Man: a being in search of meaning.Plato
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle shaped society’s views on philosophy. They helped us think outside the box and really dive deep into the meaning of life. In Greek, “philosophy” means “love of wisdom.” They wanted to ask those hard questions and really stretch the minds of their contemporaries. It was Plato that said, “Man: a being in search of meaning.” We are constantly asking ourselves those hard questions and, to my husband and me, exploring other cultures is a way to understand those around us.
We were so excited to experience Athens and to walk where the great philosophers walked. Here are the top sights we’d recommend seeing over a 5-7 day trip.
The Acropolis & Parthenon
When people think of the Acropolis, the Parthenon immediately springs to mind. But there is so much more to see beyond that iconic temple. Don’t forget to explore these other sights.
The Theatre of Dionysus was the first theatre ever built and it’s also said this is where the Greek tragedy originated. It was named after Dionysus because he was the god of wine and plays (really, they had no choice) and it could easily hold around 17,000 people in its heyday. At the bottom, close to the stage, you can see some stone chairs with backs, built for the upper class audience. Because there were no microphones, the theatre was erected on the slope of the mountain to help with acoustics. Competitions were often held at the theatre to find the best tragic play among well-known playwrights, including Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Menander. Thespis was the first documented winner of these competitions, and it’s why actors and actresses are now known as “thespians.”
If given the chance, we would love to go back and see a classical performance at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, another theatre in the Acropolis. It has an enchanting and romantic feel to it. Stop to look at the well-preserved seats and the gorgeous arches. You can see the city of Athens peaking out of the arches and expanding out beyond them. The theatre was built by Herodes Atticus to commemorate his wife, Aspasia Annia Regilla. It could hold 5,000 people and used to have a cedar roof. However, the theatre was destroyed during a war and when it was restored in the 1950’s, they didn’t include the roof.
There’s a small temple in the Acropolis dedicated to Athena Nike (or victory). The Athenians built it to honor Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, to secure a victory during the Peleoponnesian War against Sparta. To their dismay, they ultimately lost, but it’s still worth a visit today.
As you walk toward the Parthenon, on the left you will see a small temple (compared to the Parthenon), but it does not lack in history or beauty. Supposedly, the great competition between Athena and Poseidon, god of the sea, took place here. The gods were competing to be the main god of the Athenians. Poseidon went first. He struck the land with his trident and created a stream of water for the people. The people were very impressed, until they realized it tasted like salt water. Then it was Athena’s turn and she sprouted up an olive tree. The olive tree represents peace and the Athenians were able to use all of the parts of the olive tree for something: the olives for food, the leaves for crowns, the wood for boats and houses. Needless to say, Athena won.
They built the temple to honor Athena and it’s said that the first king of Athens, Cecrops, was buried there. Later his son, a Greek hero, was buried there too and they named the temple after him. Legend has it that he was born from Hephaestus (the god of blacksmiths, volcanoes, and fire), Athena, and the Acropolis soil. Athena gave the baby to King Cecrops to raise as his own and become king one day. It is said that Athena would constantly protect him and that after his death, Zeus brought him to Olympus to become a chariot driver.
While other sights on the Acropolis are worth seeing, you of course have to visit the Parthenon. We grew up studying pictures of the temple and it was so exciting to see it in person. We didn’t realize how big it actually is. This structure was built in honor of the city’s patron god, Athena, in the 5th century BC during the golden years when Athens was known as the most powerful culture.
You can really tell by looking at the building how much work and thought went into it. Also, if you were to scale the structure, you would find that it is a 9:4 ratio at its length, width, and the area between the columns. The architects were very innovative in their design as well. They concaved the columns to give the illusion of motion. Most of the friezes and sculptures have been stolen throughout the years (you can find some in other museums around the world), destroyed for religious reasons or war, but a few remain in the Acropolis Museum (we’ll talk about that later).
Below the Acropolis Museum and near the bus stop, you’ll see signs and a map that lead you into the hills of the muses, pnyx, and nymphs.
