So, you’ve got 48 hours to spend in Athens?
Before heading to Athens, I read an article that described it ‘as a 2500-year-old hotch-potch of concrete upon brick upon stone’. I couldn’t have summed it up better myself. There is no denying that Athens is a little rough around the edges. The roads are cracked, there are potholes, cars are parked everywhere they shouldn’t be and once beautiful buildings that haven’t been looked after as well as they could’ve been.
But it didn’t take me long to see past this and glimpse the other side of Athens; its extensive history, its passion and the fact that despite everything it’s been through over the last 2500 years, that it’s still a city that’s full of life. In what other city would you see a policeman in uniform doing the morning frappé run for himself and his colleagues? That’s right, nowhere. Because Athens is special. It’s a chaotic, fun and lived in city. If you can look past the fact that it’s not completely picture perfect, you’ll be thoroughly rewarded.
While I think it deserves a bit more time, I realise many people only spend a day or two in Athens before jetting off to the more photogenic Greek Islands. But if that is the case for you, the itinerary below will help you get the most out of this great city. It’s time to walk in the shoes of Homer, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
Start your day with the world’s best yoghurt
A few years ago, I was watching a random travel show where the host visited one of the last remaining traditional dairy bars in Athens. When I saw that they sold Greek yoghurt that was so thick it was served in slices, covered in honey and walnuts, I knew I’d never go to Athens without visiting. True to my word, I visited Stani on the first day I arrived in Athens and basically every day after on our five-day stay.
While it’s slightly out of the way, the quaint little café is well worth the detour. It is without a doubt the best yoghurt I’ve ever eaten. This divinely tangy yoghurt is made in house from local sheep milk and a dash of the same starter culture they’ve been using since they opened in 1953.
If yoghurt isn’t your thing, there’s plenty of other dairy based cakes to enjoy and traditional Greek donuts (loukoumades).
See the world’s first computer at the National Archaeological Museum
You probably shouldn’t go to Athens without visiting its National Archaeological Museum – although I will say that I personally preferred the Acropolis Museum so if it’s a choice of the two, this is the one I’d skip. Lovers of history could spend the day here, but if you’re somewhere in-between like me, an hour or two will suffice. A few highlights include Archaic Greek funerary statues the Kore and Kouros, a statue dating back to 460 BCS Zeus or Poseidon (to this day even experts can’t agree on which), the gold death mask of Agamemnon and an exceptionally rare statue of a boy riding a horse dating back to 150 BCE.
But I think this museum is worth the journey to see just one thing, which is unlike anything else you’ll have ever seen before: the world’s first computer.
Don’t miss: The Antikythera Mechanism
After spending more than 2000 years at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, the Antikythera Mechanism was found by divers in a shipwreck off the coast of the small Greek Island Antikythera in 1900. When historians finally got around to thoroughly investigating it 50 years later, they were in for a surprise. Despite being built between 100 and 150 BC, the device had dials and over 30 gears that allowed it to make precise calculations based on Ancient Greek mathematical and astrological principles. It is so complex that to this day scientists are still figuring out exactly how it worked. But what they do know is that if a person entered the date, this device – understandably referred to as the world’s first analogue computer – whizzed into action spitting out data about astrological positions such as the exact position of the sun, moon, planets and the stars, when the next solar eclipse would be and what the speed of the moon through the sky was. It could even tell its owner the date of the next ancient Olympic Games (which ran on a four year cycle as they do today).
In my opinion, Antikythera Mechanism section of the museum isn’t that well curated. Despite keeping my eye out for it, when I finally found the device I realised I’d already passed much of the information about it. So I’d suggest looking at the device first and then making your way back to the preceding room to read all about it before taking another look.
While it’s not that grand – you can tell it’s spent a lot of time underwater – to know that you’re seeing this little contraption that held so much knowledge, so long before its time, with your own eyes is pretty amazing.
A quick stop at Athens’s Central Market
Athens’s central market is made up of a fish market, a vegetable market and a meat market extending along both sides of Athinas Street. A quick walk through here is a must to imagine Athens of old and I promise it will definitely awaken all your senses – with storeowners yelling, aromas wafting from all kinds of foods and spices, and cuts of meat you may not have seen before (and may never want to see again!).
Go back in time at the Ancient Agora of Athens
The Greek word ‘Agora’ means an open assembly space used for gatherings and markets.
