If you’re like us then coming to the cradle of civilisation is like being a child in a candy shop. There’s no limit to the amount of Doric and Ionic temples, statues, vases and Archaic figurines we could devour before we get tired.
In museums you can see the ballot disks from Ancient Greek courts, and you can step into the Theatre of Dionysus, the very place where Euripides and Aristophanes staged their plays, or walk the Agora, knowing that your path will be the same once trodden by Plato and Socrates.
But Athens is far more than an archaeological site, from the jungle of concrete towers in the modern city to Plaka, a warren of alleys built over ancient Athens residential quarters. Punctuating the cityscape are hills like Mount Lycabettus and Philopappos Hill where you can get the lie of the land and see the Acropolis on its rocky throne.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Athens:
There’s nothing we can tell you that hasn’t been said many times about Athens’ ancient citadel.
The Acropolis is on an abrupt rocky outcrop above the city and has world-renowned Classical landmarks that people spend whole lifetimes waiting to see in the flesh.
The pinnacle of these is of course the Parthenon, but The Propylea, the Erectheion and the Temple of Athena Nike are indispensible, and you can skip the queues and get enthralling inside facts and titbits about ancient Greek democracy and philosophy with a registered guide.
The going is steep and slippery on timeworn marble, until you reach the flat summit, and be prepared for cranes and scaffolding, which are an understandable necessity for a World Heritage Site.
Recommended tour: Athens Mythology Highlights Tour
Seen as the greatest achievement of the Doric Order and Classical Greece’s most significant building to make it to the 21st Century, the Parthenon is a symbol of western civilisation and Athenian democracy.
The Parthenon was dedicated to the goddess Athena and begun in 447 BC, when the Athenian Empire was the dominant force in the Aegean.
Co-designed, by Ictinus and Callicrates, at that time it was a city treasury before becoming a church in the 6th century and then a mosque in the 1460s.
Notoriously, some of the Parthenon’s sculptures were plundered by The Earl of Elgin at the start of the 18th century and were later sold to the British Museum where they remain.
The remainder of the original frieze and pediment sculpture is the highlight of the Acropolis Museum, which follows.
3. Acropolis Museum
The work of Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, the Acropolis Museum in on the southeast slope and was unveiled in 2009 to present the many thousands of artefacts discovered on the archaeological site of the Acropolis.
Smartly oriented to give you constant views of the Parthenon, the museum is built over ancient ruins and much of the ground floor has glass panels and open spaces, showing the foundations below.
On three levels visitors are sent on a chronological trip through the centuries, starting with the hill’s archaic discoveries in a large trapezoidal hall that also has findings from the Erechtheion, the Propylaea gateway and the Temple of Athena Nike.
After this you go up to wonder at the marbles from the frieze (including metopes) and the pediments of the Parthenon in a hall with the same dimensions, column spacing and orientation as the temple.
The tour then continues back down, through Roman and early Christian Athens.
Skip the line: The Acropolis Museum Skip-The-Line Ticket
On the north side of the Acropolis is a temple to Athena and Poseidon, built in the Ionic Order from 421 to 406 BC. After antiquity this monument had all sorts of uses, as a Byzantine church, a palace in the Frankish period and much later a residence for the Ottoman commander’s harem.
The thing you have to see, and the Erechtheion’s defining image, is the southern Porch of the Maidens.
This has six magnificent caryatids supporting its roof, carved by Callimachus or Alcamenes.
The current caryatids are casts, and five of the originals are now in the Acropolis museum and a sixth is at the British Museum.
5. National Archaeological Museum
A veritable wonderland of ancient art, it’s fitting that Athens’ National Archaeological Museum should be one of the largest and richest in the world.
The galleries are jammed with star exhibits that have been beguiling scholars for generations.
Take the finds from the Atikythera wreck, identified in 1900 and dating back to the 4th century BC. This yielded the Atikythera Mechanism, the world’s oldest analogue computer and the contemplative Philosopher’s Head.
Then there’s the Mask of Agamemnon, a gold funerary mask from the 16th century BC , most likely made for Mycenaean royalty, though too early for Agamemnon.
See also the Eleusinian relief from the 5th century BC, as well as Bronze Age frescoes from the islands of Santorini and Thera and the Jockey of Artemision, a beguiling statue of a racehorse from 150-140 BC.
