Best Things to Do in Athens in Just 24 Hours
Athens is a chaotic, sprawling city. Athens can be dirty and loud and crowded, but it’s the perfect place for immersing yourself in history and seeing ancient ruins. With just one day in Athens, you have a good chance of departing the Greek capital feeling a bit defeated. But this 24-hour Athens itinerary is here to help make sure that doesn’t happen!
I’ve explored Athens as a backpacker and during a cruise port of call. I’ve got a good pulse on what it means to explore this massive city when short on time and what you can’t miss with some insider tips to get around strategically.
Athens, despite its mishmash of streets and smoggy air, has pockets of genuine travel magic. There are spots that have spectacular pieces of history residing in them that look practically untouched – a feeling that the city just built itself around them and kept going on its sprawling way. And then there’s the Acropolis, which has a mystique completely together with and separate to the rest of Athens.
So let’s get into that itinerary so you can also discover what makes Athens one of the greatest places to visit in Europe.
One Day in Athens Itinerary
If you have one day in Athens, know you won’t be able to see it all. Focus on getting a feel for the ancient history of the city, which sometimes means digging deep and keeping your mind focused while you navigate the city. Here’s what to do to leave Athens feeling a bit more in touch with ancient civilization and present-day Greek culture.
Start Your Day at the Ancient Acropolis of Athens
Athens has an easy to navigate metro system. Take it to the “Akropoli” stop on the red line to begin your day in Athens among ancient Greece. This will take you into Athen’s old town neighborhood, which is where many of the ancient ruins are located, including the famous Acropolis.
The Acropolis is one of the main attractions in Athens and obviously a big draw for visitors. It is a great place to start exploring this iconic city. Plus, the earlier you can get there to beat crowds the better.
The Acropolis was developed in the 5th century and was the breeding ground for some of the most innovative ideas of the time. It is often said to be the birthplace of democracy, an idea which developed from the conversations had on the land of the Acropolis. Or perhaps in the buildings; the creation of the Acropolis was comprised of architectural wonders that still influence building design to this day.
The most famous of these structures is the Parthenon (built in 438 BC). Socrates’ old stomping grounds is a must-see for every new visitor to Athens. The Parthenon was built during the height of the city-state’s power and was dedicated to the goddess Athena. The Parthenon is considered one of the greatest examples of ancient Greek architecture and has been a symbol of Athens for centuries.
Temple of Athena Nike
One of the other must-see site at the Acropolis is the Temple of Athena Nike, another stunning example of ancient Greek architecture. It’s known for its intricate amphiprostyle design and beautiful friezes, particularly the one depicting the goddess Nike. Built in the 5th century BC, the temple was dedicated to the goddess Athena Nike, who was believed to bring victory to the city.
When visiting the Acropolis, prepare yourself for crowds. Even in off seasons, the site can be overrun with an overwhelming amount of tourists.
One Day in Athens Itinerary Tip: To spare yourself from the line leading up the winding pathway to the Acropolis at the main entrance, head farther down the hilly street to the lesser-traveled south slope entrance.
The southeast entrance is a short walk through some of the Acropolis grounds of the south slope that have ancient statues and an old, crumbling — but still impressive — theater on them. You’ll be walking through trees, getting great glimpses of city views, and it’s surprisingly tranquil. It’s a good path to take as well because you’ll be walking through an area of the Acropolis that doesn’t have a lot left to it (such as the theater), but what it does have is authenticity.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
To see a still-operating amphitheater with ancient Greek vibes head to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a spectacularly built amphitheater located on the southwest slope of the Acropolis. Constructed in 161 AD by the wealthy Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife, the Odeon has an interesting history. It was used for musical and theatrical performances, and could seat up to 5,000 people.
Over the centuries, the Odeon fell into disrepair and was eventually abandoned. However, in the 1950s, it was restored and now hosts concerts and other performances during the Athens and Epidaurus Festival, which takes place every summer. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a testament to the rich cultural history of Athens and continues to be an important cultural landmark today.
