Athens is arguably one of Europe's most vibrant cities. The Greek capital's many contrasts are part of its unique allure. It was the heart of ancient Greece, and the marbled structures from that powerful era dating back more than 2,500 years ago stand in an urban landscape that continues to grow around them. That makes Athens a fascinating mix of ancient and modern with much of everything thrown in between, including a hipster vibe, Greek gastronomy scene, booming nightlife and fantastic art and cultural centers.
Take a few days to discover why contradictions define its urban charm. While traffic stands at a standstill between concrete blocks, a turn around a corner leads to charming cobbled paths lined with bougainvillea-swathed tavernas and shaded garden cafes. Neoclassical buildings that have seen better days on the outside have been elegantly refurbished on the inside -- now serving as trendy art galleries. Waiting behind a simple entranceway might be a scenic cafe-bar courtyard buzzing with locals or an outdoor cinema serving Greek wine and ouzo under the stars.
Noticing these city scenes is just one part of the travel experience. Visitors can also tick off the big bucket-list sights of Athens: ancient monuments that own a larger importance compared to any place else and structures built on a history rich with democracy, Western civilization and philosophy.
The city itself is sprawling -- as any rooftop view will prove -- and boasts a population of nearly 5 million people. However, the bulk of "must-see" sights are concentrated in its most central neighborhoods: Acropolis, Monastiraki, Thiseo, Kolonaki, Gazi and Psirri. It's easy to walk and just as easy to hop on the metro to reach museums, restaurants, historic sights and nightlife hubs.
Athens is a popular embarkation/disembarkation port for Mediterranean cruises, so make plans to discover why it keeps its reputation as one of Europe's most fascinating capitals. Here are some ways to spend your time on land, before or after you board.
Head to Otto Resto Bar (Kalamiotou 18; open daily, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.), a stylish brunch choice set in a restored neoclassical marble building that once belonged to King Otto (the 19th-century king of Greece). Outdoor seating is ideal for watching the city go by while enjoying a Greek-style breakfast of fried eggs, spinach pie and yogurt with honey and walnuts.
For more traditional fare during brunch hour and something family-friendly, head to New York Sandwiches (Nikis 23; open daily, 11 a.m. to midnight). The American-leaning brunch and lunch menu will satisfy cravings for eggs-any-style, pancakes, bacon and bottomless hot coffee.
On the first morning of your visit, tick off the ultimate bucket-list destination in Athens and the city's eternal monument -- the Acropolis. Prepare to walk or hike up the tree-lined slopes of the ancient marble citadel to prepare for an impressive 360-degree view of the metropolis. The ruins of ancient Greece's most treasured buildings stand on top of the rocky outcrop, with the most famous being the Parthenon. Two significant theaters were built on the south side of the Acropolis: the Theatre of Dionysus and the Roman-era Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
Culture vultures should follow up an Acropolis visit at the hypermodern Acropolis Museum (Dionysiou Areopagitou 15; open Monday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday to Thursday, 8 a.m.–8 p.m., Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.), located just across the Acropolis itself on the longest pedestrian way in Athens called Dionysiou Areopagitou. The Acropolis Museum is recognized as one of the world's top museums for its collections of artifacts, statues and friezes from the Acropolis dating from the Greek Bronze Age to Byzantine Greece. The building was constructed with transparent glass, so visitors can see the archaeological site the structure was built upon.
Nearby, on the northwest slope of the Acropolis, is Athens' famed ancient marketplace, the Ancient Agora that once buzzed as the epicenter of public life. The word agora in ancient Greek means "assembly"or"gathering of people", and in modern Greek it translates to "marketplace". Here, Socrates discussed his thoughts with Plato and explained his philosophies, which defined Western civilization.
Athens is a food-lover's haven, and numerous Greek food experiences await, including the Byzantine pastomageireio. This is a tavern and deli conveniently located in one building at Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani (Sokratous 1; open daily noon to 11 p.m.). Greek cheese and cold cuts can be cut to order but better yet, just order the flavorful dishes that feature them. Everything here is prepared with regional seasonings, including kavourmas, which is minced meat with diced potatoes and green and red peppers.
Manas Kouzina-Kouzina (Aiolou 27; open daily, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.) translates to "mother's kitchen", and it's one of the best places to eat a casual-yet-traditional Greek lunch. Slow-cooked Greek traditional recipes called magirefta are prepared in an open kitchen that overlooks Agia Irini Square. All dishes, such as the restaurant's famous moussaka, a hearty Greek casserole of minced meat, eggplant and a bechamel sauce topping, are inspired by Greece's regional gastronomy and incorporate locally sourced ingredients. Soft drinks, beers and wine are also hyperlocal, all made by Greek producers.
