A Classicist's Guide to Modern Athens
Updated: Jun 13
Athens is a beautiful city. Before going, I had been told that there wasn't much to it outside of the Acropolis and a few other bits of historical interest but not a lot. Since going, however, I can confirm that this is absolutely not true, and it really is not worth missing out on within your Greek travel itinerary. I had 3 days there plus an evening which was just about enough, but I could absolutely have filled at least 2 more days there with the things I was interested in but didn't get around to.
In terms of costs, you can definitely do it on a budget. My flight and hostel combined came to just under £300 (flew Bristol to Athens on the Aegean Air economy light fare; 1 bed in a 6-bed female dorm at Athens Hub Hostel found through booking.com), and unless you're after the gourmet experience, most meals out will easily come to under 15€. Transport is also very affordable; the best way to get around the main attractions is definitely to walk, but if you need it then a 90-minute metro ticket costs just 1.20€, and the airport transfer train is only 9€.
Athens for the historian
Athens is undoubtedly one of the most historic cities in the world, and there is of course a huge amount to see and do for anyone remotely interested in history. To get around every historical attraction would take at least a solid week, but here are the amazing few that I managed in my 3 days:
It's pretty much impossible to think of Athens and not immediately picture the Acropolis, the city's most famous landmark. Home to the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike, it towers 150 metres over the city and has been hugely significant throughout Athenian history. The standard entrance is 20€, and I'd recommend reserving at least 2-3 hours to explore the whole site, plus some time to walk up the hill!
I wouldn't be telling the truth if I told you I didn't cry tears of happiness when I got to the Acropolis. As a passionate classicist who loves to travel, it was a dream come true to stand on one of the most important and famous historical sites in Europe, and I can reassure you that it absolutely lives up to its reputation as a bucket list place to visit. Entering through the Propylaia, it's impossible not to feel entirely tiny beneath this huge marble structure as you step 2,500 years into the past.
The Parthenon, the most famous monument on the Acropolis, was built between 447 and 432 BC under the orders of Pericles, one of the most influential statesmen of Classical Athens. It was originally built as a temple of Athena, goddess of wisdom and the patron of Athens, but over the centuries it has also been a church, a mosque, and even a gunpowder storehouse. It has survived fire, earthquakes, and a huge explosion, and yet it's still absolutely magnificent. I've wanted to visit the Parthenon since I was a little girl and some family friends brought me a paper model back from their own trip, so to see it in real life was incredible. Even in ruins with reparative construction underway, it has a real impact.
However, my favourite of the temples on the Acropolis has to be the Erechtheion. I studied this particular site within a module on Greek temples, and I just love it. The layout is one of the most fascinatingly complex of any Greek temple in existence, but my personal obsession is with the phenomenal Caryatids: the 6 maiden-shaped columns that hold up the south porch. The sculptures there today are replicas inserted into the original temple, but they are nonetheless incredible to behold. No two are the same; each of them is stood in a slightly different position and gazes in a slightly different direction from the others, making them all the more impressive.
Also not to miss during your visit to the Acropolis: The Odeon of Herodes Atticus and Areopagus Hill. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a marble theatre completed in AD 161 during the rule of the Romans, and over the centuries has not only seen performances from ancient actors and musicians, but also by some of the modern age's most famous singers like Sinatra, Pavarotti, and Elton John. Areopagus Hill also had its fair share of famous visitors, amongst them the Apostle Paul, who famously preached there (Acts 17:16-34).
Not only do both of these sites have their own fascinating histories, but they're both also fantastic vantage points from which to look over both the Acropolis and the rest of the city.
If you’re doing the Acropolis, then I’d definitely recommend doing the Acropolis Museum as well, on the same day if you’re able, as the experiences tie in so well together. It’s not a massive place and so doesn’t actually take a very long time to walk around, and it does a brilliant job of expanding and contextualising the monuments you see on the Acropolis itself. Not only does it house an impressive collection of beautiful Archaic statues (a personal favourite), but it also displays the original Caryatid statues from the Erechtheion and most of the original frieze from the Parthenon, which is displayed fantastically well within a room that must just about match the actual dimensions of the temple itself. To top it off, that gallery also offers 360° views of Athens. In a word: gorgeous.
