Rich in both history and culture, modern Athens has been giving itself a facelift over the past decade and is now a vibrant cultural powerhouse that rewards time and attention and has a good infrastructure to boot.
But if you’re pushed for time in what is one of the top European city break destinations, read my city guide to spending a weekend in Athens.
Arrival in Athens
Landing at Athens International Airport you can take the Metro (Line 3 blue) into central Athens, or the Proastiakos suburban railway, bus or taxi. Allow about an hour.
If you’re arriving from the port of Piraeus after a spot of Greek Island hopping, you can also catch the Metro into the city just across the road from the ferry terminal (2 euros).
Explore the Greek capital
The Athens Metro is only eight years old and has had a significant impact on reducing traffic and smog in the city, as well as making it easy for tourists to explore. Some Metro stations are worth a stop in their own right, showcasing yet more archaeological heritage dug up during construction.
An almost complete Roman baths was discovered in the middle of Syntagma Square, the main central station. Akropolis station has coin and ceramic collections displayed.
Another benefit of the 2004 Olympics is the new tramline and the sleek new trams are very popular, especially with tourists heading for the beaches of Glyfada on Route 5 (Plato).
See the sights of Athens
Athens has so much to display in terms of ancient history that you can see ancient bits of rubble lying about from the metro train arriving from the Port at Piraeus. In two days you can see the Acropolis (obviously a Unesco World Heritage Site), explore the old city – the Plaka – and the bustling district of Monastiraki.
Make a beeline for pedestrianised Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, where you can see the great rock of the Acropolis rising on your right. Watch out for the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus, and that of Herod Atticus where festivals are staged in summer.
The poor Acropolis looks barely held together from some angles, with the scaffolding and underpinning of the 20-year restoration project warding off the vicissitudes of the millennia.
It has been a church and a mosque, been sacked by various invaders and in 1687 blown up by the Venetians. But it is still magnificent, at any time of day or night.
Once you’ve seen the mighty monuments, wander back down the Acropolis path into the shaded ruins of the Agora, past the rock where the ancient Athenians held their assemblies and Saint Paul preached.
The nearby impressive new Acropolis Museum has instantly become a must see for every visitor to Athens, and with good reason. It is full of sunlight and beautiful figures – from the translucent marble of the archaic period to the remaining fragments of the Doric masterpiece that was the Parthenon monument. It does seem right that you should be able to look at this perfect example of classical art, and then look up at the sacred rock where the frieze was once splendidly in situ.
The flea market that fans out from Monastariki square is a fun way to spend a Sunday morning. Persevere past the tacky shops and spend an hour or two discovering the antiques market. It’s full of fascinating finds and even more interesting stall holders.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is a more peaceful but still impressive monument at the bottom of Dionysiou Areopagitou Street. For a panoramic view of Athens climb Mount Lykavittos (or take the cable car).
Other museums and galleries well worth a visit if you can fit them in are the remarkable National Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art, the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the Bernier-Eliades Gallery and the Gagosian Gallery.
Eating and drinking in Athens
Under the shadow of the Acropolis in the Plaka you will find Byzantine churches and crumbling houses from the Ottoman era. And also the Diogenes taverna in Lycicrates Square – just behind the ancient monument to the man who asked Alexander not to hide the sun.
Try the stifado – tender rabbit with little mushrooms in a rich clove-infused sauce – and the creamiest egg-plant salad. Because Greek food is one of the wonderful things about Greece.
Where to stay in Athens
I stayed at the Royal Olympic Hotel in Athens, which surely has the best views in the city. Watching the sun strengthen over the Temple of Olympian Zeus from your bedroom, the ageless Acropolis under a blue sky from your breakfast table, or enjoying a sundowner at the roof garden bar, you can ‘see’ Athens without leaving the hotel. The Royal Olympic Hotel is a member of Great Hotels of the World Luxury Collection.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you spent a weekend in Athens? What would you recommend?