As the birthplace of modern Western civilization, sprawling Athens has enough neoclassical buildings to keep you busy for a week. But go beyond the Parthenon and you'll discover a more youthful side to the city with new art galleries, languid café culture and outdoor cinemas.

Today, Athens offers way more than relics of antiquity and quick routes to the Greek Islands — though we wouldn’t cross those off the to-do list just yet, either. These are the top experiences in Athens.

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The crumbling cream Parthenon temple in Acropolis set against a startlingly blue sky in Athens, Greece
Ancient Greece in one piece, don't miss the Acropolis © photography/Shutterstock

1. Acropolis 

The greatest symbol of the glory of Ancient Greece, the Acropolis rises spectacularly in the center of Athens. In the reign of Pericles, in the 5th century BC, the hilltop was deemed a religious sanctuary. 

Just as pilgrims of millennia past made their way to worship here, you can ascend the marble steps on the west side, to find yourself dwarfed by the towering columns of the magnificent Parthenon. Complete your experience by seeing a concert or play at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.

Several statues on display at the Acropolis Museum, an archaeological museum focused on the findings of the archaeological site of the Acropolis of Athens in Greece
The Acropolis Museum in Athens is so great you might lose your head too ©saiko3p/Shutterstock

2. Acropolis Museum 

Natural light cascades through the spacious galleries of the modern Acropolis Museum, illuminating the priceless treasures that have been removed from the hill and installed here for safekeeping. 

The pinnacle of the museum is the top-floor glass atrium, where the 161m-long frieze from around the top of the Parthenon (minus the portion still held in the British Museum) is installed at eye level, so visitors can see all the details of this masterpiece in marble, and get a truer sense of its grand scale.

A headless Greek statue on display at the Ancient Agora archaeological site in Athens, Greece with olive trees in the background
Some of the best thinkers of the age would have visited Ancient Agora in Athens ©Marissa Tejada/Lonely Planet

3. Ancient Agora 

Follow in the footsteps of Socrates and his various political and philosophical cohorts at the Agora, the heart of ancient Athens' civic life and the birthplace of democracy. In the stately Stoa of Attalos (an architectural paradigm for shopping arcades that you'll recognize across modern Athens), the Agora Museum displays unusual finds from ancient daily life. 

The Temple of Hephaistos is exquisite and very well preserved; see how many of the Labors of Hercules you can identify on the frieze.

A bust of the Roman emperor Hadrian in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens
A bust of the Roman emperor Hadrian in the National Archaeological Museum ©Neil Setchfield/Lonely Planet

4. National Archaeological Museum 

Athens' preeminent museum houses the world’s largest and finest collection of Greek antiquities. Priceless items date from the Neolithic Era (6800 BC) to the Cycladic, Mycenaean and Classical periods. 

It's gratifying to stroll the galleries and realize just how many of the finely wrought sculptures look familiar, just because they're cornerstones of Western art history: the bronze figure of a bearded god, say, or the hammered gold death mask of (maybe, maybe not) Agamemnon. Among such icons are plenty of other surprises; don't miss the frescoes from Santorini upstairs.

The columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens sit in the sunshine
The Temple of Olympian Zeus took 700 years to build and is still a bit of a doer-upper ©Kite_rin/Shutterstock

5. Temple of Olympian Zeus 

Greece's largest temple was seven centuries in the making. Or rather, what used to be Greece's largest temple – today only a handful of its colossal columns remain, as the rest were picked apart and reused in other buildings. The temple was dedicated to Zeus, and, unofficially, to the Roman emperor Hadrian, who actually finished the construction job and erected a statue of himself. 

While you're here, note Hadrian's Arch, congratulating him on his achievement. And explorers can seek out a sanctuary to Pan, on the far side of this site.

The steps and entranceway to the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture, the former Benakis family mansion in Athens, Greece
Even the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture building is worth of being on display ©saiko3p/Shutterstock

6. Benaki Museum of Greek Culture 

This impeccable private collection shows the spectrum of Greece from ancient times right up through the mid-20th century. It occupies a stunning neoclassical mansion, with fine art and mundane folk objects – both equally beautiful – displayed chronologically. 

