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Gritty antiquity in Athens, Greece

Thoughts, reviews, and recommendations from an urban odyssey through the Mediterranean capital.


I was first introduced to Athens by a Year 7 history textbook. There it was, dramatic and striking even on paper: the Parthenon gleaming on the rocky limestone of the Acropolis. I turned the page to more ancient sites next to graffitied apartment blocks and was awestruck by the city's juxtaposition, which often takes visitors by surprise.


Landing in Athens and expecting a perfect representation of Classical Greece - or a Cycladic Mamma Mia set - understandably makes the congestion, graffiti, and chaos more shocking.


But you can't seek Athens' pearls of antiquity without embracing the grit of a sprawling metropolis - one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the entire world. In Athens, my feet quickly felt the rumbling convergence of past and present: this is a city that saw the rise of Western democracy and philosophy, a city that survived coups, wars, and occupations - from the Byzantines to the Axis powers - and continued to pulse through major economic and migration crises, reconstructing itself after each blow. Athens is densely layered, physically and historically, making it one of the most fascinating places I've ever explored.


Get oriented on Google Maps


I've split my favourite spots into three Google Maps collections, with descriptions and tips for each pinned location.

Google Maps lists

Eat: my picks for a gluttonous Greek experience - including the wet market kitchen where I smashed 18 fat and juicy grilled prawns for breakfast (I slept for four hours afterwards).

Learn: the sites and museums where I fell in love with Athens' rich history and culture.

Shop: local designers, art collectives, vintage closets, antique markets, and more.

Some experiences aren't as easily pinned on a map. Below is a detailed breakdown of my Athens highlights - from must-try dishes to language tips and handy planning resources.

Highlight #1: History and culture everywhere you go


The city's rich histories aren't solely glass-boxed in museums, nor fenced within ticketed sites. Ancient cultures dance alongside modern life: schoolchildren race each other in the Panathenaic Stadium, originally built in 330BC and made entirely of marble. Commuters weave past ruins in Syntagma Metro Station, stopping to gaze at artefacts unearthed during the station's construction. Lycabettus Hill, mythically shaped from a rock dropped by Athena herself, looms over the city while travellers climb its shrubby ascent and teenagers film TikTok dances on its peak.

Modern history still has its place in the city. Athens' iconic apartment buildings - polikatoikias that sprout up in uneven heights over hilly, traditional streets - tell a tale of migration and urban resilience. In the 1950s, Athens saw an influx of people fleeing from countryside provinces devastated by the Greek Civil War.

With little state funds to spend on public housing, citizens created their own funding system called antiparochi, whereby the owners of existing houses signed over their asset to a building developer in exchange for a unit or two in the newly built block. These blocks rapidly housed people of different social classes - from wealthy citizens to bohemian students and refugee families - creating socially inclusive vertical spaces that prevented ghettos from sprawling across the city.


Day turns to night and bars in the outer suburbs (like Chamám in Petralona) come alive with rebetika bands, playing Greece's version of the blues. Haunting and beautiful, this genre was largely brought to Athens by refugees from Asia Minor during the Greco-Turkish war in 1919-1922. Aching for their homelands, they sang about their sorrows and experiences grappling with exile, loss, unrequited love, and death.

History & culture
Athens Street 1
Will over Athens.jpg

Then there’s the city's iconic landscape: an urban jungle punctuated by breathtaking hills with vantage points over Athens, representing storied places of worship, justice, and democratic exercise. Our first morning was spent walking up Philoppapos Hill, breezy and quiet, seeing the first light kiss the rooftops. There's nothing quite like getting to know a city as it wakes up, yawning amongst the sunrise runners and cafe owners welcoming their daily fruit deliveries. Apart from being a morning refuge for people-watching and relishing a view of the Acropolis without crowds, Philoppapos Hill has its own mythological history as a sanctuary dedicated to the nine muses, as well as the burial site for the ancient poet Musaeus. 


On our final night, just fifteen minutes after my last glass at a wine bar, I was climbing Lycabettus Hill during golden hour and savouring the sunset at its peak - silk-dressed and sweaty, drunkenly stopping every few metres to immortalise the skyline on my phone. It seems like the most delicate, fleeting moments of the day are best enjoyed on Athens' peaks - inexpensive, unticketed, and as natural as it gets.

