When it comes to choosing a holiday destination, Athens is usually overlooked in favour of Greece’s innumerable islands. Yet the country’s very essence lies in its capital. Its origins dating to 3200 BC, Athens is one of the most ancient cities in the world, with notions like democracy and philosophy deeply rooted in its inspiring history.
Walking in between the city’s countless ancient ruins, it quickly becomes clear that the old coexists with the new, with intact buildings like the Parthenon bringing the 5th century BC (the city’s most flourishing era, also known as the ‘Golden Age of Pericles’) to life. Mix that with urban stores and an impressive number of cafés and restaurants, and you get today’s Athens.
You will probably need a couple of weeks to fully experience this vast and diverse city, but if you’re truly eager to uncover its secrets, a weekend could do the job.
Starting from the centre of the city, you’ll find the Greek parliament with its devoted Presidential Guard facing Athens’ most important square, Syntagma – named after the Greek constitution of 1843. Next to the Parliament, the National Garden offers a pleasant promenade around its lush vegetation, while a bit further, Zeus’s temple echoes Greece’s mythology roots.
Strolling down Ermou, the city’s most commercial street, the buzz from the local shops and chain stores will most likely lure you in. A traditional souvlaki with gyro from Savvas or a scoop of ice cream from DaVinci near Monastiraki square could be the ultimate boost before climbing the emblematic Acropolis hill.
While the Acropolis museum is a modern architectural wonder bursting with history, it’s the ancient rock itself that really deserves your full attention. Its apparent gem, the Parthenon temple was built in 438 BC in honour of goddess Athena. It’s worth ‘scouring’ the entire hill, from the Erechtheion temple dating to 421 BC to the theatre of Herodes Atticus, which was completed in 161 AD and still hosts carefully selected, prestigious concerts.
After a long day in the sun, Plaka, the oldest and most picturesque area of Athens, seems like the perfect place to unwind. The island-like atmosphere and Cycladic architecture of its Anafiotika neighbourhood can be traced back to settlers arriving from the Aegean island of Anafi in the 19th century. Colourful houses and nostalgic cafés like Klepsidra on the area’s paved streets have kept the city’s older image alive.
Setting out to explore the ‘new face’ of Athens, you will discover that the city is built around cafés, restaurants and concept stores. After all, Greeks love eating as much as they love drinking coffee and meeting with friends. Cafés and bars like ZAF and Throubi around the church of Saint Irene or Nancy’s Sweet Home at the Psyrri square are among locals’ favourites, while terrace bars like Couleur Locale near Monastiraki guarantee a lovely evening outing in the summer.
The area of Thiseio with an unforgettable view to the Acropolis retains its classic beauty while attracting a large number of tourists. Nearby, the Gkazi district creates a more alternative, artistic atmosphere, with the Technopolis cultural centre setting the tone. At another, more 'posh' part of the town, the neoclassical neighbourhood of Kolonaki boasts some of the best high-end boutiques in town.
Introducing a more revolutionary side of Athens, Exarcheia, ever the home of artists, dreamers and anarchists, will amaze you with its lively – mostly political – graffiti art and offbeat cafés. It might be best to avoid the area at night, though, when it’s often taken over by riots.
If there’s any more time left, remember to pay a visit to the much greener outskirts of Athens or the Athenian Riviera where you can relax at Balux Cafe with a refreshing cocktail by the beach. After all, trying to take in the entire city’s ancient history and modern culture in a couple of days is exhausting. Keep ‘refueling’ with coffee and you might just make it!