10 Amazing Things to Do in Athens: As one of the oldest cities in the world, it’s no surprise there are so many things to do in Athens – the destination is a master of reinvention. After a dark decade on the brink of Grexit, Athens has turned into the capital of Southern Europe. Long weekends are perfect for checking out the exciting food scene and checking out the new wave of cool hotels in Athens.
Artists and designers are settling in for good, lured by cheap fares, promises of sunshine, and a chaotic spirit where you don’t have to play by the rules. There is nothing orderly about Athens: traffic is chaotic, life is messy, and architecture is a mash-up of Byzantine and Bauhaus, neoclassical and nondescript. The Parthenon still dominates the skyline – and will always be one of the important things to do in Athens – but for most Athenians, the antiquity embedded between tightly packed apartment blocks is an afterthought.
It’s in graffiti backstreets and cafe-lined squares, factories turned into galleries, bars are hidden in arcades, and the secret cove for skinny dipping where the heartbeat of Athens is racing. Beyond the classics, these are the best things to do in Athens.
10 Amazing Things to Do in Athens
- Old tobacco factory Art Installation
Using the city as a canvas, Neon is on a mission to bring contemporary art to all. Founded by industrialist and philanthropist Dimitris Daskalopoulos at the height of Greece’s financial crisis, this non-profit foundation stages thought-provoking, site-specific exhibitions in abandoned places and archaeological sites.
In 2020, Neon transformed a disused public tobacco factory into a sprawling exhibition space, complete with a massive glass and metal atrium. Dream On (until 27 November 2022) features large-scale installations such as Helen Chadwick, Wangechi Mutu, and Michael Landy, whose credit card destroying machines invite visitors to cut their credit cards in exchange for abstract artwork created by Spirograph. In 2023, Neon will return the tobacco factory to its public owner, the Hellenic Parliament.
- Benaki Museums
Athens is full of great museums. If you only have time for one, make it to the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture. Housed in a Neoclassical-style mansion, the collection includes everything from prehistoric busts and ancient amulets to Byzantine icons, traditional folk costumes, and 19th-century carvings. This is where the fashion set comes in for inspiration, and the ladies meet on the terrace for coffee.
There are six other locations in the Benaki Museum, specializing in everything from Islamic art to embroidery. Don’t miss the Ghika Gallery, a rich retrospective of 20th-century Greek art in the former atelier of modernist artist Nikos Hadjikiriakos-Ghika. And check out the temporary architecture, fashion, and photography exhibitions at Pyros 138, a purpose-built space with a fabulous gift shop dedicated to contemporary Greek design. If you’re planning to museum-hop, opt for a combined ticket valid for all seven sites for three months.
The Athens Riviera stretches 35 miles from Paleo Faliro to the resplendent temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. To locals, these coastal communities are known as ‘no-pou’, short for Notia Prostia or Southern Suburbs – a succession of waterfront boardwalks, marinas, and urban beaches that gently intersect with the sleepy sea. Gives way to coastal resorts and rocky coves like Limanacia, where tanned teens leap off the cliffs.
High rollers also have seasonal passes to Astyr beach in Volyagameni, where the remains of an ancient temple are surrounded by sunbeds and boutiques. When the south winds blow, surfers ride the waves in nearby Kawauri. A young, charming crowd descends on Krabo, while families head to the Zen beach. The balmy climate means you can swim comfortably six months out of the year. A warmer option for winter swimmers: the healing waters of Lake Voliyagmeni, fed by thermal springs that keep the temperature at a steady 22-29 degrees.
- Athenian attitudes to the afterlife
Of all the archaeological sites that surround the Acropolis, the most moving (yet often overlooked) is the ancient cemetery of Keramikos. Named after the potter’s workshops that flourished here in ancient times, the site is built on what was once the banks of the Eridanos River. In the 11-acre cemetery, you can stroll among monumental tombs, haunting inscriptions, and Themistocline walls dating back to the 5th century BC.
The on-site Oberlander Museum houses a collection of funeral treasures, from painted urns to perfume bottles. It is interesting to understand what the carved marble gravestones indicate about the condition of the deceased. In contrast, the ornate tombs in the first cemeteries of Athens tell a less ambiguous story about class and culture. This is where the great and good of Athens are laid to rest among the bitter-orange and cypress trees. You may meet Melina Mercouri or George Sepharis, who is sleeping with the resident cats.
- Cosmetics at Naxos Apothecary
Pharmacist George Korres, the founder of Korres Cosmetics, created his first herbal remedy for friends while working at Greece’s oldest homeopathic pharmacy. Naxos Apothecary pays tribute to its roots on the island of Naxos. The exceptionally effective and exquisitely packaged face and body products are named after Naxian villages. The candles and scents attract summer aromas of prickly pear, fig, cedarwood, and sea salt.
