In eastern Athens Zografou is a municipality with a big student population, where you’ll find the campus for the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, as well as the National Technical University of Athens.
The neighbourhood is bounded to the east by the 1,000-metre Mount Hymettus and you can hike on the mountain through the Kaisariani Forest where a walled 12th-century monastery is hiding among the pines.
Zografou has convenient transport links to the centre of Athens, along Alexandras Avenue, by bus, tram or on Line 3 of the Metro.
Two or three stops and you’ll be at the National Garden and top-quality attractions like the Byzantine and Christian Museum and the Benaki Museum.
Also in your grasp here is Mount Lycabettus, the hill in the city centre with all of Athens at its feet.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Zografou:
1. Kaisariani Monastery
At Zografou you’re in the best part of Athens to reach this walled Byzantine-era compound on the north slopes of Mount Hymettus.
Catch a cab or the 240 bus and you can then walk up through pine forest to get to the monastery.
This was established in the 12th century on a site with religious meaning for more than a millennium beforehand.
The church, cells, refectory and bathhouse are all still enclosed by a defensive wall.
The church has stunning late-Byzantine frescoes from the 14th century to the 17th century.
The oldest is on the southern external wall, portraying the Theotokos (Mary, mother of God), while inside you can see Christ Pantocrator in the cupola, the Preparation of the Throne, the Panagia and the Four Evangelists.
2. Kaisariani Forest
If you visit the Kaisariani Monastery in spring, autumn and the beginning of summer, your trip doesn’t have to end at the monastery as you can continue up the slope of Mount Hymettus to see the whole city from above.
There’s plenty of cover from the pines, while walls of high cypress trees border the paths, all of which have bounced back after the mountain suffered two forest fires in the last 15 years.
Keep your eyes peeled for tortoises grazing in the clearings, and make sure to bring a picnic to while away an hour or spotting Athens’ landmarks on the skyline, like the Acropolis and Mount Lycabettus.
3. Byzantine and Christian Museum
In Zografou, the nearest of Athens’ blockbuster museums is a few minutes by bus or car (traffic-permitting) or a couple of stops on Line 3 of the Athens Metro.
The Byzantine and Christian Museum has a world-beating collection of 30,000 pieces Byzantine art, dating from the 200s to the end of the Medieval period.
In store is a profusion of icons, frescoes, iconostases, statues, ceramics, mosaics, jewellery and numerous pieces of carved marble recovered from the earliest churches.
The museum’s setting is the beautiful Villa Ilissia, built in a Romantic and Classical style for the Sophie de Marbois-Lebrun, Duchess of Plaisance and her husband Anne-Charles Lebrun.
4. Mount Lycabettus
A brief bus or cab ride west of Zografou is a limestone hill that is an abiding feature of the Athens skyline.
Mount Lycabettus is 300 metres high and can be scaled either by the funicular or on foot on cooler days.
The walk is easier than the vertiginous slopes make it seem, and the lower reaches are cloaked in dense pine forest.
When you do get to the top you’ll be rewarded by what is probably the finest panorama of Athens.
After making the effort you may want to linger for a while picking out sights like the Acropolis, National Garden, Panathenaic Stadium and the Temple of Olympic Zeus.
At the summit is a restaurant, as well as an open-air theatre where rock and pop royalty like James Brown, Bob Dylan, Radiohead and Patti Smith have played.
5. Museum of Cycladic art
Practically opposite the Byzantine and Christian Museum is another of Athens’ first-class history museums.
The Museum of Cycladic Art is centred on a marvellous collection of prehistoric figurines from the Cyclades in the Aegean.
These minimalist, almost abstract carvings may hold a certain magic if you’re a fan of the modern art of Giacometti or Modigliani.
But there are also stone, glass, faience, gold, bronze and clay treasures from Cyprus, and an overview of ancient history in the Aegean, from 2,000 BC to 300 AD recounting the evolution of Greek civilisation and its merging with Roman culture from the 2nd century BC. Another exhibition has figurines, vases and weapons combined with movies to give a sense of different aspects of life, religious beliefs and customs in antiquity (Gods and Heroes, World of Men, World of Women, Eros and the Underworld).
6. Benaki Museum
In the same string of museums on Vasilissis Sofias Avenue, leading up to the Hellenic Parliament, is a museum founded in 1930 in memory of the merchant and politician Emmanouil Benakis, famous for his acts of philanthropy at the start of the 20th century.
This museum has a few branches around Athens, but the main one is essential and has an unbroken timeline of Greek history, from 5,000 BC to modernity.
These treasures were assembled by Emmanoil’s son Antonis and include Prehistoric, Ancient Greek and Roman figurines, friezes, mosaics, jewellery, vases, ceramics, busts and glassware.
From Byzantine and Ottoman times there are icons, frescoes, mosaics, decorated sanctuary doors, incense burners and other liturgical marvels.
7. Athens War Museum
In a peculiar bunker-like building next door to the Byzantine and Christian Museum is the museum for Greece’s armed forces.
All Greek conflicts are covered, from prehistory, through Alexander the Great to the 20th century, but it’s the modern exhibits that will hold your attention.
Hanging from the ceiling are various aircraft from the Hellenic Air Force, and cabinets hold an array of guns and blades collected around the world by Petros Saroglou, an officer in the Greek artillery.
There are also medals, weapons, maps, photographs from a string of 19th and 20th-century conflicts starting with the Greek Revolution in 1821 and ending with the Turkish Invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
You can’t come to Athens and not see the Acropolis, that rocky outcrop capped by ancient temples and defended by the monumental arch, the propylaia.
