Athens (Athína) is the capital city of Greece with a metropolitan population of 3.7 million inhabitants. It is in many ways the birthplace of Classical Greece, and therefore of Western civilization.
Our guide to Athens takes you through absolutely everything that you need to know before visiting the city.
History of Athens
The first pre-historic settlements was constructed in 3000 BC around the hill of Acropolis. The legend says that the King of Athens, Theseus unified the ten tribes of early Athens into one kingdom (c. 1230 BC). This process of synoikismos – bringing together in one home – created the largest and wealthiest state on the Greek mainland, but it also created a larger class of people excluded from political life by the nobility.
By the 7th century BC, social unrest had become widespread, and the Areopagus appointed Draco to draft a strict new lawcode (hence “draconian”). When this failed, they appointed Solon, with a mandate to create a new constitution (594). This was the great beginning of a new social revolution, which was the result of the democracy under Clisthenes (508 BC).
During the Middle Ages, Athens experienced a decline, but re-emerged under Byzantian rule. Athens was thriving and prosperous during the Crusades, actually benefitting from the Italian trade during this period. However, this fruitful period was shortlived, as Greece suffered badly under the Ottoman Empire, only to recover in the 19th century as the capital of independent Greece.
Athens hosted the 2004 Summer Olympic Games which, to the defiance of critics, were a spectacular success. While most of the sporting venues were located outside the city proper – in various locations throughout Attica – the entire urban area of Athens underwent major lasting changes that have improved the quality of life for visitors and residents alike. Aside from the excellent transportation infrastructure that was completed in time for the 2004 Olympics (from new freeways to light rail systems), the city’s historic center underwent serious renovation. Most notable among the city’s facelift projects are the Unification of Archaelogical Sites – which connects the city’s classical – era ruins and monuments to each other through a network of pleasant pedestrianized streets – and the restoration of the picturesque neoclassical Thissio and Pláka districts.
Check out these underrated Athens attractions!
Guide to visiting Athens
Getting To/From the Airport in Athens
If you arrive in Athens during the day or an another ‘normal’ hour then take the metro. The blue line goes from the city centre to the airport and back. Though bear in mind that you will need an additional 10 euro ticket since the regular ticket does not cover it.
If you arrive at night then you have two options – taxi or bus. The bus will cost you less than 10 euros, but it WILL take you close to 2 hours. Landing at 1:25 am and then sitting on a bus for 2 hours was not my idea of a great start to the vacation. So, we chose the taxi. There’a handy service called Welcome Pickups. They charge you the same amount as the other taxis and you can be sure that you’re getting a driver who knows what they’re doing.
You can also pre-book a shuttle service to pick you up from the airport and take you straight to your hotel. This is a great option if you don’t feel like hustling for a taxi or figuring out the public transport as soon as you arrive.
Where to Stay in Athens
Even though our taxi driver’s question on why we chose Piraeus as our place to stay in Athens got me a bit off guard, I couldn’t be happier about our choice now. Everyone and I mean everyone stays somewhere where you’ll have a view of the Acropolis and a heated pool a few floors down. But that’s not the only way.
We stayed in an Airbnb in the Piraeus area. It’s a less touristy area that’s known for the Piraeus port, which is the biggest in Greece. Thanks to that we got to experience the real Athens with the local restaurants (and I mean local as we were the only ones speaking something other than Greek), local residents (who are more than helpful), local shops (without the tourist surcharge) and an overall feeling of the slow and relaxed pace of the Greek lifestyle.
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Getting Around the City
Athens has a great public transportation system. I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t get a chance to try all of it, but we got where we needed to be in 1-2-3. If you’re planning on using the public transport every single day for more than 2 days then I would recommend buying the 5-day ticket. It will cost you 9 euros and grant you unlimited rides on all public transportation. Though as I said before, it’s not valid on the metro to the airport.
Get Out to the Islands
Island hopping in Greece is what Greek holidays are all about. If you’re staying in Athens for more than 2 days then I recommend hopping on a boat and visiting an island or two. We chose the island of Aegina and as we were looking for something less touristy, we hit the jackpot. The roundtrip ticket from Piraeus to Aegina cost 25 euros and the boat ride itself took about 40 minutes.
Aegina is a beautiful island not far from Athens and it’s a favorite of many Athenians. It has a cute port town which boasts quite a few excellent seafood restaurants. Wandering the streets is enough to make you fall in love with the place. There are also more than enough swimming spots in the form of beaches and just stairwells along the cliff face.
