First Timers’ Guide to Athens: 5 Days in the Heart of Greek Civilization

Athens is a great starting point to explore Greece’s ancient history, get a feel of modern Greek society, and savor the unique fusion of Greek and international cuisine. Day trips on ferries to a nearby island gave us a taste of the magnificent Greek islands. Greece is slowly recovering from its economic hardship. Being the country’s epicenter, Athens is grungy, but very much alive.

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Splendid view over the city of Athens

Accommodation

When we travel, we love to stay in AirBnBs whenever possible. It gives us a sense of what life looks like in the place. On this trip, we booked a studio apartment in the cozy Pangrati neighborhood. The subway connects to Evangelismos station, easily accessible from the airport, and well connected to popular tourist destinations.

The neighbourhood has a number of great restaurants and bars, and it’s far enough from the touristy madness to feel like a retreat, but close enough to reach on foot or a short ride on public transport. Even within a short 5-day stay, we had established a morning routine of getting coffee from Kokkos, and pastry from Chez Alice.

Things to Do

If you are a history buff, Athens is the city for you. With architecture that dates back to 5th century BC, there is plenty of historical wonder to take in. This mix of history and modernity makes Athens a tantalizing city to explore.

Pro tip: When I visit a city, I like to star all the places I want to visit on Google Maps, including restaurants & cafés. Download the map onto your phone to have an offline version. I then decide which neighborhood I want to explore for the day, and can make decisions on the go.

Hop-on/Hop-off Bus Tour

In a major city, I like to take advantage of the hop-on/hop-off bus whenever possible. They serve as a great transportation option with added history lessons. Exploring the city on the bus gets me to all the top destinations, and helps me get a feel of the land. We used CitySightseeing in Athens, and ticket prices begin at €18 for an adult. You can book the tickets ahead online, or get them at the booths located near major attractions.

Read more: Must Have Travel Packing List for a Family trip

The Acropolis & Parthenon

Parthenon temple on the Athenian Acropolis

When in Greece, visiting monuments that symbolizes Greek civilization is a must. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and be ready for a climb. The Acropolis and Parthenon sit on top of a hill, and along the way, check out the magnificent Theatre of Dionysus. Imagine the stadium filled to the brim with people watching a show. At the foot of the hill sits Acropolis Museum. This is really worthwhile with multi-levels of well-curated artefacts that brings ancient Greece alive.

Theatre of Dionysus, Athens

Get Lost in Monastiraki Square & The Plaka

Monastiraki Square and its surrounding is a bustling area filled with second-hand shops, boutiques, souvenir stalls, and antiques to fill your shopping needs. It’s a great place to peruse and take in the vibrant vibe. A hidden gem nestles within the neighbourhood is TAF (The Arts Foundation). This bar/café is masked behind an unassuming door, but opens into an atrium with a café at the courtyard surrounded by art galleries.

Nearby is the Plaka neighbourhood, the old historical center of Athens. This area feels like a village with windy alleys, uneven steps, beautiful art murals, with hospitable restaurants and cafés sprinkled in between. Get lost in this area and follow turns on a whim; no plans necessary.

Monastiraki Square and the Plaka

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Lycabettus Hill at Sunset

The peak at Mount Lycabettus sits atop 277 meters, and gives one of the best panoramic views of Athens. While the view is wonderful no matter what time of the day, the scene at sunset is a different level of spectacular. To get up to the mountain top, you have a few options. For the adventure climber type, you would want to climb up the hill. If you aren’t up for a long climb, a smaller climb takes you to the Teleferik station. From there, the cable car takes you to the mountain top.

Panoramic view of Athens from Mount Lycabettus

We were not aware of the cable car at the time, and simply had a taxi driver take us straight to the top, and then we took the Teleferik down. Whatever combination you decide, the view is breathtaking, and very much worth the effort.

Tour the Panathenaic Stadium

The Panathenaic Stadium is a majestically made of marble is the site of the first modern Olympic games in 1896. Beyond simply walking around to feel the magnitude of the space, there is a well-curated Olympics museum inside the stadium. Be sure to bring sun protection though, there is not an ounce of shade if you are walking around on a sunny day!

