Athens Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Athens is a sprawling city established among 7 historic hills and surrounded by amazing mountains. Inhabited for over 3,000 years, Athens is widely recognized as the cradle of Western civilization. Comprising of a big city center, urban district and metropolitan area, the Greek capital offers a mix of modern and historical features, and tourist attractions that no traveler can afford to miss out on.
Athens Travel Guide
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The Acropolis is a hill that overlooks Athens, and situated on the Acropolis is the Parthenon temple. The Parthenon was constructed in honor of the goddess Athena Parthenos, the patron of Athens, in thanks for her protection of the city during the Persian Wars. Dating back to 447 BC, the Parthenon originally held all sorts of treasures although the main highlight was the big statue of Athena.

Plaka is a district that resides underneath the Athens Acropolis. Similar to an island within a city, Plaka’s village-like feel offers the ideal way of experiencing authentic Greek culture. This neighborhood is quite private and boasts really unique scenery with a number of cafes, ancient trees, stone walkways and green leafy canopies. Plaka is famous for its cafes that offer delicious dishes of grilled meats and more.

Psiri is yet another colorful neighborhood worth visiting during your stay in Athens. With its endless tiny streets filled with cafes, bars, clubs, restaurants, galleries and theaters, Psiri makes for a great weekend night destination. Plan your visit to Psiri during the Apokreas, Greece’s Carnival.

Housed inside a Florentine-style building, the Byzantine Museum provides rare glimpses into Byzantine and post-Byzantine paintings, sculpture, mosaics, manuscripts, lithographs, coins, prints, woodcarvings and bronze engravings. Founded in 1914, the Museum is just the place to read on the history and witness the glory of Byzantine art dating from the 4th-19th centuries.

For truly spectacular views, take a day trip to Cape Sounion from Athens where you can feast your eyes on the Temple of Poseidon. One of the most dazzling spots near Athens, this Greek temple is in partial ruins and sits at the top of a coastal cliff with the deep blue ocean below, in a combination that offers a picturesque backdrop.

The Odeum of Herodes Atticus is a visually stunning, partially restored Greco-Roman theater. Constructed during the mid-second century AD, the theatre is photogenic in a startling way, and offers some amazing shots of the city.

A city of classical beauty, Athens boasts an abundance of breathtaking attractions from iconic landmarks, historical monuments and archaeological sites. This ancient city’s 3,000 year old history has made Athens a rich and vibrant modern metropolis that you simply cannot afford to miss out on during your European tour.

1. The Acropolis & the Parthenon

The Acropolis is a historical hill overlooking the city of Athens. “Acro” means “high” and “polis” means “city” therefore “Acropolis” literally translates to the “high city.” While many other places in Greece have their own acropolis, such as Corinth in the Peloponnese, “the Acropolis” is normally said in reference to the site of the Athenian Parthenon.

The Parthenon is the remains of a temple built in honor of the Greek goddess Athena, the patron goddess of the ancient city of Athens. The Parthenon is widely considered as the finest example of Doric-style construction; Doric being a simple, unadorned architectural style that is characterized by plainer columns.

The Parthenon was designed by the famous sculptor Phidias at the behest of Pericles, the Greek politician credited with the founding of the city of Athens, as well as stimulating the so-called “Golden Age of Greece.” Practical work of the construction was supervised by Greek architects Kallikrates and Iktinos.

The common measurement for the Parthenon is 30.9 meters by 69.5 meters. Construction of this building started in 447 BCE and proceeded until 438 BCE, although some of its decorations were finished at a later time. The structure was built on the site of an earlier temple that is sometimes referred to as the Pre-Parthenon.

Although many treasures were on display in the Parthenon, its glory was the gigantic Athena statue that was designed by Phidias out of ivory and gold.

The Parthenon survived the ravages of time quite well, serving first as a church and then a mosque, before it was finally utilized as a munitions depot during the Turkish Occupation of Greece. During the 1687 battle with the Venetians, an explosion tore through the building causing much of the damage you see today. During ancient times, the structure also suffered damage by fire.

