Athens is the oldest capital city in Europe, with a population of around 5 million people. With history spanning thousands of years, Greece is considered the birthplace of western civilization. The long recession has allowed Athens to transform itself into a multi-layered society influenced by European neighbors. Today, trendy restaurants and cafes sit alongside ancient ruins. The cafe and patisserie culture of Athens rivals Paris. Visitors to Athens marvel at a modern city that mingles with civilizations spanning thousands of years, from Byzantium to ancient Greece!
Greece is an incredible foodies destination. It’s meat and seafood heaven, with traditional and modern dishes galore. The country also has the best olive oil, honey, oregano and yogurt on the planet, adding tons of flavor to their savory and sweet dishes. The oregano is so flavorful it’s worth trying to sneak through customs (shhh, we didn’t write that). And some of the patisseries and bakeries in Athens are as good as anything you’ll find in Paris or Brussels, two of Europe’s best capitals for pastries.
Plaka and Monasteraki are popular spots for tourists because you can enjoy tasty food and drinks with a lovely view of the acropolis. Sometimes the touristy restaurants don’t offer the best food though. For great food that’s less touristy, but just off the beaten path, try any of the restaurants or cafes in Platia Agia Irini (Saint Irene Square), or Psiri, near Monasteraki. It’s convenient for tourists, but quintessentially Athenian, trendy and high quality. The tavernas in Psiri are fantastic for an authentic experience – dining with live rembetika music (Greek blues).
Taverna Tou Pysiri is one of the best places to dine over rembetika music. Taverna Klimataria is another favorite, and its where I organized a big family dinner to celebrate my father’s last trip to Greece before his 90th birthday.
Athens is one of the most inexpensive and best value European capital cities. For a major capital city, Athens is one of the cheapest in Europe for food and accommodation making it a great value for visitors. For fast food, the price of a tasty gyro in Athens is around €2.80 ($3 USD) compared to an average of £6 ($8 USD) for a mediocre takeaway sandwich in London.
I’ve stayed in several excellent hotel in central Athens, which offers amazing value outside peak summer season and holidays. called the Delphi Art Hotel in the center of the city for €43 ($55 USD) per night for a single room with my own private bathroom. The room was newly renovated, comfortable and had two balconies overlooking the national theater, it also included a quality buffet breakfast and free wifi. Berlin also offers pretty good value in terms of accommodation for mid range travelers but London is far more expensive, with the equivalent room costing at least 3 times as much.
Athens is a Hospitable Capital to Tourists
Greeks are some of the friendliest and most welcoming people on the planet. If you’re out to dinner in Greece there’s an excellent chance you’ll receive a free dessert, coffee or ouzo complimentary at the end of your meal. It gives people a good feeling, and it’s good for repeat business. I wish business was always done like this everywhere!
On prior trips to Greece, I randomly had someone give me their lunch on a long train ride. I was once given a free beer in an Athens bar because I’d missed the last bus. The owner rang a taxi and didn’t charge for the beer, which was unbelievably nice. My Greek aunt once invited an English backpacker she randomly met on a train ride to Olympia to stay at her house a couple nights, which the English backpacker happily accepted. Welcome to Greece! Be polite to locals, and be ready to be surprised with lovely gestures of hospitality.
History: Why Athens Might Still be Europe’s Greatest City
Athens has the oldest recorded history of any European city as the Parthenon and many other fantastic sites around the Acropolis, like the incredible Theseum, date back nearly 2,500 years to the golden age of Pericles. Athens is even older though, with a history dating over 4,000 years. Greeks are extremely proud of the fact that they’re the birthplace of democracy and ancient Greeks made a significant impact to the fields of science, math, theater and sports. Panathenaic Stadium, built for the first modern Olympics, which was held in 1896, is the world’s only active stadium made entirely of marble.
Beaches a Tram Ride Away, Unique for a European Capital
You don’t have to travel to the islands or even drive a car to relax on Greek beaches, in fact you can just jump on a tram right in front of the Greek parliament building in the center of Athens at Syntagma Square. The coastal tram line, which opened before the Olympics in 2004, will take you all along the Saronic Gulf coast to the beaches in Glyfada, Kavouri, Vouliagmeni, Varkiza and as far as Voula. The tram is modern, air conditioned, comfortable and convenient. If you rent a car in Athens (which I don’t recommend driving in Athens) your best best is to drive along the coast to the historic Temple of Sounion, which also has some great beaches. It unfortunately wasn’t beach weather during my recent visit but I enjoyed a lovely meal at Kastelorizo in Varkiza, with a lovely seaside view.