If you’re in need of refreshments whilst you’re there, the museum also has a restaurant with an outdoor terrace, as well as a café that looks directly onto the excavated ancient site below!
The ancient agora was the hub of social and political life; it was home to the market, the boulé (council of elders) and the courts, and it was the centre of philosophical discourse for figures such as Socrates and Diogenes as well as a space for politicians and orators to make their speeches to the public.
As a tourist, there is a lot to take in and work out, especially if you've already done a certain amount of walking, but it's definitely worth a visit. I'd recommend getting an audio guide, as I found that without one I was mostly wandering without purpose and it's not always easy to work out what you're looking at if there isn't a sign close by.
Included in your entrance to the Athenian agora is the Temple of Hephaestus; the most complete ancient Greek temple in the world. You do have to climb quite a few (uneven) steps to get there, but it's worth it to marvel at it up close. You can't go in unaccompanied, unfortunately, but on some tours, it is possible to be shown around inside. Either way, it's worth it for the view over the agora and the Acropolis that you get when you turn around!
Finally, we have the Stoa of Attalos. It was originally providing both a welcome relief from the heat and an extra dimension to the experience of the agora, as in its central rooms it also houses many of the artefacts found there. FYI there are also toilets at the far end if you need them!
As well as the ancient Athenian agora, we have the Roman agora. Built during the reign of the emperor Augustus, it was the centre of civic life during the Roman period. At first glance, it doesn't look like there's much left of it but as you walk around the site, more and more becomes apparent. Again, I'd definitely recommend getting an audio guide in order to best understand what you're seeing but either way, it's absolutely worth a visit for anyone with an interest in Graeco-Roman history.
The main attractions of the Roman agora are the Doric entrance gate, the Tower of the Winds, and the vespasianae, a.k.a the ancient public toilets! The Tower of the Winds is especially fascinating, as it's considered to be the world's first meteorological station. The octagonal structure contains a water clock, and around its outer faces were 8 sundials beneath the frieze depicting the 8 deities of the wind. Having studied a little bit about ancient technology during my degree, it was so amazing to see in real life something that was so significant in that area, and I'd absolutely recommend it to anyone else visiting the Roman agora.
Of all the places I visited in Athens, the National Archaeological Museum was one of the more surprising in terms of how much I enjoyed it and how much there was to see there. When you first walk through, it doesn’t seem like there was a huge amount to it, but as soon as you leave the main central halls and go into one of the side rooms, you discover just how much there is to see. One of the most famous objects housed there is the Death Mask of Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae said to have fought in the Trojan War, but the collection is much more extensive than that. There is a vast number of artefacts from the Bronze Age in particular as well as the Archaic and Classical periods, but you can also see an impressive collection from Hellenic Egypt, a vase collection to rival that of the British Museum, and several rooms full of fantastic ancient sculptures.
I’d recommend leaving at least a couple of hours to fully explore, it’s pretty big and will probably take more time than you think to get around it if you want to see everything! Plus, there is a lovely courtyard café on the ground floor if you need a break from walking, so definitely leave time for that.
Athens for the foodie
Greek is one of my all-time favourite cuisines. It's filling but not super heavy, and it's always packed with flavour from fresh ingredients. On my list to try were moussaka, dolmades, saganaki (deep-fried Greek cheese), souvlaki, gyros, and spanakopita, all of which I got to try and more, but those were by no means the extent of what's on offer.
I’m not overly familiar with the concept of a 'Greek breakfast', but given that I was usually grabbing something to go from a bakery on my way out, the chocolate croissants on offer were absolutely ideal, and they were really quite delicious so that was 2 of my Athenian breakfasts sorted. The other favourite was spanakopita – probably not a breakfast food but it was 10.30am anyway and it was on my food list to try so I went for it! In the airport on my way home, I also tried tiropita - Greek cheese pie - which is similar to spanakopita and equally delicious, but without the spinach.
