Top 10 things to do in Athens... and the best day trips from the city

Rachel Howard
The Acropolis is at its most spectacular at night

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With so much history crammed into one crowded, chaotic city, it’s hard to know where to start sightseeing in Athens. If you’re into antiquities, you could spend a week wandering among the ruins clustered around the Acropolis.

But Athens is no historical theme park, and there are plenty of other things to do. Contemporary culture is everywhere, from the politically charged street art that’s become the modern city’s trademark to specialist museums, street markets, and open-air festivals that reflect the city’s increasingly multicultural population. Athens wears its long history lightly — you’ll even find locals sunbathing beside an ancient temple on one of the city’s many golden beaches. 

Explore ancient Athens above and below ground 

When it opened a decade ago, the Acropolis Museum was controversial. Not only because it reinvigorated the campaign to return the Elgin Marbles, but also for its unabashedly modern architecture. Now this fantastically interactive museum is as much a part of the city’s cultural landscape as the Acropolis itself. Start at the top floor Parthenon Gallery, where the temple frieze is brilliantly displayed, and work your way down.

Insider tip: Explore the streets, courtyards and mansions where Athenians lived thousands of years ago at the recently opened ancient settlement excavated below the museum. Guided tours by archaeologists (in English) take place every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 12pm. 

Contact:00 30 210 900 0900; theacropolismuseum.gr
Opening times: Vary seasonally; see website
Nearest metro: Acropolis
Prices: £


Archaic and classical finds from the Acropolis site are displayed at the Acropolis Museum Credit: MarioGuti/MarioGuti

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Hit the heights of Greek civilisation 

Obviously, you can’t visit Athens without visiting the Acropolis. No matter how many times you’ve paid homage to this wonder of the ancient world, the sheer majesty of the setting, artistry of the architecture, and palpable sense of humanity’s quest for eternity will give you goosebumps. Just make sure you don’t go at midday —all that dazzling white marble reflects the sun.

Insider tip: On the night of the August full moon, the Acropolis (and several other antiquities) stay open late and admission is free. 

Contact: 00 30 210 321 4172; odysseus.culture.gr
Opening times: Daily, 8am-8pm (summer); 8.30am-3pm (winter)
Nearest metro: Acropolis
Prices: ££ 


The Acropolis is considered classical architecture’s most influential building Credit: anyaivanova

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Run around an Olympic Stadium 

Built on the site of an ancient arena, the horseshoe-shaped Panathenaic Stadium was paved entirely in marble by the wealthy Athenian benefactor, Herodes Atticus, in 140 AD. It has hosted everything from naked athletics to gladiators, the first modern Olympics, and even occasional rock concerts. For an unforgettable work-out, the running track inside the stadium is open to joggers from 7.30am to 9am.

Insider tip:On the second Sunday in November, the stadium is the thrilling finishing line of the Athens Marathon. It’s free to enter to cheer on the runners on that day. (In 2019, the Marathon takes place on Nov 10).

Contact: 00 30 210 7522 9846; panathenaicstadium.gr
Opening times: Mar to Oct, daily, 8am-7pm; Nov to Feb, daily, 8am-5pm
Nearest metro: 15-minute walk from Acropolis, Syntagma or Evangelismos
Prices: £ 


The Panathenaic Stadium was built on the site of an ancient arena and paved entirely in marble Credit: SerrNovik/SerrNovik

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Take a crash course in Greek culture 

Time travel through several centuries in a single day on Vasilissis Sofias Avenue, the Museum Mile of Athens. From Orthodox iconography at the Byzantine and Christian Museum to prehistoric sculpture juxtaposed with contemporary art at the Museum of Cycladic Art and 20th-century Greek painting at the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture, it’s the perfect Athens first-timers’ primer. 

Insider tip: Strolling through the sculpture gardens of the Byzantine and Christian Museum, it’s easy to imagine how the peripatetic philosophy students, who wandered the hallowed grounds of Aristotle’s Lyceum next door, were inspired by their surroundings. 

Contact: 00 30 213 213 9517; byzantinemuseum.gr. 00 30 210 7228 3213; cycladic.gr. 00 30 210 367 1000; benaki.org
Opening times: Vary; see individual websites
Nearest metro: Evangelismos or Syntagma
Prices: £


Benaki Museum is the perfect museum for a first-timer at Athens

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Learn the who's who of Greece's good and great

Unlike Père Lachaise or Highgate, the First Cemetery of Athens is completely off the tourist radar. This serene, open-air sculpture garden is a who’s who of Greece’s good and great, their graves marked with extravagant mausolea or melancholy marble angels. The flower-lined paths are shaded with cypress and bitter orange trees, whose blossoms perfume the cemetery in spring. 

