3 perfect days in Athens
It used to be that travelers considered Athens—one of the world’s oldest cities—just a jumping-off spot for the Greek islands. Maybe you squeezed in a quick tour of the Acropolis, but then you caught that flight or ferry heading to Santorini or Mykonos. Now, thanks to growing culture, design, and food scenes, people are finally staying a bit longer and appreciating more of what this historic world capital has to offer.
This three-day itinerary will help you navigate this often overwhelming city and see the best of the old and the new, mixing up tours of ancient ruins with visits to up-and-coming neighborhoods. In order to make sure you get the most out of your visit, we’ve incorporated Tripadvisor reviews and ratings so that you can focus on the places that other travelers have loved.
MORNING: Head to the heavens
Wherever you are in Athens, you’ll probably have a view of the Acropolis. Sitting high above the city on a rocky hill, this citadel was built to house the gods, dominating the skyline. So it makes sense to start your vacation here—though you need to be strategic. The savviest travelers book a tour that includes admission, but if you want to save money and explore on your own, you can get tickets directly through Tiqets. Just be sure to buy tickets in advance so you can skip the long lines at the entrance, and bundle in tickets to the Acropolis Museum and other historic sites.
To dodge the crowds and midday heat, get to the Acropolis first thing when it opens at 8 a.m., and use the southeast gate, which is a little less crowded than the main entrance. Another pro-tip: Avoid the free-admission days held on various Sundays throughout the year and holidays. There’s a convenient Acropolis subway stop (Acropoli), but if you want to ditch some of the steep uphill walk, a taxi can take you closer to the entrance. The Acropolis is massive, so give yourself at least two hours to take in the major ruins like the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Theater of Dionysus, not to mention the dazzling views of Athens.
The hypermodern Acropolis Museum is just a seven-minute walk away and a must-see. Plan to spend a couple hours exploring the exhibits at this architectural masterpiece, which houses a huge collection of artifacts, including the Caryatids from the Erechtheion and fascinating underground excavations that show what life was like in ancient times. If you’re short on time, make a beeline to the top floor, where you’ll find the crown jewel of the museum: the Parthenon Gallery. Here, the frieze of the Parthenon has been recreated and lined with original sculptures as well as plaster casts of pieces that were (controversially) removed in the 1800s and sold to the British Museum, where they are still on display.
Travelers say: “A large part of the center of Athens is pedestrianized, mainly around the Acropolis and the archaeological sites, so walking is always the best way to see and appreciate Athens.”—@rebel-diver
ACROPOLIS TOUR OPTIONS
- The Skip the Line Acropolis of Athens Tour is run by the highly rated Athens Walking Tours. As the name suggests, it includes skip-the-line access to this legendary landmark, along with insight from a licensed guide.
- Kids who are into Percy Jackson—a popular fantasy fiction series—will love the Family Acropolis & Acropolis Museum Tour inspired by Percy Jackson from Greek Mythology Tours, which includes entry fees plus a peek into the past via 3D iPads.
- Don’t feel like trudging around town? With the Skip the line: Acropolis & Athens Highlights Bike Tour, you can explore Athens on an e-bike with a licensed guide.
AFTERNOON: Explore design-forward Athens
Right in the shadow of the Acropolis lies one of the city’s coolest neighborhoods: Koukaki. It’s mind-boggling to think that just two minutes from an icon of the ancient world are cool cocktail bars, boundary-pushing restaurants, and design-forward boutiques.
Nicknamed “Little Paris,” Koukaki is worlds away from other parts of Athens. Wander through the leafy maze of quiet, pedestrianized streets and stop for lunch at Guarantee (one of the best sandwiches you will eat anywhere), the famed Takis Bakery (where there’s always a line for treats like pistachio baklava), or the sophisticated GH Attikos Restaurant (where the rooftop tables have spectacular Acropolis views).
Koukaki’s shopping is next level. A former French lawyer opened Mon Coin, a small concept store that showcases work from Greek makers, from contemporary ceramics to photography. Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum is the first museum devoted to the art of Greek jewelry (there are also pieces for sale). MO Vintage Athens is a treasure trove of vintage fashion from the 1970s through the 1990s, while Book Garden sells used books and beautiful handmade greeting cards. Not far away is Melissinos Art - The Poet Sandal Maker, a third-generation boutique that makes sandals inspired by classic designs.