As a kind of counterpoint to the pure classicism celebrated elsewhere in the city's archaeological sites, the Benaki collection tells the story of how Greece has absorbed foreign influences and ideas to create its uniquely syncretic culture. If you have time for only one museum, make it this one.

The archaeological site of Kerameikos on the edge of the old town of Athens at sunset
Kerameikos can be a bit of a graveyard, but that's a good thing ©milangonda/Getty Images

7. Kerameikos 

The city's ancient necropolis is home to the Street of Tombs, where classical VIPs were interred. Many of the finest grave markers are replicas; the originals are on display at the absorbing small museum on-site. 

The area was also the ceremonial entrance into ancient Athens, and while the gates no longer stand and the arriving road is now a paved city street, it's still an interesting place to pause and imagine the activity that would've taken place at the gates here.

The Athens cityscape as seen from the top of Filopappou Hill
The Athens cityscape as seen from the top of Filopappou Hill ©Vangelis Koronakis/Lonely Planet

8. Filopappou Hill 

The mythical battleground of Theseus and the Amazons is a green park studded with small ruins connected by beautiful stone paths that are themselves a minor architectural marvel. Make time in your schedule to come here – and to the neighboring Hill of the Pnyx – around sundown one evening to watch the lights on the Acropolis switch on and glow gold against the blue sky. 

More prosaically, this is also where a lot of Athenians walk their dogs, so you'll be out strolling with some great Greek pups.

The entrance to Cine Paris in Plaka neighbourhood is a white, non-descript one
Cine Paris is one of the best cinemas in Athens ©Vangelis Koronakis/Lonely Planet

9. Cinema under the stars 

One of the great pleasures of the Athens summer is seeing a film in one of the city's many outdoor cinemas. Grab a beer at the concession stand, settle into a comfy lounge chair and enjoy the magic of the silver screen. 

At some of the best and oldest movie theatres, such as Cine Paris in Plaka, you may also enjoy a view of the Acropolis alongside the latest Hollywood blockbuster or black-and-white classic. Screens start opening in May and usually run through September or October.

Read more: Best places to eat in Athens in 2020

Exterior of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center during sunset
The lovely waterside location of Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens ©Giannis Katsaros/Alamy Stock Photo

10. Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center 

A contemporary Athenian wonder, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center designed by Renzo Piano is home to both the Greek National Opera and the main branch of the National Library. Seeing a performance here will be a highlight of your trip, but there's plenty of free things to do and see as well, including meandering through the stunningly beautiful Stavros Niarchos Park

Designed to showcase Mediterranean flora, the gently sloping gardens are the perfect spot to relax and take in the views and cooling sea breezes.

Tourists and local people gathered outside cafes along the cobbled, hilly Plaka street in Athens, Greece
Take some time out for a coffee and chat in Athens' prettiest neighborhoods ©Bill Anastasiou/Shutterstock

11. Coffee culture 

Athenians don't wait until the weekend to head out to catch up with friends, they spend their days under the shade of orange trees nursing coffees and conversations for hours.

By day, the leafy central neighborhoods of Pangrati and Exarhia are packed with locals spilling out from kafeneions (Greek cafes) and into the streets, philosophizing (a favorite activity of any Greek), playing backgammon on marble table tops and sipping slowly on a cuppa.

The Monastiraki Flea Market during the early evening in Athens with stalls and stores still open and a domed building in the background.
Find a unique gift at the Monastiraki Flea Market in Athens ©ilolab/Shutterstock

12. Monastiraki Flea Market

On Saturdays, central Athens throngs with shoppers looking for a bargain at the huge Monastiraki Flea Market, which takes place between the Monastiraki and Thisseio neighborhoods. 

Here, traders open up their second-hand stores to flog a jumble of flea-market finds, vintage clothing and oddities ranging from vintage magazines punctuated with bold Greek lettering to mid-century furniture and strange bric-a-brac. Look hard enough and you’ll find some buried treasure (and if not some insight into how modern Greeks have furnished their homes for the past 60 years).

