Filled with sun-bleached ruins, vibrant street culture, and a longstanding intellectual legacy, Athens, the historical capital of Europe, combines the cultural metropolis and ancient roots in a way that very few cities can parallel.
Steeped in over 2500 years of history, Athens, the birthplace of democracy, arts, science and philosophy of Western civilization, has been fundamental to our understanding of the world. Its incredible ruins, thriving local culture, numerous museums, buzzing neighborhoods, and exquisite food make it a treasure trove that every traveler should explore at least once.
My husband and I visited Athens on a Mediterranean Cruise in 2019 and found it fascinating. I’ve also planned several trips to Athens for clients. If you’re planning to visit one or more of the Greek islands, you’ll likely fly through Athens, so it makes sense to stop for at least a day or two.
No trip to Athens would be complete without a guided tour of the Acropolis, the rocky mound rising in the heart of modern Athens, crowned by the Parthenon. The word Acropolis comes from the Greek words ‘Akro’, which means high or extreme/extremity or edge, and ‘Polis’ meaning city. Hence, quite literally, it is “the high point of city”.
This marvel of ancient architecture, a UNESCO World Heritage site, stands as a testament to the glory of Ancient Greece. Its monuments, built from white Pentelic marble, glisten under the Mediterranean sun that graces the city for much of the year.
Primarily associated with the city’s golden age in the 5th century BC, the Acropolis is home to several buildings of great architectural and historic importance. The most famous among these is undoubtedly the Parthenon, a former temple dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. The building’s harmonious proportions and decorative sculptures make it one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments.
However, the Parthenon shares the Acropolis with other equally impressive monuments. The Erechtheion, built on the most sacred site where Athena and Poseidon had their contest over who would be the Patron of the city, is famous for its caryatids, the six larger-than-life maiden columns that support a portion of the porch roof.
The Propylaea, the monumental gateway that serves as the entrance to the Acropolis, is a large, imposing structure visited by every tourist who climbs the hill.
Finally, the small yet beautiful Temple of Athena Nike stands by the Propylaia and is dedicated to Athena as the goddess of victory.
From atop the Acropolis, one gets panoramic views of Athens. It’s a testament to the acropolis’s initial defensive purpose – to defend the city from attackers. Our tour guide pointed out the Areopagus (also called Mars Hill) where the Apostle Paul preached a sermon which is recounted in Act 17:16-34.
Other archaeological and historical sites
Beyond the Acropolis, Athens is home to an abundance of other historical and archaeological sites that hold the secrets of the city’s ancient past.
One such monument is the Ancient Agora of Athens, a sprawling ruin located to the northwest of the Acropolis. The hub of ancient Athenian political, commercial, administrative and social activity, it hosts the well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus, the Stoa of Attalos, and the Church of the Holy Apostles. Exploring the Agora will give you a detailed glimpse of everyday life in ancient Athens. My most recent clients who traveled to Athens loved their visit to the Ancient Agora.
Not far from the Agora is the Roman Forum, another bustling public area under Roman rule which continues to impress with the Tower of the Winds, an intriguing structure that functioned as a horologion (timepiece).
Kerameikos, the ancient cemetery of Athens, may not be as well known as the Acropolis or the Agora, but this archaeologically rich area provides unique insights into the burial customs and belief systems of ancient Athenians.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus, a colossal, ruined temple in the center of Athens, was once one of the largest temples of the ancient world. All that remains now are 15 of the original 104 Corinthian columns, but their grand scale is still incredible.
The Theatre of Dionysus, at the foothills of the Acropolis, is regarded as the first theatre in the world. It’s a place where great plays by dramatists like Sophocles and Aristophanes were performed during the city’s golden age.
Finally, there is the Presidential Guard by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is quite an attraction itself. The changing of the guard ceremony happens every hour. The soldiers lift their legs very high; it’s a different style of marching than what we are used to in the US.
Aside from its historic structures and ruins, Athens is home to an impressive array of museums which collectively narrate the rich and complex story of the city’s past and Greece as a nation.
No visit to Athens would be complete without exploring the Acropolis Museum, one of the world’s premier archaeological museums. It houses a vast collection of artifacts discovered on the Acropolis, including the surviving treasures of the Parthenon, displayed in a modern building that offers a stunning view of the monument itself.