Insider tip: There’s no map of the cemetery and the tombstones follow an arcane numbering system. If you’re looking for a particular grave, check this helpful blog, which also has entertaining potted biographies of the most prominent people buried here. 

Contact: 00 30 210 922 1621; thisisathens.org
Opening times: Daily, 8am-8pm (spring and summer); daily, 8am-5pm (winter)
Nearest metro: 15-minute walk from Acropolis or Syggrou-Fix
Prices: Free 


First Cemetery of Athens features a serene, open-air sculpture garden with graves of Greece's most famous names Credit: Jana_Janina

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Strike gold at the National Archaeological Museum

Many Greeks will tell you that the collection at the National Archaeological Museum is superior to that of the Acropolis Museum. The curation may be old-fashioned, but the richness of the exhibits is truly outstanding. You could spend days ogling the toned statues, delicate jewellery, and intriguing household items from antiquity in this neoclassical landmark. The enchanting sculpture garden is a secret oasis from the urban hustle.

Insider tip: If you’re staying in Athens for more than a day or two, buy a three-day ticket that’s also valid for the underrated Epigraphic Museum, Numismatic Museum and Byzantine and Christian Museum. 

Contact: 00 30 213 214 4862; namuseum.gr
Opening times: Nov 1 to Apr 12, Tue, 1pm-8pm, Wed-Mon, 8.30am-4pm; April 13 to Oct 31: Tue, 12.30pm-8pm, Wed-Mon, 8am-8pm
Nearest metro: Omonia or Victoria
Prices: £ 


The the National Archaeological Museum has an extensive collection of Neolithic Antiquities

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Discover the culinary secrets of Plaka 

It’s hard to eat well in Plaka, the touristy old town of Athens. Ignore the taverna touts hawking frozen moussaka and sign up for a food tour with Culinary Backstreets. Their in-the-know guides know where to find the creamiest yogurt, juiciest souvlaki, and sweetest baklava. Along the way, they’ll point out the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman traces evident in the local architecture and culture. 

Insider tip: Do not under any circumstances eat breakfast before you go; there’s a lot to taste during this five and a half-hour walking tour.

Contact: culinarybackstreets.com
Opening times: Tour times vary
Nearest metro: Syntagma or Monastiraki
Prices: ££ 


Plaka may be a touristy area, but with the help of a culinary guide, you'd be able to unearth some special hidden gems Credit: efesenko/efesenko

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Shop like a local at your neighbourhood market

Every Athenian neighbourhood has its weekly laiki agora (people’s market), a local ritual that’s as much street theatre as a celebration of seasonal food. One of the liveliest markets is on Kallidromiou Street in Exarchia. On Saturday morning, locals of all ages and stripes pick through heaps of fragrant fruits and vegetables and bat away the cheeky banter of the stallholders. 

Insider tip: Pick up cheese and crackers from Ellinika Kaloudia (00 30 210 330 0384; Facebook page) and climb up Mount Lycabettus for a picnic. Or join the local writers and actors catching up over ouzo-mezze at Mouria (87 Charilaou Trikoupi & Kallidromiou; 00 30 210 381 2607), a retro kafenio (coffee shop).

Address: Kallidromiou Street
Opening times: Sat, 8am-3pm
Nearest metro: 15-minute walk from Panepistimio or Omonia
Prices: £


Kallidromiou Street in Exarchia has one of the liveliest farmer's markets in Athens Credit: Vasiliki Varvaki/vasiliki

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Watch a movie in the moonlight

From May to October, Athenian life moves outdoors — including the cinemas. There are over 60 open-air movie theatres all over Athens: hidden on rooftops, squeezed between apartment buildings, in parks, even by the seaside. Some, like Cine Paris and Thision, even have the Acropolis as a backdrop. 

Insider tip: Venture beyond the city centre to Oasis (00 30 724 4015) in Pangrati or Zefyros (00 30 210 346 2677) in Petralona, two cult summer cinemas that screen vintage classics. 

Contact: 00 30 210 322 2071; cineparis.gr. 00 30 210 342 0864; cine-thisio.gr
Opening times: There are two screenings every night; the first starts around 9pm and the late show is at 11pm
Prices: £

Athenians love watching movies outdoors; Cine Paris offers frequent screenings on rooftops

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Watch the sunset by the sea

The clunkily named Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre is a masterclass in green design and public space. Surrounding the shiny national opera house and library, there’s kayaking on the canal, bikes for hire, petanque and playgrounds, free concerts and festivals. Go at dusk to watch the sunset over the Athens Riviera from the Lighthouse, a glass-walled lookout perched on the green roof.  