6. Temple of Hephaestus
Atop the 65-metre Agoraios Kolonos hill on the northwest side of the Agora of Athens, the Temple of Hephaestus is a Doric peripteral temple in an amazing state of preservation.
It was built in the second half of the 5th century BC and construction was delayed for three decades because funds and labour were redirected towards the Parthenon.
Designed by Ictinus, the temple was dedicated to Athena and Hephaestus who was the ancient god of fire, metalworking, forges, sculpture and stonemasonry, and has six fluted columns on its west side and 13 on its north and south.
You can also make out plenty of sculpted elements, from the Labour of Hercules on the meotopes on the east side, to the pronaos and opisthodomos, which show Theseus with the Pallantides and the battle of Centaurs and Lapiths.
7. Museum of Cycladic Art
Beginning in the 1960s the couple Nicholas and Dolly Goulandris amassed the world’s largest collection of prehistoric art from the Cycladic Islands in the Aegean.
By the 1980s this was enough to fill a museum, which opened in 1986. There are more than 3,000 pieces of Cycladic, Ancient Greek and Cypriot art at the museum, dating from 3,000 to the 4th century BC. But it’s the Cycladic marble figurines that draw the most acclaim.
If you love modern art you may notice uncanny similarities between their minimal, abstract lines and works by the likes of Giacometti and Henry Moore.
8. Temple of Athena Nike
In a commanding position, raised on a bastion on the southeast slope of the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena Nike is from 420 BC and was the first complete Ionic Order temple on the hill.
It’s the most recent of a number of temples dedicated to Athena Nike at the Acropolis, the previous of which was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. Conceived by Callicrates, this edifice is a tetrastyle Ionic temple with four elegantly narrow columns on its front and rear porticos that have the hallmark Ionic volutes or scrolls.
Fragments of the frieze and relief around the parapet below are on display at the Acropolis Museum, including the sublime wet drapery sculpture of the goddess fixing her sandal.
An antidote to both the silent ancient temples and traffic-heavy modern city, Plaka lies on top of ancient Athens’s residential quarters in the shadow of the Acropolis.
It’s a district of tight, twisting alleys with 19th-century facades garlanded with flowering bougainvillea in summer.
Plaka is jam-packed with family-run shops, each with something alluring, from ceramics, musical instruments, handmade jewellery to specialty food shops stacked high with olives and spices.
And whether you want to pick up a gyro or sit down to a meze Plaka is a go-to for dining and nightlife.
Below the rocky notheastern slope of the Acropolis is Anafiotika, a steep whitewashed neighbourhood settled in the 19th-century reign of Otto of Greece when workers moved here during the renovation of King Othon’s Palace.
Recommended tour: Hidden Athens: Plaka and Athens Hills Afternoon Walking Tour
10. Temple of Olympian Zeus
Now, not much of this temple east of the Acropolis has been left standing, but what remains is more than enough to tell you that it used to be vast.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus had an extremely long construction period, started in the 6th century BC but not completed until the rule of Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd Century AD. In that time the prevalent order had switched to Corinthian, and the 15 surviving columns of an original 104 have scrolls and acanthus patterns.
The temple was pulled down during the Herulian sack of Athens in 267, little more than a century after it was completed , and its stone was quarried for other buildings around the city.
11. Benaki Museum
A near-complete chronology of Greek history and culture, the Benaki Museum was founded by the art collector Antonis Benakis in 1930. He set up the institution in memory of his father Emmanuel who had died the year before and was a prominent politician.
On three floors you can follow the course of Greek art from prehistoric times to the present.
The ground floor has surprisingly sophisticated Neolithic vases, as well as Archaic ceramics and figurines and Classical sculpture.
The first floor leads you through the late Byzantine period and Ottoman rule, and is endowed with religious icons and examples of folk costume.
Then after the cafeteria on the 3rd, the top floor has paintings, documents and weapons from the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire from 1821 to 1829.
12. Ancient Agora of Athens
Reserved for trade and public gatherings, the Agora was the centre of Classical Athens and is cushioned by the Acropolis to the southeast and the Agoraios Kolonos hill to the south.
It was drawn up in the 6th century BC and is a wide-ranging site with the ruins of more than 30 buildings and monuments.
Download a map, go slow and let you imagination wander.
