What to Do in Athens, Greece

Travel Features Athens
What to Do in Athens, Greece

Incredible food and gorgeous, idyllic islands come to mind when considering Greece. However, despite its massive influence of being the birthplace of democracy and one of the cradles of Western civilization, the country’s capital of Athens often gets overlooked on trips to Europe. As the warmest major city on the continent with a pleasing year-round climate, vibrant culture, gritty charm, and a deep history covering thousands of years, this unforgettable place has much to offer on your next trip to this slice of the Balkans.

Plaka / Acropolis / Thissio

European cities typically have an “Old Town,” but this term takes on a whole new meaning within a city like Athens. Plaka, the so-called “Neighborhood of the Gods,” and the oldest district within an already ancient city, is a breezy little community filled with sunny pedestrian streets containing a wealth of flower sellers, street musicians, and cute art shops. The area is exploding with historic sites like the Ancient Agora, a former meeting ground where the Athenians of antiquity once socialized, traded, and philosophized with one another. Sit under the Tower Of The Winds, an octagonal, surprisingly complex marvel of engineering from the 1st century BC that once doubled as a public timepiece and is the oldest meteorological station in the world. Try to picture yourself here in this long-passed age of Athens, where radical new ideas, whose influence on the modern world can be hard to fully imagine, were once freely exchanged among the locals.

This historical side of Athens is most famously embodied in the iconic Acropolis, a clifftop complex built in the 5th century BC towering high above Athens and visible from almost everywhere in town. Be humbled by the accumulated years shown on the weathered white columns of the millennia-old Parthenon after a short hike to the top, imagine a festive, bygone show at the Theatre of Dionysus, or enjoy the mesmerizing clifftop vista over Athens that has awed thousands of Greeks over millennia past. 

As the birthplace of democracy, it should come as no surprise that civic engagement has continued as an ongoing feature of Athenian life. Nearby Syntagma Square is a modern meetup spot that is often a hotbed of activism and whose metro station also doubles as a museum for the necropolis (literally meaning “city of the dead”) that once stood there. The plaza is close to Ano Petralona, an often-missed part of central Athens that is mainly tourist-free and known for its authentic Greek cuisine; it’s also worth trying one of the many charming eateries along the main street Apostolou Pavlou in Thissio. After dinner, try a classic Athens pastime: the outdoor cinema. In the hotter months, around a hundred locations open for screenings around the city, each usually with its own compelling twist. Catch a flick at the open-air Thission with an up-close look at the Acropolis, or try the rooftop gardens offering screenings and additional lofty sights at the Cine Paris back in Plaka.

Monastiraki / Psiri

The open plaza of Monastiraki, doubling as one of Athens’ most convenient metro stops, is a beating heart of captivating culture with its winding side streets filled with street performers, vintage stores, and quirky record stores with Greek synth music from masters like Vangelis, the composer of the Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner scores, lining the shelves. On Sundays, the plaza becomes filled with vendors comprising the Yusurum, the weekly Sunday flea market. Handcrafted gifts, vintage clothes, records, books, eclectic street food, and pretty much anything you can imagine are yours to discover during the day. The sounds of street musicians are also commonly heard here, whose performances carry deep into the night and make for an endearing backdrop to a magical Athens evening. Check out an exhibition at the storied Radio Athenes, a non-profit often featuring politically charged visual art and hosting lectures and film screenings regarding essential topics related to Greek life. Catch a glimpse of Athens’ odder side at the Hall Of Horrors, a century-old haunted hotel housed within a neoclassical structure hosting thrilling fright tours, or grab a drink from The Art Foundation (TAF Athens), a courtyard turned fascinating exhibition space whose inviting rooms await intrepid travelers to immerse themselves in the many styles of modern art to be found here.

Follow the increasing presence of awe-inspiring street art to find yourself in colorful Psiri, a once historically seedy district turned into a thriving hub of Athenian nightlife. Don’t miss dinner at Little Kook, a restaurant where the tasty meals are upstaged by its meticulously ornate decor that changes depending on the season. Whether it’s the sheer number of nutcrackers and Christmas lights during the holidays, floral arrangements and rainbows during spring, or the myriad monsters, bats, and other creatures of the nights haunting the building during Halloween, you won’t find a dull meal here. Afterward, there are plenty of great options for drinks. Handlebar, located next to a bike shop, comes with offbeat cycling decor like bike seats for stools to relish flavorful beverages and outstanding plant-based snacks. Visit the well-hidden Cantina Social, a cozy little haunt in a back alley without so much as a sign marking its location. Enjoy its selection of cheap Russian beer and partake in the impromptu dance parties often breaking out from the tunes spun by eclectic DJs against the background of bizarre films projected on the surrounding walls. More fun adventures can be found at Booze Cooperativa, a former textile mill turned into a spectacularly intriguing complex that describes itself as a “brain hub of tribes and nations in creative disruption.” Each room in the sprawling, peculiar space has a seemingly new weird thing to discover and is a great spot to make funky new friends in Athens. You can also smoke inside here—the owner registered the building as a political party headquarters to get around the indoor smoking ban.