In terms of coffee, there are so many options. Outside of the standard flat white, cappuccino, americano, etc., there’s also Greek coffee, espresso freddo/cappuccino freddo, and frappés on offer, all of which are very strong. Freddos are essentially coffee over ice but do be prepared if you order the espresso freddo as there are about 3 shots in there, and frappés are essentially the same but blended with some milk and sugar. Personally, I don’t love strong black coffee, so I definitely preferred the frappé when going for iced coffee, and if you have similar preferences then I'd recommend avoiding the Greek coffee as it's crazy strong!
Lunch & Dinner
As for main meals, the options are endless. There are restaurants on nearly every street in central Athens, the majority of which offer Greek food as opposed to lots of different world cuisines. Many places will have people outside trying to usher you in, but don’t let this pressure you into going in if you don’t want to – you won’t be considered rude if you say no, it’s just a normal part of the tourism culture there.
If you're on the go, there are plenty of street food options such as falafel, souvlaki or gyros wraps which are all must-trys, though personally I preferred to sit at a restaurant for lunch to give my feet a rest and have a bit of space to put my things down without having to keep too close an eye on them, etc. Every main attraction in Athens is guaranteed to have a place to eat nearby so you won't be stuck trying to find somewhere!
By far the best neighbourhoods to eat in are Monastiraki and Psyri. Plaka also has some great restaurants, but many of these are centred around tourism and so you can expect slightly higher prices and in some cases, lower-quality food. Monastiraki and Psyri, on the other hand, are where many of the locals eat, so you know that you really are getting both quality and authenticity without having to pay too much for it. On top of that, the atmosphere is brilliant, and in Psyri it's not unusual to hear live music.
In need of dessert? There's baklava, Greek yoghurt, and plenty of fruits to try but for me, ice cream is the answer. When in Greece, there are 2 flavours in particular that you need to try: pistachio and mastic, also called kaimaki. Pistachio is a must if you visit Aegina especially, as the island is actually home to the world's best pistachios (I recommend bringing home a bag or two - they really are very good), and so the ice cream is also pretty amazing! Mastic is quite a strange one if you've not had anything similar before. It's made with gum mastic which is a kind of resin and sometimes also with powdered orchid root, resulting in an almost pine-like flavour. Personally, I didn't love it but it wasn't bad by any means - it's definitely one you have to make your own mind up about. I also tried a lime and bergamot ice cream on Aegina, which was very refreshing with a strong floral burst every time you get a piece of bergamot.
Pro-tip: if you're after a great meal and some incredible rooftop views of the Acropolis, then head to MS Roof Garden at Monastiraki Station. The food is great, the view is incredible, and if you're as fortunate as I was then you might even make friends with the people on the table next to you!
The good news is that Athens has some ridiculously cool and edgy bars that are perfect for a few rounds with friends, and the better news? A lot of places will give you a free bucket of popcorn for the table and a free shot before you leave! If you're after specifically Greek drinks, then you can try Mythos - a popular lager, Milokleftis apple cider, or ouzo - an anise-flavoured spirit made from grape must.
Gazi is the main neighbourhood for nightlife and so has plenty of options, but if you're already in Psyri for dinner and don't want to go too far then I can recommend Noel for some excellent cocktails, or BeerTime if you want to try some quality Greek craft beers. Or, if you're happy to walk a little further, there's also the Latino vibe of Gypsy Jungle, which both serves up some amazing cocktails and has some highly impressive artwork on the walls to boot.
Athens for the explorer
If like me, you love spending a day of your holiday just exploring a new city and getting lost down pretty side streets, then Athens is for you. If you need somewhere central and easy to include in your day as you wander between places or take a bit of time out, then Plaka, Psyri, and Monastiraki are especially convenient and guaranteed to hit the spot.