To get to the top of the hill, you’ll first go through this gorgeously covered forest area. As we walked, we stumbled across a sign in front of these carved out rocks that said “Socrates’ Prison.” After taking the Greek mythology tour and doing more research, we have concluded that this was not actually where Socrates was imprisoned. We are still unclear why they built this cave-like passageway leading to the water channels. However, we do know that it was used as a place to hide artifacts from the Acropolis and the National Archaeological Museum during WWII from Nazi theft. We found out that Socrates’ actual prison, where he was poisoned by hemlock, was located within the Ancient Agora area.
Once we reached the top, we were blown away by the view of the city of Athens and the Acropolis. It is said that democracy was first invented right on this hill. It was so inspiring to stand there, reflecting on all the countries that followed the Athenians’ lead throughout history. During the ancient times, only male citizens were invited to come together to discuss political issues and thousands often voted on decisions about their city.
The Ancient Agora was the central marketplace where people used to gather and shop. We explored this area as part of a Greek mythology tour. It was nice to have a tour guide who could tell us more about the history and explain the significance behind some of the rubble and ruins. Here are a few buildings that you can’t miss.
Temple of Hephaestus
This temple was built in honor of Hephaestus, god of fire, metalworking, stone masonry, forges and the art of sculpture. As a result, back in the day there were a lot of metal and craft workshops nearby. It’s one of the most well-preserved Greek temples, so make sure you go take a look.
Stoa of Attalos
This building is the replica of what researches believe the Stoa of Attalos would have looked like. The original was built during the 2nd century BC and it was said to have held two stories of shops. Today, it’s a museum that houses artifacts found in the area. It is a nice museum, so take some time to explore it.
As we mentioned before, Athens is the birthplace of democracy. The citizens of Athens used to meet on the Pnyx Hill to discuss and vote on issues. As the city grew, the hill could not accommodate the whole population and representative democracy was born. The 500 Athenian elects needed an area to hold their discussions, and what better place than in the Ancient Agora? These men served for a year and they would discuss things like military affairs, appointing the next general, and legislation. This area was also used for record keeping and to look after the state budget.
Church of the Holy Apostles
This little church is so cute and looks completely out of place within the Ancient Agora parameters. History says that it was built in the 10th century AD on top of a 2nd century AD monument to honor the nymphs. It’s well-preserved today.
If you want to see where some of the stunning Acropolis artifacts went to, then make sure you give yourself enough time to look around the Acropolis Museum. They did a great job designing the layout. One amazing touch that we loved was when you are looking at the friezes you can also see the Parthenon in the distance through the window. Seeing all of the pieces really gives you an image of what the city would have looked like.
Hellenic Parliament Building and National Garden
Today Greece’s elected officials gather at the Hellenic Parliament, the focal point of Syntagma Square in the city. It’s sometimes called the “Old Palace” because it used to be the house for monarchy for a century. After Greece passed a referendum to eliminate the monarchy, the building went through many changes. It acted as a hospital during WWII and was a place for Greek refugees to come and take shelter in 1922 from Asia Minor. Then it was briefly a museum to house artifacts of King George I before it became the parliament building we know today. Make sure you also get a chance to see the changing of the guards.
Near the parliament building there is a beautiful public National Garden. We wish we could have spent more time here because we really enjoyed the parts we did get to see. This garden was made for Queen Amalia. She got everything she wanted, including about 500 different species of plants (such as palm trees) and a variety of animals (such as peacocks, turtles, ducks, and supposedly wolves and lions too). A lot of the imported plants did not survive because they were simply not meant for the climate. The animals you’ll see now are goats, turtles, and ducks. The garden was strictly a space for the king and his family, but in the 1920’s it opened up to the public and became known as the National Garden.
Arch of Hadrian and Temple of Zeus
Just a couple blocks away from the parliament building you can see the Arch of Hadrian. This is such an attractive arch that was built in honor of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. On the side facing the Acropolis, there’s an inscription that says, “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus” and on the side facing the Temple of Zeus it says, “This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus.” There have been many discussions about whether it was placed there to mark the division between the old and the new Athens city OR whether it was a way to put Hadrian at the same level as Theseus, the hero of Athens.
