In my opinion, Athens is a city that gets a bit of a bad rep. When I was planning to go, a lot of people told me not to waste time in Athens, but instead focus my time in the islands. But after visiting, I definitely disagree with that sentiment and actually loved my time in Athens and think it is worth visiting. This is particularly true for any of you with a love of ancient history. I think the reason why some people don’t like the city is that they are expecting Athens to be similar to Rome, with planned city squares and the like. It does have some of these, but due to massive growth in the past century, it feels a little less organized. Even still, Athens has its own unique qualities that make it a great place to visit. From amazing mountain top views, to the busy markets and impressive ancient ruins, there is so much to see here. This post details the perfect 3 days in Athens, and should particularly for those of you visiting Athens for the first time.
History of Athens
Athens has been inhabited for thousands of years, and by 1412 it had become an important part of the Mycenaean civilization. In fact, there are ruins on the Acropolis of a Mycenaean palace that predates the famous temple that still stands there today. It is not entirely clear when the city got its name, but the ancient Greeks named the city after the goddess Athena, of Greek mythology.
From 900 BC forward, Athens was a major center of trade and prosperity in the area. The 6th century BC brought about the founding of democracy in Athens. And it is the 5th century BC where Athens really began to leave its mark on the world as it was during this time that all the well known Greeks such as the playwright Sophocles, the historian Herodotus, and physician Hippocrates, and the philosopher Socrates lived in Athens. It was also during this time that city experienced the Gold Age of Athenian democracy, the construction of the Acropolis, and the foundation of the Delian League. The latter was meant to be a coalition for fighting against the Persians, but soon there was fighting among the Greek city-states. The Peloponnesian War was fought between 431-404 BC, and led to the defeat of Athens by rival Sparta.
In 338 BC, the Macedon Philip II defeated Athens and Thebes, which ended the independence of Athens until Rome made it a free city in the 2nd century AD. Rome gave it this designation because Rome greatly admired Athen’s schools, architecture, and culture. In the 2nd century AD, Roman emperor Hadrian built a library, gymnasium, several temples, and ordered completion of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Like the Roman empire, Athens was sacked by the Visigoths and other tribes and fell into decline. This era also saw the construction of the first Christian churches in the city, with the Parthenon and other temples being converted into churches.
Over time Athens had competing times of prosperity and decline; it did well during the crusades, and then once again declined during the Ottoman Empire. Athens became the new capital of Greece in 1834 following the Greek War of Independence. It was chosen due to its historical and sentimental importance, but required a lot of rebuilding after the war. The city grew exponentially after World War II, and rapidly expanded as a result.
Today, Athens is well known as the “cradle of Western civilization” and the “birthplace of democracy”. It is the largest city in Greece, containing 35% of the country’s population and has one of the largest economic centers in southeastern Europe. The city is also a major site for tourism, and its port Piraeus is the largest passenger port in the European continent.
Know Before You Go | Athens
Lodging + Logistics:
Getting There: As a big city and the entry point to most of the islands in Greece, it is not hard to fly in Athens. The city is served by the Athens International Airport (ATH), which is actually located nearby town of Spata, about 22 mies outside the city center of Athens. You can get from the airport to Athens either by train on Athens Metro Line 3, one of the four bus lines that stops there, or via taxi.
Where to Stay: If you are visiting for the first time, I recommend you stay close all the sites mentioned in the following itinerary. This means considering the Plaka, Monastiraki, Syntagma, Psirri, or City Center Neighborhoods. Two options to consider for your stay are below:
This cute boutique hotel is located near the Plaka neighborhood and features patios on every room. This hotel is noted for having a great location and a wonderful staff.
Athens Ivy Suites
This is another cute boutique hotel, and it is located off of Syntagma Square. This hotel is known for having immaculate facilities, easy access to all the tourist locations, and is close to public transportation.
Getting Around: Athens is a very walkable city, particularly the city center. As mentioned above there is a pretty efficient public transportation system, consisting of both rail and buses. There are 3 metro lines and they cover pretty much all of the area of the city you may visit as a tourist. And the bus covers everywhere else, but the journey may be a bit slower. One thing that I found cool is that some of the stations have archaeological sites on display that were discovered while digging out the stations.
Language Considerations: Greek is the official language of Athens, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding locals who speak English. I still suggest that you learn at least a few greetings in Greek, though. Head over to my post on Greek travel phrases.