However, being a capital city also means that transport links from Athens are pretty good, and so if you're looking to go on a short trip to somewhere else then it's a brilliant place to start from.
Athens has great transport links to the Greek islands, so it's feasible to incorporate a visit into even the shortest Athenian itineraries. Flights depart with varying regularity, but if you're looking for a day trip then a ferry journey is likely your best way forward, the closest islands being Aegina, Agistri, and Moni. I decided to spend one of my days on Aegina, and I have zero regrets.
Aegina is situated just less than an hour south of Athens' Piraeus port by ferry, making it a popular day-trip spot for tourists. That said, it wasn't extremely busy as I was there mid-week and outside of the school holiday season, so I'd say it's the way to go if you don't want to be joined by too many others. Tickets from Piraeus aren't overly expensive - I paid 33€ for the Aero Highspeed ferry which was around 50 minutes each way, but if you don't mind taking a slightly longer journey then there are some cheaper options.
The most common docking place for the ferries coming from Piraeus is Aegina Port on the west side of the island; a picturesque harbour town complete with beaches, a marina, and pretty side lanes full of quaint little shops and street cafes. Aegina Port also has the Temple of Apollo, and a 20-minute drive away is the Temple of Aphaia. During my own trip, I decided not to visit these sites (I know, very off-brand) as I just wanted to be, and Aegina really is a great place to do that if you're in need of an escape from it all and want clear your mind for a while.
One of my main aims for my time on Aegina was to swim in the sea, which is crystal clear and a very pleasant temperature during the summer months. The main beach for Aegina Port is Paralía Marathóna, but there's also a small beach next to the entrance of the temple of Apollo which I had almost entirely to myself during the hour or so I was there. It's not quite paradisical - the sand was a bit rough and it is right next to the road - but it's nonetheless a great spot to relax for a while and take in the beautiful blues and greens of the Aegean Sea.
If ferries aren't really your thing, however, then there are plenty of options for land-based excursions, one of which is a trip to Cape Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon. You could hire a car, but the best option I found was to go via coach with Ammon Express which costs 39€ per person, plus 10€ entrance to the temple site. Our guide was an archaeologist and was super knowledgeable about the related history and mythology, and during the journey she also struck a brilliant balance between relaying information and giving us time to admire the scenery or chat with the others on the tour.
On the way, we had a brief stop at the ancient theatre of Thorikos, the oldest preserved amphitheatre in the world, and the adjoining ancient silver mine. I really appreciated this extra stop during our tour - it's a great way of learning more about the ancient social and industrial contexts of Cape Sounio, and you can still see the remains of the craftsmen's workshops.
Once arrived at the Temple of Poseidon, it'll be obvious exactly why you chose to do this tour. Unfortunately, the evening was pretty cloudy so our view of the sunset was somewhat obscured, but the view itself was absolutely worth it - the orange hues in the sky still made for a brilliant experience so I'm sure you can imagine how much better it would have been on a clear evening. Plus, the Aegean Sea is simply stunning and I couldn't get enough of it.
As the Athenian people were a community so closely linked to the sea, Cape Sounio was a vital strategic location, so it's easy to see why they established a temple there to the god of the sea. The marble structure that we see today was built between 444 and 440 BC on top of the original Archaic limestone temple, which was destroyed by the army of Xerxes I during the Persian War, and even though this one is now also in ruins it's still incredibly impressive to look at. It's easy to see how many famous writers and poets have been inspired by it over the centuries, including Lord Byron, who even graffitied on one of the columns when he visited during the early 1800s!
Walking around the whole site probably takes about 45-60 minutes, depending on how quickly you take it. If you're going at sunset and haven't eaten beforehand then there is a restaurant just outside the site entrance, so if you don't want to wait until you're back in Athens then I'd recommend either eating before you go in or taking something small in with you (remember to take all of your rubbish when you leave). There is also a small souvenir shop as well as toilets, so you're covered for anything you might need whilst there.