To feel the vibe of the city, a stroll through the most charming central neighborhoods is a must. Plaka, which sits on the slopes of the Acropolis, is one of the most scenic. Mom-and-pop shops, cafes and restaurants can be found along its narrow pedestrian lanes. Red and purple bougainvillea hang over elegant stone walls in Plaka's quiet residential streets, which are known for their neoclassical-style homes and lush private gardens. For a Greek coffee break, head to one of the most picturesque cafe spots at Yiasemi (Mnisikleous 23; open daily, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.), one of several quaint cafes set behind a street of wide stone steps. For a relaxing break that combines tradition and history, book an appointment at Al Hammam Turkish Baths (Tripodon 16; open daily, noon to 10 p.m.) for a glimpse of life during the city's Ottoman past. The venue is built just like the marble baths that flourished during the Ottoman era in Greece, featuring a circular steam room, where a menu of traditional hammam cleansing massages are given.
In Monastiraki, start out at bustling Monastiraki Square, where an Acropolis view captivates any first-timer above the constant bustle of street vendors and performance artists who perform for the crowds. From there, head into the maze of pedestrian streets in the Monastiraki Flea Market to leisurely shop for souvenirs ranging from handmade leather sandals, Greek-style jewelry and traditional food products. Foodies should venture out deeper into the district to Athinas Street into the sights, sounds and hectic buzz of the Athens Central Market (Athinas Street; open daily, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Since the 19th century, the covered market, where fish mongers and butchers call for business and locals bargain excitedly for goods, has been the city's go-to hub for fresh fish, meat, spices and vegetables.
Greece is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world. In recent years, Greek wines have taken the wine industry by storm and since then an outcropping of stylish wine bars proudly pour the country's best.
One of them is Kiki de Grece (Ipitou 4; open daily, noon to 1 a.m.), which looks over a quiet pedestrian way near Syntagma Square. Servers encourage guests to order together Greek wine and traditional meze plates. Also in Syntagma, consider Heteroclito's French bistro-like setting for a charming environment and great Greek wine selection. Nearby, Oinoscent touts a monthly selection of 35 wines that are served by the glass. By the National Garden, enjoy wines in By the Glass' sophisticated ambiance mirroring its setting in a beautifully refurbished 19th-century mansion.
Dinner is about taking in scenic views of the city and its ancient sights. Tudor Hall's (Vasileos Georgiou A3; open daily, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.) outdoor dining patio and bar on the seventh floor of the King George Hotel boasts a beautiful Acropolis view. Gourmet Greek and international dishes are served here along with Greek wines from an extensive list.
Another option for a stunning view of the Acropolis requires taking a short cable car ride up one of the highest points in Athens called Lycabettus Hill. At Orizontes (Aristippou 1; open daily, noon to 1 a.m.), its large dining balcony offers a panorama of the city that includes the Acropolis, the Athens Riviera and the islands. The menu features Mediterranean dishes, including a pork tenderloin with vegetables in feta cheese, honey and sesame, as well as fresh seafood plates.
One of the top-rated Athenian restaurants for Greek cuisine is Kuzina Restaurant (Adrianou 9; open daily, noon to 1 a.m.), which is located between the central districts of Thiseio and Monastiraki. Reserve a spot on the dining terrace for views of the Ancient Agora and the Acropolis while enjoying hearty gourmet Greek fare, such as lamb fillet with potato puree, caramelized onions and Mavrodafni wine sauce.
Athenians love to go out, be seen and have fun. That's proven by the city's reputation for being one of the top European nightlife hubs. Locals start filling up clubs and bars around 11 p.m., and you can find the crowds by venturing out into Monastiraki, including Agia Irini Square, where hip and stylish cafe-bars radiate an infectious buzz. Noel (Kolokotroni 59B; open daily, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.) is one of the liveliest, which probably has something to do with its year-round vibrant holiday-spirited decor and the smartly suited bartenders who serve the most creative cocktails in town. Also, in the heart of Athens, The Clumsies (Praxitelous 30; open daily, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.) has earned a global reputation for concocting excellent cocktails, thanks to its award-winning bartenders who specialize in mixing drinks featuring Greek ingredients.
Influenced by the classic recipes of Italy, Odori Vermuteria Di Atene (Skouleniou 2; open daily, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.) is a favorite local brunch option. The salmon Benedict is made with roasted focaccia with roasted salmon fillet, poached eggs, spinach, hollandaise yogurt and handmade potato chips. For another classic brunch choice with an Italian twist, opt for a French toast panettone with tiramisu cream, ice cream, crumbled chocolate and caramelized almonds.
For a mix of international breakfast favorites, plan to eat at Nice n Easy (Omirou 60; open daily, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.) in Kolonaki, where dishes are prepared with organic Greek products and ingredients. In classic farm-to-table brunch style, the restaurant serves delicious omelets, fluffy pancakes and Greek-inspired breakfast dishes, such as Greek scrambled eggs mixed with tomato and olive oil called strapatsada.
One of the best free things to do in Athens is watch the ceremonious changing of the guard. The 10-minute service is performed on the hour by Greece's elite military unit called the Evzones, who proudly don a traditional uniform of white kilts, hand-embroidered vests and red clogs with pompoms.
After the ceremony, stroll into the nearby National Garden, which is the city's central public park complete with a petting zoo, walking paths and an outdoor cafe and cinema. Greece's royal family commissioned the gardens in the early 19th century. At the edge of the gardens, stop by the Panathenaic Stadium (Vasileos Konstantinou Street), the only all-marble stadium in the world. It was constructed in 1896 for the first modern Olympic Games and is still widely used for events today, including as the finish line to the annual Athens Classic Marathon.