More Tips for Visiting the Parthenon
Most of the signs around the Acropolis tell you about the reconstruction instead of the history. Which is why it’s important to rent the audio guide or bring a detailed guidebook with you while walking around the Acropolis. Unless you’re a history major, you probably won’t have much of an idea what you’re looking at otherwise.
You can also just head over to the edge and bask in wonderment. When gazing at the views cascading out from the top of the Acropolis, it’s interesting to think what it must have looked like to Plato and Socrates when they were looking out from this very spot thousands of years ago. It even has a view of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the next spot on this itinerary.
When leaving the Acropolis, leave from the southeast entrance I mentioned before, where you’ll exit back into the streets of Athens. From there, it’s a short walk to the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
Located right in the middle of busy roads creating a sort of roundabout are the ancient ruins that once made up the Temple of the Olympian Zeus.
Take care when crossing the street to get to the park for these ruins. There are drivers and mopeds galore. Once inside the park, you’ll find what could be a peaceful place to ponder history is marred by the sounds of the cars zooming by.
Despite the cacophany of motors and honks, the ruins are impressive. A massive green lawn encircles giant columns, the twirling intricate design still noticeable on the top of some of them. Others are aged with areas crumbled out. Several of the columns have toppled over, giving the site a precarious air, as if the other columns could tumble over in a domino-fashion at any moment.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus was at one time a massive temple, though it is mostly in ruins today. It was completed in 132 AD after being partially built and in limbo for over 600 years after its original conception. The Temple of Olympian Zeus is worth a visit to see the way the columns of the temple have decayed a bit like dominoes over the centuries.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus was originally a building with 104 Corinthian columns; today there are only 15 left.
The Acropolis isn’t the only ancient Greece neighborhood to explore during your day in Athens. The Roman Agora is antoher must-see site.
The Roman Agora was built in the 1st century AD by the Roman Emperor Augustus and served as the commercial and civic center of Athens during the Roman period. The area was designed to be a grand marketplace with shops, public buildings, and a temple dedicated to the goddess Nemesis.
One of the top sites to see at the Roman Agora is the Tower of the Winds, which is an ancient clock tower that dates back to the 1st century BC. It is an impressive structure with intricate carvings and impressive engineering. Another must-see site is the Gate of Athena Archegetis, which is a beautifully preserved gateway that was built in the 1st century AD.
The Roman Agora is located just a short walk from the Acropolis of Athens. Visitors can easily walk between the two sites since it’s just under a mile walk.
If you love watching the Olympics, you’ll want to make time in your 1-day itinerary in Athens to visit Panathenaic Stadium.
The Panathenaic Stadium is a historic landmark that is one of the most famous sights in Athens for sports fans. Built entirely of marble, the stadium was first constructed in the 4th century BC and was used to host the Panathenaic Games, a major athletic event held in ancient Greece. It is still the only stadium made completely out of marble standing today.
Panathenaic Stadium was later restored in 1896 for the first modern Olympic Games, and has since been used to host a number of other international sporting events. It even hosted the Olympics once again in 2004.
Visitors to the stadium can take a tour of the grounds and learn about its rich history, or even run a lap around the track themselves. The stadium is an impressive example of ancient Greek architecture and a must-see destination for anyone visiting Athens.
The Plaka Neighborhood
The Plaka is considered to be the “old town” area of Athens. Located close to the Acropolis, it has kept much of its original character and I found that it seems a world away from the urban sprawl that occurred to the rest of the city.
The Plaka consists of many shops and cafes. You’ll find lots of al fresco options for dining as well.
Amidst all this are historic sites and ruins, such as the Tower of Winds, which served as a meteorology station in the first century. You’ll also encounter what are basically holes in the ground with fence around it showcasing pillars and the remains of ancient buildings under the ground. If short on time, I wouldn’t bother paying to walk through these. You can glance at them through the fence and it’s best to save your time for exploring the larger archaeological sites in Athens.
