One of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, Athens can be overwhelming on a first visit. Its modern urban sprawl and relentless traffic compete with ancient ruins and charming neighborhoods. The city’s daunting pace can easily overshadow its grandiose heritage.
On my first visit, I came unprepared to this cultural treasure, planning little in advance and leaving much to chance. I found myself lost in a dreary concrete jungle or stuck in long entry lines, unable to capture the magic I had expected from the cradle of Western civilization. On later trips I learned that Athens requires savvy planning to experience its best side. Here’s how to fall in love with this storied yet contemporary city in just three days.
Summer heat is fierce by midday, with milder temps (and a chance of rain) in winter.
If you only have time for one thing, make it the Acropolis—the ancient blockbuster is Athens’ biggest draw.
This afternoon, explore Plaka, the historic neighborhood directly beneath the Acropolis. Wander its pedestrian lanes lined with shops, tavernas, restaurants, and cafés. Pop into the Museum of Greek Folk Art, too. End with an “Athens by night” tour on foot, e-bike, or with a driver. After sunset, the Acropolis and other sights are theatrically lit and the city glows golden.
The Agora was ancient Athens’ marketplace, commercial hub, and social heart. It's as majestic as the Acropolis but less crowded. Visit the remains of shops, temples, and the school where Socrates lectured.
Afterwards, explore modern Athens. It’s a 15-minute walk to busy Syntagma Square, where the changing of the guard takes place hourly at the Greek Parliament House. See the National Archaeological Museum, Church of Panagia Kapnikarea, and Panathenaic Stadium where the first modern Olympics took place, too.
Set off for Hydra, Poros, and Aegina islands with a cruise from the capital city to visit the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina. Alternatively, visit archaeological treasures in Thermopylae, Meteora, and Delphi on a tour to fit in the sanctuary of Delphi, monasteries in Meteora, and Thermopylae’s ancient battlefield.