Or hire a guide who will explain the ancient customs that once took place where you stand, like ostracism, in which potential threats to the state were preemptively forced into exile.
13. Museum of the Ancient Agora
One of the monuments in the Agora, the Stoa of Attalos, was totally reconstructed in the 1950s.
This covered walkway was first built by Attalos II in the mid-2nd century BC but was wrecked by the Herules in 267. The new building was as faithful as possible to the archaeological knowledge of the day and hosts the Museum of the Ancient Agora, showing off the artefacts brought to light during excavations in the area by the American School of Classical Studies.
Awaiting you are Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Geometric period figurines, weapons and vases recovered from tombs and wells.
You can also see some thrilling pieces relating to Athenian democracy in the Classical and Late Classical periods, like an official bronze weight, shards of pottery used in ostracism ballots (ostracons), clay measuring devices, bronze and lead ballot disks once used in trials.
Available tour: Athens: Guided Tour of Ancient Agora and Agora Museum
14. Panathenaic Stadium
Erected for the 1896 Olympics, the Panathenaic Stadium is a modern reconstruction of an ancient stadium built for the Panathenaic Games in 330 BC. Two hundred years later that ancient monument would be rendered in marble by the Athenian Roman senator Herodes Atticus.
With a U-shape layout, the Panethenaic Stadium is an almost exact replica of the construction from the 2nd century BC, and like its ancient ancestor is composed completely from marble.
It was seen around the world during the 2004 Athens Olympics when it staged the archery events and was the finish line for both the men’s and women’s marathon.
The stadium can hold 45,000 spectators and from its highest tiers you can see the Acropolis and the National Garden.
15. Mount Lycabettus
Unlike Athens’ most famous summit, Mount Lycabettus is free to climb on foot, but you can also take a funicular to the summit.
Northeast of the city centre, this cretaceous limestone peak rises to 300 metres and its lower slopes are decked in pine trees, which become sparser as you approach the rocky summit.
The walk is best saved for winter and not the searing Athens summer, while the funicular runs on the hour and half-hour.
At the top you’ll be bowled over by the best panorama of the city and can take your time to pick out the Acropolis, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Piraeus Coast and peaks like Pentelicus, which yielded the marble for the Acropolis, and the soaring Parnitha in the north.
16. Odeon of Herodes Atticus
This Roman-era concert hall was raised in 161 AD on the orders of the Athenian Magnate Herodes Atticus, most likely in memory of his wife Aspasia Annia Regilla.
At that time it had a roof made from cedar wood and could seat 5,000 until it was razed by the Herules in 275. Over the next 1,700 years, the monument faded into the earth, and visitors in the Medieval period had no idea what the ruins meant.
The first excavation took place in 1848 by archaeologist Kyriakos Pittakis and the man of letters Alexandros Rizos Rangavis, and witnessed by Otto of Greece.
The theatre was restored in the 1950s when the stone tiers were rebuilt using the same marble from Mount Pentelicus.
Get a seat for an evening concert to experience the Odeon as the Athenians would have done 2,000 years ago.
17. Philopappos Monument
The pine-clad elevation neighbouring the acropolis to the southwest is known as Hill of the Muses, but also the Philopappos Hill.
That name comes from Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos, a prince of the Kingdom of Commagene in the 1st and 2nd centuries.
His death in 116 is said to have caused a great deal of grief to the citizens of Athens and not least his sister Julia Balbilla, who erected an lasting monument in his memory.
Two storeys high the monument has a frieze on its lower level showing Philiopappos as a Roman consul, on a chariot and preceded by lictors (bodyguards). The damaged upper section has sculptures of Antiochus IV, the last King of Commagene, and Philoppapos with an inscription in a niche below his image.
18. Byzantine and Christian Museum
By now you might be an expert on Archaic and Classical Greece, but the Byzantine period from around the 200s to the 1400s has a lot of wonders in store.
Housed in the neo-Renaissance Villa Ilissia from 1848, the Byzantine and Christian Museum opened in 1914 and was refurbished in time for the Olympics in 2004. There’s a bewitching assortment of sculptures, icons, frescoes, jewellery, architectural fragments, religious vestments, manuscripts, books and mosaics.
You’ll get to know its landmark events, like when Christianity was made legal by Constantine, and Roman power shifted from Rome to Constantinople in the 4th century.