Bordering The Plaka is the Monastiraki flea market, a great place to browse through shops, barter, and pick up some souvenirs.
The Museums of Athens
You’ll also get a taste of a more urban, gritty part of Athens walking to the museum from the metro stop. Ruins abound in Athens. Visiting all of them could easily take up your entire time if you only have one day in Athens. Instead, stray into the more modern part of Athens and visit the museums.
If you decide views and a reconstructed Parthenon didn’t quite do it for you, head over to the Acropolis Museum to see all of the really old ancient artifacts.
The Acropolis Museum used to be conveniently located on-site at the Acropolis with the entrance included in the ticket fare. In 2008 it was moved to its own museum and now cost extra to visit. I still fund it worth my time on my most recent visit to Athens since I find it interesting to see some of the historical pieces that were excavated from the Acropolis.
An example of ancient art you can see are the Caryatids. The six women columns (known as the Caryatids) you see holding up the Erechteion temple while visiting the Acropolis grounds are actually a replica. The original statues are located in the Acropolis Museum.
One Day in Athens Itinerary Tip: To streamline your day in Athens, go to the Acropolis Museum in between your visits to the Acropolis of Athens and the Temple of Olympian Zeus
If all this original/duplicate stuff doesn’t really matter to you and it was more important to you simply to be on the Acropolis grounds, then with just a day to spend in Athens, I’d recommend skipping the Acropolis Museum and instead spending your time at the National Archaeological Museum, one of the most important museums in the world for showcasing ancient Greek art.
Syntagma Square and Parliament Building
Once you’re done with ancient columns and museums, it’s time to checkout Syntagma Square. This is also a great place to get a bite to eat if you’re getting hungry by this point.
Syntagma Square is one of the most famous and important squares in Athens, Greece. It is located in the heart of the city and serves as the focal point for many events and political demonstrations. The square has a rich history that dates back to the 19th century when it was first constructed. Originally, it was called the Palace Square and was situated in front of the Royal Palace. Today, it is known as Syntagma Square and is a popular tourist destination.
Syntagma Square is a popular destination so expect to find a bustling and lively atmosphere. The square is surrounded by many historical buildings and landmarks, including the Parliament Building, which is home to the Greek Parliament. The changing of the guard ceremony at the Parliament Building is a must-see attraction for visitors.
The square is also home to many cafes, restaurants, and shops, making it an ideal spot for shopping and dining.
Where and What to Eat in Athens
When it comes to what to see and do in Athens, don’t stop just at ancient sites; you can’t forget about the cuisine. Greek food consists of a lot of vegetables, a lot of meat, and a lot of feta. YUM!
Snytagma Square and Plaka are both good places to go to find restaurants serving up delicious Greek dishes, such as moussaka and souvlaki. Or try the simple, but famous Greek Salad — tomatoes, cucumber, onion, olives, and feta with no lettuce, drizzled in olive oil. You also might want to order a cup of Greek coffee or a shot of ouzo, a popular Greek alcoholic drink.
You may only have one day in Athens, but you must make time to eat. Even if you’re on a cruise and have free food waiting for you back on the ship, eat in the city! Greek cuisine actually experienced in the country of Greece is an experience unto itself.
Athens Market Shopping
Athens is home to a number of vibrant markets that host different products and entertainment.
The Athens Central Market, also known as Varvakios Agora, is one of the oldest markets in the city. You can find fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, cheese, and a variety of other products. The market is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike with lots of busy energy.
It’s easy to spend hours exploring the different stalls and shops so don’t get sucked in if you’re on a time crunch with just a day to explore Athens! Give yourself a time limit and then see what exciting finds you’ll discover.