The Parthenon has also witnessed its share of controversy in modern times. Claiming to have received permission from local Turkish authorities, Lord Elgin, an Englishman removed some of the marbles from the Parthenon. However, based on surviving documents, Elgin interpreted said “permission” rather liberally. The Greek government has since been demanding the return of the Parthenon Marbles as an entire vacant floor awaits them at the New Acropolis Museum. At the moment, the marbles are on display at the British Museum in London.

In addition to its obvious classical monuments, the Acropolis also holds much more ancient remains from the Mycenaean period as well as earlier. From a distance, you can also see the sacred caves that once were used to carry out rites to Dionysus as well as other Greek deities, though these are generally not open to the public.

Situated beside the rock of the Acropolis, the New Acropolis Museum holds numerous finds from the Parthenon and the Acropolis. This replaced the old museum that was located atop the Acropolis itself. You can wander about the Acropolis on your own, while reading the curation cards.

For the best picture of the Parthenon you will have to take it from the far end, which isn’t the first view that you will get after you climb through the propylaion. This initial view presents a difficult angle for most cameras, while the shot from the other end is easier to get. And be sure to turn around for some great pictures of Athens itself from the exact same location.

But there’s more to the Acropolis than its magnificent Parthenon. The Dionysus Theater is also located on the southern slopes of the Acropolis and is regarded as the birthplace of European theater. Greek comedies and tragedies were performed here as early as 534 BC. This impressive architectural monument to ancient Greek art forms is well worth a visit.

2. Delphi

Visit Delphi and be immersed in a world of politics, religion, intrigue, narcotic gases and fortune telling. Delphi is of importance because it was once the navel of the universe for Greece; the birthplace of western democracy and culture. Full of components of a proper pilgrimage point, Delphi was also the home of the Oracle, a way in which the Greeks believed could foretell the future.

In addition to its importance, the Delphi also has an amazing setting. What is today the symbol of the Delphi are the ruins of the Tholos of Athena Pronaia which was built during the 4th century BCE. The view over the ravine just beside the remains of the temple is quite stunning. Delphi has a lot going for it; not only was it the center of decision making in Greece, but it is also serenely gorgeous.

In addition to the Tholos, the entire site of the Delphi features the Temple of Apollo, the stadium, the ancient theater, as well as the Kastalia spring from which vapors rose to guide and provoke the Oracle, and a variety of treasuries that adorned the sacred way.

Women known as Pythia would sit and breathe in the vapors of the sacred spring found in the ravine of Phaedriades. Apollo was believed to speak through these vapors. A priest would then interpret the gibberish the Oracle produced.

Delphi rests at the intersection of 2 of Greece’s numerous earthquake faults. Recent studies of the site suggest that the trance-like state of the Pythia may have been induced by the gasses emitted by the faults. One of the gases was ethylene, which has a sweet smell and produces a narcotic effect described as floating or disembodied euphoria. Inhaling this in combination with being isolated inside a small space could bring on a euphoric trance-like state. The Pythia derived their prophecies inside a small enclosed chamber at the temple basement.

Delphic predictions had considerable influence on the religion and politics around Greece. Majority of leaders consulted the Oracle of Delphi before they made any major move, and her advice was respected by all who were involved.

Delphi is situated almost 3 hours drive from Athens. The drive is easy if you don’t mind some of the twisting bits of the road. The typical climate in Delphi is Mediterranean, featuring hot summers with scant rainfall. The best time to visit is during spring and fall.

3. Temple of Poseidon

Go up the small hill to where Poseidon continues to reign, overlooking the great sea. Although his famous statue is long gone, imprisoned safely inside the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the great god Poseidon does not require any bronze props to make his presence felt.

The Greeks have always watched the sea for the safe delivery of goods, for the return of loved ones or for news of war. Perhaps this is why the amazing Temple of Poseidon, with its marvelous view of the Aegean, seems to continue fulfilling the role of sea watcher from the high promontory. Or it could just be the combined power of hundreds of visitors intent on watching the beautiful blazing sunset.

The ancient Temple was built in the plain Doric style and erected by Pericles during the Greek Golden Age. It is said to have been built on the ruins of an earlier sea temple possibly dating back to the Minoan or Mycenaean periods.