The museum also studies the decline of Byzantine power, and how Venetian-controlled territories with cosmopolitan populations helped lay the path for the Renaissance in Europe.
A neat follow-up to the Byzantine Museum is this 11th-century church on Ermou Street, Athens’ poshest commercial artery.
Kapnikarea is among the oldest churches in the city and was consecrated around 1050. As was often the way with early Christian churches, Kapnikarea was built over an ancient Greek pagan temple, most likely to Demeter or Athena.
The colourful iconography in the interior is recent and was composed by the painter Photis Kontoglou in the mid-20th century, but there’s also older decoration in the church’s friezes and the sculpted column capitals inside.
There’s another hefty white outcrop amid the pines and cypress trees just northwest of the acropolis.
After taking care on the slippery marble steps, you’ll be able see the Port of Piraeus, the Acropolis and Athens Northern quarters from the Areopagus.
And being part of the Classical city there are plenty of myths associated with this rock.
One is the trial of Ares for the murder of Poseidon’s son Halirrhothius.
In the real world Areopagus was the place where the city council sat before the 5th century BC, until Ephialtes introduced reforms that stripped the council of its power.
After that time it remained Athens’ chief homicide court.
21. Theatre of Dionysus
European drama was born at the Theatre of Dionysus, which was first used for performances in the 6th century BC. Carved into the rocky southern slope of the Acropolis, it was the first theatre ever constructed.
The current design is from the middle of the 4th century BC, when the statesman Lycurgus oversaw the city’s finances, although a lot of changes were made later in the Roman period.
This monument is charged with meaning: The Theatre of Dionysus hosted the Dionysia Festival, entered by dramatists like Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Menander and Aristophanes.
It can be dumbfounding to realise you’re looking at the same stage where all of the Classical masterpieces were performed, many for the first time.
While Plaka is for sightseeing and shopping, Psiri has taken up the mantle of best nightlife quarter in Athens, with streets full of revellers until daybreak on weekends.
Psiri wasn’t always a place for outsiders, as from the foundation of the modern Greek state in 1828 to the 1990s the area had a fearsome reputation.
In the 19th century it was the haunt of Koutsavakides, a law unto themselves, with long moustaches, coats down to their ankles (for hiding their guns) and high-heeled pointed boots.
The last 20 years has rounded off Psiri’s edges, and there’s an endless choice of music tavernas, bars, restaurants, cafes and nightclubs for all tastes.
23. National Garden
In touching distance from Psiri and Plaka, the National Garden is a welcome green buffer between ancient Athens and the modern sea of concrete.
The National Garden was formerly the Royal Garden, opening up to the south of the Old Royal Palace and ordered by Amalia of Oldenburg at the end of the 1830s.
Come for a few minutes of repose, idling below the pergolas and avenue of lofty palm trees and bringing children to the two ponds to meet the turtles and ducks.
The park also has a small zoo with peacocks, birds of prey, wolves and monkeys, as well as a botanical museum.
And this being Athens, don’t be surprised to bump into some traces of the ancient city, like mosaics and columns.
24. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Under the facade of Old Royal Palace on Syntagma Square is a cenotaph for all Greek soldiers to have fallen during war.
The monument was sculpted in the early 1930s, blending French Empire design and Athens’ own ancient architecture, but also contemporary Art Deco which is particularly visible in the relief.
The tomb is watched by the Evzones (elite infantry) of the Presidential Guard and there’s a small changing of the guard ceremony on the hour every hour.
On the steps and wall flanking the monument are inscriptions recording battles in the First and Second Balkan War, the Greco-Turkish War, the First World War and the Second World War.
25. Eating on the Move
If you need to squeeze in a meal as you jump to the next temple or museum, Athens has something from morning to night.
Early in the day bakeries sell pastries like tiropita (cheese and egg) and spanakopita (spinach, feta and onions). Also big in the mornings is koulouri, a circular bread coated with sesame seeds and eaten fresh out of the oven, and bougatsa, another filo pastry filled with minced meat, semolina custard or cheese.
And if you need something more substantial there’s always the tried and trusted souvlaki, which is usually pork meat garnished with onions, tomatoes and tzatziki and wrapped in a pita.
Cheap and cheerful is the old-school staple patsa, a soup made with pig’s offal served at devoted patsa joints across the city.