Athens is one of the oldest and most fascinating cities in the world. The birthplace of Democracy, Medicine, Theatre and Philosophy offers a lot to see and do. Ideally you would have at least 3 days in Athens to really do it justice but for people who are transiting or visiting on a cruise ship a single day may be all there is. Here’s how to make the most of that one day in Athens!
When to visit Athens
The best times to visit Greece are April-May and September-October which is when the weather is lovely and the crowds are reasonable. High season is late June to early September.
Most visitors to Greece are going to visit Athens even if they are just transiting through for a few hours. Whilst it will be quite hot and crowded in July in August it is actually fairly quiet as the Athenians themselves head to the islands on holidays, along with many other Europeans.
Athens is operational year-round and even in winter it is quite a nice city to visit with beautiful decorations, processions, and festivals at Christmas time.
This one-day itinerary for Athens will start bright and early at the Acropolis and take in many of the main attractions and monuments of Athens in an easy, walkable route.
All up you will cover around 5 kilometres, almost all of it flat, and you can pace yourself at your leisure. You will see some truly magnificent ancient sites as well as some modern wonders.
If you are visiting from a cruise ship it is a good idea to make your way into the city centre well before your fellow passengers or join a private tour to take you. Most tour buses start to arrive at The Acropolis around 10.00am.
The Acropolis & Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis translates to “highest point of the town,” was the location of the thriving ancient citadel originally occupied by the Mycenaen kings.
As time passed, the Acropolis became home to several temples, shrines, and sanctuaries. The most famous of the temples is the temple to Athena, the Parthenon. There is also a theater and sanctuary for Dionysus on what is now referred to as the Southern Slope.
Hopefully, you will have arrived early before the sun and the crowds and can explore this incredible site at your leisure. Many people would say you need 2 hours to explore the Acropolis although some, of course, will say much longer!
Visit the Acropolis Museum, right outside the south gate, directly afterward to get a deep understanding of how life was. It is full of artifacts from the site as well as being home to an ancient neighborhood underneath the modern structure. It truly is one of the great museums in the world!
Read our Complete Guide to visiting the Acropolis!
Temple of Olympian Zeus
From the Acropolis Museum head east along Dionysiou Areopagitou to busy Leof. Andrea Siggrou Street where you will see the Temple of Olympian Zeus directly in front of you. You might like to take your time on this short journey as this part of the Plaka neighborhood is quite lovely and a little wander through the local streets will reap rewards.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus was completed in 132 AD after being partially built and in limbo for over 600 years after its original conception.
It was originally built with 104 Corinthian-style columns of which today there are only 15 left. You will notice the temple from many high vantage points across the city and it is only a short walk from the center of town.
HOURS: daily 8 am-7:30 pm
COST : 2 euro
Sytntagma Square, Parliament and the Evzones
If you make your way north along the main road here you will reach Syntagma Square. A much nicer route is past Hadrians’ Arch and the Statue of Lord Byron and through the lovely National Gardens.
Syntagma is a famous meeting place for the city and is popular for concerts, protest marches, and other public gatherings.
At the Eastern end, you will see the Hellenic Parliament Building which does conduct tours from time to time but they must be organised in advance. See their official website for more information.
Outside Parliament is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and it is guarded by The Evzones ( pronounced Ev-zon-ez), an elite unit of the Hellenic Army who, among other things, are known for their very distinctive uniform and elaborate march.
It is a great honour to be selected as an Evzones and the soldiers are selected according to their height, excellent physical condition, and psychological state as well as character and morality.
Each hour on the hour you can witness the Changing of the Guards which is an elaborate and very serious ritual that involves uniform inspections and the goose-step march the Evzones are famous for ( as well as their distinctive outfits).
If you are lucky enough to be visiting on a Sunday you can also see them raising the flag at The Acropolis at 10 am.
HOURS: The Evzones change every hour on the hour
Ermou pedestrian street
Ermou Street is the central pedestrian-only street that runs for 1.5 kilometers from Syntagma Square, west.
It is where all the big brand high-street stores are found such as Zara, H&M, and Sephora as well as numerous specialty shops, particularly fashion boutiques.
The street was one of the first modern roads in Athens and became a pedestrian zone in 1997.
There are numerous things to stop and see along this street but one of the most interesting is the Byzantine Church of Panagia Kapnikarea which is one of the oldest churches in Athens, having been built around 1050. It is right in the middle of Ermou street and impossible to miss.
HOURS: usually Mon- Fri. 10:00 – 21:00, Saturdays 10:00 – 19:00
Cathedral of Athens
Parallel to Ermou Street walking towards The Acropolis is popular Mitropolis street where you will find The Metropolitan Cathedral of Annunciation (aka Metropolis) is the main cathedral of Athens and all of Greece. It is also the seat of the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church of Athens.
Construction of the Cathedral began in 1842 but it was not completed for 20 years. Marble from 72 demolished churches in Greece was used and 3 different architects worked on it during the construction process.
The 3-domes Basilica has been the site of the coronation of Kings, important weddings and state funerals.
The tombs of 2 saints are inside – Gregory V the Patriarch of Constantinople and Saint Philothei. Adjacent to the Cathedral is the much smaller Church of St. Eleftherios, often called Little Mitropoli.
The Cathedral has been quite controversial over the years with many criticizing its facade and design. It underwent full restoration over a 20 year period of economic hardship but was finally complete in 2016.
