Athens: 10 Things to Do
Athens’ naming rights were won, legend says, when Athena trumped Poseidon’s proffered well with a gift of an olive tree. The city’s devotion was worth winning. Always famously lively, Athens is at the cultural fore. For visitors, there are plenty of novel pleasures: explore up-and-coming neighborhoods, find a few new galleries and bars, or mix with the city’s cinephiles. When the sun hits the Acropolis’ high, stony hill, many other cities are left in the shade.
- Of all Athens’ ruins, the famed marketplace of Agora makes the most fitting start to your sightseeing — it stands testament to Athens’ status as a cradle of Western civilization. It was, in Socrates and Plato’s day, the heart of public life, and among the site’s extensive excavations you’ll find temples, a concert hall and long, colonnaded arcades.
For its size, Athens is remarkably low-rise. A good way to get a feel for life at street level is to stroll throughAnafiotika, a 19th century neighborhood on the northern slopes of the Acropolis hill, beside the entrance to the Agora. The masons who built it hailed from the island of Anafi, and were brought here by King Otto I to build his palace. Nestled above Plaka, Athens’ center, and bustling Monastiraki, the old bazaar, Anafiotika seems far removed. There, bougainvilleas splash whitewashed walls and cats stalk sunny paths, evoking the island life the masons left behind.
- Literally “high city,” the Acropolis, is Greece’s great marvel. Ascend through the olive groves of the lower slopes to reach the marble crown, before passing through the Propylaia gateway. You’ll see the Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion and the Parthenon along with numerous fragments arranged for reassembly. The state’s grand plan is to put right centuries of sackings, lootings and decay.
- An archaeological museum might seem an unlikely lunch spot, but the menu at the new Acropolis Museum, is made to tempt grown-up Athenians back to the mound and offers absurdly good value.
- In Plaka’s narrow streets, stores foist all manner of souvenirs on tourists — from fishermen’s sweaters to jewelry. Much of the latter is mass-produced, but not that at Byzantino, Its exquisite handmade “museum-copy” jewelry — replicating ancient Greek pieces — is made in the Athens workshop of this family-run business. Uniquely Greek, Byzantino jewels were worn at Sydney’s and Athens’ Olympic ceremonies.
- The once industrial Rouf area has undergone significant regeneration. In 2004, the Benaki Museum opened its new annex here. As Athens’ window on contemporary art and design, this outpost is well worth a visit.
- Twilight is the best time to venture up this abrupt peak. At 745 ft. (277 m), Lycabettus stands high above Athens, commanding a clear view across the Attica basin and the Aegean. Facing the viewing platform is Agios Georgios, the tiny white-stuccoed chapel of St. George. There is also a superb café, although prices match the altitude.
- So great is the Athenian ardor for film, there’s hardly a walled garden in town that isn’t now used as an open-air movie house. One in particular oozes charm: the Thiseion, on the south side of the Acropolis. Classic Hollywood flicks are popular, and these (like all non-Greek films) are shown with subtitles rather than dubbed.
- This old gasworks precinct has supplanted Psiri as Athens’ coolest nightspot, but don’t come only for bar life. Around the metro at Kerameikos cluster countless eateries, music venues and art spaces. Dominating the skyline is the gasworks turned Technopolis, a vast mixed-use cultural center.
- On Sunday morning, make your way to the flea market at Avissynias Square for a jumble of curios, from books to paintings, clothes to trinkets. Afterward, cross Athinas Street to Psiri, where interlocking streets secret away a wealth of galleries and vintage stores.