A City Break Guide to Athens
Athens has long been a traveller hotspot, but typically only for a day, when travellers have grand plans to either hire a car and head north in search of ancient history and epic hikes, or use it as a jumping off point for island hopping or a cruise. But with abundant ruins, quiet beaches and some impressive wildlife conservation efforts, the Grecian capital definitely warrants more than just 24 hours. Extend your Athens city break to a whole weekend with these…
The city has a wealth of centrally located accommodation options – from student-packed hostels, to charming B&Bs, to five-star hotels. While we whiled away a few hours in the five-star Hotel Grande Bretagne (and its lauded ‘Alexander’s Bar’), we actually stayed in the ‘New Hotel’, just a stone’s throw from Syntagma Square and in the sightline of the Acropolis.
And there was so much more to this unique lodging than its enviable location. Its eccentric design and the architecture of its guestrooms make it a fascinating place to stay – complete with contemporary murals and tactile fixtures and finishings. But, perhaps best of all, it serves up a stellar buffet breakfast (with eggs made to order), and an artsy rooftop bar-cum-library on the 7th floor. The cocktails are a bit pricier here than other spots in the city (€12), but it’s worth it for the uninterrupted view of the city’s most beloved ruins, without the crowds…
On the subject of rooftop bars, Athens has plenty – including the one at the New Hotel, the Art Lounge. For a younger, livelier feel, opt for 360 or A for Athens, while the roof garden at the elegant Hotel Grande Bretagne serves up a more distinguished vibe. If you’re on a budget, you can grab a glass of delicious wine for just €4 at the rooftop bar at the Hotel Byron, while gazing out across the nearby Acropolis.
The rocky outcrop ruins of the Acropolis make it the city’s most well-known icon. An ancient citadel created around 495-429 BC; today its remains make up one of the most architecturally significant, historic UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world. Seeing the Parthenon – built in honour of the goddess Athena – up close is a must (entry to the site is €20pp), but perhaps more dramatic is gazing across the rock from nearby Philopappou Hill, or from atop the Lycabettus Funicular at sunset.
The Acropolis may be the archaeological heavyweight in Athens, but there are plenty of other sites around the city to keep the history buffs entertained. There’s the crumbling pillars of the Temple of Zeus, the partially restored Agora – once the social epicentre of Athens – and the ancient Theatre of Dionysus, to name a few. What’s more, while you do have to pay to visit some of the sites, if you’re trying to be thrifty you can easily spot the highlights as you stroll through the city streets, and that’s absolutely free.
Olives, feta, moussaka… all fantastic Greek food items. But my favourite? Gyros. And it’s pretty good in Athens. You’ll struggle to find a restaurant that doesn’t serve up this kebab-style dish, boasting rotisserie meats, onion, tomatoes and tzatziki (yum), all piled atop a deliciously soft layer of flatbread. It may look messy, but it tastes utterly delicious.
Greece and its islands are a crucial habitat for turtles – loggerhead in particular. In fact, nesting sites can be found on the sandy beaches of Kefalonia, Zakynthos (Zante) and Crete. But when these vulnerable creatures are exposed to human dangers – whether that be fishing lines, rubbish or boat propellers – they’re taken to Athens to recover. Here, in the adjoining beach resort of Glyfada (accessible via the tram from Syntagma Square), is where Archelon does its work. Turtles here receive medical attention before being rehabilitated and, ultimately, released back into the wild. Dozens of turtles are kept at Archelon at any one time, and with their team of vets and volunteers, they are doing all they can to preserve this majestic species.
You can visit the centre (which is the only one in the country) for free on weekends, 11am-5pm, but we heartily encourage you to make a donation or – at the very least – pick up some super-cute, hand-made turtle merchandise from the gift shop.
Cities often aren’t synonymous with beaches and, when they are, the sands are usually nothing compared to what you’ll find further along the coast. That isn’t the case with Athens though. After you’ve visited the turtles at Archelon, continue further into Glyfada and you’ll find stretch upon stretch of soft silica, lapped by the warm waters of the Med. Grab an iced tea (or something stronger) from the beachside Balux Café and take advantage of their exclusive deckchairs.