A First-Timer’s Guide to Athens

Athens, Greece

Athens has arguably more historical significance than any other city in the Western world. It was the center of Ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and home to some of the most influential philosophers the world has ever known. And after being hit hard by the recession, Athens has experienced something of a cultural revival. You are now just as likely to stumble upon a trendy coffee shop as you are to find a plaque commemorating the spot where Socrates once stopped to shake a pebble out of his sandal.

So whether you’re a history buff, foodie, photographer, or simply someone looking for a good time, Athens, Greece, is a great destination for you.

We spent a whirlwind day-and-a-half in Athens before catching a ferry to Sifnos in the Cyclades.  And since it was the first time either of us had ever visited the city, we went on a mad dash to see as much as possible. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re not exactly the “enjoy the journey” type.

Because our time was short, we mostly hit the main tourist attractions that typically land high on travelers’ bucket list for a trip to Athens. After all, how could we visit Athens and not see the Parthenon? Maybe next time we will be able to explore more of the city’s hidden gems.

But if you’re a first-time visitor to Athens who is short on time, here are the things you won’t want to miss.

What to Do in Athens, Greece

Stroll the Plaka.

The Plaka district is a fun pedestrian-only area filled with shops and restaurants. Is it jam-packed with tourists? Yes! But it’s still worth exploring.

We grabbed a cheap (and delicious) gyro at a takeaway stand in the area, indulged in some decadent ice cream, and enjoyed a nice evening stroll—we even caught our first glimpse of the Acropolis!

Cost: Free!

Marvel at the Acropolis.

Just like you can’t visit Paris and skip the Eiffel Tower or Rome and miss the Coliseum, you can’t visit Athens without exploring the Acropolis. But like the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum, the Acropolis is often swarming with tourists, even during the spring shoulder season.

Here are a few tips to help you make the most of your time at the Acropolis:

Arrive early. We recommend arriving at the Acropolis before it opens in order to avoid some of the crowds, especially the tour groups that tend to arrive midmorning.

Consider purchasing a combined ticket. If you’re planning to hit several of the major archeological sites in Athens, consider buying the combined ticket, which will grant you access to the Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library, and numerous other major archeological sites in addition to the Acropolis. The combined ticket costs 30€ whereas a ticket for just the Acropolis costs 20€, so do the math and decide if the combined ticket is right for you. The combined ticket is available for purchase at the entrance to the Acropolis, as well as at other included archeological sites. Note: entry to museums, including the Acropolis Museum, is NOT covered by the combined ticket.

Visiting prior to April 1 is cheaper. If you’re traveling in early spring (prior to April 1), ticket prices to the Acropolis are half price.

Head to the Parthenon first. Because we wanted to take photos without two hundred photo bombers in the background, we headed straight to the top of the hill and visited the Parthenon first—and we were glad we did, because swarms of other visitors arrived within the hour! After we had enjoyed some relatively uncrowded time at the top, we made our way back to the bottom and explored the slopes.

Use the Rick Steves’ audioguide. As we discovered when we visited Rome a few years ago, visiting ancient archeological sites is much more enjoyable with some background information. Since we are basically always too cheap to hire a tour guide, we downloaded the Rick Steves’ audioguide and listened to that on our phones while exploring the Parthenon. We found that Steves’ commentary provided some helpful context to what we saw.

Even if you’re not a history nerd, a visit to the Parthenon is truly a must-do on your first trip to Athens.

Cost: 20€ from April 1 to

Climb Mars Hill.

Located just outside the entrance to the Acropolis is a marble hill known as the Areopagus, or Mars Hill. While in ancient times it was a place where criminal and religious matters were deliberated, it is perhaps most famous for being the site where the Apostle Paul delivered the famous sermon recorded in Acts 17. A plaque near the bottom of the hill bears the transcript of that speech.

The steps are slippery, so be careful and wear sturdy shoes if you plan to climb to the top.