Athens subway goes directly to the port of Piraeus which is also great for having a meal before catching a ferry to the islands, though not necessarily great to swim. Athens suburbs offer a long stretch of beaches and wonderful seaside cafes and tavernas, which is very unique for a European capital.
Picturesque Mountains Surround Athens
Athens is one of the few European capitals completely surrounded by picturesque mountains, and the only one that also has the sea as well. There’s even a mountain in the center of Athens called Mount Lycabettus, which offers the best panoramic views of the city as you have a birds eye view of the acropolis, the sea and port of Piraeus just beyond, the entire city and all the surrounding mountains. This is a breathtaking place to enjoy a meal with one of the best city views on the planet.
Great Public Transportation and one of Europe’s Best Airports
Most European cities have great public transportation and Athens’ is on par with Berlin and London. Athens had a new state of the art international airport, subway line and coastal tram line built prior to the 2004 Olympics. Public transportation in Athens busts the myth that the city is a backwards and inconvenient place to visit. Athens is easy to get around and very tourist friendly, as electronic metro boards and announcements alternate between Greek and English. Despite the Greek alphabet, Athens is a great city to visit for English speakers.
Athens offers fantastic value for massages! Full body oil massages in Athens start at just €20 ($21 USD). That’s significantly cheaper than the USA and many other countries. Bell and I enjoyed a relaxing full body couples massage in the same room for €40 ($42 USD) by Greek masseuses. Massages are professionally done, with proper draping. A variety of options include Swedish relaxation, deep tissue, lomi lomi, Thai massage, reflexology and a mixed variety of massages. Like many things in Greece, a generous amount of oil is used in a Greek oil massage!
If you walk around Ermou street in the afternoon, there are women handing out fliers for the massage houses. These are reputable establishments that generally provide great service. I’ve had a few massages in Athens along Ermou Street, and one of them was possibly the best I’ve had in my life, for just €20! The Greek masseuse combined a variety of techniques, from Swedish to lomi lomi, alternating between a relaxing full body oil massage, to stretching my arms and legs. She used her elbows to apply deeper pressure. I felt extremely relaxed afterwards.
Thai Massage and Hammam Spas in Athens
An Athens massage is a great way to begin your trip after a long flight from the USA. It’s also great after a day or two of walking around the city, to get some pampering for your legs and body. There are a variety of massage parlors in Athens, especially along Ermou Street. Massage providers are generally Greek or Thai, and the Thai providers are also professional.
You’ll have to look beyond Ermou Street if you’re looking for nuru or tantric massages, which are not as common in Athens compared to some other European cities like Budapest (Budapest spas are great, and it’s also one of Europe’s best value cities for Nuru massages). Prostitution is legal in Greece, so sexual services generally take place at licensed brothels, away from massage parlors. European massage websites tend to be very direct about all the services they will offer.
For even more luxury and pampering, there are a variety of Hammam spas in Athens. These Turkish style baths offer massages, steam rooms and Turkish style soap scrubs. Check reviews on google and find establishments that match your budget. This is a great option for a romantic couples trip or honeymoon in Athens!
Athens’ Ports of Piraeus and Rafina are Launch Pads to Explore Idyllic Greek Islands
The Greek islands are one of the world’s most popular destinations to vacation. There are around 6,000 islands in Greece, but only 227 are inhabited. You can visit some of the uninhabited islands on day trips, which are fantastic for pristine beaches or archeological sites, like Delos (The “Athens of the Greek islands”). Idyllic villages hanging above the sea, mouth watering gastronomy and breathtaking sunsets over sun kissed beached make this a popular vacation destination for celebrities too.
Santorini, Mykonos and Rhodes are three of the most popular islands. Especially in summer, they draw huge throngs of tourists, also because many of the large cruise ships dock there. There’s good news for those that want to avoid the crowds – there’s plenty of other islands! And you can also plan a trip to the most popular islands outside summer, when crowds drop off significantly and prices are cheaper.
Visitors can book a cruise, tour, or plan your own trip to the Greek islands by searching sites like Ferry Scanner. Greece is a popular tourist destination so English is widely spoken, especially on well visited islands. That means you shouldn’t have a problem putting together your own itinerary. Visitors are spoiled for choice on which Greek island to visit. Here are highlights on 25 popular and hidden gems!
