Most travellers bypass Athens for the Greek islands, chasing idyllic slices of island life rather than spending much time on the mainland.
Shame: the Greek capital is one of the world’s most historic, combining millennia-old history with a pulsing bar and restaurant scene. Spend a few days mooching around Athens and you’ll understand far more about Greece than if you spent a week in Santorini.
Here are the best things to do in the city.
Athens’ go-to snack is souvlaki, which is basically grilled meat on a stick. It’s casual food (not to be confused with gyro, which comes wrapped in a pitta) which translates to there being a souvlaki joint on every corner in central Athens. So-called Souvlaki Row in the midst of pulsing Monastiraki is touristy, but don’t let that put you off: make a beeline for the checked tablecloth outdoor tables of O Thanasis, whose chicken and pork versions come slathered in Greek yoghurt in a griddle pan. Oh, and you’ll get change from a fiver.
Appreciate Athenian history at the Acropolis
The crumbling Acropolis, the crown jewel of the city, is an ancient citadel on a flat rock high above the capital whose complex includes one of the world’s most recognisable buildings, the Parthenon (dedicated to the goddess Athena, after whom the city is named). A ticket to the Acropolis and its slopes also includes a close-up of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which has been tastefully restored.
The Acropolis opens at 8am – the advice is to not hang around as the queues can get long – and involves a short, sharp trek uphill from Monastiraki. A combined ticket, costing €30, will also give fast-track access to the seven other classical sights around the city, including the Ancient Agora of Athens and Hadrian’s Library. It’s well worth doing if you plan on seeing more than two of them.
Bar crawl through Monastiraki
Party district Monastiraki rarely calms down, which is part of its charm. Start in Monastiraki Square, a heaving arena of outdoor cafes and flea market stalls, before hustling for a rooftop table at 360 Degrees, with those all-important views over the Parthenon. Back on ground level, the pavement cafes of breezy Adrianou overlook the Ancient Agora of Athens (which looks like a smaller, more restored Parthenon) in the foothills of the Acropolis, where Kuzina’s rooftop is a good bet. The studenty whiff turns more upscale at the cafes and restaurants of Place Agias Irinis, next to the teeny Church of Saint Irini: try Rooster or Dizzy Mo. No Monastiraki bar crawl is complete without a trip to Six Dogs, a much-recommended bar that combines cocktails, bar food, a twinkly garden and live DJs; or TAF (The Art Foundation), which serves drinks beneath a rotating set of exhibitions.
Have dinner overlooking the Acropolis at sunset
One of the original boutique hotels in the city, the St George Lycabettus is set high up on Lycabettus Hill in the rarefied Kolonaki neighbourhood. This elevation is amplified on the hotel’s sixth floor alfresco restaurant Le Grand Balcon – which has a blockbuster of a terrace with a view straight to the lit-up Acropolis and the water and hills beyond. Save room for the deconstructed baklava for pudding.
Bliss out on the Athens Riviera
No self-respecting city anywhere near a coast can go without a gentrified “Riviera”. Athens’ version – the stretch of water that runs broadly from where ferries depart for the islands at Piraeus to Sounion – is just as intoxicating as its European cousins in France or Spain, and dotted with gorgeous beaches. A spangly new Four Seasons has just opened on the peninsula at Vouliagmeni.
Snoop around the central food market
The Athens central food market is a heaving heap of traditional meat and fish stalls under a vaulted ceiling just north of Monastiraki that isn’t for the faint-hearted. Many of the butchers are still family-run operations, and the atmosphere here feels very much like it hasn’t changed for centuries. Make a pit-stop at one of a handful of low-key restaurants inside the market, which will serve up a no-nonsense plate of whatever’s fresh that day.
Refuel on a freddo cappuccino
Noticed those tiny glasses of frothy coffee are that everybody’s sipping through a straw? It’s a freddo cappuccino, a quintessential Athenian drink. They’re found across the city, but Tailor Made microroastery in the buzzing Place Agias Irinis serves a solid-gold version.
Wander the National Garden
Directly behind the bleached white Greek parliament building on Syntagma Square is the sprawling National Garden, recognisable for its thrusting palm trees by the entrance that were planted by Queen Amalia of Greece in the 1800s. The garden is made up of smaller circular gardens, dotted with archaeological remains and lakes – there’s even a small zoo, complete with goats and peacocks.
The ultimate accompaniment to a wander around the Acropolis slopes is a visit to the Acropolis Museum, a modern, artefact-stuffed glass box with views across to the Parthenon from its cafe. There’s a long video on the Elgin Marbles (which feels vaguely like propaganda) and various classical artefacts that were recovered from the Acropolis slopes.
How to get there
Ryanair, British Airways, easyJet, Wizz Air and Aegean Airlines fly direct from the UK to Athens from around £60 return.
Where to stay
The upscale boutique Academia of Athens, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection Hotels, is a short walk from Syntagma Square in central Athens. As the name suggests, it’s inspired by the city’s intellectuals and philosophers: quotes from Aristotle and Plato printed on monochrome posters are dotted around the rooms and public areas; while the design is monochrome with splashes of cerebral-in-feel university green velvet. A rooftop bar is due to open any day now, while the Symposium restaurant serves fresh fish and a smasher of a rum baba for dessert.
Rooms from €230, autograph-hotels.marriott.com
Newly opened in the heart of Monastiraki is boutique Athens4, with a co-work-space sized lobby and cute rooms. If you can, book into Room 23 – right at the top of the townhouse, with stairs from the hotel door to a mezzanine-style room with a squat terrace and a spa bath perfect for lounging in to enjoy the urban views.
Rooms from €84 B&B, athens4.com