A perfect day in Athens

Spoiled for choice – that's likely how you'll feel with a mere day in Athens. Brimming with grand sights, celebrated cuisine and legendary nightlife, it can be challenging to know where to begin. The secret is in not trying to do everything. Instead, take in a couple of the tourist highlights and then delve beneath the city's skin to get a feel for this alluring capital.

Opera performance in the Odeon of Herodes Atticus at night. Image courtesy of Region of Attica Opera performance in the Odeon of Herodes Atticus at night. Image courtesy of Region of Attica

An ancient sight

The Acropolis always comes out at the top of the heap of things to see in Athens. The most famous of the Western world's ancient sights continues to impress even the most blasé of tourists as they climb the marble steps and stand before the graceful Parthenon. Views from up here are astounding, with the city sprawling as far as the eye can see. Visiting early in the morning beats the heat and the tour buses; taking it in beneath a full moon is magical.

A slow wander

Plaka is the city's oldest neighbourhood, resting on the slopes of the Acropolis. This is the old Ottoman quarter, oozing with atmosphere and overflowing with cafes, boutiques and fascinating architecture. True, it's a popular tourist haunt, but its maze of cobbled streets is perfect for getting lost in, giving wanderers the chance to discover cafes and bars where they can down some strong coffee, or even stronger ouzo, among locals. Plaka is at its best in the early evening and is also home to some of the city's most evocative hotels. Acropolis House Pension is a preserved 19th-century house that gives guests a glimpse into a Greek home.

A museum or two

Athens' museums offer both a respite from the heat and some of the world's top collections. The new Acropolis Museum shows off the riches once housed in the Acropolis, while the National Archaeological Museum is a world renowned treasure trove of Greek antiquities. The private Benaki Museum offers something a little more eclectic, from Roman toys to Byzantine art.

A market scene

Varvakios Agora is Athens' central market and a hive of activity. Locals come here to shop and haggle for everything needed in a Greek kitchen – from olive oil to slabs of meat. This is a peek at local life at its most lively as well as a window into Greek cuisine. The meat market is also home to some of the city's best tavernas, feeding traditional fare to crowds of customers from all walks of society. Papandreou is a virtual institution among these restaurants.

A dash of culture

The ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a surreal setting where summertime audiences watch Homer's lines acted out, see contemporary dance moves, and hear classical orchestras. Backlit by the Acropolis, this unbelievable venue competes for attention with the world-class performances.

A splash of nightlife

Athenian nights are filled with music, dancing and dining. Rustic and authentic, Perivoli Tou Ouranou is a rembetika club with almost palpable atmosphere. Filled with the sounds of violins, mandolins and guitars pelting out traditional blues-like music, it's at once haunting and lively. Athens' more mainstream club and bar scene is spirited, to say the least. Hedonists flock to Venue for some of the world's biggest parties.

The morning after

If you're lucky enough to have more than 24 hours in Athens, and energy to spare, there are many more sights to drink in.

This article was first published in July 2010 and last updated in April 2015.