Be sure to watch your step on the alternately slippery or rough rocks. Mind the guard rails and chains or anything similar positioned to protect you from a quick plunge into the rocks and water below.

After your tour of the main highlight, the Temple of Poseidon, don’t miss out on the surrounding attractions of Cape Sounion. Close by on your way up to the Temple of Poseidon, you will pass the ruins of another temple to Athena the goddess of wisdom after whom Athens is named.

Cleansing to the mind and spirit, and thrilling to the heart and soul, Cape Sounion is best visited at sunset. Standing here, you will be at one point of a magical triangle that the ancient Greeks enjoyed – from Sounion you could see the Acropolis itself and the Temple of Aphaia on the Aegina Island.

Escape the hustle and bustle of modern Athens to this serene, imposing edifice and marvel at the sharp contrast. Cape Sounion is accessed by an easy and scenic drive south from Athens, along the western coast of the Attica peninsula. If you can, rent a car to enjoy the beautiful drive on the good roads of Cape Sounion.

4. The Byzantine Museum

The Byzantine Museum hosts a world-class collection of Byzantine, Christian and post-Byzantine art that spans more than 1,500 years. This collection is housed within a beautiful 19th century villa.

For a period of close to 1,000 years – between the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Greece was a part of the Byzantine Empire. As such, the art and culture of Greece was dominated by the orthodox Christian church.

The icon was the most popular art form of this period. Originally, the world “icon” simply referred to an image, but today the word is used in reference to religious art, normally paintings that depict holy figures. The most common icon today is that of Mary with child. Byzantine icons are characterized by symbolism and strict stylistic rules.

Founded in 1914, the Byzantine Museum moved to its current location in the Florentine Villa Ilissia in 1930. This Villa was constructed between 1840 and 1848 and expanded with a modern wing during the early 2000s.

The museum boasts a priceless collection of approximately 30,000 Byzantine, early Christian and post-Byzantine art objects. The oldest early Christian objects date from the 3rd century, while its post-Byzantine collection spans the period beginning in 1543 into the 20th century.

The museum is home to one of the most impressive collections of Byzantine icons in the world. Some of the notable works include a 14th century icon with the gilded portrait of the archangel Michael; an 18th century mosaic of Mary breastfeeding her baby; and a 14th century mosaic icon that depicts Mary and her child.

But this museum is much more than its icons. Here you can also admire statues, armor, chalices, mosaics, ceramics, engravings, manuscripts, wall paintings, liturgical vestments and other religious treasures.

One of the must-see highlights of the museum is a stelae dating from the 4th or 5th century that depicts Orpheus surrounded by wild animals as he plays the lyre. There are also several sculptures that date from the early 3rd century AD, which formed part of a sarcophagus from Sidamara, the ancient city in Asia Minor.

5. Plaka

Nestled in the shadow of the Acropolis, Plaka reminds of a village within a city, an island for those who don’t have time to visit the Greek islands.

The oldest section of Athens and arguably it’s nicest; the Plaka comprises a neighborhood of cafés, restaurants, jewelry stores and tourist shops. The tourist shops sell antiques, paintings, wood carvings and actual hand painted icons that make for great souvenirs or gift items. Other shops sell amazing postcards including the popular copies of the old tavern, café menus and signs.

There are plenty of jewelry stores, including artist-owned ones that offer hand-made original pieces, as well as copies of ancient museum pieces. When making your golden purchase, keep in mind that gold jewelry is inexpensive in Greece, not because the price of gold is cheaper here, but because the labor that goes into it is.

Wander around the Plaka and you will find a handful of galleries and museums in the Plaka including the Music Museum and the Greek Folk Art Museum.

The Plaka is located under the Acropolis and it stretches almost to Syntagma. If approaching from Syntagma, you will walk up Nikis street until you arrive at the Kydatheneon pedestrian street. Continue past a tiny Byzantine church to your right and the Greek Folk Art Museum to your left, which are both worth a visit.

You will then come to the Saita Taverna, one of the last of Plaka’s basement restaurants that serves bakalairo or fried codfish, along with grilled meats and various cooked dishes, salads and excellent wine from the barrel. This tavern should give you somewhat of an authentic Greek neighborhood tavern experience, especially during the off-season when all the action takes place indoors.