Insider tip: If you want to explore more of coastal Athens, which has everything from Blue Flag bays to beach clubs, marinas, mineral lakes and ancient temples, sign up for an Athens Riviera tour with Alternative Athens.

Contact: 00 30 216 809 1000; snfcc.org
Opening times: Seasonal; see website
Nearest metro: None, but there is a free shuttle bus to and from Syntagma and Syggrou-Fix metro station several times a day
Prices: Free (apart from performances at the Greek National Opera)


When visiting Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, be sure to linger after sunset to see the spectacular dancing fountains

Day Trips

Drive to a nearby beach

In summer, escape the city heat to swim and sunbath. Head for the Athens Coast, running from the port of Piraeus to Cape Sounio – 64km of spectacular views over the blue Saronic Gulf, with 13 sandy beaches carrying a 'Blue Flag' for high environmental standards. One of the nicest is Vouliagmeni, in a sheltered bay equipped with sun beds, parasols and snack bars.

Insider tip: In summer, Athens' beaches get extremely crowded with locals, especially at weekends, causing traffic jams and tail-backs along the coastal road. Avoid the masses by coming during the week, when most people are at work or school.

Contact: 00 30 210 896 0697; vouliagmeni-akti.gr
Opening times: May-Oct, daily, 9am-sunset
Price: It varies from beach to beach - some are free but charge for sun beds; others charge for entry. Vouliagmeni, for example, charges €5 (£4; Mon-Sun, May to Oct) or €2 entry (£1.70; Mon-Sun, Oct to April). 

Vouliagmeni is one of the most beautiful beaches along the Athens coastline Credit: SHansche

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Watch the sunset at an ancient temple

Built as a place of worship to Poseidon, the god of the sea, earthquakes and horses, the fifth-century-BC Temple of Poseidon stands on the southernmost point of the Attica peninsula in Cape Sounion. Originally made up of 34 white marble Doric columns, 15 of which remain, it commands amazing views over the Aegean Sea, which are particularly spectacular at sunset.

Insider tip: The coastal road from Athens to Sounio passes through the seaside suburbs of Glyfada, Vouliagmeni and Varkiza, and affords fine views over the Saronic Gulf – you could combine a day at the beach with an early-evening visit to Sounio.

Contact: 00 30 229 203 9363
Opening times: Daily, 9am-sunset
Price: £

The sunset at Temple of Poseidon will be one of the most memorable ones you'll ever experience Credit: WitR/WitR

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Visit an ancient pilgrimage site 

Greece's most beautiful classical site, Delphi, was the home of the fabled Oracle which spoke its prophesies (with the help of trance-inducing leaves) through priestesses. Dating back beyond the eighth century BC, the hillside site, which is two-and-a-half hours from Athens, is scattered with ancient temples overlooking a gaping chasm, and is backed by Mt Parnassos. There’s also an excellent museum displaying bronze and marble sculptures.

Insider tip: On the road back to Athens is the mountain village of Arahova (about seven miles away). It's an upmarket winter resort and a great place to stop for a late lunch and shop for fluffy flokati rugs and locally produced formaela cheese.

Opening times: Daily, 8am-8pm summer; 8am-3pm winter
Price: ££

Don't miss Delphi, Greece's most beautiful classical site, two and a half hours from Athens Credit: sssanchez

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Go island hopping for the day

Despite having a spectacular coastline nearby, most wealthy Athenians prefer to escape to the islands in summer. The nearest islands, Aegina and Angistri, lie in the Argo-Saronic Gulf and can be done as a day trip. Both have lovely sand and pebble beaches, giving onto sparling clean sea, and plenty of tavernas serving locally caught fresh fish. The fastest way is with Hellenic Seaways' 'flying dolphins' (catamarans): Pireaus to Aegina takes 40 minutes; Pireaus to Angistri is 55 minutes. They run several times a day year-round.

Insider tip: Ferries, hydrofoils and catamarans from Athens' port Piraeus to the islands get very busy on summer weekends, as do the islands themselves (booking in advance is recommended). To avoid the crowds, do this as a weekday trip.

Contact: visitgreece.gr
Opening times: Daily, 24 hours
Price: ££-£££

The island of Aegina has lovely sand, pebble beaches and family-operated tavernas Credit: ([None] (Photographer) - [None]/Vanja