During our Greek Mythology tour we went into the area of the Temple of Zeus so we could walk around it and take in its grandeur. Construction began in the 6th century BC, but was not fully completed until Hadrian started ruling in the 2nd century AD. Throughout time it got knocked down by war, earthquakes, and people just taking pieces to build other things. You can still tell how impressive it must have looked when it was fully intact. The ruins also gave us a chance to see a column laid out in front of us. We learned that a column was never made as one unit, but instead was made up of pieces placed on top of each other like a Jenga game.
Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens
Within the city you should stop at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens. It was so charming with its simple, yet elegant exterior and its alluring and majestic interior. This church took about 20 years to create with the help of three architects, who wanted a Greco-Byzantine style architecture. Inside you can see the tombs of two saints: Saint Gregory V the Ethnomartyr (Patriarch of Constantinople) and Saint Philothei. You can even see Saint Philothei’s bones in the silver reliquary. This church is still very popular today for ceremonies for political figures, as well as for weddings and funerals of nobility.
This stadium, like most things in Athens, was built in ancient times. It was finished by about 330 BC, so it could be ready for the Panathenaic Games, an event that consisted of an athletic competition, religious festivals, and more. The stadium originally only had select stone seating for those honored few. It was reconstructed with all the marble seating once the Romans came into power, thanks to the aid of the Roman Senator Herodes Atticus, who was of Greek descent (the same one who built the theatre). However, due to the rise of Christianity, the stadium and its games became a symbol of paganism, causing attendance to drop and leaving the stadium a skeleton of what it once was.
The stadium though would not go without a fight! It was unearthed and revived with the help of a rich businessman, Evangelis Zappas. He wanted it to be ready in time for the ancient Olympic Games in 1870 and 1875 with about 30,000 spectators. Then the stadium was given another polish, so that by 1896 it could be ready to host the first modern Olympics. Later, the 2004 Olympics was also held here.
When I was taking the hop-on hop-off bus tour it drove by three beautiful buildings all right next to each other. I found out they are all scholastic buildings. Even though these buildings were built in the 19th or 20th centuries, they still have the look and feel of the architecture of ancient Greece.
Academy of Athens
This gorgeous building now is used as a top research center and is a feast for the eyes. Take notice of the two tall pillars, one with Apollo and the other with Athena. Marble status of Plato and Socrates are seated at the front of the building, as well as a stone carving of a Sphinx. In the pediment at the top, small sculptures represent the birth of Athena. Who wouldn’t want to work in this building?!
University of Athens Central Building
This building was the original National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. The university has since expanded, so this building is now used to hold ceremonies.
National Library of Greece
This building is so stunning on the outside. Established in 1832, it was used as a library, with books dating all the way back to the 9th century. Eventually they ran out of room, so they built a cultural center to house the books in 2018. At least we get to still admire this building for what it used to be.
Activities To Do While You are in Athens
There are so many options online for different tours, so look them up and see which one speaks to you. I can tell you that we thoroughly enjoyed the tours that we took, so if you need some direction, then here is what we did.
Ancient Delphi Trip
I decided to take a day trip to Delphi. The tour was great from start to finish and it really was a full day experience. The bus was very comfortable and when I went in February it was not overly crowded. We had a great tour guide who went into great detail about the history and tales of different areas we drove past. I had heard some of the stories before, but didn’t realize where they took place until this tour (e.g., Oedipus and the riddle of the Sphinx). We made our way through the mountains and passed by adorable little towns. The weather was so unpredictable! If you go, definitely bring a small backpack with water, sunscreen, umbrella, and jacket (depending on the time of year). During the trip we went through sunny, rainy, and snowy all in about a few hours. Also, if you forget the water, it’s okay because they do make a couple stops along the way for you to buy refreshments or use the restroom.
We finally reached Delphi and it was right in the mountainside with beautiful views. I could instantly see why this place is considered the center of the world by the Greeks. The legend goes that Zeus had one eagle fly from the east and one fly from the west to find the center of the world and they both reached Delphi at the same time. For this reason, the oracle (a priestess who sought advice from the gods to inform the others) is known for being here inside of Apollo’s temple. During ancient times, Delphi was a religious site and we saw a bunch of different treasury buildings for different cities, including Athens, where representatives would place their offerings of gold and other precious items to Apollo. There are so many other stories to hear, so make sure you go!