Located in the heart of the city, the archaeological site of the Agora of Athens gives a glimpse into ancient life in the city. As you wander around this large area you’ll only see the remnants of what the Agora once was, so it might be hard to imagine that this space was used continuously for more than 5000 years for residential, commercial and assembly purposes. This means you’ll see ruins of buildings from various eras from Archaic to Greco-Roman and Byzantine times.
While there has been little restoration of the buildings, which means for the most part you’ll have to use your imagination, the Temple of Hephaestus, which sits in the north-west of the Agora and was completed in 450 BC, is an exceptionally well preserved Doric peripteral temple.
The other most noticeable building in the precinct is the Stoa of Attalos, which was reconstructed in the 1950s, based on the covered walkway that was built in 159 BC to 138 BC, but destroyed by the Herules (an East Germanic tribe) in AD 267.
In the Agora, you’ll also see the ruins of Athens’ ancient courthouse, state prison, an aqueduct dated to the 4th c. BCE, the Klepsydra (a water clock used to time speeches), the meeting place of the senate and civic buildings.
Walk along Adrianou Street in Plaka
Adrianou Street sits at the heart of the oldest neighbourhood in Athens, Plaka. While Adrianou Street is touristy, it is so for a reason, with cobbled streets and beautiful old buildings. It’s a lovely street to walk down while in the city and yes perhaps glance at a souvenir shop or two.
The Acropolis Museum
The majority of Athens’s allure lies in its ancient ruins, but there is one modern gem that stands out amongst the archaeological remains: the Acropolis Museum.
After decades of successive competitions searching for the right design for the museum, the Greek government finally selected a proposal by Swiss-French architect Bernard Tschum. Like many major architectural feats the building, which opened in 2009, has its critics. But in my opinion, its stunning design perfectly captures and pays homage to its namesake.
But it’s much more than just a pretty face: this meticulously planned museum will not only give you the necessary context for a meaningful visit to the Acropolis, it will give you an understanding of what it once was. How? Well, from afar you will notice that the top floor of the museum sits at a different angle to the rest of the museum. That’s because it’s designed on the same axis as the Parthenon, meaning the two have identical cardinal orientation. It also has exact same dimensions – meaning when you’re walking around it, it’s as if you’re walking around the great temple itself. It’s pure genius.
Top tip: And herein lies my number one tip for Athens. If you remember nothing else from this blog, remember this. Visit the Acropolis Museum before you visit the Acropolis.
And not only that; when you get to the museum head straight up to the top floor. When you get there, you’ll find breath-taking views of the Acropolis through the floor to ceiling windows and what are mainly replicas of the Parthenon’s three basic sculptural components: the frieze, the metopes and the pediments. I won’t go into it in detail here, but of course these are replicas as the majority of the remains of the real thing are housed in the British Museum in London.
Once you’ve fully immersed yourself in the wonders of the top level and imagined yourself walking around the real Parthenon, make your way down and explore the other levels, ensuring you see five of the original six caryatids from the Erechtheion (the ones you see at the Acropolis are reproductions of these).
Watch the sunset at A for Athens
A for Athens is a hotel and bar situated in the middle of one of the city’s busiest spots, Monastiraki Square. Out of all the bars in Athens, it has one of the best views of the Acropolis and the city in general. This is a great spot to watch the sun set over the city.
Visit the Acropolis
You’ll read the same advice everywhere about visiting the Acropolis: go early. In my opinion, even in off-season, this is good advice. The Acropolis is, after all, one of Europe’s most popular attractions and often the sole reason people visit Athens. During March, we arrived just before opening time which is 8am, and while it was very quiet then, by about 8.20am it was very busy, and hideously so by 9am.
My second tip is about where you should enter the Acropolis site, as there are two entrances. One is very close to the Acropolis museum. This is a side entrance, so while it might be slightly quieter, if you enter via this entrance, you’re still about a 10-minute walk (or more if you stop to take in the ruins on the way) from the Parthenon. The main entrance is much closer to the Parthenon, meaning if you go early to this entrance and head straight to the Parthenon; you might just get it to yourself – or near enough for a few minutes. Then you can see everything else as the crowds stream in.
To enter at the main entrance of the Acropolis, put Acropolis Canteen into Google Maps and head there where you’ll be able to buy your tickets.
Get the best views of the Acropolis at the Monument of Philopappos
Athens is a city of stunning vistas; part of what makes wandering around Greece’s capital so special is the omnipresence of the Acropolis, which you’ll catch glimpses of nearly everywhere you go. But to get the best free and unobscured views of the Acropolis in all its glory, you should head up to the top of Philopappu Hill (sometimes also known as the Hill of Muses). This is just across form the main entrance of the Acropolis. At the top, you’ll have the perfect spot to sit and stare at the Acropolis, without too many trees or other visitors in your way.
