It made me so happy this fall to receive emails from friends planning to visit Athens in October-November as well as in the Spring. These are my favorite seasons there. Athens has so much to offer that I always feel sorry when people just hop in and out on their way to their summer escape. You need at least three or four days to explore and wander around the city, to enjoy its archeological treasures, its magnetic atmosphere and gastronomic pleasures. I had the privilege and joy of living in the Greek capital for nearly five years and I could write a full guide book to cover all the places I cherish, this is only a short list of what I believe should not be missed on a first visit to Athens.
The new Acropolis Museum is NOT TO BE MISSED: this is probably one of the most interesting and best-staged museums in the world. Standing right at the foot of the Acropolis, it offers an outstanding view of the archeological site, allowing a constant projection of the treasures its holding in their original setting.
The Cycladic museum is a true gem. It exhibits the largest and most complete collection of Cycladic antiquities in the world. The simple and pure geometrical shapes of the marble figurines and sculptures are particularly stunning.
Byzantine art lovers should visit The Byzantine and Christian Museum. I particularly enjoy their section dedicated to icons. The museum is housed in the beautiful Villa Ilissia, commissioned by the French-American Duchesse de Plaisance in 1848.
The Acropolis lives up to all expectations and a visit to Athens would not be complete without crossing through the monumental gate of the Propylaea. You must get yourself ready for a bit of queuing, however if you are visiting Athens off-season that should not be too long. I personally like the early or late hours of the day as the light gets softer and the plunging views of the city are clearer.
The Agora and the temple of Hephaestus are a must see as it will take you at the heart of ancient Athens. It is a quiet and peaceful halt. The Temple of Hephaestus is the best-preserved ancient Greek temple from the Classical era. The impressive Stoa of Attalos (rebuilt based on its ancient appearance) holds an interesting archeological collection.
The Kallimarmaro stadium is a quite solemn and grand site, celebrating the spirit of the Olympics at the very heart of the city. It is a place where you feel a strong connection between the past and present. I encourage you to visit it with the audio-guide, which I thought was both instructive and lively.
The pedestrian walk at the foot of the Acropolis, on Areopagitou and Apostolou Pavlou is worth every step: the views of the Acropolis are stunning and the streets are always animated with musicians and a mix of locals and tourists strolling around.
If you want to escape into a greener path without leaving the city center, you may just continue the previous walk on Filopappou hill. You will be surprised to find yourself surrounded by fragrant pine trees, far from the hustle and bustle of the town. As you get at the top of the hill, you will be rewarded with splendid views over Athens.
A visit of Athens is not complete without getting lost in the narrow streets of Plaka: paved alleys narrowing into steep steps, colorful little houses, luxuriant flower pots, lively taverns… This is as close as you can get from the traditional Greek carte postale. (Streets between Pritaniou and Lisiou are the most picturesque).
If you really want to experience the local life, you should not miss the Central Market. A walk through the lively and colorful food halls is like a plunge into the Mediterranean Sea: I’ve never seen in my life such diversity of fresh seafood and fishes! I advise you to go in the morning; the market is open everyday but Sunday.
Agia Irini Square used to host the flower market, it is now a lively and colorful square where locals meet at the numerous and inviting terraces. The church is one of the most beautiful examples of a Greek Orthodox Church based on the Byzantine style.
Another very local scene is Kolonaki square. You should stop for a coffee at one of the two institutions, Da Capo or Perros, in order to observe the Athenians mingling and discussing politics and other lively matters.
A stroll in the elegant and quiet National gardens is always reinvigorating and if you are getting tired of walking I suggest you stop for a coffee at Aigli near the Zappio. If you are traveling with kids, this is where you will find entertaining playgrounds and also some animals to observe and feed.
Last but not least, you can’t leave Athens without snapping a picture with the Evzone guards on Syntagma square. My kids never got tired of watching the changing of the guards. While on Syntagma, make sure to grab a koulouri (traditional Sesame Bread rings) from one of the street-vendors that gather close to the metro exit.
RESTAURANTS, COFFEE SHOPS & BARS:
Café Avissinia (in Monastiraki): for a memorable lunch or dinner on a terrace with a view of the Acropolis and delicious traditional food.
Good taverns in Plaka: Psaras, Scholarhio and Platanas.
Avocado: a good lunch-option for Vegetarians near Syntagma.
Benaki Museum Café: a good lunch-option on a terrace with a view.
Papadakis (in Kolonaki): fine traditional Greek cuisine with a modern twist by famous chef Argiro Barbargou.
Kollias: for a memorable fish dinner, their specialty is fish cooked in a salt crust.
Cocktail hour with a view at the hotels’ bars: Grande Bretagne, Saint Georges Lycabettus and Hilton.
Large choice of bars on the very animated Agia Irini Square, I used to go to ZAF.
Large choice of restaurants and bars in the former industrial district of Gazi where the young crowd likes to gather: Sardelles or Mamakas. Check the program at Gazarte as they often have good concerts.
ONE-DAY EXCURSIONS FROM ATHENS:
Cape Sounio with the temple of Poseidon is one of the most inspiring places I know. The temple, perched on craggy rocks, dominates the southernmost tip of Attica, where the horizon meets the Aegean Sea. The view is spectacular; the temple filled with History and Myths; the road from Athens, winding along the sea, is splendid. There is a good traditional tavern, Apomero, in Thimari, a few kilometers before Sounio.
If you wish to unwind and enjoy the seaside, you should head to Vouliagmeni, stroll along the shore on the Kavouri promenade (from Aktis street to Kavouri beach) and, if the weather allows, enjoy a swim and rest at Astir private beach.
The breathtaking archeological sites of Epidaurus and Mycenae are worth traveling for the day. It would be even better if you could stay overnight in the beautiful coastal town of Nafplio.
For the nearest island experience, you can travel for the day to charming Hydra. It would be more enjoyable if you could stay overnight.