As one of the planet’s oldest surviving cities, Athens is a captivating blend of ancient and modern. The birthplace of modern democracy, it endures as the nation’s capital; its neighborhoods juxtapose priceless historical ruins with contemporary shops, restaurants and clubs. If you’re planning a trip to Athens, here are 12 of the places and activities you simply must include in your itinerary. Here are our top dozen recommendations for things to do in Athens.
The Best Things to Do in Athens
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The Acropolis is perhaps the best-known historical site in Greece. This flat stretch of rock rising above the city streets contains the ruins of several key structures from the ancient city, including the Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike and Erechtheion.
The citadel is surrounded by stone walls that have protected the site for more than 3,300 years, and visitors can reach the top by hiking the gravel pathways along the relatively modest (about 500 feet) peak. To avoid the worst of the crowds and midday heat, visit in the early morning or late afternoon; sunset is the most picturesque time to enjoy the summit.
Within the Acropolis complex, be sure to tour these sites:
Completed in 432 B.C., this imposing marble temple honoring the goddess Athena is dominated by massive Doric columns. The temple’s ruins are the most important surviving example of Classical architecture, and the sculptures that adorn it are considered pinnacles of Greek art. The temple once held an ivory and gold statue of Athena that stood more than 30 feet high, but the statue exists today only in the form of replicas. The Parthenon is one of the most popular things to do in Athens, and is quintessential to any trip to mainland Greece.
The Erechtheion, which began construction about a decade after the finishing touches on the Parthenon were completed, is a smaller Ionic temple located in the most sacred site in the Acropolis: the ground where Athena’s prized olive tree once stood. The temple’s south side features the famous “Porch of the Maidens,” six columns carved into Greek feminine forms known as caryatids. The columns now on site are replicas, as the original columns have been preserved in the Acropolis Museum.
Temple of Athena Nike
The smallest temple on the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena Nike was also built in the Ionic style in 420 B.C. Named for the Greek goddess of victory, the temple celebrated the Greek victory over the Persians in the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. The original structure featured a wingless statue of Nike, reportedly so she could not “fly away” from Athens.
Herod Atticus Odeon
Nestled on the south slope of the Acropolis, this impressive outdoor theater dating to 174 A.D. is named for its benefactor, Tiberius Claudius Herod Atticus. The theater still hosts a wide variety of events, including music and art festivals, theater performances and more.
Located at the base of the Acropolis, this impressive facility houses thousands of artifacts recovered from the Acropolis over the centuries. Opened in 2009, the building itself is a work of art, designed by U.S.-based architect Bernard Tschumi in partnership with Greek architect Michael Photiadis. Its floor-to-ceiling windows flood the space with light and provide excellent views of its namesake, and each floor is dedicated to a different component of the citadel’s history.
Upon entering the museum, visitors can look through the glass floor to study the remains of an ancient Athenian settlement discovered during the building’s construction.
On the ground floor, the Gallery of the Slopes of Acropolis features relics from the religious sanctuaries that were literally built on its hillsides, as well as artifacts from everyday Athenian life across the centuries.
On the second floor, the Archaic Gallery offers 360-degree views of priceless sculptures and other exhibits from the period ranging from 700 B.C. to around 480 B.C. It was during this period that the Greek city-state emerged and with it, the roots of our modern democracy. This gallery houses marble sculptures from the Ancient Temple, fragments of the detailed pediments of the Hekatompedon temple and several votive offerings—typically small sculptures presented to the gods in gratitude for granting a request. Art-wise, this is one of the most cultured things to do in Athens.
The top floor of the museum is dedicated to the Parthenon, where visitors can examine the intricately-carved details of the 160-meter decorative frieze that adorned the temple. About one-third of the frieze here is made up of the original relics from the temple; the rest of it is on display at the British Museum, the Louvre and several other museums throughout Europe. The Parthenon Gallery also features 92 marble metopes, each featuring a distinct battle scene, as well as the remains of several large statues from the temple’s pediments.
The museum is open seven days a week year-round, with admission priced at 10 euros during the busy summer tourist season and five euros during the slower winter months. Guests can enjoy a meal at the museum’s full-service restaurant and smaller café and purchase souvenirs at one of two on-site gift shops.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
The ruins of this massive temple at the center of the city are hard to miss: 15 of the structure’s original 104 colossal columns still tower above the streets, with another column reclining on the ground after being felled by a storm in the 19th century. Construction of the temple began in the 6th century B.C., but the vast structure wasn’t completed until the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the temple’s marble was frequently quarried for building projects elsewhere in the city, but its ancient remains are still one of the most majestic attractions and historic things to do in Athens.
Once you’ve explored the Acropolis and its museum, spend some time strolling the meandering streets of the surrounding Plaka neighborhood. This picturesque, pedestrian-friendly area features lovely old homes, charming cafés and a variety of shops selling everything from souvenirs and artisan goods to jewelry and clothing. If you linger past sundown, plan to enjoy a drink and some live music at one of the neighborhood’s lively bars and clubs.
The agora was once the centerpiece of ancient Greek culture and commerce, serving not only as a marketplace, but also the social and political hub of the city. First established in the sixth century B.C., the Ancient Agora of Athens was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times over the centuries, typically due to attacks from invading forces like the Persians in 480 B.C. and the Herulian tribe of Scandinavia in 267 B.C. Both Socrates and New Testament hero Paul were known to lecture at the Ancient Agora, cementing its significance in the history of Western Civilization.
