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Things to Do, See, and Eat in Athens, Greece
Athens is one of the great ports of call on eastern Mediterranean cruises. It has many things that cruise travelers love--great history, culture, food, and people. The city is also easy to navigate on foot since the Acropolis is in view around much of the city center. Although Athens seems to sprawl for miles, many of the most fascinating and important sites of the old town are located in a relatively small area.
Although many cruise travelers are in Athens for only a day, many others add a few days to either the beginning or end of their cruise in order to see the major sites of this ancient city.
Places to See in Athens
Everyone has different favorites and priorities. With just a day or two in Athens, these are 8 places I found worthy of my precious time. Scroll through the rest of this article to learn more about each site.
- Acropolis Museum
- Ancient Agora
- Monastiraki Square
- National Archaeological Museum
- Greek Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
- Old Olympic Stadium
- Syntagma... Square
Places to Stay in Athens
While in Athens, I stayed at two very different hotels in the summer of 2015. The first is a traditional full-service business hotel, the Athenaeum Intercontinental Athens. This 543-room hotel has all the features you would expect from a property in this chain. The rooms and bathrooms are spacious, clean, and modern. However, it's not in the city center, but does operate a free shuttle to take guests into the city. The hotel is very busy and a good choice if you expect all the amenities and space you would get in a nice hotel in the USA.
The second hotel I stayed in was in a perfect location, within walking distance of the major sites in the center of Athens. I walked to all of the locations listed above except the Old Olympic Stadium from this hotel. It's called the Economy Hotel and is a small property near the old City Hall and only about 5 blocks from Monastiraki Square. The rooms and bathrooms are tiny, but the air conditioning works well and the price is excellent. The desk staff is knowledgeable and very willing to help you plan your time in Athens.
Explore other hotels in Athens, Greece using Trip Advisor.
Places to Eat in Athens
Anyone who loves Mediterranean food will be happy with most places to dine in Athens. In the city center, there are many good restaurants, most with outdoor dining. Most have the menus posted outside. Just look for one that is busy or has seating that appeals to you. I've dined at all four of the restaurants discussed below and would definitely return.
The area around Monastiraki Square and the nearby Psiri (also spelled Psyrri) area have many casual outdoor dining places with good food and good prices. I've eaten at the Aischylou Grill House and the Klimataria Taverna in the Psiri area and enjoyed them both. The two restaurants were located between the Economy Hotel and Monastiraki Square and featured traditional Greek dishes like gyro meat, kebabs, tzatziki sauce, and Greek salad. Everyone who visits Athens should try these four things when in the city at least once. (I ate them almost daily when there.)
Those looking for an excellent restaurant with one of the best evening views in Athens should check out Hytra, which is a rooftop restaurant at the Onassis Cultural Center. The food is delicious and the views of the Acropolis match the cuisine.
Another excellent restaurant is Varoulko Seaside, which is found on the dock at the Mikrolimano marina in Piraeus. Chef Lefteris Lazarou opened the memorable restaurant in 1987 and earned Varoulko the first Michelin star ever awarded to a restaurant serving Greek food in Greece in 2002. Varoulko is justifiably considered one of the "top restaurants" in Athens.Continue to 2 of 25 below.
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Acropolis in Athens
Seeing the Acropolis is at the top of most visitors' lists when they come to Athens. This huge hill can easily be seen from the city center, and the monuments on top are some of the most important of the ancient world. Plus, they are among the most recognizable. Who hasn't heard of the Parthenon?
As seen in the photo above, the views of the Acropolis from the city below are amazing. However, the views from the top are even better. It's quite a hike up to the Parthenon, and the marble sidewalks are very slippery, but it's worth the effort for those who are able.Continue to 3 of 25 below.
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Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens
The Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens is the building that comes to mind when someone is looking for a great example of classical Greek architecture. The building was dedicated to the goddess Athena, and a magnificent gold and ivory statue of her once graced the inside of the Parthenon. Unfortunately, this statue was destroyed hundreds of years ago.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Earl of Elgin, a British archaeologist, moved many of the pieces of artwork on the Acropolis not destroyed over the centuries to the British Museum in London. The Greek government has wanted these "Elgin marbles" returned ever since. Greece has even built the marvelous Acropolis museum that will showcase these marble pieces if/when they are returned.Continue to 4 of 25 below.
