Welcome to Athens. Step out of the clean Metro into Syntagma Square, a bustling white marble plaza that is the center of the city both literally and symbolically. The transportation hub of Athens, crowded Syntagma is also home to bursts of local culture and political activity. From here, walk a few blocks west toward Plaka, where the iconic Acropolis towers over streets teeming with tourist-friendly tavernas and souvenir shops. This picturesque neighborhood is also home to some of the city’s best eats and low-budget lodging. A walk down charming Adrianou brings you to Monastiraki, which boasts vibrant culture and authentic local flavor, with plenty of sandal shops and Byzantine churches. On the other side of Syntagma, Kolonaki sits content in the knowledge that it’s the poshest and priciest sector of Athens. Designer boutiques, stylish cafes, and wide avenues lined with classy museums characterize this area. Exarchia, by contrast, is the domain of Athens’s hip, young students, and teems with cafes and tavernas serving incredible food at budget-friendly prices. Pagrati is farthest from the city center and is filled with residential streets branching off of Imitou, the central road lined with rows of cafes and bars. Together, all these neighborhoods make up a modern metropolis spread out in the shadow of the most historic and beautiful hilltop citadel of the ancient world.
Syntagma is the literal and symbolic center of Athens, hub of the city’s transportation system and home to the Greek Parliament (Syntagma means “Constitution”). Nestled in the middle of the triangle formed by Syntagma Square, Monastiraki Square, and the Acropolis, Plaka is the most touristy area in Athens. Of all the neighborhoods in Athens, Monastiraki is the best place to get a feel for the city’s authentic culture at its liveliest. Exarchia retains its powerful youth identity, simultaneously lively and hip and slightly sketchy and smelly. Sandwiched between Syntagma Sq. and the base of Lycabettus Hill, Kolonaki is the poshest neighborhood in Athens. Though Pagrati is part of Athens proper, it’s often mistaken for a suburb, and it’s not hard to see why.
People sometimes complain that once you’ve seen the Acropolis, you’ve pretty much seen everything that Athens to offer. If you come seeking world-famous monuments and museums filled with masterpieces by celebrated artists, it’s true that this city may be a bit of a disappointment. However, Athens is still full of interesting sights no less beautiful and worthwhile than its iconic hill-top temple. Your entrance ticket to the Acropolis includes admission to other ruins, like Kerameikos and Hadrian’s Library, all of which are relatively nearby. Also take advantage of free gems like Kapnikarea Church and Strefi Hill. Big on museums? Athens has a lot to offer on that front as well, ranging from grandiose exhibits in huge galleries at the Acropolis Museum and Benaki Museum, to the more intimate spaces of the Museum of Cycladic Art and the Museum of Greek Folk Art. If you’re just in the mood for a good laugh, stop in front of the Parliament Building at the head of Syntagma Sq. to watch a ridiculous dance involving men in pantyhose and pompom shoes.
Here is our list of favorites to help you make the most of your visit in this ancient city. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
While traveling through centuries of magnificent art and architecture, remember that Greece is also famous for its food. No trip to Greece is complete without sampling the local produce—fresh olives, feta cheese, seafood, and olive oil. If you’re in the mood for a bite to eat, stop for mezze, small dishes that make an ideal snack and are often eaten together for lunch or dinner. Vegetarians should sample melitzanosalata (eggplant salad) and dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with pine nuts, currants, and rice). Carnivores should sink their teeth into bekrí-mezé (“drunk mezze”—pork stew cooked in wine), aïdakia (seasoned lamb chops), chtapodi sti skhara (grilled octopus), and savory meatballs like keftédes and soutzoukákia smyrnéika (“Smyrna meatballs”).
For a budget-friendly option, stop at one of the many street stands selling rotisserie-cooked gyros with tzatziki (a sauce made with yogurt, garlic, and cucumber) and served in pitas, and souvlaki (tender skewers of pork, chicken, beef, or lamb grilled to perfection). Found your new favorite food? You’re in good company—Aristotle, Aristophanes, and Homer all mentioned souvlaki in their writings. Phyllo pastry is another Greek favorite, used in dishes from spanakopita (spinach, feta, onion, and egg pastry) to baklava (a sweet dessert made from chopped nuts and thin layers of pastry drenched in honey).