Currency Situation: The currency used in Athens is the Euro. For the latest currency conversion, click here. As of fall 2022, the dollar and euro are nearly equal. See my post on Santorini for additional information on currency.
When to Visit: Athens does get all four season, so when to visit is up to what you prefer. Unlike the Greek islands, where visiting in the summer months makes the most sense, you can come in any season. I might still recommend you visit between April to October, in case you would like to add a trip to an island like Santorini or Mykonos to your trip.
Where to Eat: Just keep reading for some tips on the best restaurants to try in Athens!
The Itinerary | 3 Days in Athens
Day 1 | Getting to Know the City
The first day of your time in Athens should be spent getting acquainted with the city. I recommend doing this by taking a guided tour in the morning. The Athens, Acropolis & Museum Tour is probably the best way to do this, as it will save you time getting to locations and the guide will fill in the gaps on the history of it all. It is a walking tour, so bring your most comfortable shoes.
Morning / Afternoon
Old Royal Palace, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, and Syntagma Square
The Old Royal Palace should be the first stop in Athens. This palace was the first one in modern Greece, and since 1934, it has housed the Hellenic Parliament. This building is also the site of Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is a war memorial dedicated to unknown Greek soldiers killed during war. This building faces Syntagma Square, which serves as the heart of Greek politics and commercial activity in Athens. If you get here at the right time, which is 11:00 AM on Sundays, you can witness the Changing of the Guard Ceremony right in front of the Old Royal Palace.
I’ve seen changing of the guard ceremonies in several places around the world, including the U.K. and Thailand, and enjoy watching them. I always try to imagine myself having to stand in a single place for hours on end, and I just couldn’t do it. I think that’s why these ceremonies are fascinating to watch. The discipline required to maintain form, even when leaving one’s post is quite admirable. Check out the video below for a quick peak at what the ceremony is like:
The National Garden of Athens & Zappeion Hall
The National Garden of Athens is a public park of 38 acres located in the city’s center. It is located directly behind the Old Palace and is across from the 1896 Olympic Stadium. It is a very nice place to take a stroll and see some of the local wildlife and plants. Zappeion Hall is a beautiful building located in the south of the park. It is currently used for official and public ceremonies. This hall was named for its benefactor – Evangelis Zappas – whose head is buried beneath his statue on this site. It has beautiful architecture and is worth a short walk through, and perhaps some good photo opps. After a quick tour of this building, continue your tour through the gardens to get a little tranquility and greenery before you continue sightseeing! I recommend that you stop here for a break between tours or after a meal to soak in the view and rest your feet when needed.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
There is not a lot left of this temple, including the statue of Zeus himself, but what remains is still quite breathtaking. The sheer size of the columns used to construct this temple is amazing! I’ve yet to see anything on this scale in any other ancient Greek or Roman sites.
Some interesting history about this temple is that construction began in the 6th century B.C., but not completed until 2nd century A.D. by Roman Emperor Hadrian. Construction was halted this time as the tyrants who began the project were overthrown. Hadrian completed the project as he adored Greece and wanted to leave his mark in Athens. It is hard to describe the scale without a picture, so take a peak at the picture of the people below next to the massive columns for reference.
Historians believe that Hadrian’s Arch was created to celebrate the arrival of Hadrian to the city of Athens in 132 A.D. It is situated close by to the Temple of Olympian Zeus and once spanned an ancient road from the Temple of Zeus to the city’s center. This arch is a great place for a photo opp!
If you like shopping in the slightest, you’ll love the Plaka area! Stop here to visit a variety of shops – most are catered towards tourists, but you can find pretty unique items here. For example, I left here with artisanal honeys – each flavored by the type of flowers the bees have specifically pollinated! The shops go on for a few blocks, and you can also find great places to grab a bite to eat in this area too. And finally, you can also find ruins of Hadrian’s Library in this district. It’s the perfect place to spend a leisurely afternoon on your visit to Athens.
Following a stop at Plaka, take the pedestrian walkway of Dionyssiou Areopagitou up to the top of the Acropolis. For context, in ancient Greece, acropolises were in every Greek city, and like the one in Athens, they served as the cities’ religious centers. As mentioned above, the Acropolis hill originally housed a Mycenaean palace. In addition, there was an original temple site or “Older Parthenon”, and older temples that were damaged when the Persians invaded and burned the city in 480 BC.
After the Greeks retook the city, the Periclean building program began. This program brought the rebuilding of the Parthenon, the Propylaea (major gate to the Acropolis), and the Erectheion. The latter of which is an ancient temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon that features the well-known Caryatids as columns.