As a bonus, Ammon Express drops you back at Syntagma Square around 10pm, which is the perfect time to see the changing of the guard outside the Presidential Palace and Altar to the Unknown Soldier. It's a fascinating ritual to watch, especially with the soldiers in their traditional uniforms and their slow ceremonial march. You can see this any day of the week, on the hour, every hour.
Tips for visiting Athens
Wear shoes with a decent grip. Many of the pavements in Athens are made of marble - beautiful but often slippery, especially if it rains! This is also true of the main route up to the Acropolis, so be mindful during the walk up and down that hill.
Try to go outside of peak times and seasons. Athens is, of course, a very touristy city and as much as this is great in many ways, it does also mean that over-tourism is a problem, especially at the Acropolis. To combat this, try to visit outside of school holidays if you can, and try to go to places like the Acropolis either as it opens or a couple of hours before closing to avoid the larger crowds.
Learn some of the Greek alphabet. Maybe not an easy one for some and it's certainly not an absolute necessity, but I'd say it's definitely worth it if you can. As much as most signs are in both English and Greek and many people will speak very good English, I found that knowing how to read the Greek alphabet came in really useful in finding my way around and ordering in restaurants, etc.
Plan your itinerary. Not necessarily minute-by-minute, but there are so many things you can do with your time that it could be easy to waste a lot of precious time figuring out either what to do next or how to get from A to B, so I'd definitely recommend looking at the best routes, etc so that you can make the most of your time there.
Buy a multi-site pass. If you're keen to do more than one historical site then by far the most budget-friendly option is to buy a multi-site pass. I bought mine through Tiquets, which got me skip-the-line access to the Acropolis, National Archaeological Museum, Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Hadrian's Library, Temple of Olympian Zeus, Aristotle's Lyceum, and the Kerameikos for a grand total of 42€. I didn't make it to all of those sites, but it was still absolutely worth the money for the ones I did go to.
Reserve museum visits for the afternoons. The heat can be a lot to deal with during peak season, so if you save the air-conditioned museums for the hottest part of the day then you'll be able to fit a lot more in without getting too tired from being in the sun!
If I were to go back I would...
Visit the Benaki Museum. The Benaki Museum is supposed to be a brilliant showcasing of Greek culture over the centuries, from ancient times to the present day. It's easy to focus only on Classical history when visiting Athens, but Greece still has a long and interesting history after that which I've heard is very well presented by the Benaki Museum.
Go to an outdoor theatre performance. Ancient Greece was the birthplace of theatre and saw the likes of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides have their plays brought to life in the amphitheatres of Classical Athens, so where better to go and see a performance?
Watch the sunset from Lycabettus Hill. As one of the highest points in the city, Lycabettus Hill is a popular vantage point for looking over the Athenian skyline, and on a clear night, the sunsets are supposed to be absolutely magical.
Explore the Kerameikos. This used to be the potters' quarter in the ancient city, and there is now an extensive archaeological site to explore, which by all accounts is a brilliant way to spend a morning if you're interested in Athenian history.
Athens truly is one of the most fantastic cities I have ever had the privilege of visiting. It so often gets overlooked in favour of the paradisical Greek islands but it really does have so much to offer, and not just for those desperate to experience its historic sites. Happy travelling, φίλοι!
Thank you for reading! If you have any questions or if you'd like to guest-write for The Classicist with an Atlas then I'd love to hear from you - you can get in touch via the form on the Contact page or on Instagram @theclassicistwithanatlas.
I can't write about Athens and not acknowledge the friends I made there who were such unexpected blessings and made my trip even better than I could ever have imagined. Maja, Emelie, Gianni, Jonas, Jana, Iris, Shruti, Anjali, Brian, El, Dave, Brandon, and Adam - you're all amazing. Also my huge thanks to Charis and Ella who both gave me so many brilliant tips and recommendations before visiting - ευχαριστώ!
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