Whet your whistle after climbing the Acropolis with a cup of sweet, strong Greek coffee, or try a frappé (foamy iced instant coffee). If you’re in the mood for wine, you’ve come to the right place: Greece has been producing grown-up grape juice for close to 6500 years now. Even small tavernas often serve a wide variety of local wines. If you’re in the mood for something stronger, sample some of Greece’s favorite alcohol, ouzo, an anis-flavored aperitif. Ouzo often accompanies mezze, and is frequently served diluted with water, which causes the clear liquor to turn an opaque milky white.
Just like the city itself, the cultural scene in Athens is vibrant, exciting, and sometimes even breathtaking—if you come at the right time and know where to look. The Athens Festival, held annually in June and July, is a classy celebration of various forms of art from across the globe. On the other end of the spectrum, Apokries is a not-so-classy carnival, during which Athenians indulge in some dionysian debauchery before Lent. Athens is also home to a variety of theaters, comedy clubs, and dance venues that provide entertainment throughout the year.
Whether or not you will spend copious amounts of money on Athenian culture depends mostly on what time of year you go. For the best free festivals, use the liveliest Athenian calendar of them all—the Greek Orthodox Church’s. Apokries, held each February before Lent, and Virgin Mary Day, in mid-August, are two of the biggest free street-parties of the year. Other than these festivals and the occasional street-performer and art exhibit, the cultural scene in Athens is similar to that of museums—you’ll need to pay. EU citizens and students have your cards at ready.
Want to watch a movie, sip some wine, and enjoy a view of the Acropolis—all at the same time? Head to Cine Paris, an ivy-laced rooftop garden in the heart of Plaka. The cinema’s single screen shows movies ranging from trashy flicks like Knight and Day to arthouse gems like The Tree of Life. No matter the movie, this is a worthwhile experience and a great alternative to the area’s substandard nightlife.
On the south slope of the Acropolis, you’ll see a large, semicircular stone theater (no, not the Theater of Dionysus). Built in 161 CE as a wooden-roofed amphitheater, the Odeon is now an open-roofed performance space that seats thousands and has hosted concerts, operas, and ballets featuring acclaimed performers from across the globe.
One of the few standup comedy clubs in Athens, Nyxtes Komoditas is a fun social spot where the alcohol flows as freely as the laughter. The space is dominated by red-orange and black to match the club’s logo—a pair of laughing lips—which is also mirrored on the faces of the club’s patrons, cackling like crazy.
The National Theatre is a spacious, regal building with plush red seats and a gold-trimmed auditorium that stages everything from The Iliad to Cyrano de Bergerac, as well as lesser-known local productions like The Invisible Olga, a work about sex trafficking.
Throughout the city, you’ll likely see pamphlets featuring a row of masked dancers clad in white leggings, elaborate headdresses, and pompom shoes, promoting the Greek Folk Dances at this theater. However, unlike most attractions this well advertised, this show is definitely worth seeing. Located in an idyllic location on Philopappou Hill opposite the Acropolis, the theater presents Greece’s regional cultures and ancient traditions brought to life by an enthusiastic ensemble of dancers, musicians, and folk singers.
Among Athens’s many performance arts venues, Peiraios 260 is perhaps the most avant-garde. This sleek, modern building just down the street from the Athens School of Fine Arts primarily stages dance performances, which range from Belgian ballets to contemporary pieces by American choreographers. It’s a ways away from the city center, but the spectacular shows are well worth the trek.
After several years off the map, the PK Theater has reopened under the aegis of artistic director Pavlos Kourtidis. It presents a variety of theater and dance performances in addition to hosting acting workshops, acrobatics classes, and sculpture exhibitions. PK’s well-lit stage puts on captivating shows like Frankenstein, Kourtidis’s inspired reimagining of the monster’s story—a marriage of dance, speech, and visual art that takes place inside of a white box.
