Immersed in history
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, the Acropolis (literally the “High City”) is the starting point for visiting the city. Within it you can admire the Parthenon, whose friezes are conserved at the British Museum in London, the Erechtheion with its famous Porch of the Maidens, the Propylaea, the monumental entrances of the sacred zone dedicated to Athena, and the Temple of Athena Nike, the goddess that protected the city.
At the foot of the Acropolis, beyond the triumphal Arch of Hadrian built in 131 A.D., is the Theatre of Dionysus, the oldest stable theatre in the classical world as well as the most important in Greece: the plays of many Greek playwrights, like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, were performed here. Entering the lively district of Monastiraki you come to the Agora, the political and commercial centre of the ancient pòlis, flanked to the east by the Stoa of Attalos, the ancient portico constructed in the mid-19th century according to the original design, and to the west by the Doric Temple of Hephaestus, which dominates the city from on high.
Also worthy of mention are the octagonal Tower of the Winds, a white marble building constructed in the first half of the 1st century B.C. to measure time, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Necropolis of Kerameikos, the ancient public cemetery, and Socrates’ Prison, where according to legend the philosopher spent his final days.
Walking through Plaka and Monastiraki
Located in the shadows of the Acropolis, the Plaka district is one of the oldest and most typical areas of Athens. Also known as the “neighbourhood of the Gods”, it stands out for its architectural style which blends the ancient and the modern, where imposing neoclassical buildings stand alongside the traditional houses with red roofs, leftovers of the original urban architecture. Located next to Plaka, the picturesque district of Monastiraki is home to the popular flea market, the Little Metropolis (Mikri Metropoli) which dates to the XII century and the Big Metropolis (Megali Metropoli) dating to the XIX century, while not too far away is Tzistarakis Mosque. Most of the roads are closed to traffic and it is here, between the Acropolis and Syntagma Square, that a large part of Athens’s nightlife is concentrated.
Bars, restaurants, tavernas and souvenir shops where you can get lost for hours and relax while enjoying some typical local delicacies or listening to live music. Also worth a visit are the two Byzantine churches of St. Nicholas Rangavas and St. Nicodemus, and the Museum of Greek Folk Art which conserves traditional costumes, embroidery and antique ceramics.
A look at the city
One of the peculiarities of Athens is the fact that it is surrounded by 7 hills which, as well as the famous rock of the Acropolis, include Filopappou Hill, the Hills of the Nymphs and Lycabettus and look down on the city centre offering wonderful scenic viewpoints that are easy to reach on foot. Lycabettus, 272 metres above sea level, is the tallest in Athens and can also be reached with a funicular railway that leaves from Kolonaki, an elegant residential area filled with boutiques, art galleries and fashionable restaurants, not far from Syntagma Square.
Museums and ancient history
Athens has over 40 museums, some of which of international importance. Those of greatest historical and cultural interest include: the National Archaeological Museum, which houses interesting collections of archaeological artefacts dating from prehistory to antiquity; the new Acropolis Museum, opened in 2009, is located in the Makryianni neighbourhood south-east of the Parthenon and houses important artefacts found in the local area; the Museum of the City of Athens, which traces the recent history of the capital through sculptures and paintings from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century; finally, the Museum of Cycladic Art in Kolonaki which houses highly valuable archaeological artefacts from the Cyclades islands.
The majority of the city’s bars and nightlife are concentrated in the lively districts of Gazi and Psirì, which are packed with restaurants, tavernas and bars, but also clubs and fashionable pubs with panoramic terraces that offer views of the illuminated Acropolis. For a traditional evening head for the Pireo area which is famous for its “bouzoukia”, late-night bars where you can watch people performing the sirtaki, the traditional Greek dance, while listening to live music.
Escaping the city
If you want to get away from the chaos of the metropolis, Athens has over 20 km of beaches, which are also easy to get to by public transport. Frequented mainly by the locals, Nea Falirou beach is one of the most popular thanks also to its position, practically adjacent to the old part of the port. The beaches of Ellinikò and Glyfada are known for their nightlife and entertainment while in Vouliagmeni and Lagonissi the tourist facilities give way to natural landscapes with uncontaminated vegetation, white sand and crystalline water.
The flavours of traditional Greek cooking
Greek cuisine is rich in colour and strong flavours. There are lots of traditional dishes, like the Greek salad made with feta, olives, cucumber and onions, moussaka (a dish consisting of fried aubergines, ground meat and a creamy sauce) and souvlaki (meat kebabs), accompanied by pita bread and tzatziki (a sauce made of Greek yoghurt, cucumber and garlic).
The best Greek restaurants and bars are concentrated in the Pláka, Thission, Psiri and Monastiraki areas, while for fresh fish lovers Pireo is the place to head for and the areas of Passalimani, Kastela and Peiraiki in particular.
To visit Athens, British and Irish citizens and nationals from other countries that are not part of the Schengen area must show a valid passport.
For EU citizens or citizens from countries in the European Economic Area (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein) an ID card valid for overseas travel is sufficient.
Athens has a typically Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and mild winters with little rain. The spring and the late autumn are the best times to visit the city while the summer can be extremely hot with temperatures often going beyond 40°C.
TipsThe Greek capital offers a wide range of international events, most of which concentrated in the summer. The most important include the Rockwave Festival, the European Jazz Festival and European Music Days, 5 days of free concerts with genres ranging from hip hop to traditional music.
Every summer there is also the Athens – Epidaurus Festival, the country’s most important Greek culture event, while the Hellenic Festival alternates classical music concerts and ballet with ancient and modern theatre in the striking Odeon of Herodes Atticus with its view of the Acropolis lit up at night.
The weight of history and culture in Athens is impossible to avoid. In fact, very few cities have shaped new forms of knowledge in the fields of philosophy, mathematics and politics, but also literature and art. The cradle of democracy and western civilisation, modern day Athens, with its 4 million inhabitants, is often chaotic but always captivating, a place where the past and present exist in harmony: all you need do is climb up to the top of the Acropolis to enjoy a unique panorama of the capital. A trip to the numerous museums with their 3000 years of history is a must, but it is only when walking through the city’s streets that you are able to see the real Greece with its tavernas that serve retsina and ouzo, its artisan market stalls and its bars that stay open all night.