Whether you head to Corfu, Santorini or Skiathos, Greek island holidays follow a fairly standard template – one that usually involves a generous helping of sunshine, sandy beaches and al fresco dining. Athens hits different. From ancient ruins to modern art, there’s a wealth of things to do, eat and explore in this culturally vibrant city. Is Athens worth visiting? In short, the answer is yes.
The cradle of Western civilisation, Athens is a city of immense historical pedigree. Having been inhabited for over 3,000 years, Athens is the birthplace of some of society’s most notable inventions. These include democracy, theatre, and the Olympic games. Nowadays, people flock from across the world to stroll streets that were once walked by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and more.
Whether you’re a culture-vulture, foodie or history buff, there’s something for everyone in Athens. For those pondering a trip to Athens, we’ve pulled together a list of seven reasons you must visit Athens.
It was home to a fascinating ancient civilization
Athens has one of the longest histories of any country in the world. Ancient Greece lives on in the city’s many different landmarks and ruins, which make Athens worth visiting for anyone with an interest in history, archeology and Greek mythology. Architecturally, the city is a striking mix of new and old. The world-famous Acropolis overlooks a sprawling metropolis of concrete apartment blocks. Pericles built this ancient citadel in the fifth century BC. Located on a rocky outcrop that looms above the city, Acropolis offers panoramic views of the city, and the Mediterranean sea beyond.
For an entrance fee of €20, visitors can stroll through this ancient citadel, taking in the remnants of one of Europe’s most important and influential civilizations. Acropolis houses several world-famous ancient buildings. The Parthenon is by far the most famous of its sites. This ancient Greek temple is dedicated to the Goddess of Athena, the patron of Athens.
Visitors can also see the Temple of Athena Nike, which is dedicated to the Greek Goddess of victory, as well as the Propylaia and the Erechtheion. In addition to the Acropolis, Athens is home to many different ancient landmarks and museums. The National Archeological museum, for example, displays an extensive collection of findings from the Neolithic period, Bronze Age and Roman eras.
The Olympic Games was born here
Like many of the Western culture’s great inventions, the Olympic Games was born in Ancient Greece. Visitors to Athens can attend the site where it all began. Originally constructed in the fourth century BC, Ancient Greeks competed in the Panathenaic Stadium to win the olive wreath. The stadium, which was restored for the 1896 Olympic Games, is constructed entirely from white marble.
From exploring its vaulted passageways, to standing on the winner’s podium at the Panathenaic Stadium, visitors can immerse themselves in the legacy of the world’s most important sporting event.
Another great way to experience the stadium is while an actual event takes place. With a capacity of fifty thousands spectators, the stadium often hosts music concerts and other cultural events. This spectacular landmark is a must-see for sports fans and apathists alike.
It’s an art-lovers dream
The birthplace of theatre, Athens has a rich cultural heritage. With plenty of galleries to choose from, Athens is definitely worth visiting for those interested in art. For a taste of ancient Greek art, the Museum of Cycladic Art offers a window into the cultures of the Aegean and Cyprus. The museum contains over 3.000 artefacts of Cycladic, Ancient Greek and Ancient Cypriot Art. The Athens National Gallery also exhibits classical Greek art dating back to the 14th century.
As well as classical art, Athens has a thriving contemporary art scene. The Breeder gallery, which is housed in an abandoned 1970s ice-cream factory, has been a pioneer in the development of contemporary art in Athens. There’s also metamatic:taf, which hosts both local and international contemporary art exhibitions, workshops, performances and film screenings. As well as viewing the art, make sure you go for a drink in the building’s shady, secluded courtyard.
The lesser well-known Frissiras Museum is a contemporary painting museum in the popular neighbourhood of Plaka. It houses a permanent collection of paintings and sculptures by Greek and European artists on the subject of the human form. In addition to its galleries and art spaces, there’s some great Athenian art to be found on the city’s streets. Street art tours are a great way to view some of the city’s best murals and hidden street art gems.
It’s a city of culinary delights
Of course, no article on Greece would be complete without mentioning Greek food culture. From souvlaki to tzatziki, traditional Greek food is popular all around the world. A large part of its appeal is rooted in its simplicity, as well as the freshness of its ingredients. Mediterranean vegetables tossed in olive oil, fresh fish, salty cheese, succulent lamb, and honey are all staples of Greek cuisine. There’s no better – and in many cases cheaper – place to experience it than in the country’s capital city. You can find Athenian’s favorite street food – souvalaki – on nearly every street corner. In many of the more authentic places, it won’t set you back more than €2.50.