The National Archaeological Museum, the largest archaeological museum in Greece, boasts an extensive collection of artifacts from all over the country which encapsulates more than 5,000 years of Greek history. The highlights include the golden Mask of Agamemnon, the Antikythera device, and the stunning frescoes from Santorini.
The Benaki Museum curates Greek history from prehistoric times to the modern era, striking a fine balance of both ancient and contemporary exhibitions. Housed in a neoclassical mansion, it features a diverse collection from Islamic arts to Chinese porcelain, giving visitors a global perspective.
The Byzantine and Christian Museum offers a comprehensive take on Byzantine art, displaying a collection of about 25,000 artifacts including icons, textiles, sculptures, wall paintings and mosaics.
Modern art enthusiasts will appreciate the Museum of Contemporary Art, which showcases Greek and international contemporary art, while the Museum of Cycladic Art houses one of the most comprehensive private collections of Cycladic art worldwide, earning it a unique spot in Athens’ cultural scene.
For those interested in Athens’ more recent past, the Museum of the City of Athens depicts life in the 19th century, when Athens became the capital of Greece.
Athens’ neighborhoods have maintained their individual identity, making strolling through them akin to walking through different historical periods.
Plaka, nestled in the shadow of the Acropolis, is the old historical neighborhood of Athens. Its labyrinth-like streets, neoclassical architecture, and small, intimate squares make it one of the city’s most picturesque areas. One can find the ancient Roman Agora here, alongside numerous tavernas and souvenir shops.
Adjacent to Plaka is Monastiraki, a district that marries the traditional with the chic. From the flea market and old Ottoman-era mosque to trendy cafes and record shops, there’s a unique hustle and bustle that showcases the true spirit of Athens. My husband and I shopped for some souvenirs here.
Kolonaki is Athens’ upmarket neighborhood, located on the slopes of Lycabettus Hill. This district is home to fine dining restaurants, high-end boutiques, sophisticated art galleries, and museums. Venture here to taste the ritzy side of Athens.
Psirri has transformed from a forgotten district to one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods, filled with stylish coffee shops, bars and art workshops. The colorful murals and graffiti that adorn its buildings provide a vibrant, contemporary counterpoint to Athens’ ancient landmarks.
Anafiotika, on the northeastern side of the Acropolis hill, is a tiny, tranquil neighborhood built by workers from the island of Anafi. The white-washed houses, narrow alleys, and bright flowers evoke a charming island atmosphere right in the heart of the city.
The vibrant city of Athens also offers a feast of culinary delights, allowing you to explore Greece’s ancient history through its diverse cuisine. Whether you’re dining in a glamorous restaurant, a family-run taverna, or grabbing a snack from a bustling street food stall, Athens offers an array of mouthwatering food.
Greek cuisine, known for its liberal use of olive oil, fresh vegetables, and a variety of meats, showcases a mix of influences from both Eastern and Western cultures. I grew up in an area with a significant population of Greek Americans. I have fond memories of eating delicious food at the annual Greek festival, so I really enjoyed trying some of those same foods when we went to Greece.
An absolute must-try is Moussaka, a hearty dish made up of layered eggplant, minced meat, and creamy béchamel sauce.
Souvlaki, meanwhile, is a popular fast food, consisting of small pieces of grilled meat, usually pork or chicken, served on a skewer. Often seasoned with herbs and spices, it can be enjoyed on its own, or wrapped in pita bread, garnished with tomatoes, onions, and a drizzle of tzatziki sauce.
Spanakopita, my personal favorite, is a traditional Greek spinach pie with feta cheese, eggs, and onion in a flaky phyllo dough. This delightful treat can be served either as a snack or an appetizer.
And then there’s Dolmades, stuffed grape leaves with rice and herbs which are a delicious bite-size explosion of flavors.
For those with a sweet tooth, Athens offers traditional desserts like Baklava, a sweet pastry made of layers of phyllo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with a syrup made with honey.
Another popular treat is Greek yogurt, known for its creamy texture and tart flavor. It tastes heavenly topped with local honey and crunchy walnuts or, for a fruity twist, with a spoonful of sweet cherry or quince jam.
Do you want to visit Athens?
Athens blends ancient monuments with a lively nightlife and vibrant food scene, showcasing a perfect balance between its rich history and modern charm.
If you are ready to start planning, please consider allowing me to help you plan your trip. I work with supplier partners who are experts on travel in Greece. I can either find a cruise or tour that is right for you or work with my supplier partners to craft a custom trip. Read about how my services work here.