Exarchia / Kerameikos

Athens has a thriving countercultural and leftist scene, perhaps most exemplified in the punk neighborhood of Exarchia. Arguably the most unique area in Athens, Exarchia is known for its diversity, edgy reputation, and DIY vibe. Head to the tiny Plateia Exarchia park, often doubling as a protest meetup spot and unbeatable for people watching, and experience the politically charged street art, tattoo parlors, heavy metal shops, anarchist bookstores, and anti-establishment cafes lining its perimeter. Navarino Park is also worth a stop, whose detailed graffiti art and greenery occupies a reclaimed parking lot and is collectively maintained by the locals. 

During the evening, walk over to the Technopolis in the Gazi region of Kerameikos, a former gas factory from the mid-1800s whose industrial remnants form a massive event space today where it is fun to get lost in its grounds hosting workshops, concerts, and other bits of stimulating strangeness throughout the year. Try a scientifically-minded concoction at the molecular mixology bar Momix, where drinks are served in unconventional forms such as foam, clouds, syringes, test tubes, or bubbles, and then see more of Athens’ signature DIY aesthetic at Latraac Skate Park. Sip a Greek coffee purchased from the cafe and watch skaters do tricks in the bowl, free to access for the public and frequently doubling as an event space during the summer. If you want to post up at a chill spot with a view, head to the rooftop cocktail bar Bios to imbibe in the evening while enjoying an unparalleled look at the Parthenon at sundown.

Koukaki / Makrigianni

If you want to get away from tourists without venturing far out of the city, Koukaki is the place for you. The area is known for its cafes and restaurants providing delicious Greek souvlakis and desserts. If you want to take a little hike, head to Filopappou Hill, the famed site of Socrates’ imprisonment, which boasts picturesques glimpses of the Acropolis and greater Athens. The enormous Museum of Contemporary Art, housed within an old brewery, is also a fantastic time as you traverse the dazzling exhibits, concerts, and workshops concealed within its walls. Grab a Freddo cappuccino and a slice of chocolate cake while browsing the shelves of the cozy, fun-sized Little Tree Books. Try some ouzo or rakomelo, a Greek sweet honey-based alcoholic drink, at God’s Restaurant, and then continue living your own myth by heading to the Temple of Zeus in Makrigianni and paying homage to the god of lightning. Makrigianni’s location near much of central Athens also makes it a great place to book a bike tour to fully take in this stunning city.

Pangrati / Kolonaki

Every four years, the world enjoys the spectacle of the Olympic Games. You can see where the modern games started in 1896 by heading over to Panathenaic Stadium in Pangrati, which was constructed in the late 19th century to house the revival of this ancient tradition. Catch a flick within the plush seats of the opulent Palas Theater, open since 1925 and the oldest cinema in the city. Cinema Dexameni in nearby Kolonaki is another excellent option, whose base was formed from the remnants of a 2nd-century BC aqueduct. As you explore, perhaps you’ll encounter the noteworthy jagged statue of the runner Dromeas. Admire its horizontally-lined appearance, made with hundreds of shards of sharp glass, that gives the figure an appearance of perpetual motion blur, although not one you’d want to touch. Kolonaki lies at the foot of Lycabettus Hill, the tallest point in Athens. A quick cable car ride to the top treats daring visitors to a 360-degree perspective of Athens, possibly the best vantage point to enjoy the eye-popping reds and oranges of sunset, and is also home to the renowned Lycabettus Theater. A legendary venue open since 1964, the stage has hosted notable acts over the years like James Brown, Black Sabbath, and Radiohead and, in September 2023, recently reopened after being closed for 15 years to begin a new generation of sensational shows.

Apollo Coast: Pireaus / Voula / Vouliagmeni

Beaches might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Athens, but the Greek capital is one convenient train ride away to the beautiful shores making up the Apollo Coast, otherwise known as the “Athens Riviera.” Have a pleasing getaway at one of the many resorts in Voula, or head down to Vouliagmeni to laze by the beach in the shadow of the Temple of Apollo on Zoster Cape. If you can access a car, head down to Sounion at the bottom of the Attica Peninsula and do proper justice to the lovely Aegean by paying homage to the god of the sea at the Temple of Poseidon. If the temptation of the open water is too much to bear and you just have to escape the confines of the mainland, buy a ticket for one of the many daily voyages from the historic port of Piraeus and cross the pristine blue Aegean in style. Flights can also be shockingly cheap from the Athens airport—sometimes in the single digits—if you want a quicker escape to paradise that won’t break the bank.

John Sizemore is a travel writer, photographer, yoga teacher, and visual entertainment developer based out of Austin, Texas. Follow him on Instagram at @sizemoves. In his downtime, John likes to learn foreign languages and get immersed in other worlds, particularly those of music, film, games, and books in addition to exploring the world.

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