48 hours in Athens solo | How to make the most of it | What to see and do
Do we even need to do this? I mean who hasn’t at least heard of Athens or ancient Greece? It permeates every part of our being, our history, our combined cultures and identities. But just for form’s sake, let’s do this.
Athens is the capital and the largest city of Greece, and the southernmost capital of Europe. It is one of the world’s oldest cities, with over 3,400 years of history. The city is often hailed as the ‘cradle of Western civilization’ and the ‘birthplace of democracy’. The vestiges of the classical era is evident from majestic edifices such as the Acropolis and several others scattered throughout the city. Amongst the modern-day wonders are the Hellenic Parliament, the National Library, and the Olympic Stadium. Today though, the Municipality of Athens, with a population of 700,000 people, is in a bit of a mess, with the impact of the 2009 Greek financial crisis still evident, the city’s collapsing infrastructure, and its inability to support the ever-increasing migrant population. How the mighty have fallen!
I got a local SIM card for 10 euros and 5 days. I prefer Vodafone in Europe.
Next, I downloaded the BEAT mobile app. This app works pretty much like Uber (there’s no Uber in Greece yet) but hails taxis instead of private cars. Rates are quite low and it’s very convenient.
Download MOOVIT to know the public transport connections. In cities that use Cyrillic or Greek alphabets, I have found it enormously useful. Google fails to help.
Buses, trolleybuses, and trams are common modes of transport in Athens. Get the 5-day Athena Ticket for €9 that covers all buses, metro and trams but not the airport bus. The ticket is available in kiosks in metro stations. A single ticket costs €1.40 and is valid for 90 minutes. Most buses run daily from 5 a.m. to midnight but the traffic is KILLER. If you can walk, you should.
The Airport Express bus X95 operate on a 24-hour basis. These services connect Athens International Airport with Syntagma Square. Tickets to be purchased at the ticket kiosk on Syntagma Square next to the buses. Costs €6 and takes 40-50 min depending on the time of the day. Buses ply every 20-30 min. Website.
If you intend to visit the major museums, consider getting the 30-euro multipass. The multi-site 30 euro pass is an official ticket sold by the Greek Ministry of Culture and is available at the entrance of each participating sites:
- The Acropolis of Athens
- The Ancient Agora of Athens and the Museum of the Ancient Agora
- The Temple of Olympian Zeus
- Aristotle’s Lyceum
- The Roman Agora of Athens and the Tower of the Winds
- Hadrian’s Library
The €30 ticket also allows you to skip the ticket lines which can be a blessing, especially at the Acropolis (assuming you’ve already bought the ticket elsewhere). Although, when I visited Acropolis (early evening in October) there was no queue.
Morning: Do a free walking tour
The walking tour by Free Walk Athens starts at Hadrian’s Arch every day through the year with additional timings depending on the season. The tour is 3 hours long with a short coffee break in between.
As part of the tour, you are shown, Hadrian’s Arch, Hadrian’s Library, the Olympic building and stadium, the National Gardens, the parliament house and the changing of the guard, the church of, the ancient Agora and Tower of the Wind, ending at the hill with a view to the city
As part of the tour, you will also watch the Changing of Guard at Syntagma Square, which happens every hour, on the hour. It is quite a sight, what with the tall National Guards marching as if in a coordinated dance, with deadpan faces, in front of the parliament building. The National Guards or Evzones are especially revered in Athens and they guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Their clothes are of interest too, in particular, the pom-poms on their shoes and the fes caps on their heads. At 11 a.m. on Sundays, there is a parade in front of the tomb at Syntagma Square which you should try and see if you’re around on a weekend.
Afternoon: Have lunch and shop
Take a break at Plaka and feast on some Souvlaki on the go.
Plaka is a leafy, quaint part of Athens, replete with narrow cobblestone streets, cute street cafes, tavernas, and curio shops. Because it’s so close to Acropolis, it’s often known as the “Neighborhood of the Gods”. Do your shopping here. Close to Plaka, are the whitewashed homes of the Anafiotika neighbourhood which might make you feel like you’re in Santorini.
Souvlaki is grilled meat, usually pork (and sometimes vegetables) on a skewer, eaten straight from it. It is the national dish of Greece. Douse it with lemon, dunk it with beer, and you’ll be in gastronomical heaven.
Evening: Acropolis Museum and ruins
Early evening, around 3 p.m. head to the Acropolis museum until the sun lowers its fervour. The museum has four floors dedicated to displaying the excavations from the archaeological site of the Acropolis of Athens. The best part of the museum is on the third floor, with the glass-encased Parthenon Gallery and the screening of the movie depicting the history of Acropolis. Once you’ve been to the museum, you wouldn’t need a guide to see the ruins.
Around 5:30 p.m., cross over the road, walk a few metres to the right to get tickets for the Acropolis. The Acropolis is usually open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., so you can opt to go early in the day too.
Remember to wear sunscreen and shoes that don’t slip on marble. Also, carry plenty of water. Shade is very hard to come by inside the Acropolis and you will get very tired.
Entry to Acropolis Museum: costs €10 (April-Oct, 5 euros other months). website
Entry to Acropolis Ruins: costs €20 (June-Oct, 10 euros other months) More
Night: Dinner with a view
Nothing beats a good dinner with a fantastic view. There are a few other great places to see Athens at night, but one of the best is the rooftop of A for Athens with a clear view to Acropolis, Plaka and Monastiraki Squares. Come here for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and be wowed.