Need a shopping break? You can grab healthy snacks to go from the Green Store; stop at Little Tree Books & Coffee, a gem of a cafe with tables interspersed among the book displays; or pop in to En Fiali for a whiskey or wine tasting.
EVENING: Greek favorites, from live music to limo risotto
End the day in Plaka, a bustling area that’s a traveler-magnet for a reason. Built on a steep hillside, the neighborhood is known for its winding cobblestoned streets lined with festive, open-air tavernas. Get into the Athens vibe at Geros Tou Moria Restaurant, a 90-year-old family-owned spot with live music, dancing, and a menu of Greek classics (lambchops, chicken souvlaki). For amazing home-cooked food, there’s Taverna Saita (don’t miss the grilled octopus), with tables spilling onto the street. Or if you want to sample modern Athens cooking, check out the tasting menus at 2Mazi, where a pair of young chefs put a creative twist on the classics (think sea bream with lime risotto, bottarga, and asparagus).
Couldn’t snag a reservation? No problem. In Greece, nobody really eats out until 10 p.m., so show up early and you just might get in.
Worthy detours along the way
MORNING: Artifacts from the past and present
Wake up and head to one of the world’s most important museums. Founded in 1829, the awe-inspiring National Archaeological Museum houses an impressive collection of artifacts from ancient Greece: pottery, jewelry, weapons, you name it. Two pieces not to miss include the Mask of Agamemnon (a gold funeral mask that’s been called the “Mona Lisa of prehistory”) and the Antikythera Mechanism (a mind-boggling astronomical device that was used to predict eclipses).
But don’t linger. Nearby in the emerging Vathi neighborhood is the by-appointment showroom for one of our favorite style sources in Greece: Anthologist. This venue has been recognized by everyone from Vogue to Architectural Digest for owner Andria Mitsakos’s dedication to celebrating Greek craft through artisan collaborations. This is all about collecting—not shopping.
Travelers say: “[The National Archaeological Museum holds] pieces that I’ve only seen in history books, and to see them up close is just a delight to all the senses.”—@EspBing
AFTERNOON: Where worlds collide
Next up: Exarchia, a hip district that’s known for its impressive graffiti and an increasingly cool food scene. Visit the farmers market if you’re here on a Saturday or stop for lunch at La Cantina Street Food (with casual bites from around the globe) or Salero (a Mediterranean cafe in a 1930s Bauhaus building where the theater crowd hangs out).
Now it’s time to head back into the past at the Ancient Agora. This was the heart of old Athens—home to a marketplace, government buildings, and religious sites—and the playground of famous philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Wander through the Agora’s ruins, including the amazingly well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus, which dates back to the 5th century B.C. Covered with intricate carvings, the temple was dedicated to the god of metalworking and craftsmanship. Another highlight: the beautifully restored Stoa of Attalos. Once lined with shops, this covered walkway was the Fifth Avenue of ancient Athens. Duck into the museum and check out the sculptures and relics discovered here, from pottery to coins.
FOOD TOURS IN THE CITY CENTER
- Calling all food-lovers. The Dimitris and Savvas of Athens dining experience includes a seven-course meal to remember made with local ingredients in a private home in Monastiraki with spectacular Acropolis views.
- Athens Walks Tour Company runs the Gourmet Food Walking Tour in Athens—an adventure for your tastebuds. You’ll stop in several locations for tastings and learn about this city’s rich culinary heritage.
- Love the food you’ve been eating all weekend? You can learn to make it at The Greek Kitchen’s Athens 4-Hour Cooking Class with Central Market Visit. During this hands-on experience you’ll shop for ingredients and make authentic dishes like vine-leaf wraps.
EVENING: Flea-market finds and cocktails two ways
End the day in the Monastiraki neighborhood, which is best known for its Flea Market, where a jumble of little shops sell the typical souvenirs (T-shirts, laurel leaf headbands, togas). If you’re here on a Sunday, locals turn up to hawk vintage pottery and old books, while artisans and jewelry designers also set up stalls. There are also a few worthy boutiques scattered throughout the area like Martinos Antique and Fine Art Gallery (for museum-quality collectibles) and Kilo Shop (for vintage clothes).