Atop its sheer walls are landmarks that are burned into the world’s consciousness, like the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion.
Make sure to see every inch of these marvels, and the monuments at the foot of the citadel like the Theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus , before getting the context at the Acropolis Museum.
Built over Greek and Byzantine ruins, this museum has glass floors on its lowest levels and reveals all of the artefacts recovered from the Acropolis, and architectural sculpture from the temples.
These represent the pinnacle of Ancient Greek art and include the beguiling caryatids from the Temple of Erechtheion and the meotopes from the Pantheon on the museum’s astonishing top floor.
Against the northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis, Plaka is a lovable district built over the residential quarters of ancient Athens.
On weaving streets, stairways and little squares are Neoclassical houses wreathed in bougainvillea, geraniums and jasmine flowers.
For a spell in the 60s and 70s Plaka was a rowdy party district, but the nightclubs and music venues have since moved north and west to Psiri and Gazi.
They’ve been usurped in Plaka by one-off shops, selling handmade jewellery, ouzo, spices, Greek specialties like olives and tasteful souvenirs.
Also in the mix in Plaka are traditional restaurants if you’re hankering for meze, moussaka or souvlaki.
This being Athens, ancient monuments are strewn around Plaka, like the Tower of the Winds at the Roman Agora, a clocktower from the 1st or 2nd century AD and held as the world’s oldest meteorological station.
10. National Archaeological Museum
You can get to one of the best museums on the planet in minutes from Zografou on Alexandras Avenue.
The National Archaeology Museum has more artefacts from antiquity than any other museum, and is as obligatory on a trip to Athens as the Acropolis.
These wonders are arranged in distinct departments: Prehistory, Sculpture, Vases, Santorini, Metallurgy, Egyptian and Near Eastern Artefacts and Epigraphs.
Needless to say there’s much to mull over, and you’ll need half a day to do the museum justice.
One of the must-sees is the Marathon boy, a bronze statue from the 4th century BC found in the Aegean Sea in the Bay of Athens.
The Mask of Agamemnon, though not related to the famous king, is a staggering Mycenaean treasure from the 16th century BC. And then there’s the Antikythera mechanism, the world’s oldest analogue computer, built in the 2nd century BC and found in a shipwreck in 1902.
11. Ancient Agora
If there’s one sight in Athens that can be improved with an expert guide it’s the tapestry of ruins in the Ancient Agora.
The Agora doesn’t shine for its architecture because most of it has been flattened by centuries of conflict.
But its value is in its historical significance as the city’s administrative, commercial and judicial centre, as so as the cradle of Athenian democracy.
For deeper insight the Museum of the Ancient Agora is in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, first built in the 2n century BC. In the showcases here are bronze ballots, jurors’ identification tags, official clay measures and ceramic shards inscribed with the names of important political figures from the 5th century BC. Above the northwestern edge of the Agora is the Doric Temple of Hepaestus, completed in 415 BC and in an amazing state of preservation.
12. Marika Kotopouli Museum
You don’t need to leave Zografou to visit this museum at the holiday home of the celebrated theatre actress Marika Kotopouli, constructed in 1926. Fifteen years after it was completed the Villa Kotopouli was commandeered by the occupying Germans in the Second World War, and then in the post-war years it became a police station.
In the 80s the Association of Greek Actors and the Zografou Municipality restored the house’s 1920s interiors and it became an art museum, putting on temporary exhibitions and displaying the collection of the 20th-century patron Konstantinos Ionnidis.
13. National Garden
On the verge of the Hellenic Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is this 24-hectare park in the middle of the city.
When the parliament building was a royal palace, the National Garden was the private escape of Queen Amalia, landscaped in the late 1830s.
A crucial moment in Greek history took place in these pergolas, ponds and rows of palms in 1820 when King Alexander was bitten by a pet monkey.
The wound went septic and he died not long after, in the middle of the Greco-Turkish War.
It has been argued that this brought about a chain of events that brought about a Greek defeat in the war.
In the confines of the National Garden is a small zoo with peacocks, chickens and goats, a botanical museum and a smattering of ancient ruins like mosaics, columns and capitals.
14. Temple of Olympian Zeus
East of the Acropolis and southwest of the National Garden is an ancient monument of real magnitude; only you’ll need to use a little imagination.
The Temple of Zeus had a construction period of more than half a millennium.
Work began in the Doric style under the Tyrants in the 6th century BC, but was abandoned when the Tyranny was overthrown.
Then in the 2nd BC the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who saw himself as the embodiment of Zeus, picked up construction, changing the design from Doric to Corinthian.
This was interrupted by the king’s death and Sulla’s sack of Athens a century later.
Finally, the building was completed under Hadrian in the 2nd Century AD, but the temple would stand for just 135 years before it was wrecked by the Herules.
Of the 104 original columns only 15 stand today, while one is horizontal after a storm in 1852.
15. Hellenic Motor Museum
If you get some luck with the traffic this museum, inaugurated in 2011, is under 10 minutes from Zografou along Alexandras Avenue.
A change of gear from Athens’ ancient temples, the museum has a fleet of 300 vintage, classic, modern and early cars, of which 110 are presented to the public at any one time.
Many of these cars are distinguished by their former owners, like Paul Newman’s Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing, and a Chrysler Imperial that once belonged to Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame.
Another remarkable vehicle is the Cadillac Seville designed by the Gucci fashion house, one of a limited run of just 25. Some of the classics include a Porsche 365 A Coupe, a Ferrari GTE 2+2 and four Ferrari Dinos.
The oldest vehicle of all is a mobile Hungarian fire engine from 1895.