A Few Hours In Athens: What To Do On A Day Trip To This Iconic Ancient City
I didn’t do Athens right. Or right by Athens, I guess, depending on how you look at it. I feel like I have to confess that at the outset, to temper expectations. But hopefully this post will give not only inspiration for what to do in Athens with (less than) one day, but help you figure out the best way to approach it based on your own preferences.
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I’m pretty amazing at short city explorations (see my “A Day In…” series). Some cities lend themselves to a whirlwind deep-dive, but I think Athens is a tough city to love on a brief visit. It can feel hot and smoggy, gritty, chaotic, and lacking the charm of many European capitals.
I’ve heard from many people that they fell in love with Athens, but that it took some time, slower exploration, and getting out of the tourist crush. So just be aware that a “drive by” visit may not give you the best experience. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do it, though. Athens obviously offers a lot—seeing the birth of democracy, famous ancient ruins, and lots of great scenic viewpoints over the city.
I would have skipped it on my itinerary altogether, as I was focused on Greek islands, but I wanted to make sure I got back to Athens in time to fly home early the next morning without flight hiccups. So I arrived from Naxos’s tiny airport late morning, and theoretically had basically half a day to explore once I got to my hotel and checked in.
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Though that didn’t *quite* work out the way I had planned, because Olympic Airlines left my bag in Naxos. It was an insane, slow, unhelpful process trying to find it.
Thankfully, I’d purchased my first AirTag right before this trip and so was able to PROVE that it didn’t get on the plane. But then I wasted an hour trying to make a claim, and they gave no promises that I’d get it that day…basically told me to come to the airport early the next morning to see if it was there.
SO, I was obsessively checking my AirTag to see when my bag arrived at the Athens airport, which it did while I was eating a late lunch. At that point, I decided not to take any chances since I was on a fairly early flight the next morning (plus…I wanted to change clothes at some point), so I grabbed a taxi BACK to the airport, got them to locate my bag (using my AirTag app), and took a taxi BACK to my hotel to drop it off.
I think it was the right call, but it ate up a ton of time and meant I didn’t get to visit the Acropolis since I already had a dinner reservation time to make…because all of this was on my birthday, no less 🙂 For reference, the taxi from the airport into Athens is supposed to be a flat rate, it was €45 (I thought it should be 38, but he said because of toll), took about 35 minutes. But to go back to the airport was €50.
Also, for me personally, I’m also not a huge “ruins” person. I’ve been blessed with all my travel (and living in Italy for a while) to see SO many ancient ruins, and they start to kind of look alike. I’d rather read a book to get the historical perspective, so visiting a litany of different ruins that are hard to tell apart is less exciting to me.
I am also vehemently not a museum person, for the same reasons. GIMME A BOOK! But if ruins, museums, and guided tours that really give you a deep knowledge of what you’re seeing are a priority, there is a ton to love here.
If you only have one day in Athens and are really interested in more of the history and visiting lots of historical sites, I’d strongly consider a guided tour to maximize your time, simplify travel between sites and quicker entrances, and to actually learn about what you’re seeing.
There are tons of different tours on Viator, Get Your Guide, and TripAdvisor, based on what you’re looking for. For example, this one focused on sites with Greek mythology ties + history, this one to skip the line at the Acropolis & Parthenon (with a guide), or this slightly longer one that focuses on biblical sites in Athens (& Corinth). If you have a small group (2-6 people), I always consider a private full-day tour that’s customizable.
LOL or if you’re like me and don’t love guided history tours (I love history, but not being held hostage to someone else’s pace) but LOVE food, consider a walking food tour (because you’ll also get some history/city knowledge thrown in for free). They’re one of my favorite things to do in a new place. There’s truly something for everyone!
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Where to stay in Athens
I recommend staying near the Acropolis or royal gardens, particularly for a short visit. For my one quick night, I ended up at 24K Athena Suites. It was super central, clean and roomy, and had a great view of the Acropolis. That balcony was really a selling point.
The others I strongly considered were Herodion Hotel, Ergon House, Electra Palace Hotel, and Coco-Mat Hotel Athens. I was going a bit more budget since it was such a short visit and I’d been splurging majorly in Santorini. The latter two are a little more expensive but lovely.
There are tons of great hotel options in Athens for any budget, so if these ones aren’t right for you, I’d start by looking on Booking.com and using the filters…I start with looking at 9+ reviews, hotels only (vs. apartments), and city center.
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This was an apartment vs. a hotel, so there’s not a real reception or staff. The apartment has a big living area (including little coffee nook with espresso machine), a decent-size bedroom, and a pretty tiny bathroom.
It wasn’t fancy but it had everything I needed for a short stay, and the owner was very helpful in helping me book a taxi for the airport the next morning and making restaurant recommendations.
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A few logistics notes
I completely got around on foot, with the exception of a couple Ubers at night to get to my dinner reservation or the bars. The subway in Athens is supposed to be really nice, though buses less so. I definitely wouldn’t recommend driving if you don’t have to.
Everything costs money, it seems…in terms of the historic ruins and sights. Know up front what’s most important and go there first, because you’ll end up spending €10 here, €30 there, and it really adds up.
Even at the end of September, Athens was HOT! I was legit melting. For touring, I wore lightweight, breathable, stretchy pants and tank tops. These pants (I’ve historically worn the Brooklyn, but all their city pants are great) and these are my go-tos. I’d definitely skip jeans (too heavy).
I would have worn a sundress except my luggage was lost. I’ve had excellent luck with StitchFix in the past few years, and this flowy with fluttery cap sleeve dress worked hard on this Greece trip. For my birthday dinner once I got my luggage, I wore a long, pretty maxi dress.
For shoes in this heat, I would have preferred to have my fave Rockport sandals, but they were stuck in my luggage so I wore my cute white Olukai sneakers (specifically these Pehuea Li ones). I also had prettier Aerosoles sandals for walking to dinner.
And don’t forget sun protection! Shade was hard to come by in a lot of the sites. I’m not really a sun hat person but one would be helpful, along with good sunscreen and polarized sunglasses. My favorite makeup for travel (which is clean, non-toxic, etc.) did really well, even in the heat!
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What to do with less than a day in Athens
So let’s get started, we don’t have much time! I happened to hit Panagia Kapnikarea accidentally, just a few steps outside of my apartment. It’s a beautiful tiny Byzantine edifice and one of the oldest churches in Athens (around eleven centuries old!).
It’s just sitting out in the middle of a plaza, with people rushing around it, and most tourists miss it completely. It’s so charming though and definitely should be on your list of things to do in Athens! I normally skip going inside churches because often it feels like “seen one, seen ’em all” but I’m SO glad I did here…the inside is beautiful! You don’t need long here but definitely recommend spending 15 minutes.
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Next up for me was Hadrian’s Library. This was a strategic choice, because I purchased the package ticket here that included the Acropolis, so I could skip the line at Acropolis later. Sadly that didn’t work out due to my luggage shenanigans. But PRO TIP in case you weren’t paying attention: you can purchase a package ticket here that lets you skip the ticket line at the Acropolis.
You’ll find fewer crowds here versus other tourist spots, so no long lines. There are a bunch of beautiful, blindingly-white large marble columns and old ruins and mosaics. It was constructed by the Emperor Hadrian in 132 CE as part of his plans for rebuilding the city.
I didn’t spend a ton of time here, maybe 20 minutes? If you want to learn about all the different ruins and the history, I’d recommend a guided tour.
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Next, I walked over to the Ancient Agora of Athens, which dates to about 11 BCE. This is where a ton of commercial activity took place in ancient Greece.
Today, it’s hard to see how it would have looked since it’s a big open space with bits and pieces of Doric columns, statues, and some arches. This is also a less-crowded option, and can be a more peaceful walk around rather than fighting the crowds.
The Temple of Hephaestus is more intact and provides some great photo opps (fourth pic below, as well as the lead photo in this post), and you can easily find the intact torso statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. This site has a bit on all the different ruins you’ll see, if you’re trying to do a self-guided tour and know what you’re looking at.
You also get a great unfettered view of the Acropolis. If you want to learn more about the Agora, there’s a museum located in the adjoining Stoa of Attalos. The Agora is also usually included in a guided tour, if you want to learn a lot while you visit.
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I didn’t have time to stop in at the Stoa of Attalos (also, I was having trouble figuring out where the entrance was, and was in a hurry). But I snapped this impressive pic of it from a different vantage point.
It’s definitely one of the more impressive parts of the Agora, built between 159 and 138 BCE by King Attalos II of Pergamon (so typical Hellenistic). As I mentioned, it houses a museum about the Agora.
There’s also a large flea market close by in Monastiraki Square, which has some shopping and supposedly-decent food. Finding good, non-touristic food in this area was TOUGH.
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I’m not sure if I ended up in Monastiraki Square or not, though I did wander through a bunch of (honestly, garbage-looking) shopping. You can see more about the Monastiraki Square Flea Market and some recommendations for food here.
Normally I find a lot of charming things just wandering aimlessly through cities, but I didn’t succeed quite as much in Athens…though, to be fair, I didn’t have tons of time and didn’t get to spend enough time in the quieter, historic Plaka neighborhood or get over to the (supposedly pretty) Anafiotika neighborhood.