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Acropolis Museum in Athens
The New Acropolis Museum opened in 2009, but is still called the "new" museum to avoid confusion with the "old" Acropolis museum, which is a building on top of the Acropolis that was closed in June 2007 so that the artwork inside could be moved to the New Acropolis Museum.
The New Acropolis Museum is very impressive and has quickly been recognized as one of the best in the world. Although many of the "Elgin marbles" are in London, the museum has enough amazing pieces that you forget about those that are missing (unless you are Greek). Bright white replicas of each missing marble piece are used to demonstrate to visitors exactly where the originals will eventually rest when returned.
The New Acropolis Museum sits at the foot of the Acropolis and offers great views of it. The layout is well-designed, and there's even a nice cafe with indoor and outdoor seating. The outdoor seating has some of the best views of the Acropolis in the city.Continue to 5 of 25 below.
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Caryatids at the New Acropolis Museum in Athens
Caryatids are female figures that take the place of support columns in a building. The word literally translates in Greek as "maidens of Karyai", which was an ancient Greek town on the Peloponnese.
This type of column is frequently seen in Greek and Roman architecture. Sometimes the term is supposed to mean "supportive women", but most often is associated with the six Caryatids who supported part of the Erechtheum, a 5th century BC building on the Acropolis in Athens.
One section of the Erechtheum is called the Porch of the Maidens and replicas of the six original Caryatids are still seen holding up the porch of the Erechtheum on the Acropolis. Five of the originals are prominently displayed at the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Art restorers used a specially constructed laser beam to clean these five caryatids between 2011 and 2015. Visitors to the museum could watch the restorers live at work via a television monitor. Although the five Erechtheum Caryatids are now cleaned... and on exhibit, visitors can still watch this tedious process via re-runs, and it makes one appreciate today's technology. The sixth Caryatid is at the British Museum in London, but the new porch of the maidens in the new Acropolis Museum has an empty pedestal waiting for her arrival.Continue to 6 of 25 below.
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Ancient Agora in Athens
The agora was ancient Athens marketplace. Vendors first started using the space as a market in the 6th century BC and continued for about 1,200 years. During this time, the agora was more than a shopping mall. Politicians, theologians, economists, businessmen, athletes, and philosophers made it the central hub of the city. The agora was where Socrates and St. Paul both spoke to the crowds and is located at the foot of the Acropolis.
Today, much of the agora is a grassy remnant, but it's a nice place to walk around and try and imagine the thousands who once filled the area each day. The Stoa of Attalos seen in the photo above was built in the second century BC and was reconstructed by the American School of Archaeology in 1956. This ancient shopping mall was originally filled with small shops, but today holds a very nice museum with most of the significant findings from the archaeological digs at the agora.
The most beautiful original building of the agora is the Temple of Hephaestus,... which was dedicated to both Hephaestus and Athena. This temple can be easily seen from the Acropolis.
Entrance to the agora is included in the price of the Acropolis ticket, and those who walk up to the top of the Acropolis from the Monastiraki Square/Athens flea market area can buy the joint ticket at the entrance to the agora.Continue to 7 of 25 below.
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Old Olympic Stadium in Athens
The first modern Olympic games were held in this marble stadium in 1896. It is also called the Panathenaic Stadium since it was built on the site of the original wooden stadium that dated back to the 4th century BC. In the 2004 Olympic Games, this stadium was used for the archery competition and as the finish line for the 26.2-mile marathon.Continue to 8 of 25 below.
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Syntagma Square (Plateia Syntagma or Constitution Square) is considered the center of modern Athens. However, it's only a few blocks from the Plaka and much of the old city. The square is across the street from the beautiful neoclassical Greek Parliament building, so it has often been the site of political demonstrations.Continue to 9 of 25 below.
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Greek Parliament Building
The Greek Parliament building started out as a palace for King Otto when it was constructed in 1842. However, the citizens of Greece did not like the lavish spending of this Bavarian king and protested in the square in front of this luxurious palace. King Otto continued to reign, but was subsequently deposed in 1862.
