Updated: Aug 7, 2022
Greece is a great destination for budget travellers. Affordable accommodations, excursions, and meals are widely available. Greece is rightly famous for its gorgeous islands and beaches as well as its long and important role in history. Athens, the capital city of Greece and heart of Ancient Greece, is often the first stop on a fabulous Greek holiday. Most travellers to Greece will spend at least a few days in this city before moving on the explore other places in Greece. Summers in Athens are hot, dry, and clear. During the hot season (June-September) temperatures rarely fall below 30 C (86F) and are often warmer. During the winter (November - March), temperatures range from 5 C (41 F) to 13 C (55 F).
1. Take the HOHO tour
I really like Hop-On Hop-Off tours to start my visit to a new city. They are a great way to get oriented and to get a cultural and historical overview. HOHO tours are a fleet of buses that continually drive a route stopping at tourist sites. Most tours have a recorded soundtrack (available in several different languages) that explains some of the history and culture of the city. Some HOHO's have live guides and very entertaining commentary. Riders "hop off" to explore and then "hop on" again after their visit is complete, to carry on the circuit. Tickets are usually for a full day but some companies offer multi-day passes. Pro-tip: Bring your own earphones for better sound quality than the ones handed out on the bus.
I usually take the full circuit once to decide where I want to hop-off, and which places I will visit on a different day. In Athens, there are several different companies offering a HOHO tour: City Sightseeing, Sites of Athens, and Athens Open Tour being the most popular. Go to their website for routes and prices. 2. Wander the Neighbourhoods
The Plaka is the best known neighbourhood in Athens. This is the area immediately surrounding FiloMousson Square just below the Acropolis. The charming streets with many shops and historic landmarks have something for every traveller to enjoy. It will be crowded. The best way to enjoy Plaka is to meander along the streets and alleys. There are many choices for food and drinks. The restaurants with the best views of the Parthenon may require a reservation.
Monastiraki, the flea market area next to Plaka, is the center of many tourist hotels and services. Monastiraki means "little Monastery" and is named for the monastery that originally occupied the area. The neighbourhood has had several waves of gentrification where former workshops became bars and restaurants but modern artisans are moving back into the area.
Piraeus is full of seaside cafes, bars, and seafood restaurants frequented by the locals. This is the Old Port neighbourhood where visitors pick up most boat tours and ferries to the nearby Saronic Islands. The neighbourhood is charming in its own right and is worth exploring with archeological sights, magnificent views, and the best seafood restaurants in the city.
3. Visit the Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis Museum was built to house the artifacts of the Acropolis archaeological site. Most of the significant original statuary found at the Acropolis is housed here, with plaster reproductions in place at the site, including two of the original Caryatids which support the Temple of Athens.
This is a beautifully presented museum with excellent curation. Visitors can choose a guided tour, audio guides, or choose to spend time reading the excellent descriptions accompanying every exhibit. For summer visitors, this is a great place to spend the hottest part of the day and enjoy the air conditioning. The museum is a stop on every HOHO tour. For those travelling by public transportation, get off at the Akropoli metro station; the bus and train stop is called Makrygianni. From November to April the fee is 5€, which doubles in high season.
I recommend visiting the museum before the historical site to better appreciate your visit to the Agora (ancient area). 4. Hellenic Parliament Buildings
The Parliament of Greece meets in a three-story building in the center of Athens located just north of Syntagma Square and is another stop on every HOHO route.
In front of the rather austere Neoclassical building is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, guarded by unit of the Greek army called the Evzones. The Evzones wear the traditional Greek uniforms with a white kilt-like skirt called a foustanela. Every hour there is a changing of the guard ceremony. Like the British Queen's Guards, these soldiers are not allowed to talk while on duty.
It's a fascinating ceremony with high kicks and marching back and forth, culminating with the replacement guards taking their watch in the shade near their booths.
Before the ceremony is complete an officer inspects the new guards to ensure they are looking spiffy.
The tassels get straightened and brows gets wiped. Once everything is to the officer's satisfaction, the soldiers remain motionless and silent until they are relieved at the next change.
5. National Gardens
Right next to the Parliament Buildings is the National Gardens, a gorgeous oasis in the center of the city. The park is a fresh and cool green space that includes a café, duck pond and a small zoo. It is always a lovely cool meander through the park.
6. The Acropolis
The Acropolis is the crowning glory of Athens and is an essential stop on every tourist's list. This ancient citadel is on a rocky outcrop and includes several ancient buildings, including the Parthenon.
When visiting in the summer, the Acropolis is best visited first thing in the morning before the full heat of the day hits. The hot sun radiates off every surface of the Acropolis. On extremely hot days, officials close the site around noon. There is a small kiosk outside the gates to buy drinks (not water). Visitors are only allowed to bring water on site. There is a small kiosk just at the entrance where you can purchase water, if you've forgotten. Once you reach the top of the outcrop, there is no water or toilets available.
Once through the gates, visitors must climb the steps to the Propylaea (entrance) of the site. The main architect was Mnesicles. At the left of the entrance is the Pinacotheca; on the right is the Athena of Victory temple.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a Roman amphitheatre located on the southwest slope. It is used today for open air concerts and other performances.
The Parthenon and other principal buildings were built in the 5th century to celebrate the cultural and political achievements of the Athenian Empire. As a citadel, it was a place of refuge for city residents in times of invasion. The sacred buildings of the city were built here because it was considered the most secure location.
7. Check out the National Archeological Museum
Another fantastic (air-conditioned) museum is The National Archeological Museum that houses important artifacts from all over Greece. Collections include artifacts from prehistoric times to late antiquity. The museum enjoys a reputation of being one of the finest museums in the world for Greek Antiquity artifacts.
Getting to the museum is easy. It is served by bus, metro, electric train, and trolley routes. Entry during low season is 6€. In high season the rate is 12€.
8. Take a Cooking Class One of my absolute favourite activity in Athens was a Greek cooking class with a chef, arranged through Viator. The menu was spanikopita (we even made the phyllo), Papoutsakia, Tzatziki, Salad, and Galaktoboureko.
After everything was in the oven, fridge, or whatever... we went to the deck where we would enjoy a lovely dinner with an amazing view of the Acropolis.
I made this! OMG amazingly delicious. This is the Papoutsakia, a baked eggplant and feta cheese starter. It was so good, I forgot to take photos of everything else until dessert!
The Galaktoboureko is a sweet phyllo and custard pie.
There was plenty of custard left over and so we created second dessert called "Milk Pie". We were sent along our way with the recipes. Papoutsakia has become a regular summer dish in my home.
9. Take a Day Trip to the Saronic Islands The Saronic Islands are the closest island group to Athens. The islands can be visited by ferry, water taxi, or tour group. Read my post on a day trip excursion that visited Hydra, Poros, and Aegina.
10. EAT! Greek food is fresh, tasty, and plentiful. From inexpensive gyros, hand-held pies, and taverna meals to extravagant meals, your tummy and wallet will be happy. Central to Greek cuisine is olive oil, wine, feta cheese, and seafood. Common herbs, spices, and flavourings include garlic, lemon, oregano, and mint.
Serving sizes are large and plate-sharing is common. Meals are intended to be lingered over. You will never be rushed in an authentic Greek restaurant. No bill will be presented until you ask, and even then, you will be offered an after-dinner treat or drink.
For even more tips for enjoying Greek food, check out this post.
Athens is a bustling exciting city with a fascinating mix of ancient and modern. When visiting Greece, take time to learn the fascinating history but also put aside time to wander and explore.
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