Whether it’s the arts, the nation’s history, or a religious event, the Greeks can always find an excuse to celebrate. If your stay in Athens happens to coincide with any of the festivals listed below, be sure to drop by to engage in a healthy dose of swanky culture or crazy revelry. If you’ll miss them, try your luck passing through Syntagma Sq., where protests—sometimes mistaken for parties, due to the massive crowds, gyro stands, and pulsing drumbeats—spring up every week or two.
Also known as the Hellenic Festival, this vibrant celebration, Athens Festivals, of the arts takes place from early June to July, hosted at numerous theaters and performance spaces all across Athens. Ranging from classical music concerts and dance recitals to plays and shows by modern artists like Rufus Wainwright, performances are not so much insights into Athenian tradition as they are a promise of a fun summer night in a beautiful city.
The Greeks hold the lively, indulgent carnival of Apokries each year in the weeks leading up to Lent. Highlights of Apokries include Smoke Thursday, when homes and tavernas throughout Athens serve roast beef dinners; Cheese Sunday, the last day Greeks can eat dairy products; and the citywide tradition of getting drunk and hitting each other with squeaky inflatable bats (to beat out the sins, duh). Though Apokries may not be as exciting in Athens as it is in other Greek cities—in Patras, the celebrations include masqued balls and humongous floats, while Tyrnavos in Thessaly holds a Phallus festival on the first Monday of Lent—this is still a carnival that you won’t want to miss.
Virgin Mary Day is actually a three-day-long festival beginning on August 15, the day Greeks celebrate the birth of Mary. With free food, orchestras, dancing, partying, and other activities that would make the Virgin herself blush like a beet, the Greeks make a point of enjoying themselves during this 72hr. holiday.
Proving that hipsters travel in packs, in recent years Athens has been home to a burgeoning underground arts-and-culture scene. This makes for an ever-expanding number of opportunities to check out live music, cutting-edge art exhibits, and lots of asymmetrical haircuts. Where to keep abreast of the latest Next Cool Thing before it becomes hopelessly passé, you ask? Fortunately, one element of the art scene is an explosion of independent magazines that document its newest developments. Many of them, like Velvet magazine and Don’t Panic Athens, are only published in Greek—though it’s generally possible to puzzle out the dates, times, and addresses for music shows and gallery openings. One, OZON, does have an English version of its website available (www.ozonweb.com/en). Here you can find information on fashion news, innovative product releases, and events around Athens. Just don’t tell anyone at the secret postmodern fashion show that you found out about it on something as mundane as a website.
Don’t know anyone in Greece? Don’t worry. Greek culture puts a high value on warmth and hospitality. Don’t be surprised if you wind up with multiple invitations to chat over lunch at a local cafe or join a family for a home-cooked meal. If you’re invited out for dinner or a drink, keep in mind that the host usually pays the bill. If you are lucky enough to land an invitation to a Greek home, be prepared for VIP treatment. Arriving 30min. late is considered punctual, and it is customary to bring a small gift like flowers or chocolate. Perplexed by a friend having a “name day” party? Greeks tend not to celebrate birthdays, but rather name days, the birthdate of their namesake saint. Take note: gifts are expected—and don’t forget a funny name day card!
Meals are a terrific time to socialize, gossip, and get to know the city better. Thank the host by saying yamas, or “cheers.” Table manners are simple: allow your host to seat you, and don’t start eating before he or she does. Bring a healthy appetite—it is polite to finish everything on your plate and accept a second helping as a compliment. Expect lively conversation and feel free to offer a toast of stinygiausou (“to your health”).
Sightseers are welcome to visit Greek Orthodox churches, but conservative dress is expected. For both men and women, covering your shoulders and knees (and everything in between) is often required—save your bikini for the Mykonos beaches. Respect worshippers by refraining from photography and other disruptive behavior.
Inanimate objects deserve respect too: observe posted signs and avoid touching monuments so visitors can continue to appreciate them for another few thousand years. Find a broken shard of marble with a striking resemblance to Pericles? Leave him in his homeland—removing anything from archaeological sights is not only destructive, it is also illegal.