We were surprised that a destination that is of such great significance to many people was so poorly marked. Don’t assume you’re in the wrong place just because there isn’t a lot of prominent signage!  

Cost: Free!

Wander through the Ancient Agora.

Located at the bottom of the slope northwest of the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora was once a bustling center of commerce and city life, a place where the ancient world’s elites—including smart guys like Socrates—would gather to share and discuss ideas. It also played an important role in religious life.

Of course, spending all day looking at various piles of stones that were important hundreds of years ago is kind of, well, boring (there, we said it.). To get the most out of your experience, we recommend downloading Rick Steves’ Ancient Agora audioguide. We are huge Rick Steves fans as you can see. The guy might have the fashion sense of a colorblind wombat, but he sure knows his European history!

Cost: 4€ (free with combined ticket)

…And the Roman Agora.

In case you’re a history buff who didn’t get your fill of dusty piles of rocks at the Ancient Agora, head over to Roman Agora to revel in some more ancient history. Built in the first century BC during Julius Caesar’s reign, the Roman Agora was once a busy marketplace. The site even contains the ruins of a 1st century public latrine, which just goes to show that public bathrooms have been consistently disgusting for two millenniums.

Don’t miss the Tower of the Winds, a sundial/compass that was built during the 1st century by astronomer Andronicus.

Cost: 2€ (Free with combined ticket)

Explore the Acropolis Museum.

We had time to visit only one museum on our whirlwind trip to Athens, which is a shame, because Athens has so many great ones. We chose the Acropolis Museum, because it is conveniently located near other attractions we wanted to visit—like the Acropolis, obviously.

Even though our feet were aching pretty badly by this point (as I mentioned in my packing guide for Greece, don’t underestimate the importance of appropriate footwear!), we thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Acropolis Museum. The building itself is striking, and the collection of ancient artifacts it contains—all pertaining to the Acropolis—is equally as impressive. Even if you’re not a big fan of museums, we think it’s worth a visit.

Cost: 5 (NOT included in the combined ticket)

Browse the stalls at the Monastiraki Flea Market.

If you’re in need of some retail therapy, head over to the Monastiraki Flea Market. It’s bustling, crowded, and the perfect place to find the perfect souvenir to commemorate your trip. Even if you don’t buy anything, browsing the stalls is a fun experience!

Cost: Free (unless you actually buy something, of course!)

Visit the Site of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus.

Southeast of the Acropolis is the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. Or at least what is left of it. Though most of the temple has been destroyed, the remaining columns that soar more than fifty feet into the sky offer an idea of how impressive the temple must have looked when it was originally built.

Cost: 2 (Free with combined ticket!)

Take a stroll through the National Garden.

If you’ve soaked in as much history as you can take and all the various heaps of crumbing stones are starting to run together (let’s be honest, it happens to the best of us), head over to the National Garden and enjoy a peaceful stroll through the foliage. You will almost forget that you are in the middle of a huge, crowded European capital!

Cost: Free!

Eat a gyro (or three…).

Besides its incredible long and rich history, Greece is best known for its amazing food. And possible nothing screams “Greek culinary goodness” quite like a gyro, skewered meat wrapped inside pita bread with other fillings like French fries, lettuce, tomatoes, and tzatziki sauce. They are delicious, cheap, and widely available throughout the city. Do yourself a favor and eat one. Or two. Or three.

Because we were so short on time, we were only able to hit a handful of Athens’ major attractions before hopping on a ferry to the islands. The places that snag the top spots on my to-do list for our next trip to Athens are the National Archaeological Museum and the Temple of Poseidon.

Obviously, a city with as rich of a history and culture as Athens would take much longer than one or two days to visit thoroughly. But we were able to get a good feel for what it has to offer. Even if you’re headed to Greece for a lazy beach holiday in the islands, be sure to include at least a day or two in Athens before hopping on a ferry—you will be glad you did.

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