13. Check out the art scene

Athens is getting increasingly well known for its art scene. From not-for-profit galleries like CheapArtAthens to well-established commercial galleries like The Breeder and the newly-opened Goulandris Foundation, the city's creative side is thriving. 

Add to that a flurry of international artists who have moved to the city and set up spaces like Kypseli Print Studio – a print screening studio which hosts workshops for people of all abilities – and Haus N, a creative hub for new installations and works by young Greek artists, and it's easy to see the landscape changing for the better.

Two guards in front of the  rose-toned Hellenic Parliament building in Syntagma Square, Athens, march in time during the changing of the guard. Both are dressed in traditional evzones costume, a tasseled fez hat, thick kilt and stockinged legs ending at pom-pom shoes.
The ceremonial changing of the guards in Athens ©Dario Racane/Shutterstock

14. Syntagma Square

In the very heart of Athens stands the rose-toned Hellenic Parliament building on Syntagma Square. Try and catch its ceremonious changing of the guard. Two guards are always in residence here, dressed in traditional evzones costume, a tasseled fez hat, thick kilt and stockinged legs with pom-pom shoes. 

In summer, the customary get-up gets so hot that these guards have to be dabbed at with tissues, as they are unable to move from their positions protecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s only on the hour that they can finally break free to move in perfectly choreographed synchronicity, kicking their legs high as they march to change guards.

Aerial of lake Vouliagmeni and the Ateras Peninsula near Athens, Greece.
The Apollo Coast offers a quick, cool escape from the heat of Athens ©Aerial-motion/Shutterstock

15. Apollo Coast

Escaping the heat of the city is easy in Athens: Just head to the beach. In the sweltering summer months, take the A1 tram to the Palaio Faliro neighborhood for a palm tree-lined promenade and a soft, sandy beach.

Further along the Apollo Coast are the more upmarket southern suburbs of Glyfada and Vouliagmeni, with no shortage of luxury beach clubs should you want a full day off from sightseeing. Out of season, Vouliagmeni has a burgeoning surf scene.

The doorway to the Church of Agios Dimitros Loumbrdiasis at the foot of Filopappou Hill
The remarkable 16th-century Church of Agios Dimitros Loumbrdiasis at the foot of Filopappou Hill ©Anders Blomqvist/Lonely Planet

16. Church of Agios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris

At the foot of Filopappou Hill, this 16th-century church may not be the oldest in Athens, but it is certainly one of the loveliest, with a heavy timber roof, marble floors and the permanent scent of incense. A great 1732 fresco of St Dimitrios, astride his horse in a pose copied from ancient images of Alexander the Great, adorns the interior.

The churchyard, with its wooden gate and bells, conjures Japan – a touch by modernist architect Dimitris Pikionis. Pikionis also applied his precise style to the restoration of the back exterior wall, a delightful piece of stonework. In 1648, the church was the site of a reported miracle. The Turks, ensconced on the Acropolis, prepared to fire a cannon on worshippers gathered in the church, but the gunner was killed by lightning, saving the congregation. Hence its name, Loumbardiaris ('of the cannon').

An empty Panathenaic Stadium as seen from the top of the seats in Athens, Greece on a sunny day
Test your own running skills at the Panathenaic Stadium ©Anastasios71/Shutterstock

17. Panathenaic Stadium

With its rows of white Pentelic marble seats built into a ravine next to Ardettos Hill, this ancient-turned-modern stadium is a draw both for lovers of classical architecture and sports fans who can imagine the roar of the crowds from millennia past. A ticket gets you an audio tour, admission to a tiny exhibit on the modern Olympics (mainly eye-candy games posters) and the opportunity to take your photo on a winners' pedestal.

The stadium – built in the 4th century BC and restored for the first modern Olympic games in 1896 – was first used as a venue for the Panathenaic athletic contests. It's said that at Hadrian's inauguration in AD 120, a thousand wild animals were sacrificed in the arena. Later, the seats were rebuilt in marble by Herodes Atticus.

Read more: The best free things to do in Athens

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This article was first published March 2020 and updated July 2021

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