True, Athens can seem a little overwhelming at first. Between the majesty of the Acropolis, the vibrant colors of the Plaka and the non-stop energy of Syntagma Square it can almost seem like the Greek gods are conspiring to throw you a curveball: how can you possibly see it all when time is limited? First of all, relax. While you’d have to be crazy to think you can manage more than 3,400 years of civic history in the space of a weekend, you can actually take in a quite a bit in 48 hours—and still have time for people-watching over a tall frappé, just like the Athenians do.
With 48 hours in Athens, chances are you will be spending at least a few of them tackling the Acropolis, so why not get an eyeful of this starring attraction even before you set out? The vast, wraparound rooftop terrace on the tenth floor of the new Electra Metropolis Athens affords the best view of the Parthenon and Acropolis from any hotel in Athens, hands down. It does double duty as the hotel’s breakfast area and evening cocktail area and features a jaw-droppingly beautiful rooftop pool, too. The 216 rooms and suites pairs classic luxe looks (think hardwood floors and crushed velvet headboards) with modern conveniences and totally indulgent marble bathrooms. Rooms are from approximately $220 a night. (Hint: if they’re sold out, try the New Hotel 89 nearby).
If the Acropolis is the most famous of Athens’ landmarks, the Parthenon (completed back in 438 BC) which graces the peak is its most emblematic. Because of the enormous cultural weight this place carries, you might want to give yourself some context before you make the nearly 500-foot climb and the best place to do that is at the ultra modern Acropolis Museum, situated at the base of the hill. Inside you can peruse some 4,000 artifacts in five collections, including finds from the slopes of the Acropolis and antiquities from the Greek archaic and classical periods. Go for lunch at the rooftop restaurant and enjoy panoramic Acropolis views. Museum admission is 5 euros.
As you make your way up the Acropolis 89 itself (admission fee 20 euros; seasonal reductions) the first structure you’ll see is the Propylea, the monumental gateway of the ancient religious complex of which the Parthenon is the centerpiece. And if you’re not too distracted by the spectacular city views in all directions, also take time to inspect the Erechtheion, with its six stunning female Caryatid sculptures.
The afternoon is a good time to explore the ruins of the ancient Athenian agora, which is less dramatic than the Parthenon but no less evocative. This area lies just northwest of the Acropolis (it’s an easy walk) and contains numerous sights, including the recently restored Museum of the Ancient Agora 77 and the remarkably well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus. Admission to the Agora can be included with Acropolis admission or as a separate (and less expensive) ticket.
After soaking up all that history, chances are you’ll be hungry. Tuck into some delicious grilled fish and Greek food classics right in the heart of the Plaka at Diodos (19 Adrianou St). Friendly service and Acropolis views will help make it a meal to remember.
Paris has the Louvre, Athens has the National Archaeological Museum 97. It’s a good thing you had a sound night’s sleep before, because it takes stamina to navigate the thousands of artifacts at what is incontestably one of the greatest museums in the world. Highlights include the gold mask of Agamemnon, the bronze statue of Zeus, frescoes from Akrotiri (the ruined Minoan city in Santorini said to be the original Atlantis), the Antikythera Mechanism—an ancient analogue “computer” recovered from a famous shipwreck—and more richly painted ancient Greek vases than you can count. Admission is 10 euros.
The neighborhood around the museum, Omonia, has little else to recommend it so after your visit is complete head to Syntagma Square, home to the Greek Parliament and Monument to the Unknown Soldier. This is where to see the iconic Evzones—traditionally dressed presidential guards—who rotate positions on the hour.
Syntagma is the heart of modern Athens and it bustles at every hour. For lunch, hit The Greco’s Project at 5 Mitropoleos St where you can either get an amazingly good gyros to go or sit down for a more leisurely plate of souvlaki, moussaka or any number of homemade Greek specialties. You can have a great lunch here for two for under 20 euros.
In the afternoon, if you have any energy left (and of course you do—you’ve taken your cue from all those Athenians walking around with iced coffees, haven’t you?), explore one of the city’s fantastic, lesser-known museums. One is the Museum of Cycladic Art 90 (admission 7 euros). Technically located in the upscale Kolonaki district, it’s a five-minute walk from Syntagma Square and a veritable treasure chest of antiquities from the Greek islands, Cyprus, Mycenae and more. If on the other hand you want to see the coins that Plato may once have used to buy Socrates a drink, check out the nearby Numismatic Museum 80(admission 3 euros), housed in the former mansion of Heinrich Schliemann—the notorious archaeologist who excavated Troy.
At night, hop on the modern Athens metro to Keramikos. From Syntagma Square this is just one stop after the Monastiraki stop. When you exit the station you’ll be in the heart of Gazi which is the epicenter of Athenian nightlife. One glance around the large main square, ringed with restaurants, cafés and bars, and you’ll get an instant refresher course on why cosmopolitan is a Greek word at heart. Almost anywhere you go here is going to be great, but do make time for a cocktail at the raucous Shamone (Elasidon 46) or something more substantial at Butcher Shop (not a real butcher shop) at 19 Persefonis St. Most bars in Gazi serve food too.
Athens is a truly a global city, and it shows and shines in the ancient monuments, the foodie and culture scene and in the sheer vitality of the Greek people who proudly make the capital their home. Two days of taking in the top sights won’t give you much time to rest, but it just might whet your appetite for more.