The building was neglected for decades and even served as a homeless shelter in 1923. After a parliamentary form of government returned to Greece, the building was renovated in the late 1920's and has been used as the home of the Greek Parliament since 1935.
Although the library is open to the public, most visitors come to the Parliament building to see the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.Continue to 10 of 25 below.
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Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens
The presidential guards marching so majestically in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Parliament Building in Athens are the Evzones, who are volunteers drawn from the Hellenic Army's Infantry Corps. The name Evzone is shared with an elite light infantry and mountain units of the Greek army.
Tourists come to see the guards in their traditional uniform, which is similar to the clothes worn by the klephts, a group of mountain insurgents and thieves who fought the Ottoman occupation of Greece from the 15th to the 19th century. (The term kleptomania has the same Greek root word.)
In this photo, the Evzones have on their beige summer workday uniforms. On Sundays and for special occasions, these guards wear their full dress white uniforms. The "kilt", which is actually called a fustanella in Greece, is part of traditional men's clothing in the Balkans. Each piece of the uniform has a special meaning. For example, the fustanellas on the full dress uniforms have 400... pleats--one for each year of Ottoman rule over Greece.Continue to 11 of 25 below.
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Changing of the Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens
The elite Evzone guards change every hour, with a ceremony taking place at 5 minutes before the hour all day long. You can tell it's almost time for the arrival of tour buses and other travelers, cameras in hand. The ceremony is a fairly simple changing of the guards, but just watching these handsome, tall young men march and stand at attention is worthwhile. They also march in front of the tomb on the half-hour (I assume to help the circulation after standing at attention for 30 minutes.) Visitors can have their photos made with the guards, as long as it is one at a time--and no selfies.
On Sunday, a more elaborate changing of the guard ceremony takes place at 11 am.Continue to 12 of 25 below.
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Sunday Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Green Parliament
Each Sunday at 11 am, a longer, more elaborate changing of the guard ceremony takes place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Greek Parliament Building in Athens on Syntagma Square. Bands play, the elite Evzone guards march, and it's quite festive.
The only downside of this ceremony is that it is usually much more crowded than the regular changing of the guard that occurs hourly throughout the week. Even if you go early, rude people may end up standing in front of you. Just enjoy the parade and go back another time to see the actual changing ceremony.Continue to 13 of 25 below.
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National Archaeological Museum in Athens
Those who love ancient Greece could easily spend several days in this fantastic museum. I had visited Greece several times before I took a half-day to spend in the National Archaeological Museum, and now I wish I had more time to stay longer.
So many times, I was at an archaeological site like Akrotiri on Santorini or the World Heritage site of Delos and read that an artifact was on display at the National Archaeological Museum. It was marvelous to finally see some of those pieces I had only read about at the place they were excavated.
The museum is laid out in chronological order, but it is very large, so you might want to study the map/brochure you receive when buying a ticket to plan your time or take along a favorite guidebook.Continue to 14 of 25 below.
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Bronze Statue in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens
Almost every item in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens has a fascinating story. I wanted to share just one of them in this overview of the top places to see in Athens.
Scientists are uncertain whether this bronze statue from the 5th century BC is Zeus or Poseidon. If this magnificent specimen of a man, who must be a god, is holding a thunderbolt, he's Zeus; if it's a trident, he's Poseidon. Unfortunately, when the statue was found in a shipwreck off Cape Artemision in 1928, the weapon was missing. The debate has been ongoing for almost 100 years, but it doesn't really matter to me since it's an impressive piece of sculpture. (And, doesn't he look great to be over 2500 years old?)Continue to 15 of 25 below.
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Church of Panagia Kapnikarea in Athens
Like the rest of Greece, Athens has many churches, and those touring the capital city should try and visit at least one. The Metropolitan Cathedral, which is near this church, is the head church of the Greek Orthodox faith.
I have included a photo of the Church of Panagia Kapnikarea in this listing because it has a lovely Byzantine style and dates back to the 11th century. However, I've also included it because of its location. The church sits in the middle of Ermou Street, one of Athens busiest pedestrian shopping streets. I'm delighted it wasn't torn down so that a major retailer could have the space, aren't you?Continue to 16 of 25 below.