Once you are done exploring, the tour then heads to the Delphi Museum right next door, where all the artifacts from Delphi are housed, including the famous Charioteer of Delphi. This statue is said to be one of the best preserved bronze statues of Ancient Greece. You can’t help, but notice all the details in his garment and if you look down at his feet, you can see what looks like veins for that extra touch of realism.
Then we made our way to lunch at this cute place within the mountains. The food was good and filled us up. I’m not sure if the menu changes every so often depending on the season, but we had salad, spanakopita (or phyllo with spinach and cheese), meat with rice, and a little chocolate cake. After we were done we walked out to the back of the restaurant and they had this beautiful terrace area. It overlooked the mountains, water in the distance, and so many olive trees below.
The final place we stopped was the Temple of Athena Pronaia. As travelers approached by foot, they would first see this temple before arriving at the Temple of Apollo. This sanctuary area had treasury buildings and also the famous Tholos of Delphi (the round circular temple that is in the middle). It showed how advanced these architects truly were during their time that they were able to create a domed temple.
Overall this experience was so much fun and very informative. I just touched a little bit on some of the history, but they cover so much more, so I would highly recommend exploring this area.
Another day, I decided to take my first hop-on hop-off bus experience. It took me around Athens and Piraeus, a port city in the urban area of Athens. This tour was a great way to start exploring the city and its surrounding area. It showed me all of the main sites and helped me figure out where things were located in the city. The bus also stopped at the main sites, so you could hop off and enjoy the area before going back on the bus. When I was there the bus pretty much ran on time. Just make sure you grab the right info brochure since they have one for winter (November – March) and a different one for summer (April – October).
In addition to exploring Athens, I also took the bus out to Piraeus. It takes you along the water’s edge and along the port area. Piraeus has been Athens’ main port throughout history and is now known as one of the biggest ports in Europe. I decided to stop along this route at Mikrolimano Harbor. It was a cute little harbor with buildings cascading from the hill toward the water. Right near the bus stop is a cute restaurant called Mira, where I enjoyed looking out into the harbor and the water, while enjoying my glass of wine. The lunch was great! I got a lamb shank served on eggplant puree and they made it look fancy with the flowers scattered on it. The lamb shank fell off the bone and the eggplant puree was very well seasoned.
Electric Bike Tour
Then I decided to try an electric bike tour for the first time. Since I was exploring Athens during the off-season, I ended up being the only one on the tour. I was so happy that they still did it, and it shows what great customer service they have! My tour guide was so great and went above and beyond what I expected. At the end she even emailed a list of top restaurants, walking tours, nightlife, things to do beyond Athens, tips for traveling to Santorini or Mykonos, and was willing to answer any other questions as needed.
These bikes were so incredible, especially going up the steep hills. It really just made it feel like I was going on a nice leisurely ride. She made sure to go at my pace and every so often we would stop, so she could tell me about the history of the area. She stopped at some great locations (most of which I already talked about above). One of the places we stopped that I haven’t mentioned yet was the Roman Agora. The Roman Agora is a Roman market or a public space for all to gather and shop. It took over for the Greek Ancient Agora.
Another area that I fell in love with (and later so did my husband) was the Plaka area. It’s right below the Acropolis and the buildings today are on top of the old city of Athens. You’ll see gorgeous buildings, greenery, and cute alleyways lined with quaint restaurants or shops.
While we were in this area we stopped at this little restaurant to get a caffe freddo. It is so delicious (I had my husband try one later and he was hooked)! We asked for a medium sugar level, but if you are not a sweet fan, then maybe start with no sugar because the medium tastes quite sweet.
Greek Cooking Class & Dinner
We absolutely love Greek food, so we jumped at the chance to take a cooking class in Athens! We took the Small-Group Greek Cooking Class & Dinner at a Traditional Tavern by Athens Walking Tour. This class ended up being one of our absolute favorite cooking class experiences (yet!) for these reasons: we were taught by a Greek mom, who learned how to cook traditional Greek food in her own kitchen, and we got to make 7 different food items (plus they give you a nice little recipe booklet afterwards). It was a small class setting and as a result it was a lot more of a hands-on experience. Three other locals were taking this class too because they heard she was a great instructor from other friends of theirs and they wanted to improve their cooking of traditional meals. It was great taking a cooking class with locals because not only did we learn how to cook, but we got to learn the history as well. Also, an extra perk was they gave us a little bit of ouzo (anise-flavored liquor) to try along with our choose of either a glass of wine or beer.