Where to Stay in Athens?
First you’ll need a play to stay. Book well reviewed accommodation with free cancellation as soon as you can given how busy Athens currently is. Then if plans change, you can always cancel your booking!
The Grand Bretagne is a historic 5 star hotel in Athens with history dating over a century. Rooms have marble bathrooms and some have balconies facing the Acropolis and the daily changing of the guard at the Parliament. From their Roof Garden Restaurant you can see the original Olympic Stadium and Acropolis. The Grande Bretagne Spa offers a thermal suite, complete with herbal bath, grotto, ice fountain, couples retreat and indoor pool. Guests can even pamper themselves with ouzo oil massages.
The Artist Athens
The Artist Athens is one of my favorite boutique hotels in the Pysiri district of central Athens. The Artist Athens recently opened in summer 2018 so everything is brand new and the bedding is plush and comfortable. If you book a suite on an upper floor you’ll have a view of the Acropolis. Many of the lower floor rooms have nice views of a lovely 17th century Orthodox Church next door.
Athenaeum Grand Hotel is a modern hotel offering a comfortable stay at a good price. Rooms and suites are fitted with hardwood floors, nice furnishings and a modern bathroom. All rooms even include use of a smartphone that’s programmed with a guide to Athens, that you can use while touring the city. Beds are really comfortable and the breakfast buffet is great quality. We enjoyed our stay there.
Selina Athens Theatrou
Selina Athens Theatrou is one of the best hostels in Athens. Selina is a chain of hostels around the world that also offers co-working space for digital nomads. Asides from shared rooms, the property also offers private rooms with en-suite bathrooms, balconies and comfortable mattresses. This is the perfect stay for solo travelers as the hostel organizes nightly fun events like welcome drinks on their rooftop terrace, tsiporou (raki) tasting and pub crawls on weekends.
Selina Athens Theatrou offers a roof top terrace restaurant and bar with stunning views of the Acropolis and all around Athens. The property is located 500 m from National Theater of Greece and 801 m from Monastiraki Square. Among the facilities of this property are a restaurant, 24 hour front desk service and free WiFi. The accommodations also features a shared lounge, kitchen, cinema and co-working space.
Still Athens is one of my favorite budget stays in central Athens. Mattresses are comfortable, rooms are well appointed, and they also feature an espresso machine. Located in the Athens City Center district of Athens, just off Athinas Street, Still Athens is located less than 1 km from Monastiraki Square, at the foot of the Acropolis. It’s just 5-minute walk from Ermou Street-Shopping Area and 1.1 mi from Roman Agora.
Owner and operator Alex Diamantis is extremely friendly, giving his guests the best tips on what to see, where to eat and where to drink. Breakfast is included and provided upstairs at a nearby pizzeria. Air-conditioned rooms provide a city view and come with a desk and free WiFi.
Budget Faliro and Athens Area Beach Hotels
Athens is one of the few capitals in Europe to have beaches. You can even catch the Athens coastal tram to the beaches from Syntagma Square (home of the Greek parliament) going towards the seaside town of Voula. If you want to stay on the beach in Athens, consider the Poseidon Hotel in nearby Faliro Beach or a Glyfada Beach area hotel.
Want to travel to Athens Very Cheap?
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Greece’s Economic Crisis
Greece has been mired in a rough economic stretch, with overall unemployment at 25% and youth unemployment at 50%, but hopefully the country is past the worst of it. Despite tough times, Greece is still a welcoming country that’s safe to travel to. And the more time I’ve spent in Athens over the years, the more I believe it’s one of Europe’s greatest cities. If you haven’t already visited Athens, try and visit in the next couple years as the city will most likely become more expensive to visit in the very near future!
Alex Kallimanis is a UCF graduate who grew up in the Orlando, Florida area before living in destinations like Australia, the Netherlands, Ireland and east coast destinations like Boston and Washington, DC. I’m also a Greek citizen that has made 10+ trips to Greece. As a travel journalist and travel consultant, I enjoy assisting readers with getting amazing experiences and value from their trips. I’ve visited 58 countries and counting.
My wife of nearly 17 years, Bell, is an Australian scientist working in cancer research. We first met in a hostel in Brugge, Belgium while backpacking Europe solo after college. You can read more on that story in our about page if you’re interested.
I encourage you to browse some of the other destinations we’ve covered for helpful tips. I also share advice in our resources page that could save you thousands on travel costs!
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