Today, we will explore the glitzy Kolonaki street, then go to the grungy neighbourhood of Exharchia and end with a movie at an open-air cinema or watch a play. Sounds like fun, no?
Morning: Kolonaki Street
Welcome to upscale Athens. Scattered on one of Athens’ oldest neighbourhoods are hip boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants and some very interesting art galleries and museums.
I visited Benaki museum on its free day (every Thursday) and quite enjoyed the three hours I spent. The museum is housed inside the Benakis family mansion, built in 1930 by Antonis Benakis in memory of his father. The museum holds over a gazillion pieces of Byzantine art, ancient books, traditional clothing, beautiful paintings, weapons, furniture, places of worship, icons, and sculptures. The cafe on the top floor and the museum shop were fun visits too.
Close by are other interesting museums that you can visit such as the Museum of Cycladic Art and the Byzantine and Christian Museum.
The Museum of Ancient Greek Technology is another fun place to visit (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. €5 entry) The museum has three floors dedicated to 200 reconstructions of inventions of the ancient Greeks between 2200 BC – 100 AD. It is 5 min away from Benaki Museum.
Afternoon: Sunset on Lycabettus Hills
Close to Kolonaki is Lycabettus Hill, the highest point in Athens. The view from the hill can be pretty darn spectacular if you can get a glimpse over the heads and shoulders of the thousand others waiting with you. The walk to the top point (or funicular ride) is fun too. On top of the hill are the tiny whitewashed church of Agios Georgios, a beer seller, and a charm seller. There’s also the Orizontes restaurant with exorbitant prices and terrible service to while away time as you soak in the view. My advice: carry some beer and food with you. Climb up and down the hill. Find a spot close to the top but not at the top, if you want to avoid the throngs. Man, was it crowded!
The funicular to the hill takes about 3 min, is operational every 30 minutes from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. in summer months, leaves from the corner of Ploutarhiou and Aristippou Streets, and costs €7.50 for the return journey.
You cannot take a taxi to the top of the hill. The taxi will leave you at the base and then you’ll have to walk up or take the funicular anyway.
They say Exarchia is like London ’s Soho from the 1980s. It is reputed to be Athens’ grungy neighbourhood; home to rebels, anarchists, and criminals, i.e. those defying the evil grasps of ‘normal’. Also refugees. Squats are aplenty, mostly inhabited by illegal migrants.
As evidence, I saw plenty of graffiti, unusual bookstores, illegal contraband, several groups of people getting ready to start a rally of some sort. Exarchia is also more squalid than the rest of Athens. I was initially thinking of taking up a place here, but don’t do it; it’s good to visit for a few hours, but not to stay. In the month I visited, there was graffiti spray-painted on the door of an Airbnb: “Evict Airbnb” it said. There were other acts of vandalism too. The locals of Exarchia are radical left-wingers and do not take kindly to camera-totting tourists. Airbnb is despised because locals believe it is the cause for rents escalating in the area.
I tried out an initiative by the ‘Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau’ called This is my Athens and was paired with Agaphe, a very entertaining and erudite local (former headmistress) who took me around Exarchia and showed me its wonders. I spent two memorable hours in her company and learnt a lot about local culture, contemporary Greek authors (I’d requested for it), and the current state of being in Athens. We almost also landed up taking part in a pro-immigration rally that was taking place in Exarchia that evening but I had to leave soon.
From the website: “This is My Athens” is a community of savvy local volunteers who enjoy showing their city and sharing their insights with passionate travellers who care for a personalized walk. Try it out if you have the time but note that these are not professional tour guides and the time spent is more to converse and understand local culture rather than cover a lot of ground in terms of sights. In addition, you may need to specify and guide on things you want to see and do. Be open-minded and you shall be rewarded.
Night: Greek Theatre
Boy, was I lucky to watch this? An intimate and delightful theatre experience awaited us at Athinais on 34-36 Kastorias. We dunked a few glasses of wine in the cute little pub attached to it, before going in to see the play. While the play was performed in Greek, English and French subtitles were displayed on a screen overhead. It was no problem at all and very entertaining. The tickets were reasonably priced too! More information here.
Oedipus Rex is an ancient Athenian tragedy written by the famous Greek tragedian playwright Sophocles. First performed in 429 BC, it is considered the greatest of Greek tragedies. The ending especially is macabre and memorable. The poster below must give a clue if you haven’t read the play yet.
Another fun thing to do is to watch a movie at the THISION Open Air Cinema, close to the Acropolis (and with its views!). Ask them what movie is playing and if it has English subtitles. They are quick to reply to Facebook messages.
Where to stay
I stayed at Mosaikon: bed in a 4 – bed dorm was for €20. Located 200 m from Ermou Street and 450 m from Monastiraki Square, it is as central as can be. A bonus was the view of the Acropolis from the roof terrace. Lots of pubs and cafes around. Bustling.
Another option is City Circus Athens, a 4-story, restored the 20th-century mansion, complete with frescoed ceilings, wrought-iron balconies and baroque tiles. It looked fabulous but I missed it because it was fully booked. Beds start at €18. Twin rooms at €60.
To Thessaloniki next
If your next destination is Thessaloniki, there are convenient fast trains that run every day from the Athens main station. A ticket costs about €45. Get the detailed Thessaloniki itinerary here. Thessaloniki could well be the starting city for your Balkan sojourn, moving from Thessaloniki to Belgrade or Sofia and then upwards.