Panathenaic Stadium in Athens

Explore Academy of Athens

I often like visiting universities on my travels. Educational institutions reflects the society, and in Athens, I enjoyed exploring the area around Academy of Athens and National Library of Greece. Not only the buildings are gorgeous to look at, I can feel the youthful energy emitted from students. There are has some lovely cafés and restaurants. Bring a book, and have a coffee, you can blend in with the rest of the student body.

Academy of Athens

Day Trips From Athens

A day trip to Aegina

If you are coming to Athens without any onward travel to other Greek islands, you can take a day trip to get a taste of the island life. While there are a number of tour operators offering day tours, it’s easy to make the trip on your own. From Piraeus Port, we bought tickets from Flying Dolphin, one of the many ferry companies, to head to Aegina. The ferry ride across Saronic Gulf takes around 40 minutes. We left early in the morning, enjoyed the entire day on the island, and took the ferry back at night. The night view from the boat was a lovely contrast from the morning.

Port of Aegina

Port of Aegina is busy, lined with a fleet of ferries, cruise ships and more. On shore is a bustling fish market with a number of restaurants competing for that gorgeous ocean view. It’s a great place to get a delicious seafood meal with fresh produce. To explore the island, you can rent a motorbike, hire a car, or simply wander on foot. The old town was relatively quiet when we visited in early October, as the summer season winded down. The quiet streets that were full of wonderful architecture details gave me a sense of Greek island life.

Sunset over Port of Aegina

A day trip to Alimos

After a few days in the city, we were curious to see what life looks like outside the city center. We hopped on a tram, and took it all the way to the coast. Along the journey, we saw various neighborhoods in Athens, and observe daily life in the city. Traveling opens our eyes to new ways of life, but we must remember most people don’t live near touristy destinations. Sometimes, it helps to step away and see a different side.

Read more: Best Non Touristy Places to Visit in Europe

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As we reached Alimos, various beach-side restaurants and lounges began to appear. We walked around, but it was eerily quiet given it was a week day, and the suburbia neighborhoods nearby were devoid of people. I could imagine the area filled with families on weekends. We settled into Peñarrubia Lounge, the one place that looked somewhat lively, and enjoyed a tranquil view and some lunch.

Alimos, South Athens

Good Eats

One of the joy of travel is the ability to try resaurants and local cuisines. Athens has plenty to offer, and here are some of my favorites:

Avocado – If you need some vegetarian fix, this café has a great menu of healthy and fulfilling bites. The atmosphere is relaxed, and a perfect spot in the center of town to rest from sightseeing.

Fresko Yogurt Bar – When in Greece, trying out their yogurt is a must. This yogurt bar offers up a variety of toppings to go with its creamy yogurt. If you are in the mood for a dessert, come to this bar to curb that craving.

Gelato Follia – If you do make it out to Aegina, definitely stop by this delicious gelateria for a big scoop of ice cream in delightful flavors.

Kokkos – This is my neighbourhood café for the week in the Pangrati neighbourhood. It’s a small café, with friendly baristas serving up delicious coffee. The cappuccino was perfection!

Mani Mani – If you are looking to have a decadent meal without breaking the budget, this is the place. Situated not far from the Acropolis museum, it’s a beautiful place to have a delightful Greek meal with a bit of a fusion twist.

Nice n Easy – This cozy restaurant has a fantastic outdoor sitting in a quiet residential neighbourhood near Academy of Athens. This is where you can have blend into the society a bit, away from the tourists. Food is fresh and tasty, true to its Mediterranean form.

TAF (The Art Foundation) – As mentioned, this hidden bar in Monastiraki is great for a coffee, or a cocktail. Enjoy the art, and feel the hip vibe!

The Black Sheep – This place was so delicious that we went back for a second time before we left. The tapa-style ordering lets you try many dishes, but very reasonably priced. If you are dining in the evening, be sure to call ahead to reserve a table. Lunch is also a great option if you are in the neighborhood.