Today the Acropolis is a Unesco World Heritage Site, that is visited by over 16,000 people a day. Before visiting this site, I really had no idea how large the complex was at the top of the hill. There are ruins for several different buildings, and a (still) awe-inspiring entrance. What most amazed me about the Acropolis is the condition of the Parthenon, a temple that is over 2500 years old. While there I learned that it still even had full roofing until the 16th century, when a bomb was detonated inside of the building.
Other worthy sites include the following:
- Odeon of Herodes Atticus: An ancient concert hall said to have perfect acoustics
- Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus: An ancient play house, if you will. If you’ve seen Roman theaters, this theater style will be familiar to you
- Asclepieion: These were ancient healing temples dedicated to Asclepius, the first doctor-demigod. According to mythology, he was so skilled he could raise people from the dead. These healing temples were something like a mix between a hospital and a religious center. And interestingly enough, a lot of the healing was centered on living a healthy lifestyle
If you don’t do anything else while you are in Athens, you MUST visit the Acropolis!
New Acropolis Museum
This museum is located near the foot of the acropolis. It houses artifacts found at the Acropolis and around it as well. The building was constructed over ruins of the ancient town, and has a glass floor so you can look down to the excavations happening below. It’s here you can see items such as Greek statues that still have paint on them! (Most statues are only white today because of paint erosion). Visit this museum to get a better understanding of life in Ancient Greece. One thing I found interesting is that you can find plasters of some of the statues originally at the top of the Parthenon here, but unfortunately the originals are still housed in the British Museum. I’ve found that many countries today are not happy with how this museum has kept many artifacts taken in the days of colonialism, and has not offered to return anything to rightful owners.
Book your Athens, Acropolis & Museum Tour today!
For dinner, I recommend you try the Oineas Greek Restaurant that is not too far from the Ancient Agora of Athens. They serve wonderful Greek food here, and will treat you just like family. As an example, my friend and I looked too rushed while eating here, so the owner literally told us to slow down and eat dessert. We listened :).
After dinner, consider a stop at Little Kook, a quirky and seasonally-themed cafe for a little treat and unique experience. A stroll down Pitakki Street for a little more whimsy. You can see that the themes for Little Kook and Pitakki Street often change in the pictures from two different years below:
Day 2 | Anafiotika & More
On your second day in Athens, you’ll get to see a little more of the cities from some different angles than the first day.
Anafiotika is definitely one of Athens’s hidden gems. It is an “island town” that is found near the Acropolis. It was built by workers from the island of Anafi who wanted to live somewhere that still looked like home. If you are looking for white washed walls and colorful doorways, journey up the hill behind the Plaka to get to this little city within a city. This is another great place to find some tranquility in the busyness of the city. While on your way up, take a stop to get an amazing view of the entire city.
Late Morning / Afternoon:
In the afternoon, head back to Plaka or to the very nearby Monastiraki Flea Market in Monastiraki Square for a bit more shopping…and eating. Take the time while in this area to then visit the Temple of Hephaestus. This temple is dedicated to Hephaestus, the god of fire and all that entailed (blacksmiths, volcanoes, metallurgy, etc.). This temple is the best preserved temple in Athens, it is largely intact today. This temple was originally built in the 5th century BC, and was converted to a Christian church in the 7th century AD. It is pretty cheap to enter the temple, around 4 euro as of 2022.
Almost immediately next door is the Ancient Agora of Athens, which I recommend you visit after seeing the temple. This area is the best example today of the ancient Greek agora, and features the ruins of many shops and ancient monuments.
Next up, visit Stavros Melissinos: The Poet Sandal Maker. After your history tour, you should definitely stop here. The Poet Sandal Maker is a world-renown shoe-maker based in Athens. He has even made shoes for celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker. You can visit this shop to get your very own tailor-made sandals! The service is quick, which means that you can get your new shoes back in the same day if you visit early enough. (Which is what I did). The sandals are of excellent quality and craftsmanship – mine have lasted over 4 years! If you want something that you can only get in Athens, go get some shoes made.
Dinner with Acropolis Views
If you can’t tell from this post, or any other of my guides, I love a great view! I recommend that you spend at least one night dining in a restaurant that offers views of the entire city. I spent my birthday in Athens last year, so my friend and I spent our last night dining at the Athens Gate Hotel. The food and the view were both unforgettable :). Don’t forget to make a reservation for any place that you decide to eat a few weeks in advance, as you can expect space to fill quickly.