Highlight #2: Greek gastronomic heaven


Fresh, plentiful, diverse, and affordable, Athens' cuisine is distinctly Greek, yet undeniably multiethnic – the city is, after all, one of the largest migration hubs in the Mediterranean. Levantine and Balkan flavours peek next to Greek staples on the menus of traditional tavernas, which buzz alongside bakeries, delicatessens, and modern wine bars serving fusion fare.

Kaalaman Food Glossary: Athens

Not one for sparse tables, Athens is a glutton's delight. Order several mezze and mains to share, raise your glass with a hearty yamas!, and try to leave room in your inevitably bursting belly for the complimentary dessert. See below for my favourite dishes (and click on each one to see where I wolfed them down).


More food tips

  • Book a food tour - my favourite way to discover a new city's cuisine. I loved the Traditional Greek food tour in hidden Athens, where our local guide led eight of us through Athens' hidden gems and family-run haunts

  • Carry cash and tip well (many places take card, but cash is often preferred)

  • Greek food is meant to be shared, and it's normal to order a few mezze dishes, starters, and salads without mains

  • English menus don't always mean touristy restaurants. And if there's no menu, this is a good sign to ask for a selection of daily specials (a very Greek experience!)

  • Like many southern Europeans, Greeks eat late. Restaurants are more lively between 2pm-3pm for lunch, and from 8.30pm onwards for dinner (plus an afternoon coffee at 6-7pm!) 

  • If you want a fancier experience without committing to an expensive fine dining restaurant, I highly recommend going to one of the many wine bars (I loved Oinoscent) in the city. These intimate spots often serve contemporary, elevated takes on Greek dishes, and you can sample some of the country's best drops

Highlight #3: Diverse, walkable neighbourhoods


The neighbourhoods are both compact and diverse; walking just 15 minutes took me to a place that feels completely different to the last. Perhaps my experience is influenced by my unfamiliarity with European cities - would I have felt like this if I visited Paris first, or Rome, or Barcelona? Either way, it’s difficult to deny the city’s uniquely Athenian identity, crafted by both ancient history and modern dynamism. Within one kilometre of walking, I could see ancient ruins, listen to live rebetika, peruse an antiques stall and designer boutique, devour streetside souvlaki, and take a glance at the looming Acropolis.

Places to stay

  • My pick: Gina's Industrial Apartment (amazing location - somewhere between Monastiraki and Psirri, hidden in a quiet, industrial area yet a short walk to food, attractions, and livelier spots. Safe, great amenities, affordable. There was an amazing bakery around the corner - Artos Venetis - where we got our breakfast pastries)

  • For boutique luxury: Shila, The Dolli (I would've booked these if I had more money...)

  • For affordability: Athens Hub Hostel, Bedbox Athens

Neighbourhoods to explore

  • Lively, bohemian, creative: Psirri

  • Artistic, charming, local: Pangrati

  • Upscale, fancy, elegant: Kolonaki

  • Convenient, buzzing, touristy: Monastiraki, Plaka, Syntagma

  • Edgy, youthful, progressive: Exarcheia

Final tips

Final quick tips and resources

Take advantage of the incredible metro system: it's fast, reliable, and cheap. A standard €1.20 ticket can be used for 90mins on any form of public transport in any direction except the airport. There are also multi-day and tourist passes. Read more.


Greeks love their greetings! Whether you're entering a shop or passing someone on the street, a friendly kalimera (good morning) is always returned. Ya or yasou is used from noon until 5pm, and kalispera is used in the evenings. Read more.


Be an early riser. If you're visiting from Australia and Athens is your first European stop, you may be up super early on your first morning. Take advantage of it and explore the city as it wakes up - walk up Philoppapos Hill, visit a Greek bakery when their goods are fresh out of the oven, line up early for sightseeing (e.g. the Acropolis opens at 8am, and you'll avoid crowds the earlier you go). More on sites here.

Greece has several free admission days every year, where you can access ticketed sites, monuments and museums for free. It's worth seeing if your travel dates align. Read more


Homework pays off: sites, museums, and everyday streets take on a whole new meaning if you're already acquainted with Athens' history. I love the Athens Unpacked podcast, created by This Is Athens, the city's official visitor guide.

Have fun! xx

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