Despite having heard mixed reviews of Athens, I really enjoyed it.
Critics say the city is dirty and doesn’t have much to do, but I disagree. Sure there’s some graffiti and griminess, but Athens has a unique warmth, charm and authenticity that wasn’t as common in Mykonos or Santorini. When you go out in Athens, you actually meet people who live there – not just other tourists. And the locals we encountered were proud to share tips, patiently explaining the difference between various spirits or pastries or giving tips on local hotspots. Plus, I loved that the city was so walkable. Other than our cabs to and from the airport, any place we wanted to go was less than a 20 minute walk away.
Here are a few of my favorite experiences in Athens:
The Acropolis & Agora
This is what you came to Athens for. You can easily spend a few hours roaming around the Agora, Acropolis, Acropolis museum, Hadrian’s Library, and Theater of Dionysus, soaking in the rich history and browsing ancient artifacts.
Spend time checking out the Parthenon, the crowning jewel of the Acropolis, but also walk around the perimeter and enjoy the 360 degree views of Athens. Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds and heat. Also try to visit the Acropolis museum before you go so you can appreciate the architecture and historical context when you’re actually in front of the monuments.
Museum in the Agora
Theater of Dionysus
Plaka is a touristy area but it’s very lively and worth a stroll. This is where all the key historical sights are. Check out the part closer to Syntagma Square, which seems to attract more locals. If you have time, consider visiting the Athens National Gardens, which offers 38 acres of serenity, botanical beauty, and animals.
Athens National Gardens
Home to Athenian aristocracy and Greek celebrities, Kolonaki is filled with fancy cafes, boutiques, and people. We enjoyed coming here for some late afternoon people watching at the outdoor cafes. Try a Greek iced coffee or frappe, the local drink of choice. Or do some shopping on nearby Academias street.
Monstiraki is like Plaka’s cooler cousin. It’s less touristy than Plaka and less pricey than Kolonaki. If you want to see old Greek men enjoying a spirited debate with their buddies or young professionals kicking back after work, this is your spot. Check out ZAF, a hipster cafe and cocktail bar near Agia Irini square, which is buzzing with activity and catchy music in the early evening.
I had no idea Athens is full of so many great bakeries. My favorites were Meliothos and Taki’s. Try a cheese pie or one of the many other savory breakfast pastries: spanakopita, mushroom pie, eggplant pie, leek pie, etc.
Bakery down the street from our Airbnb
Greek coffee; I recommend ordering it sweet. I learned this the hard way.
Cheese pie- the de facto breakfast food in Athens
When I asked a question about bougatsa and another pastry with semolina cream, the staff insisted we try both, on the house.
Taki’s has a variety of baked goods – olive and feta bread, spinach, cheese, and mushroom pies, orange cakes, cinnamon and honey cookies, and much more. Even at the late hour of 2pm, there were plenty of customers. I was impressed that the shopkeeper knew everyone’s name and order by heart.
Taverna Fare at Mani Mani
This was one of our favorite restaurants in Athens. Mani Mani is a taverna near the Acropolis featuring cuisine from the island Mani. They offer half portions of many dishes Monday-Friday, so you can try more things.
First, we had a unique take on a Greek salad. It was simple but made with great local produce: juicy Greek tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, croutons, and mint, accompanied by goat cheese baked in phyllo dough.
I’ve never seen Sid take a second helping of a salad before, but we both loved how refreshing this was.
Next, we had bruschetta with baked feta cheese, sundried tomato, and honey
For my main, I had a truffled mushroom orzo
Everything was delicious!
On our second night in Athens, we checked out Spondi, a two Michelin star restaurant. It was in a beautiful garden setting and the service was impeccable.
As an amuse bouche, the chef brought out a dish with beets, raspberry coulis, and mustard cream
This was followed by some smoked milk beignets
As a starter, we shared some mushrooms with amaretto sabayon & bitter cocoa
And for my main, I had a fregola pasta with fresh local vegetables and olive oil.
If you’re looking for some fine dining and perhaps a break from traditional Greek food, give Spondi a try. I’ve also heard great things about The Funky Gourmet, especially if you like molecular gastronomy. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a reservation.
Athens has great bars, and many are open til 5 or 6 in the morning, especially on Fridays and in non touristy areas like Psyrri.
We loved visiting Brettos, the oldest distillery in Athens and the second oldest in all of Europe. We got to sit behind the counter and enjoy the house specialty, ouzo, an anise flavored liqueur. Other traditional Greek spirits include raki and mastika, which is often served in restaurants as a digestif at the end of a meal.
Athens also has some great rooftop bars if you’re looking for a view. In the heart of Monstiraki square, we found two great spots with perfect views of the Acropolis – A for Athens and 360 degrees.
In Psyrri, you’ll find smaller, more casual, neighborhood bars that stay open as long as there are customers who want to be there. If you’re in Athens on a weeknight and want to go out, this is your best bet. Other areas of the city may close down by 11 or so.
Overall, Athens was a fun foray into our Greece vacation and not just for history buffs.