Another option for dinner with a view could be Kuzina, if Athens Gate is booked.
Day 3 | Food Tour, Temple of Poseidon, and Mount Lycabettus
Your third day in Athens should be set around getting a little exercise in (or not), some gastronomic exploration, and of course, a little more history.
Get to know Greek food better by taking a Gourmet Food Tour. During this tour you can try traditional Greek breakfast, olive oil, Greek pastries, yogurt and more. This 4-hour experience will take you a variety of pastry shops, bakeries, meat and fish markets, and a stroll down Evripidou Street in the city center. If you like to eat well, this is the experience for you.
If you have not got enough history yet, take a trip down to the Temple of Poseidon, which was built in the 8th century BC. It is located in Cape Sounion near the water, as Poseidon was the god of the sea. If you opt to take a tour down here, you’ll get a guided tour of the temple and have time to swim at the beautiful beaches in the cape as well. It is about a 50 minute drive from Athens, so that is something to keep in mind if you plan to visit. Check out the From Athens: Cape Sounion & Temple of Poseidon Half Day Tour to book.
Mount Lycabettus also known as Lycabettus Hill, is the highest point in Athens, and provides a different view of the city. It provides arguably the best view of Athens and there are several ways to reach the top. You can climb on foot for a nice hike up the mountain, it gets more challenging as you reach the steep stairs closer to the top. Additionally, you can take a cable car up to the top from the corner of Aristippou and Ploutarchaou streets. Finally, you can drive (or ride) to the parking lot at the top. There are some things to do at the top, including a visit to the church of Agios Georgios or eat at the high-end Orizontes restaurant. I recommend you try to visit this are at sunset, if you are able.
If you’d like to do a guided tour up to the top, I recommend the Athens Timeless Hills Walking Tour & Mount Lycabettus. This tour does include a little overview of the city, but the bulk of the walk is climbing Philopappos Hill to ultimately reach Mount Lycabettus over 3.5 hours. Note if you choose this option, it would likely conflict with heading to the Temple of Poseidon as well.
Athens: Acropolis and 6 Archaeological Sites Combo Ticket
If you want to save money and time with “skip-the-line” tickets, you should look into the Athens: Acropolis and 6 Archaeological Sites Combo Ticket. This combined ticket provides up to 70% off and VIP entry to the following sites:
- Ancient Agora
- Roman Agora
- Temple of Zeus
- Aristotle’s School
- Hadrian’s Library
- Kerameikos Ancient Cemetery
If you plan to follow the itinerary in this guide, you’ll see that this ticket is likely well worth it. Click here to buy your ticket now!
Athens City Map
In case you’d like to see all the sites on your own terms, here is a map of the city! All key landmarks mentioned in this post are listed below:
- Acropolis of Athens
- Acropolis Museum
- Temple of Olympian Zeus
- The Athens Gate Hotel
- Hadrian’s Arch
- Presidential Mansion
- Zappeion Hall
- The Poet Sandal Maker
What to Do if you Have More Time
- Day trip to Delphi and Arachova: See Delphi, the holiest site in ancient Greece, where the oracles provided prophecies to those who made the pilgrimage there.
- Full-Day Meteora Tour w/ Hermit Caves: Take the train to Kalambaka, then drive up the mountains to see 3 monasteries atop the rocky mountains. You will also spend time seeing the caves of Badovas where hermit monks once lived.
- Mycenae and Epidaurus Full-Day Tour: See the Mycenaean sites that inspired Homer, such as the tomb of King Agamemnon. Also stop at the city of Epidaurus, which is said to be the birthplace of Apollo’s son.
- Saronic Islands Day Cruise: Spend all day cruising the islands most near to Athens, such as Poros, Hydra, and Aegina.
Final Thoughts | 3 Days in Athens Itinerary
And there you have it – my list of the best things to do in Athens! Just as a recap, on your first day in Athens, I recommend you take a guided tour to get the most out of the experience. We took the Athens, Acropolis, and Acropolis Museum Sightseeing Tour on our visit. We had an excellent guide who explained the city’s culture and history over the 5-hour duration of the tour.
Additionally, if you’re looking for a full week travel guide to Greece, go over to this post on PinkCaddyTraveLogue! And for more of an off-the-beaten- path experience in Athens, check out this post on How to See Athens Like a Local.
As always, let me know if you have questions. And if you’ve been to Athens before, let me know of your favorite things to do in the city below!