In addition to popular classics such as horiatiki salad, spanakopita and moussaka, Athens has plenty of regional dishes. Briam – a dish of roasted vegetables and potatoes – is a delicious dish suitable for vegetarians. It’s a great example of the Greek’s ability to turn a few fresh ingredients into a delicious dish with minimal effort.
For meat eaters, Mprizoles, a beef or pork steak cooked with olive oil and lemon, is a typical Athenian dish. There’s also Sparangia kai aginares, which is a dish made from asparagus and artichoke hearts with olive oil and lemon. Athen’s vibrant culinary scene is one of the things that makes Athens worth visiting.
Day trips from the city are easy
Once you’ve explored the many wonders that Athens has to offer, why not take your adventure beyond the city walls? One of the things that makes Athens worth visiting is its proximity to other points of interest. Mt Parnitha National Park, for instance, is about 25km north of Athens. It’s hiking trails, complete with ancient caves and wild deer sightings, make it a great visit for nature lovers. The ancient Roman city of Corinth – home of Jason and the Argonauts – makes for another great day trip. It’s just an hour away on the train.
For those interested in island-hopping, the capital is just a 30 minute drive to the port in Piraeus. The port in Piraeus is the largest port in Greece, and ferries run to many stunning small Greek islands. This includes Crete, Santorini, Paros, Mykonos, and many more.
If you don’t have the time to visit the islands but do fancy a beach trip, there are a number of options close to Athens. Right on the southern edge of Athens is the Athens Riviera, for example, that has many different beaches to choose from. There’s also Vouliagmeni, a coastal suburb just 25km outside of Athens with plenty of beautiful beaches.
It offers a window into authentic Greek culture
It may be a little rough around the edges, but one of the benefits of going to Athens is that you’ll experience Greece in its more authentic form. It may lack the quaint beauty of Greece’s many islands, but the capital city is an adventure for people looking to get to know the real Greece, rather than one largely built for tourists.
There are multiple spots to discover for those looking to experience the city like the locals do. Athens’ Central Market is a great place to start. Built in 1886, the market houses many shops that have been operating for decades. As well as learning more about Greek food and culture, visitors can stock up on local delicacies, such as nuts, honey and spices.
Another hidden gem is Strefi Hill. It offers a great view of the city, and is a popular haunt for locals who come here to walk their dogs, jog, and play basketball. Underground cultural centre Romantso, which hosts art exhibitions, music concerts, workshops, and seminars, is another great place to get closer to the authentic Athens.
It won’t break the bank!
The final reason you must visit Athens is that it’s wallet friendly! Prices on the Greek islands can be high, especially if you’re visiting during peak seasons. Athens, however, is a much more affordable option. This makes Athens worth visiting travelers on a budget, so long as you follow some simple money saving hacks.
As a general rule, it’s best to head to the restaurants that are less aimed at tourists. You’re more likely to find value for money – and a better dining experience – in restaurants filled with locals, and without an English menu. Don’t worry if your Greek is non-existent, if you ask politely, wait staff are usually happy to help you translate. You should be able to find dinner at a restaurant in a less touristy area for between €12–€16.
Obviously, when it comes to transport, taking the metro and buses is a cheaper option than going by taxi. This is particularly the case when it comes to arriving, and departing, via the airport: while a taxi ride will set you back around $45, you can cut costs by taking the metro for just $12. Of course, there are plenty of luxury experiences to be had in Athens for those who want them, but the wide range of affordable restaurants, bars, and place to stay is a core part of the city’s charm.
How many days should you spend in Athens?
You need at least three days to see the best of Athens. This should leave you enough time to visit the historical landmarks, attend a handful of museums, and discover some nice places to eat. However, if you have the time and budget to stay for longer, you won’t be short of things to do. For those looking to see more than just the must-see sights, we’d recommend a longer stay of anywhere up to a week. This will give you the opportunity to get to know the city a bit better, as well as take some day trips to the beautiful sites surrounding the city.
What are the best destinations in Greece?
The most popular tourist destinations include the islands of Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes, Corfu and Crete, and the capital city, Athens. With 227 inhabited islands, there’s an abundance of different Greek destinations to discover – depending on what you’re looking for. The islands of Kos, Mykonos and Skiathos, are renowned for their buzzing nightlife scenes, with the latter two particularly popular amongst the LGBT+ community. For couples holidays, you can’t get a much more romantic setting than Santorini, which is home to plenty of stunning hotels. The islands of Corfu and Crete are popular with families. The lesser-known islands such as Milos, Ikaria and Samothraki are perfect for those looking for a more secluded getaway.