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Varoulko Seaside Restaurant in Athens
Varoulko Seaside Restaurant is one of Athens best restaurants. Its delicious Greek menu and outstanding chef earned the restaurant a Michelin star in 2002.
The restaurant is located at the Mikrolimano marina in Piraeus but is worth a taxi ride if you want to have an exceptional dining experience.Continue to 17 of 25 below.
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Tasting Menu at Varoulko Seaside Restaurant
Our group enjoyed a memorable set-menu meal at the Varoulko Seaside Restaurant in Athens. While dining, we could watch the marina just outside the huge sliding glass doors. Although I love dining outside, it was very warm that evening, so we appreciated the air conditioning inside Varoulko, but the doors can be opened when the weather is right. Here's a list of the items on our menu to give readers an idea of some of the dishes available:
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- Starter with Greek olives, extra virgin olive oil, and carob rusks from Crete
- Greek salad with marinated cherry tomatoes, feta cheese mousse, cucumber jelly, and carob rusk powder
- Sea bass carpaccio with seaweed
- Fried fish on thin slices of sourdough bread, with green pea cream, smoked eggplant mousse, and a tomato-carrot jam
- Orzo cooked with prawns, Greek wine from Limnos Island, dried hot red pepper flakes, and Parmesan cheese
- Gilt-head sea bream fillet with wild greens
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Hytra Restaurant in Athens
Hytra is in a great location on the roof of the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens. Its food is outstanding and its view is terrific--the Acropolis. I dined with a group at Hytra and we enjoyed this delicious set menu:
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- Mesclun salad with fresh goat cheese from Evia Island, homemade fig marmalade, and tomato vinaigrette
- Grilled octopus, chick peas, and fish roe salad
- Grilled squids with scented split peas with saffron and green beans
- Sea bass with ouzo vinaigrette, fennel mayonnaise, and fresh salad
- Ouzo parfait with berries for dessert
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Greek salad at the Aischylou Grill House in Psiri area of Athens
Doesn't this Greek salad remind you of Greece? Can you see the size of those giant olives? This Greek salad from the Aischylou Grill House was one of many terrific salads I enjoyed while in Athens (and elsewhere in Greece).
Traditional Greek salads are made with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, olives, onion, feta cheese, olive oil, and herbs, but no lettuce.Continue to 20 of 25 below.
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Like Greek salad, this tzatziki sauce is a personal favorite. It's delicious with grilled meats or bread and is made with strained Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt, olive oil, lemon juice, and sometimes dill, mint, or parsley.Continue to 21 of 25 below.
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Gyro Meat Platter in Athens
Gyro meat served in pita bread was probably the first fast food, and visitors to Athens can still find a gyro sandwich to take away and eat on a park bench. Although it can be made at home, it sounds way too complicated.
Either a gyro meat platter or souvlaki are the most popular main dishes at most Greek restaurants in Athens. Both can be made from beef, lamb, pork, veal, or chicken. The gyro meat is ground, pressed, cooked, and sliced; the souvlaki meat is marinated and cooked on skewers like a small kebab. Sometimes the souvlaki meat is ground and mixed with something delicious like pistachio nuts before marinating and cooking on the skewers.Continue to 22 of 25 below.
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Monastiraki Square in Athens
Monastiraki Square is one of the main squares in Athens. The name Monastiraki means, "little monastery", and it does have a small cute church in its center. Monastiraki has many streets leading away from it that provides access to restaurants, the Athens flea market, and major retail stores. As seen in the next photo, it's a very popular gathering place in the evening.Continue to 23 of 25 below.
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Monastiraki Square at Night
Monastiraki Square is packed with people in the evening and probably even more so when a full moon is up over the Acropolis!Continue to 24 of 25 below.
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Athens Street Scene
When walking on a busy pedestrian street in Athens, you might feel like you are in any other city in Europe until you look up and see the unique Acropolis in the distance.Continue to 25 of 25 below.
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Like most major cities, Athens has its share of graffiti. Not sure about the back story on this one, but I found it interesting!