Athens remains one of the great cities of western civilization. And if you spend just two days in Athens, you can get a good taste of this remarkable city.
By Jim Ferri
Athens is renowned for its relics of past civilizations – the world-famous Acropolis, the Parthenon, temples and theaters, ancient and beautiful Neoclassical buildings –but it’s also a city bursting with lively markets, a plethora of cafés and restaurants, innumerable shops and wonderful museums, all modern tributes to the 21st century.
It’s also still somewhat exotic, the people are exceptionally friendly and most speak English. Even better, it’s affordable.
The Start of Your 2 Days in Athens
Whether you spend just two days in Athens, perhaps on to one of the best Greek islands, you’ll most likely arrive at the new airport far outside the city. Luckily there is a Metro that will take you from the airport to downtown (either Syntagma or Monastiraki Squares) in about 45 minutes, from which you can either walk or get a taxi to your hotel. The cost for the Metro is €8 one-way, or you can purchase a three-day pass for the Metro and buses for €20. Taxis to downtown cost about €35 during the day, more at night.
I purchased a Metro Pass (cash only at the rail station at the airport) but wound up not taking full advantage of it since once I was in the city I only walked or took taxis, since they are plentiful and relatively cheap. Still it was good to have the pass, just in case.
I was also able to book a room online through Hotels.com at the Economy Hotel for less than $60 per night. It was a basic two-star hotel that was clean and had a very helpful staff and a good breakfast. It was also less than a 10-minute walk to lively Monastiraki Square.
Up to the Market and the Acropolis on My First Day
On the first day of my two days in Athens I left my hotel about 7:30am, a perfect time to wander about without the crowds. Church bells were ringing all over the just-awakening city and people were having their morning coffee in the few cafes already open.
Although I was told that the renown flea market really didn’t get underway until 9am, when I got there about 7:45 AM I found vendors setting out their wares and some knowledgeable buyers already sifting about looking for little treasures.
I only briefly walked through it before heading in the direction of the Acropolis, my primary destination that morning.
Not knowing how get to the entrance after not having visited it in many years, I asked an artist who was hanging his watercolors on a fence near the old Agora, the 6th century BC marketplace of the city. He directed me to a path that skirted the other side of the Agora, which he told me would link with the entrance road up to the Acropolis.
The route turned out to be longer and steeper than I had hoped for but I enjoyed looking at all of the ancient remnants lying about in the grass and on rocky outcrops with bright red poppies poking up all about along the way.
Although the walk up was mainly solitary, once I arrived at the entrance I met plenty of other travelers, including several tour groups. The tour groups are given priority entrance before non-tour visitors but I found that if you are there when the gates open the tour groups all mingle just inside the entrance as the guides start their dialogues. You can walk right by them and be up to the Parthenon before they’ve moved on.
Parliament and the Benaki Museum
After an hour and a half I next went to Parliament to see the popular changing of the guard. It’s a colorful ceremony and after watching dozens in the crowd stand next to the guards to have their pictures taken, decided to do it myself.
I went up and stood next to one of the two guards and as I raised my camera for a selfie he slammed his rifle butt on the ground. I took the photo and then another as he slammed it on the ground again. Only this time an officer came running over and said “didn’t you hear the rifle on the ground?”
I told him I did and thought it meant he was going to turn around and the officer said that no, he was calling out since no selfies are allowed.
Admonished, I left and walked to the Benaki Museum a few blocks away. Set in an old mansion, the Benaki provides a broad view of Greece from the Stone Age to the present day. I found it fascinating. The exhibits include a broad range of objects including painting, sculpture and Greek handicrafts. It even includes works by El Greco, the Greek artists given that name when he lived in Spain.
There are only 36 rooms in the museum, making it easy to walk about. And everything is displayed in chronological order, I was able to consume 90 centuries of the Stone Age, Classical Greece, the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and more, before dinner.
A Great Museum in Greece and Europe
The next morning after my hotel breakfast, I took a cab to go to the Acropolis Museum. I had been to the old museum many years earlier and had read about the new, incredible all-glass building that had replaced it and was looking forward to this visit.
The museum is built over an archaeological excavation of an early Christian settlement and as you near the entrance you walk over glass panels where you view the ancient remnants below. In the spot where the excavation was not covered, the ground was covered with thousands of euro coins.
The museum is quite large and holds an extensive collection, as one might expect. It’s really an astounding place where you can spend a long time. I was entranced by a video showing how the museum had developed a new way of removing centuries of grit and grime from its priceless artifacts with lasers.
I had also heard about the museum’s indoor and outdoor café, so I timed my visit to include lunch. My reward was a good lunch with a beautiful looking up to the Acropolis, a setting that can’t be beat anywhere in the world.
The Always Charming Plaka
The Acropolis Museum is on the edge of the famous old quarter of the Plaka, a warren of winding medieval lanes and alleys, considered by some to be the most charming part of Athens.
It’s colorful and lively and filled with restaurants and cafés. Walking along the street outside the museum I found a show of mimes, musicians, and countless others, including a woman sitting at a little table offering to write my name in Greek in two “minut.” Nearby another was holding the strings of a huge bundle of balloons that were blowing about in the welcomed breeze.
There were bicycles you could rent, tours you could take, and even a little train that promised to take you past the top city sites. Although at times it can be almost circus-like, it is the heart of both the ancient and modern cities and you only need to walk a few blocks away from the chaos to find delightful neighborhoods sans the t-shirt shops.
Many More Choices for A Two-Day Visit
There are innumerable places to visit and things to do during two days in Athens. North of the Plaka, and a five-minute walk from lively Monastiraki Square, you’ll find the city’s vegetable, fish and meat markets, the latter not for the squeamish.
To the east are the National Gardens and the Temple of Olympian Zeus along with several first-rate museums, including the Benaki, and the Museum of Cycladic Art.
Other museums abound all over the city as well. They range from the National Gallery of Art to the highly regarded Byzantine Museum that houses more than 15,000 objects from Byzantine monasteries and churches worldwide.
And, of course, along with the Acropolis there are those innumerable archaeological sites. With more being dug up all the time.
During your two days in Athens be sure to also leave time to enjoy the city’s tavernas and cafes in the evening.
Editor’s Note: you may also enjoy Best Greek Islands, Things to Do in Rhodes, Greece – Medieval Charm in the Mediterranean, and Greece’s Incredible Monasteries of Meteora
If you go: