Whether you are in town for a business opportunity, archaeological study or just a fun city break, Athens is sure to surprise you with its diverse offerings.
One cannot overstate the advantages of living in a major metropolis such as Athens, which is only a short drive to golden sandy shores and high mountains when the need to escape the hustle and bustle arises ….
So much, so close
If you want to experience the famous Greek coastline without really leaving the city, be sure to visit the Athens Riviera just south of the city. You can enjoy a swim, water sports and the unforgettable views from the ancient temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. Vouliagmeni Lake (which actually has connections with both the sea and thermal springs) is great for a relaxing few hours’ respite from the downtown buzz.
For those interested in a more glamorous partying experience by the sea, the suburb of Glyfada is the place to be. If you prefer a more authentic coastal experience, just a 40-minute drive from the center sits Marathon (yes, the historical town and site of the legendary battle which inspired the world’s beloved running race).
There you can sit at a low-key taverna and enjoy a simple but delicious meal of fresh fish, village-style crusty bread, tzatziki (garlic-yoghurt dip) and wild greens. You can even take a swim across the road from the tavernas or, just a five-minute drive away, you can visit the long and lovely pine tree-lined beach of Schinias.
Unique neighborhoods to explore
• Koukaki and Mets are two lovely elegant old downtown neighborhoods where stylish old Athens can be glimpsed and which are now also home to a growing number of unique bars and restaurants for all tastes: trendy, quirky, casual or posh.
• For a more university-town feel, Exarcheia is home to alternative
venues of all varieties, people of radical political and philosophical persuasions, artists plus casual and cozy eateries, cafes and bars where one can chat for hours about the state of the world and the meaning of life. Despite its reputation as an anarchist hotspot, it is by and large a very friendly and welcoming place where weird is wonderful.
Like other unique Athenian neighborhoods, Exarcheia is slowly but surely becoming gentrified, so see it while you can before the chain stores push out the funky indie elements.
• Also fun for a walk and a wander are the very Athenian and very downtown areas of Psyrri, Ano Petralona, Kolonaki (don’t miss the incline ride up to the top of Lycabettus Hill for amazing city views), Anafiotika (for an unforgettable Greek island village feel just under the Parthenon), Kipseli (a super-diverse area with older Greek residents living alongside younger and recent arrivals from other nations) and, of course, the much-touted, touristy but loaded-with-Neoclassical-magic streets of Plaka.
Culture and more
• The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) in the southern part of Athens is open all year long and boasts gorgeous gardens, a unique canal where visitors can take out a paddleboat, natural wooden playgrounds and an endless stream of lectures, exhibits, sporting events, children’s activities and concerts. Both the National Library of Greece and the Greek National opera are housed here as well. It is a world-class venue and a true treasure for Greece (and Europe) and worth a visit even if it is just to enjoy the stunning city as well as sea views while sipping on a Greek coffee on the 8th floor Lighthouse deck.
• The Onassis Foundation Stegi Center is another state-of-the-art gem of our city located in the south and hosts a diverse schedule packed with performances and exhibits by renowned international and local creators. No visit to Athens is complete without a visit to the Onassis Center.
On the town
For locals and expats alike, there is never, ever a lack of things to do in Athens: from a mythology tour to a milonga, capoeira to crafting or scuba diving to street art, you will never be without something to see or do in this bustling capital city.
Athens has a thriving theater scene which includes both classical and alternative productions, many of the latter interestingly growing out of the decade-long economic crisis. It turns out that adversity can really inspire artistic expression.
Our city also offers countless musical experiences; visitors and residents can take in anything from opera to jazz or classical to contemporary concerts year-round, with local as well as international artists headlining the events.
One very special summer venue for ballet, music and more is the extraordinary Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stunning Roman theater from 160 AD which adorns the slopes of the Acropolis in the heart of downtown. A month-long summer highlight that no visitor or resident should miss is the Athens and Epidaurus Festival of music, theater, dance and the visual arts on display at various venues.
Happily, a limited but interesting version of this will take place this year with special precautions for COVID-19. Other Athenian summer favorites include the Athens Technopolis Jazz Festival and the Athens Open Air film Festival – both take place in outdoor venues over multiple days and deserve multiple visits. You won’t quickly forget these summer evenings spent in the company of like-minded Athenians.
Winter in Athens
And worry not, expats and potential expats, winter is not a dull affair in this metropolis either. You can enjoy good food from every imaginable cuisine, hit a night club, take in a play or art film or visit a museum for starters.
There are so many good museums in Athens, but don’t miss the very special Cycladic Museum if you can only see one. If antiquity is your thing, you can visit an ancient site (or 10) on our many mild and sunny winter days.
Art lovers, be sure to check out the Benaki Museum (which has several locations) and offers some great contemporary art and photography events.
Athenians love their mountains
Finally, did you know that some Athenians have more of a love of their local mountains than the coastline? (Shocking, but true!)
• Parnitha Mountain, which lies a mere 30-minute drive from the city center, draws loads of hikers and their dogs, families and friends wanting to enjoy the famous cable car views and gamblers looking to lose some money at the Mont Parnes Casino.
• If bird-watching, picnicking or foraging for sage, thyme or wild greens float your boat, Hymettus Mountain is the one to visit.
• Tourkovounia, the top of which is the highest point in the city, is home to several cafes with mind-boggling views of the Athenian concrete forest and also has a lovely park (Attiko Alsos) as well as an open-air cinema for the summer months.
• Finally, Pendeli Mountain (where the famous Parthenon marbles were quarried) is a local favorite for the unlikely trio of perfectly-grilled chops at its famous mountain-top tavernas, the Pendeli Astronomical Station and some smallish but very sweet waterfalls that will make you feel you are much farther from the city than you actually are.
As we say in Greece: Καλή διασκέδαση (Kali diaskedasi)! Have fun!
(Author’s note: COVID-19 has, as it has everywhere else, affected cultural events in Athens. However, a good number of them are still happening. Please be sure to check local listings before making plans.)
About the author:
A Pittsburgher by birth, Christina T. Hudson is also half Greek and has – so far – spent most of her life in Athens, the chaotic but captivating capital city of Greece. She studied Language and Literature at Moravian College and has worked as a teacher, an editor, a writer and a photographer.
You can see more of her work here at A Pixel for Your Thoughts.
See more about Athens in Dispatches’ archive here.