Plan your visit during Apokreas, the Athenian carnival that precedes Lent during which you can enjoy the party-like atmosphere of the tavern.

Art lovers will find sanctuary at the Plaka’s Frissiras Museum of Contemporary Greek and European Painting. The only museum of its kind in Greece, Frissiras houses a private collection of contemporary paintings and drawings, along with temporary exhibitions of the work of Greek and European artists inside 2 fully renovated Neo-Classical buildings dating from the 19th century.

Also worth a visit is the nearby neighborhood of Anafiotika, which features a cluster of small houses built on the northern slopes of the Acropolis peeking over the Plaka. One of the most idyllic neighborhoods in Athens, Anafiotika gives you the feeling of being on a Greek island, right in the city. Its narrow alleys and picturesque whitewashed houses are reminiscent of a Cycladic island village.

6. Mikrolimano

Athens may be the urban heart of Greece, but the city does offer endless variety, including havens to escape into that feel far from the Greek capital itself. One of these places is the small harbor area of Mikrolimano or “Little Port”, which is situated a short drive away from the Athens city center.

While in Athens, you can still enjoy a little taste of the islands by paying a visit to Mikrolimano. While the area hosts many small fishing craft, its main attraction that draws visitors is the row of restaurants that line its harbor. The area offers a great way of getting out of Athens to a place that feels a lot like a Greek island, except that you don’t have to cross the water to reach it.

Once there, sit back, relax and enjoy your delicious meal on Koumoundourou Street, a small road that runs along the harbor. While many of the seaside restaurants here emphasize seafood, it’s not that difficult to find a selection of grilled meats and steaks. The restaurants generally provide a lively atmosphere that is appropriate for a Greek island atmosphere.

Some restaurants will show you the fresh fish that’s available, which are typically large specimens. Simply choose the one you want and they will prepare it for you.

Many restaurants are split into 2 halves, with a seaside dining area and a dining room back with the kitchens just across the Koumoundourou Street. It’s interesting to watch the brave waiters navigating across traffic and through meandering pedestrians while carrying a tray full of plates.

The best way to choose your restaurant may be to wander along Koumoundourou for a couple of minutes, perusing the menus, observing patrons and inhaling the smells of cooking food, and then make your decision on the spot. Once you’ve identified a good restaurant in Mikrolimano, be sure to sample the house-smoked salmon plate and down it with a glass of wine.

7. Psiri

If you are in need of some good food and nightlife, no other area is as authentically Greek – or as international – as Psiri.

Psiri has always had the reputation of being anti-establishment. But then a few years back a wealthy government minister had a law passed that transformed Psiri, then a working class neighborhood filled with small factories and leather workshops, into an area designated for nightlife. The leather workers who had been there for generations were not pleased, not especially by the fact that the neighborhood suddenly became alive both by day and by night.

By day, there are hardly any clues that Psiri is a hotbed for Athenian nightlife. But beginning from about 6pm, Psiri undergoes a transformation from a working class light industrial neighborhood into a Mecca of bars, cafes, restaurants and ouzeries. Parking lots by day, the streets are now full of tables and chairs as they become dramatically lit outdoor dining areas for restaurants that appear to have been built into a bombed out city.

Each restaurant boasts its own distinctive style; from the traditional Greek tavern or ouzerie to the Sixties style café that’s reminiscent of a luncheonette in an old film. Many are decorated with historic photos of Athens, as well as relics of modern society.

In addition to the many cafes and restaurants, you will encounter street musicians and girls selling flowers, so have some change on hand.

If the commercialization of other markets in Athens has put you off, then you will find the little shops of Psiri a much needed breath of fresh air. The merchants found here sell unique products that you are unlikely to find in the nearby tourist areas of Athens.

During the week before Easter Sunday, Psiri hosts the Naxos, Lamb and Cheese market during which the streets are filled with Naxiotes who sell Easter lambs and delicious Naxos cheese of which the island is famous, in addition to homemade wines, all of which come from villages in the interior of the island.

