Update: new pictures added!
When I told my friends I was heading to Greece for a week and that I had allocated 2 full days for its capital, Athens, the response I got was not overly enthusiastic. They told me there wasn’t all that much to do, and a single day would be more than sufficient.
Well, they lied.
There’s heaps of things to do in Athens! We used Athens as a base from which to get to other places (like the Peloponnese and Delphi and cruises to the nearby islands), but we did have a full 2 days to explore the city itself. And it was barely enough. If I had my way, 3 days would have been optimal. However, keep in mind that I had my parents with me, and it was scorching hot, so if you are young, energetic and don’t mind the heat, you could probably squeeze all the main sights into 2 days.
Must See Attractions
1. The Acropolis
Usually the so-called ‘top attraction’ of a particular city will be underwhelming, but for me, the Acropolis lived up to its expectations, despite part of it being surrounded by scaffolding as part of maintenance. If you only go to one attraction in Athens, make it the Acropolis. It’s one of those things you just have to see and take in.
The nearest metro station is the aptly named Acropolis Station, and from there you just follow the signs. On the way, you can check out the Lysicrates Monument, which is nothing special but worth a glance. At the foot of the Acropolis is the wonderful Theatre of Dionysos, which is definitely worth a look before making the trek up. You’ll also get a good view of the Odeum of Herodes, which they still use for shows and concerts.
Advice: wear comfortable shoes and preferably non-slip, because it can get a little slippery on the rocks. And if it looks like a long way up, don’t despair, because it isn’t. You’re up there before you even notice it. And the view of the Parthenon and of Athens from the top is spectacular. It’s also more crowded than any other attraction, so try and go early, especially before the noon sun hits.
There are plenty of guided tours available, and if you want to learn more about its history and so forth, then by all means, join a tour because it will be worth it. However, I preferred to go at my own pace and read up on it beforehand or afterwards.
Note: the long-awaited Acropolis Museum will be opened to the public on 23 June 2009. Apparently it is going to be superb (and from the promo I saw at the airport I have to agree). For those visiting the Acropolis from that date make sure you check out the museum as well.
2. Lycabettus Hill
If you want a spectacular view of the city, then head to Lycabettus Hill. The nearest metro is Evangelismos Station, and from there you have to head north via a steep path up towards the cable car. From memory the price is 6 Euros return per person. At the top you can wander around, where there is a little chapel and legendary panoramic views of the city. There is also a cafe or two where you can relax and sip on a drink while watching the sun go down. Very nice and highly recommended.
3. Ancient Agora
Ancient Agora, Athens’ ancient markeplace is huge and worth a visit because of the well-preserved Temple of Hephasestus, which you would have seen if you were on top of the hill at the Acropolis. There is also a museum there (which we didn’t visit) and plenty of other ruins lying around the site. The second best archaeological site Athens has to offer in my opinion after the Acropolis.
4. National Archaeological Museum
If you’re a museum lover then you must go to the National Archaeological Museum, one of the great museums exhibiting ancient artifacts in the world. Tickets are around 6 Euros I think and the nearest metro is Victoria, from which you’ll have to take a 10 minute walk.
Some of the things in there are simply amazing, and the artifacts are not confined to Athens. Of particular interest are the items found in Santorini (which suggests it could be the mythical Atlantis?). I was amazed to see the level of expertise they had 3,000 years ago in making pottery, jewellery, wall-paintings…they even had giant clips and pins that are almost identical to what we have today!
5. Temple of Olympian Zeus
There’s not much to see at the site itself other than the giant pillars of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, but it is a majestic sight worth seeing. You can get up pretty close to its 17m high pillars and you can also get a decent view of the Acropolis from there. Don’t forget to check out the adjacent Hadrian’s Arch nearby and take a happy snap. It’s located south-east of the Acropolis Station or you can take a walk there through the National Garden from Syntagma Square.
Other Sights and Attractions (in no particular order)
1. Syntagma Square – the ‘central’ station of Athens. There are actually archaeological exhibits inside the station itself, which is pretty cool, and check out the various vendors in the square. Across the road is Parliament, with the Tom of the Unknown Soldier. Nothing special but worth a look if you’re staying nearby.
2. Zapion Exhibtion and Congress Hall – another attraction you can walk past if you take a stroll through the National Garden below Syntagma Square. The architecture is impressive.
3. Panathinaikon Stadium – the site of the 1896, first modern Olympic Games. It’s located very close to the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the National Garden. Definitely worth checking out. I was amazed at how stylish it was.
4. Roman Market – this is where you go to eat traditional Greek food (like Souvlaki) and buy souvenirs. There’s also cheap fruits (especially cherries sold by this guy who keeps yelling like a madman). The recommended restaurant we went to was called O Thanisis and is located on Mitropoleos. I’m not usually a fan of Greek food but this was excellent. It’s right outside Monastiraki Station.
5. Roman Agora – if you go see Ancient Agora then you won’t really need to go here. It’s near the Roman Market. The Tower of Winds is quite interesting though.
6. Hadrian Library – also near the Roman Market. If you got a combined ticket then might as well check it out for a few minutes.
7. Keramikos – I didn’t end up going there, but it’s an ancient Greek cemetary.
8. National Library, University & Academy – all three are wonderful pieces of architecture over a hundred years old and are lined up next to each other between Akadimias Street and Panepistimiou (El Venizelou). We rode by via taxi a couple of times but didn’t stop.
9. Benzaki Museum – apparently really good too but we didn’t have enough time to go.
Where to Stay?
The most convenient area would be near Syntagma Square (Plaka area) or Monastiraki. There’s lots of shops and hotels and restaurants in that area and you get easy access to the metro.
We stayed at 2 separate hotels, Hermes (3 stars) and Amalia (4 stars) which were both splendid and located in Plaka. I would suggest you shop around and find some specials to get more value for your money.
I wouldn’t recommend taxi unless you want to get stuck in traffic a lot. We used a combination of the metro and walking, which was very easy. The metro is 1 Euro for a single ticket that lasts 90 minutes and allows you to go in and out of stations. It’s an honour system but if you get caught there’s a huge fine (I think) and plenty of embarrassment. If you’re planning to use it a lot then get a day ticket for 3 Euros (and I think there are weekly tickets too).
I would recommend splitting the areas up. You can get a combined ticket for 12 Euros, which allows you go to most of the places such as the Acropolis, Roman Agora, Ancient Agora, Temple of Olympian Zeus etc and you can use it for several days. Definitely worth it.
The first day we started in Syntagma Square, walked through the National Garden then checked out the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch, before rounding back up to see Panathinaikon Stadium. In the afternoon we went up to Lycabettus Hill and spent the afternoon there checking out the views. For the second day we started early and went to the Acropolis then Ancient Agora (and the others nearby), then up to the National Archaeological Museum in the afternoon. Nice and easy and you can squeeze in more attractions here and there if you want.