For all the open space around its ancient ruins, Athens is distinctly not a city of parks. In fact, its green space per capita may be the lowest in Europe. But the sunbaked Greek capital does have a few spots for a shady stroll – and for kids to run around. As a boon for visitors, some of the best sites are right in the city center and attractions in their own right.
Pack good walking shoes, though, as the terrain is hilly. A few other destinations are farther afield but pay off with even more room to roam – and a refreshing slice of local life.
The pine-shaded north slope of Filopappou Hill faces the Acropolis – good view alert! – and on its flank is the cell where Socrates was allegedly imprisoned. The hill’s peak has its own ancient marble structure, the second-century-CE Monument of Filopappos, and from here, you can see all the way to the Saronic Gulf.
Sightseeing aside, Filopappou is the most extensive green area in the center of Athens, at 173 acres. Bird watchers and dog walkers especially treasure the spot. At sunrise, the trees ring with song; at sunset, it’s a virtual canine parade.
The whole park area, developed in the mid-20th century, is marked by the beautiful landscaping of Dimitris Pikionis, a noted modernist architect. The eclectically paved stone paths that wind over the hill are all his work, as is the rustic wood yard of the Church of Agios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris, a design inspired by traditional Japanese forms that fits right in with the thick-walled church.
The other big hill in central Athens, Lykavittos, isn’t quite as parklike as Filopappou, but the winding pathway to its peak is a great place to stretch your legs. (Don’t worry – the wolves that gave this hill its name are long gone).
You’re rewarded with an excellent view, as well as an up-close peek at the pretty whitewashed church that has probably already caught your eye from other parts of the city, as it glows, fairy-tale-like, at night. And it wouldn’t be a Greek hilltop without a café. If you want the fresh air without the hike, take the short funicular that runs up the slope from Kolonaki.
National Garden and the Zappeion
The National Garden was laid out as walled royal gardens in the early 1800s and is now a rambling park for all Athenians. Although the greenery can be a bit wild and even somewhat dusty in the dry months, the tall palms and dark thickets are a rare shady treat in summer.
Plus, the location, just south of parliament, off Syntagma, could not be more convenient. The nearly 40 acres include a large children’s playground, a café and murky ponds for turtles and ducks. (The tiny zoo is most distinctly not an attraction, however).
Adjacent to the south, the Zappeion is a more formally groomed patch of paths and greenery centered on neoclassical Zappeio Hall, now a conference center where, incidentally, Greece officially signed into the EU. On the southeast end of the Zappeion is another summer outdoor treat: Aegli open-air cinema.
Athens’ First Cemetery
For the quietest possible escape, head for the city’s first public cemetery, laid out after Greek independence in the early 19th century. Today, it’s marked by big old shade trees, beautiful marble statuary and grand tombs of famous Athenians. The surrounding neighborhood of Mets is also a pleasant residential district.
Stavros Niarchos Park
Opened in 2015, this green space close to the sea was a radical addition to Athens’ green acreage. It may be a bit of a journey from the center (take the tram or the park’s free shuttle from Syntagma), but it pays off in fresh breezes and lots of interesting programming.
Check the schedule for free yoga classes, for instance, and outdoor movie nights – as well as indoor opera and other events at the adjoining Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center.
Right at the water’s edge, Flisvos Park in Faliro, a 35-minute tram ride from Syntagma, gets busy after dark as local families conclude their seaside stroll at the cafes and restaurants here. One excellent summer attraction is the shadow-puppet shows at Theatro Skion Tasou Konsta, and there’s also an outdoor cinema.
Other outdoor experiences
Farther afield to the north, Strefi Hill, behind Exarhia, is a real locals-only destination – true to form, there’s a café at the top. While you’re in the neighborhood, cruise by the small but locally managed Navarino Park, the essence of Exarhia’s self-organizing ethos.
Farther still, Mt Hymettos is the most substantial mountain near Athens, and easily reachable by bus; start exploration at Moni Kaisarianis, and head up from there.
Finally, in addition to those mentioned above, Athens is studded with other open-air movie theaters. Often draped with vines and walled off from city noise, each is like a mini park – but with cold beers and popcorn at the refreshment stand and gripping action on the screen.