuminated Olympieion and Hadrian’s Arch are beautiful in blue at night, while the lively and romantic Syntagma Square speaks to a more recent chapter of Greek history.
There’s so much to Athens that can’t be described in terms of sites you can visit and things you can see. Athens is the smell of flowers in the air at dusk, the friendliness of the people, the unexpected treasures of some of the best bars in the world (The Clumsies, ranked 7th in 2018, is a must). It’s in the dedication and discipline of the Evzones, the traditionally-clad Presidential Guards who march to the beat of the city’s heart.
But if all that’s still not enough for you, there’s always the sea, just a short ride away.
Set next to azure beaches, this pretty seaside suburb of Athens is the perfect place to relax and unwind after the hustle and bustle of the city. While the district’s more picturesque beaches and gorgeously-situated geothermal lake require entrance fees, there’s always a more secluded spot you can find by the grottoes or clifftops stretching along the shore, and it’s here that you’ll be able to find the peace and privacy you deserve. If you’re looking for a taste of that classic beach-holiday experience, waterfront bars and cafés can fool you into thinking you’re at one of Greece’s more upmarket seaside resorts. Rumor café, with its outdoor Venetian seating areas and best cold coffee in the city, is particularly recommended.
If you fancy a trip away from the mainland, you can catch an inexpensive ferry or high-speed ‘flying dolphin’ from bustling Pireaus port to the island of Aegina. While Aegina isn’t the most exciting of the Greek islands, there’s enough here to commend a visit.
A stretch of sandy beach leads toward an archaeological site which houses the remains of the Apollo temple. While Sounion’s Temple of Poseidon is more in tact and altogether more impressive, Aegina provides a fantastic alternative for those who don’t want to take a two-hour bus ride south of the city in the stifling heat. A must for anyone who missed the Acorpolis, the temple is surrounded by surprisingly in-tact remains of an ancient city.
The island’s main town provides other historical curios, too. The unassuming Markellos Tower, which today is home to cultural events and art shows, housed the temporary government of Greece after the country declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, before the capital was moved to Nafplio (Athens only became the country’s capital in 1834).
Before heading back to the mainland, be sure to poke your head into the delightfully dainty white Church of St. Nicholas, which stands guarding the island from the sea, as Apollo’s Temple once did all those years ago.