During college, I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Athens, Greece. Thanks to that experience, Greece has become one of my very favorite places in the world. I want everyone to go to Greece and experience this incredible country, so I figured I might as well put together some itineraries for various regions, including the islands, one for a visit to the Peloponnese peninsula, and one with other points of interest like Delphi, Olympia, and Meteora.
My caveat with regard to Athens — it is a big, busy, dirty city. It is NOT white-washed windmills and cerulean blue roofs. If you want that, go to the islands, where you will find it in spades. Athens is a city on top of a city on top of a city. The cab drivers are insane, motorbike riders will absolutely not stop for you, and feral dogs wander around and eat food left our on the sidewalks. That said, it is my favorite city in the world in part BECAUSE of the constant, frenetic energy. History seeps into every nook and cranny, and you can go from a busy four-lane road to a small alcove with an ancient church or some fenced off ruins simply by turning a corner.
Give Athens a chance. Spend a few days there and try to embrace the energy. Notice the old men at the cafes playing chess and drinking sludgy coffee. Take a minute atop the Acropolis or on Mt. Lykavitos to soak in the scenery that embraces pockets of ancient majesty as well as modern business plazas. Talk with the owners of the shops in Plaka. Sip carafes of wine at a neighborhood taverna that isn’t mentioned in any guidebooks. Those are the moments where Athens truly reveals itself.
With that, I’ll move on to my suggested itinerary:
Day 1: Arrive in Athens
- Walk through Plaka from Syntagma Square to Monastiraki to get your bearings
- There is an excellent metro system in Athens that was renovated and expanded for the 2004 Olympic Games. There are stops in Syntagma and Monastiraki Square, so you can get back to your hotel easily
- Check online for the Changing of the Guard schedule outside Hellenic Parliament in Syntagma Square — it’s a relatively quick ceremony, but the pomp and circumstance is worth seeing
- Plaka is the shopping district and there are blocks and blocks of souvenir shops, gyro stands, and cafes. Browse the shops and don’t be afraid to negotiate prices. Pay attention to street names if you see something you want to come back and get later, because the streets in Plaka can all blend together
- My favorite shop to visit is Melissinos Poet Sandals, where you can have leather sandals custom made for you. I still have mine from my semester abroad in 2007 and from my trip back in 2015 — these sandals are QUALITY.
- Have dinner on the steps to the Acropolis
- There are numerous tavernas, often live music, and plentiful carafes of wine
- If you’re looking for specific recommendations, pick up the latest copy of Rick Steves’ guide to Athens — he is always on point with his restaurant recs
Day 2: The Acropolis, Agora, and Temple of Hephaestus
- Get an early start at the Acropolis (open 8:30-3)
- Buy timed entry tickets and get there early to avoid the crush of tour groups and day trippers
- Pet all of the Acropolis kitties (or at least admire them)
- Check online to see if there is a play or concert going on in the Theatre of Dionysus
- Make your way down from the Acropolis through the Agora
- Visit Temple of Hephaestus
- Grab a gyro for lunch in Monastiraki to re-fuel
- Visit the Acropolis Museum in the afternoon (open til 10 pm)
- If you want to drink some ouzo in an Insta-friendly space, check out Brettos Bar for happy hour and choose from it’s multi-colored wall of booze
Day 3: The Panathenaic Stadium, Temple of Olympian Zeus, and National Archeological Museum
- Start your day at the Marble Stadium (Kalimarmaro)
- This is the stadium that was erected for the return of the modern Olympic Games in 1896
- You can run around the track, have some photo ops on the podium, or explore the hiking trails in the hill behind the stadium
- This stadium holds a special place in my heart because if you’re standing in the plaza looking toward it, on your left is the school where I spent my semester in Athens
- From Kalimarmaro, either walk or take the tram to the Temple of Olympian Zeus
- These well-preserved ruins are less trafficked than the Acropolis, and are situated in a lovely park. It’s a great place to sit an reflect on the history surrounding you
- Also on this site is the Arch of Hadrian, which was erected during the Roman rule of Athens. Walking through the Arch from the temple will take you back into Plaka and towards Monastiraki Square.
- If the weather is nice, take a wander through the National Gardens before hopping on a metro for an educational afternoon adventure to the National Archeological Museum (open 8:30-2:45),
- This is one of the best archeological museums in the world. Block off an afternoon for this one, because there is a LOT to see. Bonus points if you take a picture of the statue colloquially known as “The Slipper Slapper,” which happened to be my father’s favorite.
- Athens is filled with incredible murals and large form pieces of graffiti art.
- Do a Google search to see what pieces are current at the time of your trip and create a little tour for yourself. Here is an article with some examples of what you can expect. I’ve heard murals make a great backdrop for a best friends photo shoot.
Day 4: Mt. Lykavitos and Kolonaki
- Hike or take the funicular to the top of Mt. Lykavitos (also called Lycabettus) for excellent city views
- Agios Georgios church is also located atop the hill, and all are welcome to enter. Greek Orthodox cathedrals and chapels are truly magnificent pieces of art and architecture, so I highly encouraging at least poking your head in.
- Do some shopping in Kolonaki
- The Kolonaki neighborhood is essentially the 5th Avenue of Athens. It’s filled with nice shops and pricey restaurants, and it comes with some truly exceptional people watching. If you want to do an upscale dinner, Kolonaki is the place to do it. Be warned, though, that everything in Kolonaki seems to be uphill.
Four days is probably the max I would recommend for Athens. There is much to see outside the capital city, and usually not enough vacation time to do it all. On the morning of Day 5 (or maybe the evening of Day 4 if you’re looking at overnight ferries to far flung islands), it’s time to visit the Port of Piraeus or the local bus station to check out some different scenery. To be continued in my next Greek regional itinerary…
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