Today, visitors see only a shadow of the Agora’s former glory, with its most well-preserved structure being the Temple of Hephaestus, dating back to 420 B.C. Be sure to make time for the Agora Museum, which is housed in a 20th-century replica of the Stoa of Attalos, a stately two-story building bedecked with columns. The Stoa was a gift to the city of Athens from King Attalus of Pergamon in the second century B.C. and was rebuilt in the 1950s; the museum inside features artifacts like jewelry, coins and weaponry discovered during the site’s excavation.
The Agora is located on the edge of the quirky Monastiraki neighborhood, which is worth a visit in its own right. In addition to the area’s famous flea market—which is a hive of activity on Sundays—it also offers a mind-boggling mix of secondhand bookstores, record shops, boutiques and arcades as well as restaurants and cafés serving high-quality, low-fuss traditional Greek fare. The poorly-preserved ruins of Hadrian’s Library, built by the Emperor in 132 A.D., are also nearby. This is one of the great things to do in Athens.
Syntagma Square—also known as Constitution Square—plays an important role in the recent history of the nation: It’s where the Athenian people rose up against King Otto in September 1843 to demand a constitution on which to base their government. The present-day Hellenic Parliament still meets in Otto’s former Royal Palace, and the hourly changing of the guard in front of it is a must-see event. (If possible, go at 10 a.m. Sunday morning, when the ceremony is especially elaborate.)
With a great number of things to do in Athens, the square is the center of Athenian civic and social life, perpetually packed with both locals and tourists. You may catch a concert, festival or even a protest or demonstration during your visit. If not, you can always grab a bite to eat at one of dozens of cafés, restaurants and clubs along its borders or head down Ermou Street, one of the city’s most popular shopping destinations.
Directly behind the Greek Parliament building, you’ll find the National Garden, which was commissioned by Queen Amalia in 1838. This 38-acre public park is a peaceful retreat in the midst of the bustling city, featuring tree-lined walking paths with plenty of benches, a large sundial and a children’s library.
The grounds contain more than 500 species of plants among its 7,000 trees and 40,000 bushes, as well as six lakes where ducks and other waterfowl tend to congregate. The park is open from dawn to dusk daily, and admission is free. If you’re on the hunt for free things to do in Athens, look no further than the National Gardens.
For nearly a century, the Benaki Museum has celebrated Greek and global art from ancient times to the modern day. The multi-building campus manages large exhibitions of Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Coptic, Chinese, Korean and Pre-Columbian art as well as the Yannis Pappas studio and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika gallery. It also hosts photographic, architectural, historical and performing arts archives and a fascinating toy museum. In all, the complex Is home to 120,000 pieces of artwork and 181,000 volumes in its museum library—the largest in the nation.
The campus also offers a gift shop and café. Operating days and hours vary by exhibit, although all are closed on Tuesdays. Admission to the permanent collections is free on Thursdays and nine euros otherwise.
National Archaeological Museum
Not only is the National Archaeological Museum the largest museum in Greece, but it’s also one of the most important museums in the world thanks to its extensive collection of art and artifacts from the ancient world, some of which date back as far as 6000 B.C.
The vast facility houses five major permanent collections:
- Collection of Prehistoric Antiquities, which includes works from the Neolithic, Cycladic and Mycenaean civilizations and most notably, the famous gold death mask of Agamemnon, an ornate funeral mask known as the “Mona Lisa of prehistory.”
- Collection of Sculpture Works, with its priceless examples of Greek sculpture from the 7th century B.C. through 500 A.D.
- Vase and Miniature Collection, with a variety of ancient Greek ceramics from the 11th century B.C. through the Roman era
- Collection of Metalworking Works, featuring statues, figurines and other small crafts
- Collection of Egyptian and Eastern Antiquities, with artwork from 5000 B.C. to the Roman conquest
The museum is open from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Mondays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and on-site amenities include a café, gardens and gift shop. Tickets are 12 euros during the summer season (April through October) and six euros the rest of the year. If you’re looking for inexpensive things to do in Athens, this is a great option.
Rising 277 meters (about 900 feet) above sea level, Lycabettus Hill is the highest point in Athens, offering breathtaking panoramic views of the city below. This is one of the most underrated things to do in Athens. If possible, plan to summit the hill in the late afternoon or early evening to catch the sunset and see the illuminated grandeur of the Acropolis, Ancient Agora and Temple of Olympian Zeus.
Visitors have several options for reaching the top. On foot, the trek is about 20 minutes along winding paths and stone staircases; you can also drive up the Lycabettus Ring Road and park in the large lot next to the 3,000-seat outdoor amphitheater. Perhaps the most memorable method of travel is by cable car, which costs seven euros and operates well into the evening year-round.
Once at the top, you can dine at the swanky Orizontes restaurant and visit the beautiful whitewashed Church of Agios Georgios before beginning your descent.
The enormous Panathenaic Stadium—the only stadium in the world constructed entirely out of marble—is the largest stadium in Athens, with a 70,000-seat capacity. Built in 335 B.C., the stadium has endured into modern times; it was the location of the 1896 Olympic games and is still used for events today. The stadium is also the origin point for the Olympic flame that travels around the world for the Summer and Winter Games.
Final Thoughts on Things to do in Athens
These 12 destinations merely scratch the surface of everything there is to do and see in Athens and beyond. From food tours to historic churches to day trips to Delphi, you could easily spend weeks in this fascinating city in which the ancient and the modern exist side-by-side in strange harmony. There are tons of things to do in Athens. The number you’ll be able to see is entirely dependent on how long you have to spend.