Rising 300 meters (908 feet) above sea level and swathed in fragrant pine trees, Lycabettus Hill is one the highest peaks in Athens and well worth a visit for the view. At the top, the tiny whitewashed St. George Chapel, a large open-air theater, a cafe and gourmet restaurant each have panoramic views. A hike is possible by climbing steps upward from several streets in the Kolonaki neighborhood. Kids especially enjoy the alternative way to get there: the steep teleferique (funicular) ride up to the summit, which departs from Aristippou Street every half-hour.
One of the quintessential food experiences in Athens is souvlakia,which is also known as the Greek fast food. The most popular is the gyro, which is spit-roasted meat with tomatoes, onions, French fries and yogurt sauce rolled in a warm pita bread. A scenic spot for a souvlaki lunch -- with an Acropolis view – is the dining terrace at Savvas (Ermou 91; open daily, 11 a.m. to 4 a.m.).
For urban garden scenery, opt for Black Duck Garden (loannou Paparrigopoulou 5-7; open daily, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.), one of the city's urban cafe and dining spaces discreetly tucked between the city buildings bordering Klafthmonos Square, where Otto, the first king of Greece, resided for some time in the 19th century. Set in a garden of potted plants, marble sculptures and shady trees, the open-air portion of this restaurant is a calm place to dine on Greek dishes with a modern twist, including a beef filet with Greek spices and a red cabbage saute.
One of the latest additions to the Athenian skyline is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (364 Syggrou Avenue; open daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.), a donated architectural masterpiece designed by the famed architect Renzo Piano (known for the Pompidou Center in Paris). It has come to represent the city's artistic and cultural revitalization in recent years. There are free tours that take guests through its 170,000 square meter park composed of playgrounds, athletic fields, a pool, gardens, cafe spaces and a manmade river of filtered sea water. An artificial hill gradually slopes up to reach a massive glass-paneled complex. There, side by side in two separate spaces stand the new state-of-the-art home for the Greek National Opera and the new National Library of Greece boasting a 2 million-book capacity.
Museum-lovers can also make a point to spend time at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (28th Oktovriou 44; open Monday, 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.), one of the biggest and most important archeological museums in the world known for its expansive collection of ancient Greek artifacts and art.
For more of a glimpse into Greece's glorious ancient past, visit the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which was the largest temple built during ancient times. Only 15 of the 124 Corinthian columns can be admired today, each one an impressive 56 feet tall. In 1852, one column blew over during a storm and is still lying where it fell. The Arch of Hadrian, a monumental Roman triumphal gate, survives on the same site as the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
The city's rooftops are the top gathering spots for a great cocktail and an Acropolis view. Couleur Locale (Normanou 3; open daily, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.) is a local favorite for the best views to go along with a chill vibe that -- as its name implies -- offers a couleur locale. Sip a drink on the wide, open-air veranda at Athens 360 (Ifestou 2; open daily, 11 a.m. to 4 a.m.) and enjoy a spot that makes it seem like the Acropolis is within arm's reach. Cocktails are refreshing choices featuring Greek liquors, such as masticha (made with liquor seasoned with mastic resin) or Greek vermouth.
The Athens Hilton Hotel is not only a city landmark but also home to one of the most impressive rooftop restaurants called the Galaxy (Leof. Vasilissis Sofias 46; open daily, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.). The long outdoor terrace is perfect for soaking in a panorama that includes the Acropolis, the Athens Riviera and the distant Greek islands. Gourmet Mediterranean choices include prime choice meats and seafood dishes all prepared with modern flair. It's also one of the city's go-to restaurants for excellent sushi and fine cocktails.
For a change of scenery, go south of the city center and head to the Athens Riviera to Mikrolimani harbor in the capital's port city of Piraeus (the same place where you will board or disembark you cruise ship). Sit by the sea with a view of fishing boats and yachts in the distance at Varoulko (Akti Koumoundourou 52; open daily, 11 a.m. to midnight) a Michelin-starred seafood restaurant known for its celebrity Greek chef Lefteris Lazarou and his award-winning cuisine.
The Gazi district was once a downtrodden gasworks center of Athens, but has been completely revitalized into a lively arts and nightlife destination where clubs, cafe-bars and restaurants line the main square and surrounding streets. For a taste of the district's flavor, head to the industrial-styled Bios (Pireos 84; open daily, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.), a multileveled venue which includes a theater, an art gallery and a rooftop cafe-bar that has a view of Gazi's historic gasworks tower and the Acropolis. Creative cocktails incorporate ingredients like ice cream.
An equally beautiful view of Gazi can be found in the same place as Athenian indie music-lovers. Gazarte's (Voutadon 34; open daily, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.) open-air terrace is a feature of the rooftop urban garden flanked by olive trees and potted plants. While some visitors enjoy the music, there are also multimedia exhibitions, film screenings or a theater performance scheduled on various levels of the venue.