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I was FAMISHED at this point mid-afternoon and also knew I wanted to be hungry for dinner, so finally found Diogenis and ate a late, lighter lunch. Nothing special, just some appetizers to keep me going, but it was nice to sit down in the shade and drink some water. Their moussaka smelled good, if you’re looking for something heavier.
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Things went sideways at this point, because as I was finishing up lunch, my AirTag finally showed that my bag had arrived at the Athens airport. So I made another taxi round trip to the airport to get it, and bring it back to the hotel (and change out of my sweaty, grimy travel clothes for dinner. Sadly this didn’t leave me time to go to the Acropolis (just based on time to get in and explore) or Mount Lycabettus (too far away) for sunset.
So instead, I booked it on foot to Philopappos Hill to try and see the sunset over Athens. It was about a 20-minute walk from my hotel, but also positioned me closer to my dinner reservation. And I really had to hustle to get up the hill in time for the sunset!
The ascent of Philopappos Hill is dotted with archaeological sites, and is also called the Hill of Muses because it is home to a sanctuary dedicated to the poet and prophet Musaeus. But I was a woman on a mission and couldn’t stop to explore.
I did stop to take a picture of this kitty, though, because PRIORITIES.
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I made it to the top of the hill just in time for sunset, if a bit sweaty and out of breath. It wasn’t a glorious sunset (and Philopappos Hill is actually better for sunrise, Mount Lycabettus for sunset), but the views were still great.
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After snapping a few pictures, I kept climbing and moving around to try and find the best vantage points. On the back side of the hill looking out toward the city sprawl versus at the Acropolis, you can see the real sunset.
Also, you’ll find the Philopappos Monument, a square white-marble monument dedicated to Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos (known to his pals as Philopappus).
The second and third pics below are, I think, what’s left of the monument, which was largely destroyed in the 17th century.
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At the tail-end of the sunset, I found a more wide-open viewing spot and got a few last pictures of the Acropolis as the lights twinkled on across the city.
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Then I had to BOOK IT to make my reservation. I’d chosen Gargaretta Bistrot for my birthday dinner, and (again, a bit sweaty and out of breath) got settled at my outside table with a delicious basil cocktail.
I stuffed myself with multiple courses, including a local cheeses plate with this insanely good softer cow cheese with raspberries, a greens salad with challoumi and peaches and hazelnuts, cereal croquettes with a lemon cream sauce (these were bland, I wished I’d gone with the goat cheese ones like I wanted, but the waiter strongly influenced my decision).
Then I had their “moussaka with a twist” (which was deconstructed, good and interesting, but missed the gooey cheese).
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Absolutely stuffed, I rolled myself out of the restaurant and into an Uber to enjoy a bit of Athens’s world-class cocktail culture and nightlife before heading to bed. I work in the spirits industry and so had gotten the inside scoop from a friend (shout out Tom Vernon!) who used to be a global brand ambassador for one of our amazing bourbons.
Based on his recos, I started at The Clumsies, which is featured on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. It was hot and crowded, with more of an “unch-unch” vibe but thankfully I was on the early side (by Athens standards, it was like 9pm) and so snagged a single spot at the bar. My drink was delish though! I thought about a second, but decided to try out another spot to see if the vibe was right.
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That took me to 7 Jokers, a trippy tiki fever dream if there ever was one. It was more chill, very cool and offbeat, and a bit more my vibe. I had trouble choosing from their delicious tiki drink menu, so tried two different cocktails.
If you’re looking to explore the awesome cocktail scene in Athens, two other great cocktail bar recos from my friend were Baba au Rum (also on the World’s 50 Best Bars list) and The Bank Job. At this point I lost steam and wanted my bed, so headed that way.
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One of my big tips for things to do in Athens (or any city, for that matter) is to get out early in the morning before the crowds. You’ll have even the most touristy destination pretty much to yourself (see: Rome’s Pantheon), and I’m in love with the pearly pink lighting you get before the harsh sunlight comes.
I wanted to try out a bakery and a breakfast spot before my taxi was picking me up at 9am, so was up early and enjoyed my quieter time in Athens.
I believe the pics below are the Holy Metropolitan Church of the Annunciation, which I passed on my walk.
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The design and ambiance in the restaurant area was SO charming! Like being in the middle of an enchanted forest.
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After a few false starts, I also finally found a bakery and got some bougatsa to take away (along with another iced coffee) so I could eat it on my awesome balcony with an early morning view of the Acropolis. Not a bad way to end my (less than) one day in Athens!
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So that concluded my super short visit to Athens…hopefully it’s helped you figure out things to do in Athens on a whirlwind visit, or at least what NOT to do!
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