Athens is one of those cities whose charm will never be effaced by time or construction as it is and will always remain the cradle of Western civilisation. A stunning city with lots to see and do; the Greeks are a welcoming and friendly people, despite the financial hardship the country is going through. The Greek capital boasts sights so moving that they will be sure to extract a tear or two as you catch your first glimpse of the Acropolis perched high above the city, or as you watch the sunset over the Agora at the bottom of the Acropolis hill. Even if sightseeing and history isn't your thing, you will be sure to enjoy strolling through the winding flowered streets of the Plaka district - the village that adorns the Acropolis hillsides. The city's rough-around-the-edges aspect might seem a little daunting at first, especially for travellers who are not used to seeing walls covered in graffiti to the extent that is found in Athens, but looking past these stereotypes, is a rich and diverse society with strong opinions and pride - after all, not everyone can claim to see the Acropolis, whose history dates to the sixth century BC, everyday from a window at work.
An exciting city of unusual places to explore behind closed doors and an array of food that will keep you salivating throughout your stay!
Make sure that you try typical Greek food (see the 'To try' section) and that you visit the areas we mention in the 'To see' section of this page. Try venturing out to bars in the evenings, where you will get a real feel for Athenian social life. We strongly recommend stopping by Six Dogs and TAF (The Art Foundation).
Where to start? There are so many sites to explore that it is hard to choose. Whatever you decide to see in the end, make sure you are prepared to do a lot of walking from one place to the next if you want to get a real feel for the city. Top of your list should be the Acropolis Museum (make sure you get there early as the Acropolis closes before sunset) before heading up to the Acropolis. Unless you have a deep-rooted passion for the Acropolis, you can zoom through the museum in order to get a good impression of the significance of the monuments which stand atop the sacred hill. We cannot stress how essential a visit to the Acropolis is and we can't promise that you won't be tempted to shed a tear once in front of the Parthenon! From the top of the Acropolis you will also be able to see Dionysius' (the god of wine in Greek mythology) theatre as well as the Temple of Zeus (the god of all gods).
Before heading back down the hill make sure you stop off at the Agora, where Socrates was said to have carried out his numerous discourses. Next on your list should be the Plaka area, or the charming village that wraps around the Acropolis hillsides - get lost in its winding streets and make sure to stop by for a spot of lunch or dinner before heading off to the markets of Monastiraki (meaning 'small monastery' in English), the district past Haidrian's Library. Here is a popular area for shopping due to the large market lining the cobbled streets (beware that while Greece is renowned for its handmade leather goods, a lot of items on sale here actually come from China).
Do make the trip up the Mount Lybacabettus for a 360° view of the sprawling city and surrounding districts including Attica, which you will soon enough realise is a lot bigger than one would have envisaged. On the way down make sure you pass through Exarchia, also known as the anarchists' district. Here you will find a range of independent arty shops, cafés, restaurants and artist squats.
In the evenings the best area to explore if you like house music, is Gazi when there are events on at the renovated factory complex and its surrounding bars. For a more local scene try Psiri, the neighbourhood in the backstreets of Monastiraki. If house music isn't your scene, you are best off exploring the bars hidden from the beaten track in Monastiraki like the TAF (The Art Foundation) and Six Dogs.
If food is your main preoccupation during your visit to Athens, then you won't be disappointed (unless you decide it is a good idea to try your luck off Syntagma square, that is). Try small restaurants that don't look like much from the exterior as these are usually your best bet for authentic Greek food. Alternatively try Thissio just past Monastiraki where you will find a string of lively restaurants lined up one after the other. You will have to trust your instinct to avoid the tourist traps among them - a good way to tell is by spotting the locals; the more locals at the restaurant, the most authentic it is likely to be.
Most importantly, plan to stay in the centre of town so that you can explore the city on foot. Our favourite place to stay is in the Monastiraki area (half-way between Monastiraki and Omonia Square) at the Fresh Hotel (see our review).
When planning your visit to the Acropolis, make sure you allow enough time to visit the museum first, followed by the Acropolis and the Agora, which closes around 4:00pm during the winter and 5:00pm in the summer.
Don't be surprised if a local strikes up conversation with you, especially if it takes a political turn. It will soon become obvious that the financial crisis in Greece is extremely difficult for the locals who are only too happy to engage in a long-winded conversation (or monologue) about the current situation. If you decide to exchange views about politics make sure you understand that this won't be a light-hearted conversation.
Don't bother walking to Omonia Square along Athina street from Monastiraki as there really isn't much to see here apart from a few homeless people bedding-down and a lot of traffic. And don't bother with Kolonaki either - a rich neighbourhood with shops and cafés but not too lively and with very little to see.
Avoid buying leather goods in Monastiraki market even if the products have a 'Genuine Greek Leather' label - in reality most of these items have been imported from China. Stick to family businesses like The Art of Leather on Athina (between Monastiraki and Omonia).
In terms of restaurants, stay away from the Syntagma area (just across the main square in Monastiraki) as these are expensive and the food served here isn't particularly good. There are also unbearable swarms of tourists and hawkers.
Greece is a haven for food-lovers - we can guarantee you that you won't go hungry here. The local specialties include humus (ground chickpea dip), tzatziki (yoghurt and cucumber dip), vine leaves (rice wrapped in vine leaves), taramasalata (fish paste dip), falafel (fried chickpeas and coriander), moussaka (aubergine and potato layers), feta cheese and gyros sandwiches (our equivalent of a kebab). The best thing to do is to order a selection of small plates to share so that you get to try most specialties. And don't forget to wash it all down with the local beverage, Ouzo - an aniseed-based alcoholic beverage mixed with water.
There isn't much in Athens that you can't find back home nowadays, however try to seek out some handmade leather goods as the country is renowned for its handiwork. Unfortunately there aren't many places left that still sell genuine handmade Greek leather goods - to be sure, visit The Art of Leather on Athina in Monastiraki .
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