HOURS: 7 am – 7 pm every day with mass on Sundays at 6:30am
The Ancient Agora, Monastaraki & Plaka
When you reach the end of either Ermou Street or Mitropolous Street you will be at Monastiraki Square, one of the busiest squares in Athens. It is home to a metro station, a famous flea market, Hadrian’s library, and more, and is surrounded by tavernas, small shops, and market stalls.
Walking left through the square you will walk on to the Ancient Agora in an area called Agoraios Kolonoa or Market Hill. Agora means ‘market’ in Greek and this is where the ancient Athenians plied their trade and spent time with each other philosophizing, worshiping, and teaching. In fact, it is where Socrates taught and died and became the actual birthplace of democracy.
The ancient archaeological site today is an expansive green site and is quite unusual as a train line runs through it.
Highlights include the Temple of Hephaestus, one of the best-preserved temples in Greece, and the Stoa of Attalos, the Hellenistic version of a shopping mall and today home to a fascinating museum and thousands of artifacts from the late Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Ottoman periods.
HOURS : 1 Apr – 31 Oct Mon-Sun, 8:00-20:00 and 1 Nov – 31 Mar Mon-Sun, 8:00-15:00
COST: 10 Euro or 5 with concession
If you walk towards the Acropolis from the Agora you will enter the charming neighborhood of Plaka ( which means ‘tablet’). This is the most touristic area in Athens but also one of the prettiest. Many people say it reminds them of the islands with the brightly coloured buildings, swathes of bougainvillea and many souvenir shops, tavernas and cafes.
It is worth spending an hour or two wandering around Plaka and you will have possibly already seen some of it when walking from the Acropolis/Museum to Syntagma. Some of the streets are closed to traffic and it’s a very pleasant area to get lost.
Head back through Monastiraki Square and cross Ermou Street heading up Athinas.
After a few blocks, you will come across the Central Municipal Market, also known as Varvakios Market which is bordered by Athina, Evripidou, and Sophocleous Streets.
Much of the market is indoors and there you will find many butchers, fishmongers, and other vendors selling a wide variety of fresh food.
The market has been in operation since 1886 and is the modern market that largely replaced the Ancient Agora nearby.
In the adjacents streets and alleyways, you will find many small businesses selling Greek products ranging from flowers and plants, herbs and spices, delicatessen lines, tea, wine, fruit, vegetables, and more.
There are also many small bars, cafes, and tavernas with excellent, authentic snacks and meals on offer. It’s easy to spend several hours in this area of Athens.
Psyri and street art
Head west on Evripdou Street and turn left into either Agiou Dimitriou, Eschilou, or Aristofanous streets all of which will take you into Iroon Place and arguably the heart of Athens most lively and most interesting neighborhood, Psyri.
Psryi is home to a plethora of cafes, tavernas, bars and shops and some of the best food in Greece. At night it becomes very busy and dynamic with live music playing and dancing in the streets is not uncommon.
The street art in the area is quite incredible too and it’s where a whole revolution of graffiti as art began during the economic crisis that gripped Greece around 10 years ago.
You will also find the streets are home to many small artisan shops with craftsmen making handmade leathergoods, fashions and homewares.
Agiou Anargiron is home to many of our favourite tavernas and is car-free. Grab an early dinner or late lunch here either before or after visiting the rooftop bars.
HOURS: 10:00 am to sunrise
If you are in Psyri for lunch or dinner our two favourite tavernas are Nikitas, a tiny little place with no menu that only sell the specials of the day, and Lithos, a large taverna with a huge menu and great service.
If you are after coffee or something sweet Nancy’s Sweet Home on Iroon Place has a mind-boggling array of enormous cakes and pastries and around the corner, Little Kook is a themed cafe and one of the most photographed places in Greece!
Athens has a wonderful bar scene and the rooftop bars in particular really showcase the city at its best.
Whilst some may feel the streets still have too many abandoned and graffiti-covered buildings heading to the rooftops above them see the city in a new perspective, particularly if Acropolis views are on hand.
There are some excellent rooftop bars in and near Psyri such as A for Athens, 360 Cocktail Bar, Couleur Locale, and Pella Inn which you can combine with dinner in Psyri. Many are quite small though so it can pay to book ahead.
The Clumsies does not have a rooftop but is considered one of the best bars in the world and is definitely worth a look if you have time.
Spending one night in Athens?
As you can see there is a lot to see and do in Athens and it really is a fabulous city. Many people visit each year and still have not unlocked a fraction of the hidden gems it holds. There is a LOT to see and do!
If you are able to spend a night as well as your day in Athens then it pays to stay somewhere central in one of the more popular areas and, if your budget allows it definitely book somewhere with that iconic Acropolis view!
Our favourite areas to stay are Plaka, Monastiraki and Psiri.
Tours of Athens
If you would prefer to do an organised tour of Athens rather than a self-walking tour there are several great options around, and many are far better value than those that cruise ships offer if that’s how you are arriving.
There is an excellent Hop-on Hop-Off bus that takes in all the main sites are well as those further away from the historic centre, including the Athenian Riviera. There are segway tours of the main attractions and a very popular small group tour on electric bikes as well.
If you would like a guide to show you around then there is a great 3-hour guided walk through Plaka and Monastiraki which includes entry to the Acropolis.
If you love food tours then Athens is the places to do them and the Classic Food tasting tour over 3.5 hours is perfect.
And for a completely bespoke experience we recommend our private drivers who can take you to all the sites that require transport, and more, including pick up and drop off from the airport or ferry terminal. Use the code ‘GTS’ when booking for either 5% off tours or 10% off transfers!
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