Sip a cocktail at one of Monastiraki’s rooftop bars overlooking the Acropolis. A prime spot hidden on a backstreet in the Monastiraki area is Couleur Locale Athens, which is set to a DJ beat and heats up as the night goes on. Looking for a more laid-back vibe? The retro Anglais is a glamorous flashback to 1960s Athens.
For dinner, head to the nearby Vintage Wine Bar & Bistro, with hundreds of wines by the glass and dishes that combine traditional and modern Greek flavors like fish ceviche with chickpeas prepared two ways: crispy and blended into a creamy mousse.
Worthy detours along the way
MORNING: Checking out the tastemakers
Start off your third day in style in the Kolonaki neighborhood, an upscale area set at the foot of Lycabetus hill that’s known for its designer boutiques, sleek art galleries, and inventive restaurants. Grab healthy breakfast bowls at Me Kolonaki in a sunny plant-filled space, then get your culture fix at the Benaki Museum, which was founded in 1930 by an art collector who transformed his mansion into a space for the rest of the world to enjoy. Or go shopping along ritzy Voukourestiou Street at trailblazing stores like Zeus + Dione, which puts an updated spin on Greek artisanship in clothes and home goods, and Ileana Makri Fine Jewelry, whose pieces are feminine yet edgy.
Splurge on an early lunch at one of the city’s A-list spots: Papadakis Restaurant, run by celebrity chef Argiro Barbarigou. Her dishes, like white grouper with truffle and octopus stew with sun-dried tomatoes and thyme honey, draw a mix of gourmands from all over the globe as well as in-the-know locals.
Travelers say: “[The Benaki is] a museum that is very underrated but is fascinating, particularly for anyone interested in modern Greek history, art, and culture.”—@rebel-diver
AFTERNOON: A spectacular side trip
Head out of Athens in the afternoon to see the Temple of Poseidon, an icon of antiquity that’s set at Cape Sounion at the southern tip of mainland Greece. This epic structure crafted out of white marble was built in the 5th century BC to honor the god of the sea.
It takes about an hour and 15 minutes to drive from central Athens to the Temple of Poseidon. You can rent your own car or take a tour. Keep in mind that a group tour can add on time, as your car or bus will need to stop and pick up other guests from multiple hotels. If you can swing it, a private or small-group tour with a company like Greek Mythology Tours is the way to go.
Be sure to get here well in advance of sunset, so that you have time to explore and get ready for the big show. There is truly nothing more beautiful than witnessing the sun dropping into the Aegean Sea behind its columns, with the sky ablaze.
TEMPLE OF POSEIDON TOUR OPTIONS
- The highly rated Getaways Greece runs a sunset Cape Sounion and Temple of Poseidon Half-Day Small-Group Tour from Athens in an air-conditioned minivan with guided commentary, plus a beach break en route.
- Crispy Local has a number of Temple of Poseidon adventures, like the Cape Sounion Private Sunset Tour From Athens With Seaside Dinner, which includes a toast at sunset, followed by a meal at a local restaurant.
- Want to craft a personalized tour that includes a visit to the Temple of Poseidon? Greek Mythology Tours can do small group or custom tours or multi-days Percy Jackson-themed trips.
EVENING: Delicious dining
After the sun goes down at the Temple of Poseidon, you have two choices. If you’re not with a group and want to have dinner before you circle back to central Athens, check out the highly rated Theodoros & Eleni, which serves fresh Mediterranean seafood and has speedy service in the sleepy village of Legraina.
Another option: Head back to Athens and have a late-night dinner with panoramic views of the skyline atop Mount Lycabettus (also called “Lykavittos”), the highest point in the city. While you can get here on foot, we recommend saving your energy and taking the Lycabettus Funicular to the peak. At the summit, there are a handful of charming restaurants like the swoon-worthy Orizontes Lycabettus, which has a lovely terrace and a stunning panorama of Athens.
