Spoiled for choice – that's likely how you'll feel with a mere day in Athens. The Greek capital is brimming with grand sights, celebrated cuisine and legendary nightlife, so deciding where to begin can be challenging. 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.
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.
A museum or two
Athens' museums offer both a respite from the heat and some of the world's top collections. There is one for almost every taste and interest but some of them are truly unmissable. Among them, the 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 most time-honoured tavernas, feeding traditional fare to crowds of customers from all walks of society. Epirus is the oldest and best among them.
A quick nibble
A busy schedule requires frequent and adequate refuelling and there are plenty of excellent street snack spots to help you make it through the day.
For a proper coffee or lunch break, the trendy Koukaki area around the Acropolis Museum is buzzing with cafes and little restaurants. Drupes & Drips, a cute miniature wine bar, is a worthy stopover in the neighbourhood. And if splashing out to make it a truly perfect day is not a problem, Spondi, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, is the best in the city by consensus.
A smart buy
You can easily get carried away and spend the whole day in the shops, as every taste and budget is catered for in Athens. But if you’d rather not do this, a walk down Ermou street will combine a nice stroll with a brief flavour of the commercial side of the city. Plaka is the place to go for your conventional souvenirs, Avyssinias square for antiques and bric-a-brac, and if you’re up for some serious spending, just walk up Voukourestiou street towards Kolonaki neighbourhood for the latest upmarket fashion.
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. The National Opera performs there in the summer, but for the rest of the year you can enjoy it in its brand-new, state-of-the-art home, designed by Renzo Piano, at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. Worth a visit even if you don’t manage to secure tickets for a performance, the centre offers free daily cultural events hosted in the magnificent olive-tree park that surrounds it.
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 bouzouki, pelting out traditional blues-like music, it's at once haunting and lively. Drunk Sinatra is a lively, always busy focal point for the partying crowds, Clumsies and Baba Au Rum are consistently included in various 'best bars of the world' lists, and Jazz in Jazz in Kolonaki, is the best bar in Athens, but only if you're a fan of the genre.
The morning after
If you're lucky enough to have more than 24 hours – and energy to spare – in Athens, there are many more sights to take in, as well as outstanding, relaxing day trips to embark on.
- First published in July 2010