Visit the famous Naxos shop, Geniko Emborio Eklekton Proionton Naxos at which you can purchase fruit, vegetables and cheese from Naxos that comes in big wheels designed to withstand the rigors of transcontinental travel, and which can last up to a year in your fridge. This makes for the perfect gift for yourself or loved one and it just may be the best cheese you’ve ever eaten.

If you are in Psiri during the day, pay a visit to the antique store off Kariaskakis which has a wonderful collection of antiques, including old photos that make for great souvenirs. There’s also a candle shop nearby, as well as a sandal maker.

Also look out for the Komboloi Museum, a colorful store in which you can purchase authentic worry-beads like those used by old Greek men, and not the plastic ones made for tourists. Right inside the square is a cigar shop, and further down on the tiny Nika Street is a shop that sells aouds, among other handmade stringed instruments.

Upon entering Psiri, you will encounter lots of graffiti, some of it rather ominous. But fret not. Simply follow the narrow streets towards the center where the neighborhood gets livelier and better lit.

Plan your visit during Apokreas, the Carnival season in Greece, when the streets of Psiri are filled with revelers in costume and the night carries on forever.

8. Monastiraki

One of the most attractive squares in Athens, Monastiraki was for centuries the commercial center of the city. Today, you will find it partially crowded on Sundays when the open-air flea market nearby attracts crowds of visitors.

Monastiraki was the site of one of Athens’ biggest monasteries. Most of this Great Monastery was demolished during 19th century archaeological excavations. So little remained of the complex – only the church is left – that is was ironically named “monastiraki” or the “little monastery,” which eventually lent its name to the neighborhood.

Pantanassa Church is the surviving church that was constructed during the 17th century on the site of an earlier church that is believed to date from the 10th century. The church was restored in 2007 and boasts a richly decorated interior with a beautifully painted vault.

Bordering the Library of Hadrian at the southern corner of the Monastiraki square is a domed building characterized by a triple-arched loggia. The building was constructed during the 18th century Ottoman occupation as a mosque, on the orders of Tzistarakis, the local governor. During construction in 1759, Tzistarakis overstepped his authority by demolishing one of the remaining columns of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus to use as building material.

Athenians believed that the destruction of this temple may bring upon them an ancient curse. They therefore blamed Tzistarakis for the plague that broke out during that same year. Soon after, he was removed from power and eventually poisoned.

During the early 19th century, after Greece gained independence, the building was confiscated by the state and its minaret demolished. Today, the building serves as home to a ceramics museum, which is an annex to the Museum of Greek Folk Art.

For most tourists, Monastiraki is the jump off point for visiting the flea market, an open-air market that takes place on a weekly basis at the Plateia Avissynias close by. Here, visitors will find anything from souvenirs and kitsch to beautifully crafted armoires and chandeliers.

9. Odeum of Herodes Atticus

Also known as the Herodeion, the Odeum of Herodes Atticus is a huge covered theater that was constructed during the 2nd century AD. The odeon survived partially and is today still a popular venue for plays, concerts and other events.

Also known as an odeon, an odeum refers to a concert hall during ancient times, which was typically smaller in size than the typical theater, and often covered by a roof.

Herodes Atticus was a Roman senator and wealthy Greek aristocrat who funded a number of public building projects, including the reconstruction of the Panathenaic Stadium in marble. In 161 AD, he commissioned the building of an odeon on the southern slopes of the Acropolis. Legend has it that Atticus had his wife killed and then built the odeum to assuage his guilt.

The odeum had 32 rows of seating that could accommodate some 5,000 people. Built similar to Roman theaters, the theater features a semi-circular orchestra or stage, paved in black and white tiles. Its roof of cedar was built over the theater to improve its acoustics.

The roof did not have any support columns, which at the time was a significant architectural achievement. The large façade of the building featured 4 arched stories, 3 of which remain partially visible. The niches housed statues of the 9 muses.

In 267 AD, the building was destroyed by the Germanic tribe of Heruli. The odeum was partially restored during the 1950s, particularly the stage and audience seating area, the former being paved once again in marble tiles.

The Odeum of Herodes Atticus is today actively utilized for theater performances and concerts. Plan your visit during the summer for the annual Athens festival to enjoy some of the performances held here.