Have some (more) yoghurt at Fresko
If you’re not all yoghurted out (not that having too much yoghurt is possible if you ask me), make sure you walk past Fresko Yogurt Bar Thissio (there’s also one near the Acropolis museum) after you leave Philopappu Hill. Yum.
See Hadrian’s Arch
The Arch of Hadrian, which is often known as Hadrian’s Gate, dates back to around 131-32 AD and was most likely built to celebrate the arrival of none other than the Roman Emperor Hadrian who visited during those years. Hadrian, who was so admired in the city that he was granted Athenian citizenship, had a reciprocal high regard of Greek culture and built many temples in Athens in an attempt to make it the cultural heart of the empire. He also famously had an affair with a young Greek man named Antinous who later drowned while the two were sailing on the Nile in Egypt. Hadrian was so devastated by the death he deified Antinous, leaving him to become one of the most popular deified humans in the Roman empire.
Visit the Temple of Zeus
The Temple of Zeus is the remains of a colossal temple, dedicated to the Greek god of Zeus who was considered to be the head of the Olympian gods. Although construction began in the 6th century BC, it wasn’t completed until 638 years later during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. Perhaps ironically – despite how many years it took to build – it was ransacked and left in ruins less than 100 years later. Those responsible for the ransacking by the way were none other than the Herules. Remember them? They are the same East Germanic tribe responsible for destroying the Stoa of Attalos.
Try some ouzo at Brettos Bar
Located in the very pretty (and touristy) Plaka, Brettos is an Athenian institution. The bar that’s walls are lined with hundreds of colourful bottles is Athens’s oldest distillery, which specialises in (what else but) the national drink of Greece: ouzo.
Check out Syntagma Square and walk through the national gardens
Syntagma Square is one of the most important spots in the city - if not the country - and has been the backdrop of many important moments in Greek history, particularly in terms of political movements and more recently anti-austerity marches. The Monument of the Unknown Solider is also in the square and if you’re lucky to be in the area at 11am on a Sunday you’ll see the entertaining changing of the guards.
Athens’s national gardens, built between 1938-40 after being commissioned by Queen Amalia, sit behind the square and offer a beautiful walk on your way to Mount Lycabettus.
See the Aegean from the top of Mount Lycabettus
Jutting out of one of Athens’s most affluent suburbs, Kolonaki, Mount Lycabettus is the highest point in the city. Take a funicular to the top around sunset for stunning views of the city and the sparkling Aegean Sea behind it.
Bars and Restaurants to try while in Athens:
Feedel Urban Gastronomy
If you want to try some modern Greek food, Feedel is the place to go. Ignore the comments on TripAdvisor that they’re rude to tourists – we didn’t think that at all and had a dinner of unique and delicious Greek food with a modern twist. While this is a somewhat expensive restaurant by Athens standards, in my opinion it’s worth it. Booking is a must and you’ll need to call but their English is perfect so you’ll have no problems doing so.
The Clumsies is a super cool bar in central Athens. The cocktails are unique and the drinks menu that we had could only be read when we ran a black light over it.
360 Cocktail Bar
I wouldn’t eat at this bar and drinks are expensive so we stuck to coffees but the views of the Acropolis are awesome. Although I preferred A for Athens (which is very nearby), so I’d only go here if there isn’t a seat for you there.
An Athenian recommended this to us and as promised the gyros at Savvas were to die for. Don’t bother going to sit upstairs in the terrace where they put the tourists – do what the locals do and order your gyros from the takeaway section downstairs and eat on the tables outside or in the nearby Monastiraki Square.
Try one of Athen’s best coffees at Taf
If you’re a coffee lover, it’s worth stopping by local favourite Café Taf, which is quite close to Athens’s famous National Archaeological Museum.
Athens has a relatively good metro which we caught to and from the airport for about €10 per person each way. While I thought we’d use the metro more to get around, we walked everywhere, which you could easily do with the itinerary above - which I’ve designed to be walkable.
Having grown up in Australia, surrounded by Greek expats, when I think of Greece and its people I think of hospitality and warmth. Of people who want to have fun, who love life, who are wise and who, yes, maybe cut a few corners every now and then, but only because they know better than anybody else that you only live once. And Athens is the perfect embodiment of its people. It’s a city that may not draw you in at first with its looks, but it will suck you in with its personality, warmth and vibrance.