It is always difficult trying to give advice to other people on the best things to do and see in a given city. Different people have different tastes and their idea of what is fun, interesting or adventurous may be vastly different than my own. However, when I sat down to compile a list of things to do in Athens the challenge wasn’t finding activities that would have mass appeal, but rather narrowing down those activities to the absolute cream of the crop.
Athens is a massive, vibrant city, rich in culture and with an ancient history matched by only a few of the world’s greatest cities. Travelers could easily spend weeks here experiencing the sights and sounds and soaking in the culture. However, I realize that most visitors to the city don’t have the luxury of a long stay and will want to pack as much in as possible in the short time they have. With that in mind here are my picks for the top must-see places in Athens:
The Acropolis – I might as well get this one out of the way immediately, as a visit to this ancient site is the major reason a large percentage of tourists travel to Greece. The ruins of the Parthenon date back to the 5th century B.C., and despite heavy damage sustained in the 17th century the mighty structure still stands as a reminder of the amazing architectural genius of the ancient Greeks.
As you would expect you will be fighting the crowds to catch your glimpse of history, and you’ll be hard pressed to capture a snapshot of any part of the Parthenon without a crowd of people in the background. The site is also undergoing extensive renovation, so be prepared to see the scaffolding that covers the bulk of the ruins. I found that if you want to capture a good picture of the site it is best done at night from a rooftop in the city below. The Acropolis is lit up at night, and you will get a great view without people in the shot, and the distance will make the scaffolding all but invisible.
The Monastiraki – If you want indulge your inner bargain hunter then this sprawling bazaar is not to be missed. There are literally blocks of small shops featuring goods of every conceivable nature. If you want the best experience check it out on Sundays. On that day it turns into a traditional Flea Market where vendors pour into the square to sell all sorts of goods from food and crafts to bootleg movies and furs.
Panathinaiko Stadium – Whether you deem yourself a sports fan or not this stadium, which has hosted sporting events for more than 3,000 years, is not to be missed. Originally the site of the Panathenaic Games that were held in honor of the Goddess Athena, the stadium also played host to the first modern Olympics in 1896. Uniquely shaped in a long oval the stadium can hold as many as 80,000 spectators on its marble steps. Sadly Athens sporting events are now held at more modern, state of the art facilities, leaving the stadium that once held thousands of screaming fans oddly hushed today.
Athens Central Market – Even though most travelers to Athens won’t have access to a kitchen a visit to this lively, bustling marketplace is a must if you are looking for something a little different than wandering through ancient ruins. The market is a riot of color, noise and personality and the sights, sounds and scents of the place will keep you entertained, even if you don’t indulge your palate, and if you do choose to sample some of the fares there are some great little restaurants in the meat market that should not be missed.
The Plaka – Athens’ oldest neighborhood is arguably its liveliest. Located at the foot of the Acropolis the Plaka features hundreds of shops, restaurants and bars, where visitors can find something to suit every style and taste in a wide variety of price ranges. Waiters will play act to try and tempt you to sit in their outdoor restaurants, dogs linger in nearly every shaded doorway trying to beat the heat. Wandering through the narrow streets and amidst ancient buildings you will forget you are in a massive modern city, and feel like you’ve been magically transported to a simpler time when food, fun and good companionship were life’s greatest pleasures.
National Archaeological Museum – I’ll admit right off the bat that I am not much for museums. Wandering through nearly silent sterile buildings, looking at glass-encased artifacts from eons past always seems to give me a headache – at least until I visited the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Featuring treasures from as far back as the Neolithic the museum is truly a walk through the history of modern man. Ancient weapons and armor, artwork, masks, jewelry and breathtaking sculptures of massive proportion abound in the museum, and even the most fidgety won’t be bored. The museum has one of the greatest collections of ancient history housed anywhere in the world and should be on the itinerary of anyone with even a passing interest in the history of ancient Greece.
The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion – If you want to get out of the hustle and bustle of the big city, and catch one of the most breathtaking sunsets to be found anywhere on the planet then a trip to this majestic monument to Poseidon is a must. Marvel at the massive pillars of the construct built in the 5th century B.C.. Though the area is roped off, you can get close enough to appreciate the immensity of the ruins and even to read some of the graffiti left by Lord Byron as you overlook the Aegean Sea.
These are just a few of the wonders to be enjoyed and should be on anyone’s list of things to do in Athens, Greece. Enjoy your trip to this amazing city, and do your best to schedule enough time to really appreciate the history and culture that abounds there.