Eat Local Food in Athens
Our best friend on this city break to Athens was the app Foursquare. We found a little local restaurant on it which served some of the best dishes I’ve ever tried. I’m not sure if I was more taken by their taste or the fact that they were simple Greek dishes made by local fishermen.
We also found a small café for lunch with the best orange pie and mastika ice cream ever. EVER!
Places to visit in Athens
At first glance, Athens seems entirely to be composed of nasty, four- to six-story concrete buildings, lacking character and badly in need of a paint, but if you look beyond that, you will find little gems tucked in amongst the grey.
The areas at the foot of the Acropolis, Anafiotika, Plaka, Monastiraki and Thissio are home to many wonderful Neoclassical buildings, trendy and traditional cafes and shops, narrow winding streets, and incredible views of the Acropolis. Little Greek Orthodox churches are tucked in amongst the concrete, often in the most unexpected places. These are usually beautifully decorated with icons and brass fixtures inside, but make sure you’re appropriately dressed (no short sleeves or bare legs is a good rule of thumb, as a mark of respect).
The Acropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must do. I would say that it’s impossible to go to Athens and not visit it. It will set you back by 20 euros (a bit more if you book a full tour) but it’s worth it. This ticket also gives you entry to the Kerameikos, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Roman Agora, Ancient Agora, and the nearby Theatre of Dionysus. If possible, get there early to avoid heavy crowds, and summer heat when relevant.
You’ll get to see the history of mankind up close and enjoy some of the best views of the city as well. I’ll be honest and say that the Temple of Zeus was a big let down for me. The unfinished temple is something, but the lack of signs around the other ruins really made me just walk past them.
Here’s a hint to the groundskeepers – put some signs next to the sights, not just at the entrance. I would have very much liked to know what everything was, but I wasn’t going to run to the entrance and back five times in 40+ C’ heat.
The Ancient Agora
The site of the Ancient Agora in a very green space and a very beautiful view of the Acropolis. You will see the Temple of Hephaestus, the best preserved ancient greek temple, the Attalos Stoa, the museum of the agora which is a reconstructed ancient building. From the agora you can walk towards Acropolis. Extension of the agora is the Roman Forum.
Check out the Parliament building and the newly-restored Grande Bretagne Hotel. Also, catch the changing of the guards in front of the Parliament every hour on the hour. Their uniforms and walking style is fun to see but make sure you don’t stand on the wrong side of them if you want to take a picture.
The site of the ancient cemetery of Athens. It also houses the Dipylon Gate, where the Panathenaic procession would begin. It has a museum showcasing many of the grave stele and other archaeological items found on the grounds.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus
Only the ruins remain today. The 1896 Olympic Stadium and Hadrian’s Arch are located nearby.
The stadium that housed the first modern day Olympic Games of 1896. Its an enormous, white, marble stadium, with a horseshoe configuration stadium.
A 200m hill bordering the Kolonaki district. You can reach the top by walking or by a funicular railway [small ticket charge]. There is a cafe-restaurant with a great view of Athens towards the sea. From halfway up looking towards the sea there are astonishing views of the Parthenon with the blue of the sea glimpsed between its columns.
Shopping in Athens
Although a huge city, Athens has relatively few shopping malls or large department stores; the small, family run shop still conquers all.
Souvenirs are of course available everywhere that tourists go. Other shopping opportunities are antiques, museum reproductions, embroideries and other folk art goods, and Greek food and drink products.
Here is an overview of the Athens shopping scene:
Plaka is lined with souvenir shops, most of them selling cheap souvenir knick-nacks, though there are a few higher-quality shops here and there.
Kolonaki is the upscale, hip, and artistic shopping area. Another is Kifissia.
For a more reasonable price tag, try Ermou Street, beside Syntagma Square. Turn right off Ermou at the MAC makeup shop and you’ll find yourself on Aghiou Markou and other small streets which are home to incredibly cheap shoes, bags, jewellery, gifts, homewares, and so on.
“The Mall” at the Metro Station “Neratziotissa” is the biggest shopping mall in Athens.
Street vendors, with their wares laid out on blankets on the pavement, can be found in many places where tourists congregate, especially in Plaka and Monastiraki. Their goods are mostly forgeries, cheap knock-offs, and illegal CDs. These vendors are unlicensed, which is in violation of Greek law, and you may notice them vanishing as soon as a policeman is in sight, to reappear the instant the police have gone. They are best ignored. (This warning doesn’t apply to vendors of fruit, nuts, etc. from street carts, who are usually legitimate.)
All in all, I really liked Athens. It’s a great spot for a short city break that gives you ample opportunities for sightseeing, shopping, eating well and just relaxing. Now, I’m really hoping to nab some great tickets to the Greek islands as well.