Greece is a destination of boundless wonder. Great food and magnificent sights—the very essence of Western culture was born here. Yet on top of all that magic, its capital is remarkably accessible, unvarnished, and affordable. Athens is a terrific city for both a quick layover or an extended stay, and visitors soon learn that it’s a prime destination for budget-savvy travel.
What to See and Do
The Acropolis stands high above the city, beckoning travelers to its lofty, windswept plateau. For most, it’s an absolute must. But if nothing else, just remember three hot tips: buy tickets in advance, go as close to opening time (8 a.m.) as possible to avoid the heat and guided groups, and come with a mellow attitude to handle the throngs of visitors.
Acropolis tickets alone cost 20 euros (about $23), so you’d be wise to spend a little more on the Athens City Pass (30 euros, or approximately $34), which covers entry to seven state-run historic sites, most of which are in central Athens, and other perks. Among them are Hadrian’s Library and the ancient Roman Agora—a particularly pleasant, less-crowded archaeological site that’s conveniently located off the bustling Monastiraki Square.
Though the Acropolis Museum isn’t part of the combined ticket, entry is just 5 euro ($5.80 USD) and can be bought in advance to skip the queue. The museum is outside “the Rock,” as locals call the Acropolis. It has an impressive restaurant with a marvelous view, and inside you’ll find ancient treasures and a scale replica of the Parthenon.
Compact and culturally rich, Athens is best explored on foot. Try the Athens Free Walking Tour for a city overview in two-and-a-half-hours; or go with Big Olive Tours for a grand tour, bike tour, or to choose one with a niche focus, like LGBT history or architecture. It’s a nice stroll from Monastiraki’s antique market, to the more polished Plaka neighborhood, to Syntagma Square to watch the hourly changing of the guard. Along the way, you’ll discover colorful Orthodox chapels, shady cafés, indie boutiques, and enticing local markets along the city’s narrow streets and alleys.
Where to Eat
Fresh tzatziki, grilled haloumi, juicy gyros, Greek salads with mounds of feta and kalamata olives —if these flavors make you salivate, you’ll fall hard for Athens’ gastronomy. Reliably delicious restaurants abound, and a little bit of budget goes a long way, especially since portions are mighty. Even a standard square of warm, flaky spanakopita from Meliartos bakery in Plaka can serve as a full lunch—with a wedge of baklava, naturally. (Baked goods are less than 5 euros, or $6.)
Athens has mastered the art of dining al fresco, so enjoy people watching at street level at Lithos Taverna, or head to the cool rooftop of Kuzina for Acropolis views plus creative Greek cuisine and cocktails (entrees average around $18 euros, or $21 USD). Both are centrally located, as is Monastiraki’s Bairaktaris Taverna, where you can embrace your inner tourist over an ice-cold Mythos beer and dishes like herbed souvlaki with warm pita (7 euros, or $8 USD), delivered by seasoned servers you’ll either find brusque or respectably efficient.
Where to Drink
It’s hard to dislike a city where beer and wine is often cheaper than a soda. But it’s a worthwhile splurge to head up to GB Roof Garden, atop the Hotel Grand Bretagne, for a fine cocktail (or posh dinner) looking out at the Acropolis. (Cocktails run about 16 euro, or approximately $19.)
In Plaka, let the over-the-top holiday theme enchant you at spacious indoor-outdoor Noel, or the Rooster bar and café with its pleasant plaza seating and fun DJs. Catch live music and local art installations at the cool backyard that is six d.o.g.s, and duck into The Clumsies for chic speakeasy vibes and inventive libations.
Coffee is big in Greece, so it’s reliably good all over town. Many consider the best Greek coffee to be from Mokka, a hopping café near Omonia Square. And while you’re in the area, don’t miss a quick photo shoot at Central Municipal Athens Market (where you can find wholesale seafood, produce, and more) or the eclectic flea market across the avenue.
Metered taxis are super cheap in Athens (an Uber-free city), with set rates between downtown and the airport (38 euro, or $44), as well as the cruise port in Piraeus (28 euro, or $32). The metro system is crazy cheap, with a 24-hour pass for only 6 euro ($7). Additionally, the trains are frequent, the stations are modern and conveniently located, and stops like Syntagma double as mini-museums for ancient artifacts excavated at each site. (Because, as our Big Olive tour guide said, “Our museums are already stuffed with relics.”)
Where to Stay
Tourism is an economic cornerstone, so hotels seem to be on every corner of central Athens. Step a bit further out to lodge in the roomy, polished Wyndham Grand Athens for a clean, well air-conditioned experience beside the Metaxourgio metro station. You’ll find a scenic rooftop pool, bar, and restaurant; request an upper floor for an Acropolis-view room—plus they serve a good buffet breakfast (for an added fee) with Greek treats. (We found rates as low as $93 per night.)
The Metaxourgio neighborhood feels pleasantly residential. As a bonus, you can enjoy dining at Alexander the Great restaurant across from the hotel, where the longtime owners will fill you up with both traditional fare and stories of Athens, a city of never-ending tales.