Like to hunt for bargains among vintage apparel and antiques? The flea market in Monastiraki is a great place to find unique souvenirs and vintage items. From antiques to clothing to jewelry to art, you never know what treasures you might find here. The market is open every day except for Sundays, and it’s a great place for shopping enthusiasts to spend some time in search of a one-of-a-kind item to bring back home.
The fish market, located in Piraeus, is a must-visit for seafood lovers. Here, you can find a wide variety of fresh fish and seafood, caught in the Aegean Sea and other nearby waters. The market is open early in the morning and is always bustling with activity. The merchants are friendly and happy to help you pick out the perfect catch for your next meal.
The Athens Nightlife
If you have 24 hours to spend in Athens, you’re in luck. Athens comes alive at night and you won’t have any trouble finding a bar or club to while away the hours until the early morning, of which Psiri is a popular neighborhood to head out in.
If dancing and doing ouzo shots isn’t your idea of a great night out, consider spending your night at the movies at Cine Paris. This is no normal movie theater – it’s a rooftop, outdoor theater that has a bar and a view of the Acropolis, resulting in a pretty memorable way to watch one of Hollywood’s latest offerings.
Where to Sleep in Athens
Need a place to lie your head while in Athens? I have two recommendations. The first in the city center and the second in nearby Piraeus (ideal if you’re catching a ferry to one of the Greek islands the following morning).
Athens Hotel Option: Herodion Hotel
Herodion Hotel is a family-owned hotel centrally located in the Plaka neighborhood right by the Acropolis Museum and the entrance to the Acropolis (which will save you time if you’re short on time!). It has a relaxing terrace with incredible views of the Pantheon, plus bright, well-appointed rooms with air conditioning and turn down service. There is also an onsite bar and restaurant.
Piraeus Hotel Option: Hotel Ionion
Hotel Ionion may have basic looking rooms, but a stay there is escalated to memorable by the friendly, attentive staff, good breakfast, and close proximity to the harbor. It is also a great choice if you’re looking for a budget option while visiting Athens, but don’t want to stay in a hostel, and need a place to stay before catching a ferry in the morning. My sister and I stayed here after a day in Athens before leaving for Santorini early the next day.
One Day in Athens Tips for Cruisers
Visiting Athens during a cruise port of call? Here’s what you’ll need to know:
Where Your Ship Docks: Piraeus
When visiting Athens via cruise, your ship will dock in the city of Piraeus, which is only about seven miles from Athen’s top things to do.
Getting From Piraeus to Athens:
Though you may have a bit of a hike to get to it depending where along the harbor your cruise ship docks, the metro station in Piraeus is quite doable to walk to, and from there it’s just a 20-minute metro ride into the city center of Athens.
However, if you want to make things easier on yourself getting into Athens, consider a shore excursion. Most cruise lines that visit Athens have a large variety of excursions to do while in port, and you’ll be met by your tour guide right by the ship and taken into Athens on a comfortable, air-conditioned bus where you’ll begin exploring sites old and new. Many of these excursions also include a guided tour of the Acropolis.
Flying into Athens?
Here’s how to get to all these ancient Athens sites quickly:
Athens International Airport is located a little less than 20 miles outside of the city, but don’t let that distance intimidate you if you only have a day to spend in Athens. There are several well-established transportation options that can get you into the city center quickly and easily, whether you’re spending the night or just have a long layover in Athens.
While buses and taxis are available, the best way to get into Athens from the airport if short on time is to take the metro. The Athens Metro is a quick and inexpensive way to travel around the city, and it’s particularly convenient for those arriving at the airport.
The metro line that services the airport is called Line 3, and you can catch it from the arrivals level of the main terminal building. The journey takes around 40 minutes, and the trains run every 30 minutes from early in the morning until late at night. Plus, the metro is air-conditioned, which is a welcome relief during Athens’ hot summers. Once you arrive in the city center, you’ll be perfectly placed to start exploring all that Athens has to offer.
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