10. Meteora

In search of solitude in high and inaccessible places, Greek hermits arrived at the roiled earth of Meteora during the 11th century. However, by the turbulent Middle Ages in Greece, invasions of the Ottoman Turks forced Greek Orthodox followers into the strange land of sandstone pinnacles that point to the sky. It was here that they constructed large monasteries designed to be inaccessible to invaders.

By the fifteenth century, 24 monasteries dotted the peaks and were instrumental in preserving Hellenic culture and religious traditions until the end of the Turkish occupation in 1829. During the 1960s, paved roads were added to this area called Meteora, whose name is Greek for “suspended in air.”

A unique phenomenon of Greek cultural heritage, Meteora comprises the biggest and most important group of Greek monasteries after those of Mount Athos. Perched atop rock cliffs near the town of Kalambaka, the wondrous monasteries of Meteora, their fascinating history, combined with the incredible views they allow, make them a very worthwhile tourist destination.

Six of the monasteries have been restored and can be visited today. Inside, the monasteries house libraries, museums and religious icons placed on display. However, there is little about the daily lives of the monks. The Meteora monasteries also house some of the finest works by the woodcarvers of Metsovo, a town that once boasted the greatest woodcarvers in Greece.

The biggest of the Meteora monasteries is the Great Meteoron, which was built during the mid-14th century and dedicated in honor of the Transfiguration. The Great Meteoron is located on the highest pinnacle and today houses a folklore museum. Those with an interest in the macabre may observe the shelved skulls of deceased monks that are housed within the old sprawling monastery.

Second in size to the Great Meteoron, Varlaam was constructed in 1541-2 in dedication to All Saints, and is named after a hermit who built a chapel on the promontory during the 14th century. The church takes on the Athonite form with a cross-in-square, dome and choirs. Its old refectory is today used as a museum.

From Varlaam, visitors can witness one of the unique features of the Meteora monasteries. Preserved within the tower is the rope net that the monks used for ascending and descending the rock. The monks replaced the rope only when “god willed it”, which was signaled by his causing the rope to break.

The steps leading up to these monasteries were only built during the 1920s. Visitors can also take a peek at a 16th century oak barrel that was utilized for water storage. The museum preserves painted icons from the Renaissance period, along with vestments of priests who served at Varlaam. The production of gold embroidery and manuscripts are also part of the facilities found in Varlaam.

Built in 1475-76, Agia Triada is the Monastery of the Holy Trinity which is located to the south of the main group of monasteries, along with Saint Stephen’s. This is the most difficult monastery to access, as visitors have to cross the valley and climb high up the rock before arriving at its entrance. It therefore requires a rather long hike.

At one point, more than fifty monks resided at Agia Triada, but today only one resides here working as a tour guide. The Agia Triada was built in the cross-in-square type with a dome based by 2 columns. The monastery also had a system of baskets to bring up supplies to the monasteries. In 1925, 140 steps were carved out of the rock for use by tourists visiting the monastery. At the summit is a 2 acre garden.

The Rousanou monastery was also built in dedication to the Transfiguration, although it was in honor of Saint Barbara. This is another Athonite type church founded in the mid 16th century. The reception halls are located on the ground floor, while the cells and subsidiary rooms are found on the first floor and in the basement.

Saint Nicholas Anapausas is the first church you will see if approaching Meteora from Kastraki. Founded at the beginning of the 16th century, the monastery was built in dedication to St. Nicholas and comprises a single, nave structure with a small dome.

Saint Stephen is the most easily accessible monastery which doesn’t require climbing numerous steps to reach. St. Stephen is a small single-nave church built in the mid 16th century. Its katholikon was erected in honor of St. Charalambos and constructed in the Athonite type in 1798. The old refectory in the convent is today used as a museum.

The best way to see Meteora’s unforgettable landscape is by walking from Kalambaka or Kastraki. The views along the way will be enough to keep you entertained. However, beware that there is a climb up from the plateau, as well as numerous steps up to each monastery.

Meteora is situated about 5 hours bus or train ride to the northwest of Athens. If you are spending your vacation in or around Athens, you can visit the Meteora monasteries as a daytrip. For a special experience of Meteora, plan your visit during the Orthodox Easter.