We learned how to make all of these foods (in no specific order):
Horiatiki (or Greek salad) was crisp and refreshing. A traditional Greek salad actually does not have lettuce in it. Instead it’s a combination of different vegetables (tomatoes, cucumber, onion, green pepper, olives, feta cheese, capers, oregano, salt, and always olive oil).
Roasted lamb with potatoes that fell right off the bone. Both the potatoes and lamb were so flavorful. We haven’t tried to make this at home yet, but we plan to!
Tzatziki dip, which was thick and creamy. We would say hands down this is one of the best tzatziki dips we have ever had. We make this all the time now with different Mediterranean meals.
Dolmadakia (gialantzi) with grape vine leaves were filled with fresh and great ingredients. The best dolmadakia we have found have of course been in Greece. We have tried them in the States too, but we didn’t think they tasted better than these. We were nervous to try and make them because they looked so complicated, but the instructor showed us how to do it and it became easy for us as we practiced on our own. If you forget the steps, then there are also images in the recipe booklet to remind you.
Spanakotiropita (or cheese-spinach pie), which ended up tasting, so flaky and delicious! Our teacher told us we could use the same pastry to make a pizza. It won’t taste like a traditional pizza (we are based in Naples after all!), but if we need a quick dough and don’t have time to wait for traditional pizza dough to rise, then this will be a great substitute.
Zucchini Balls were fried goodness. They looked like little vegetable patties and tasted great with the tzatziki dip we made. We never knew the Greeks use spearmint a lot in their cooking. It really gave the dish something extra.
Yogurt dessert was so rich and lemony. It was such a simple recipe used with Greek yogurt. We all agreed the flavor tasted most like cheesecake. The instructor said we could play around with it and add it into a pie crust, put cookies on top, or put chocolate chips on top.
Once we were done preparing the meals, we made our way into the restaurant to sit at one of the long tables to enjoy the food, each others’ company, and the live entertainment. There was so much food, so make sure you come hungry.
Probably our biggest takeaway was learning how to dehydrate vegetables like spinach and zucchini. Put the dried spinach in a bowl, sprinkle with sea salt, and then keep squeezing it until all the water comes out. The class has tons of tricks like that, so be sure to take this cooking class if you are into cooking!
This was such a fun walking tour around some of the major sites, getting up close and personal with history. Growing up we both loved learning about Greek mythology, so it was exciting to hear those stories again in their original location.
This tour helped us learn a lot of the information you see above (and even more that we didn’t write about) at the Temple of Zeus, Theatre of Dionysus, Temple of Athena Nike, Temple of Erechtheion, the Parthenon, and the Ancient Agora. This tour also did a great job of giving us a clear picture of what Athens would have looked like back then. As you can see from this post, we learned a lot and it was an exciting way to learn.
Food Tour & Wine Tasting
If you take this food tour, then make sure you come hungry! The guide also talks about the history of city and its different neighborhoods. We met our tour guide at the Syntagma Square, which is this lively square right in front of the Parliament building. We walked near or by this square so many times on our visit and it was also busy. There were only four of us on the tour so it made for a great intimate experience.
Our first stop was, Ella Greek Cooking, a modern restaurant that uses traditional Greek flavors with a new and unique twist. Here we had a fava bean puree with grilled cherry tomatoes and capers. This dish was so smooth and flavorful. The next thing we tried were green balls with Greek yogurt combined with feta cheese and spearmint. Then we tried what looked like a spring roll, but they call it pies from kaisaria. This dish had a phyllo flakiness on the outside, with kaseri cheese, pastirma (a type of cured meat), and tomato on the inside, and Greek yogurt with tomato marmalade on the side. We also had a dish that was both sweet and savory that they call homemade feta cheese pie with a honey and wine sauce (this happened to be our personal favorite from this restaurant, but we honestly enjoyed it all). Before leaving the restaurant we finished our experience off by choosing between drinking a shot of traditional raki (it tastes a lot like licorice) or sakız rakısı (or raki with gum mastic). Mastic is a resin that oozes from the bark of a mastic tree that has always originated on the island of Chios. The mastic has been used throughout history to assist with digestive issues; they say it may also be helpful in tooth decay and colds.