Know Before You Go
The peak season in Athens is June through August, which is also when the weather is at its hottest and the crowds are at their largest. The best months to travel here are March through May, and September and October when the weather is comfortable (lower temps, no rain) and there are fewer tourists. It can get cold during winter in Athens, with lows in the 40s from November through around February—though some people like to come during the off-season, since it’s the cheapest time for airfare and hotels.
Any day is fine to visit Athens, as restaurants and monuments are generally open seven days a week. Check on the timing for museums: Some spots are closed on Monday or Tuesday. Many small shops are closed on Sundays. On the weekend, there’s less traffic in the city, but it tends to be more crowded at popular locations like the Acropolis and the Agora. Be careful about public holidays, as well as the first Sunday of a winter month, when entrance to the major sites is free and huge crowds show up.
Museum opening times vary, with some places like the Acropolis Museum opening as early as 9 a.m. and others (like the National Gallery) not opening until 10 a.m. Closing times also vary: The Acropolis Museum closes at 10 p.m. on Fridays, while the National Archaeological Museum closes at 3:30 p.m. on weekends November through March. Shops tend to open around 9 or 10 a.m. and close anywhere from 6 to 9 p.m. Note that the more traditional shops close for lunchtime, from around 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.
When it comes to dining, lunch is the big meal of the day, and it’s usually eaten around 2 or 3 p.m. For dinner, Athens is a late-night city: Greeks eat dinner at home at 8 or 9 p.m., but when going out, 10 p.m. is more the norm, and many restaurants stay open past midnight.
Syntagma: Right near many cultural hotspots, the main square is home to one of the city’s most regal hotels: the Hotel Grande Bretagne, A Luxury Collection Hotel. Built in 1874, the 320-room property is all about Old World elegance; the 58 suites even have butler service. A buzzy opening: Xenodocheio Milos is a gastronomic hotel from Greek chef Costas Spiliadis, the founder of Estiatorio Milos, a restaurant with locations in New York and a number of other global cities.
Central Athens: Right in the middle of it all, this neighborhood is home to some affordable and stylish places like the new Moxy, an eco-chic hotel with an all-night bar and breathtaking views of the skyline and the Acropolis. A sleek, design-centric property, the Fresh Hotel has all-white rooms with pops of color and a small rooftop pool.
Kolonaki: This neighborhood is known for its trailblazing boutiques and restaurants, as well as a clutch of chic hideaways. A 1920s residence has been transformed into Shila, a six-suite bohemian guesthouse with a roof garden. Like the art and furniture? It’s for sale. In the former Canadian embassy, The Modernist caters to design lovers with its black-and-white rooms and amenities curated by plugged-in locals.
Syngrou Avenue: Sure, the nondescript neighborhood isn’t particularly attractive or centrally located, and you’ll have to take a taxi or a subway to get places. But in return, hotels along Syngrou Avenue give you large rooms and reasonable rates. Case in point: Grand Hyatt Athens, with two pools, a rooftop restaurant, and clean-lined rooms.
Public transportation: With just three lines, the Athens subway (a.k.a. Attiko Metro) is modern, punctual, and easy to navigate. It will take you to most of the places you need to go, connecting various points throughout the city center, the airport, and the ferry port (Port of Piraeus). The Metro runs daily from 5 a.m. to midnight, though some of the lines operate until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
By bike: Athens might not read as bike-friendly, but cycling culture is a thing here. There’s no public bike-sharing system yet—it’s reportedly in the works—so rent your own set of wheels from a company like Baja Bikes. Or head out on a guided tour with Athens by Bike. Cycling is also a great way to take in the majestic landscapes beyond the city center.
By taxi: Taxis in Athens are relatively affordable and easy to flag down on the street Just make sure that the meter is running when you get in, as flat rates are not supposed to be used unless you’re going to the airport. If the driver won’t run the meter, get out and find another taxi. Uber is also available in Athens, but you won’t be riding in a private car—the service sets you up with a taxi.
Airport transfers: Located about 12 miles east of the city center, the Athens International airport serves both domestic and international flights. From the airport, you can take a taxi or Uber to your hotel, or use the Metro, if you’re feeling ambitious. The Metro Line 3 connects the airport with Syntagma Square, and the ride takes approximately 40 minutes, with trains leaving every 30 minutes.