At the flagship store, you can see a phytotherapist at work in the open lab or book a skin analysis and personalize your skin care. Upstairs, the serene tea room serves divine tisanes and cocktails made exclusively from Greek herbs and spirits, all of which are for sale. (They also make a power breakfast of yogurt, honey, bee pollen, nuts, and fruit.) Daphnis & Chloe, an exclusive brand that specializes in sustainably sourced herbs and seasonings from all over Greece, is another excellent source of easily transportable goodies. Their smoked chili flakes and wild thyme have a cult following. Showroom visits at the up-and-coming Neos Cosmos are by appointment.
- Modern cultural icons
After several false starts, the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) has made progress since Katerina Gregos was appointed artistic director in 2021. D. The museum’s permanent collection donated 140 large-scale installations from the Dascalopoulos collection. A converted brewery, EMST occupies an entire block on Synegro Avenue, which connects the city center to the seafront.
The strip club and business hotel feature two more 21st-century landmarks: Onassis Stegi, with a game-changing line-up of performances, talks, festivals, and pop-up events across the city, and Renzo Piano’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, A masterclass in sustainable design. A drought-resistant park and seawater canal surround the Greek National Opera and Library, set on a man-made hill that doubles as a green roof. A glass elevator leads up to The Lighthouse, an observatory with a floating solar canopy that powers the complex.
- Shop local
The weekly farmers’ market (or laiki) is a communal ritual in every Athenian neighborhood. Once a week, from dawn to about 3 p.m., entire blocks turn into seasonal bazaars, with stall after stall laden with seasonal bounty. One month it could be beets, chestnuts, and pomegranates, the next month sunflowers, cherries, and tomatoes. You can choose your own produce, and stock olives, honey, and herbs to take home. Cheap, colorful, and cheerful, Likee is also a social phenomenon.
Sometimes a few buskers entertain fast-paced shoppers, while stallholders make witty sales pitches and quirky promises about their products: “Half a watermelon a day keeps Viagra away!” “Don’t squeeze the tomatoes, they don’t blow the horn!” Some of the biggest and best farmer’s markets are Exarchia and Neos Kosmos (Saturday), Pangrati, and Koukaki (Friday).
- Bar hopping in the Historic Triangle
The Historic Triangle is a tangle of streets, stoas, and pedestrian streets between the Syntagma, Omonia, and Monastiraki squares. In the traditional shopping center of Athens, entire streets are devoted to specialist shops selling door handles, lights, and clothes. Natural Greek fabrics, in business since 1936, make gorgeous bedding and beach towels in Mediterranean stripes.
Kashish for block-printed kaftans and kimonos, and hit up ancient Greek sandals for beautifully crafted footwear inspired by mythology. After dark, the area is like the Bermuda Triangle for cocktail lovers. Two of the best bars in the world, Baba au Rum, and The Clumsies are located a few blocks away and have great drinking spots hidden in arcades or on terraces.
Seek out the Galaxy (Stadieu 10), an old-fashioned American bar beloved by hard-drinking intellectuals, or the hotel bars at Argonne House, The Zillers, and Mona, where fancy cocktails come with views of the Acropolis.
- Loverdos Museum
German architect Ernst Ziller was almost single-handedly responsible for the neoclassical meet-Palladian-by-way-Byzantium look of Greece’s newly independent, late 19th-century capital. Ziller designed hundreds of buildings for his large family, including a luxurious mansion. When Ziller hit hard times, Dionysios Loverdos, a banker and collector of icons, altarpieces, and post-Byzantine art, moved in and converted part of the house into a private museum. The building, which was later used as a dressing room for the National Opera, was badly damaged by fire in the 1980s.
Finally splendidly restored, the Loverdos Museum reopened in May 2021 as an outpost of the Byzantine and Christian Museum. The architecture – all stenciled ceilings, patterned floor tiles, frescoes, and mosaic cupolas – is almost overshadowed by mournful signs and ornately carved altarpieces.
- Picnic with the ancients
For the best vantage point of the Parthenon, without the crowds, follow the pedestrian path up Philopappou Hill, circumambulating the Acropolis. The curved sidewalks were created in the 1950s by architect Dimitris Picionis, using salvaged stones and marble from local buildings.
Otherwise known as the Hill of the Muse, this peaceful oasis is full of surprises – a Byzantine chapel, an ancient quarry, and a 19th-century observatory with an ancient telescope in its silver dome where you can sometimes stare Huh. Hidden among the pine trees, the world’s first democratic assembly, Pnyx, is where the ancient Athenians debated politics silently.
Now it is a great spot for a twilight picnic with views of the Acropolis. Grab some bubbly and cold cuts from Takis Bakery at the foot of the hill, and olive bread and pastries from Droops Spritzeria across the street.