We then made our way over to Monastiraki Square. This square is also constantly buzzing with people. You can see the Acropolis from here, and they also have a flea market and tons of small shops. Even after the shops close down, the square has a lively nightlife with street performers. Surrounding the square is Hadrian’s Library, the Church of the Pantanassa, and the Tzistarakis Mosque. It is a nice little square and we recommend you go and shop around if you find time.
The next restaurant on our tour was in the Psirri neighborhood, a very up and coming area. They have been trying to get more people to come here and as a result more restaurants have been opening. We went to a restaurant called To Koudounaki, which was this really cute and small local place that is run by twin sisters. The place has a homey feel to it because you can see through to the kitchen where the sisters cook. We started off with a salad of black-eyed peas, parsley, and onions. Then we moved onto the stuffed cabbage, which was so good. The guide asked us if we wanted to be adventurous with our next dish and we agreed. They came out with what looked like a small fruit stuffed with meat and raisins with a side of rice. We can’t remember what the name of the fruit was, but I can tell you the sweet with the savory was a great combination. Then we finished with potatoes and cooked meat that was so tender. Everything we had here was great and it is for sure a hidden gem.
Our last stop was a wine bar where we had 5 tastings of some local wines. We enjoyed sampling all of them and it was nice that we had a wine connoisseur there as well to really go into detail about what we were drinking. The experience was a great ending to the food tour!
There were so many great Greek food options! We enjoyed every place we went to. I feel like you can’t go wrong picking a restaurant at random, but here are some of the ones we would return to.
Our hotel was about a 5-10 minute drive from the city center. If you are in this area, then we recommend you go to the two restaurants we went to. The first was a traditional Greek style restaurant called Arsenis Taverna. There were three of us, so we wanted to try a little bit of everything. We got Kalamata olives, tzatziki dip, and Saganaki (or deep fried cheese). We all loved cheese and it was so much fun to watch them light the cheese on fire! Then we shared two main entrees: the pastitsio (baked pasta dish with ground meat and white sauce) and a fresh whole-cooked fish. We watched as the waiter picked bones out of the fish using a fork and spoon. We still found a few bones though, so be careful. Whole fish is common in a lot of restaurants along the Mediterranean because it’s so fresh. We ended our meal with a custard-like dessert and a shot of ouzo.
The second restaurant we enjoyed near our hotel was Stalati Seafood Restaurant. Again, all three of us decided to share a few things. We felt welcomed as soon as we entered. When the server found out we had not been there before he brought us over to the seafood station and showed us how fresh it all was. He offered to pick one out for us and showed us some of the appetizers and desserts. We started out with a hot fish soup. It was so good and not too fishy tasting. Then we had spicy peppers stuffed with cottage cheese and a taramosalata (white fish roe mousse). Both great additions to our meal. Then we tried their dolmathakia with Greek yogurt and smoked paprika. They were very silky. We love trying new things when we travel, so we decided to try the fried cheeks of ray fish paired with a creamy dipping sauce. It made for a great appetizer and we were glad we tried it. For our entree we got another new dish: fried small red mullet fish. They were very good. Although, again be warned that there are a lot of tiny bones in there. We finished our meal off with a selection of different desserts.
We heard from a lot of locals that the thing to get is the loukoumades (fried donuts with honey). Krinos was highly recommended. We went there with a friend we made on the Greek mythology tour and it was a good thing because they gave us a ton. It was so worth it though! They were delicious, warm, and we just love the drizzled honey component.
The O Gyros Pou Gyrevis is another great restaurant option because it is affordable and delicious. It’s an ideal place for ordering gyros or souvlaki (grilled meat skewers). The food comes out quickly but doesn’t lack in quality. The meat is cooked beautifully and we got it with side of fries and tzatziki dip.