Find the Greek islands in Anafiotika
How so many visitors to Athens manage to miss out on romantic Anafiotika—even though it’s just below the Parthenon—is a complete mystery. A serene Cycladic village smack in the city centre, Anafiotika was built in the mid-19th century by stonemasons from the island of Anafi, summoned by King Otto I to build his palace (today’s Parliament building). By night, the islanders knocked up these humble, whitewashed dwellings for their own families. Once illegal, these flower-framed cottages are now an essential element of Athens’ architectural heritage. A perfect escape for those who don’t have time to hit the Greek islands, Anafiotika is Insta-heaven. Getting lost in the meandering, nameless lanes is half the joy.
Watch the sunset
Athenian sunsets never grow old. The higher you go, the more impressive the show. So join the stream of locals racing up to Areopagus Hill as dusk falls. Just opposite the gateway to the Parthenon, this rocky outcrop was where the ancient city elders presided. It later served as a criminal court where murders were tried. These days, it’s a popular spot for courting couples and young friends, simply known as Vrahakia (“little rocks”). From up here, you can see get a sense of the modern city’s topography as well as its ancient iconography. Wear sneakers—the rocks have been worn smooth by countless bottoms perched here over the centuries.
Catch a concert at a Roman amphitheatre
There are music venues and then there’s the Odeon of Herod Atticus (or rather, the Herodion, as every Athenian calls it). Some pretty stellar names have played at this epic 2,000-year-old arena on the southern slopes of the Acropolis. Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Andrea Bocelli, Liza Minnelli, and, of course, Maria Callas. Put them all together and they still can’t outshine the star quality of the Herodion. From May to October, it’s the main open-air venue for the Athens Festival, an international bonanza of arts and culture. On stage, global icons like Sting gaze up at the moon rising over the glowing Parthenon, as if to say: “Holy cow”. And so will you.
Wrap your chops around a souvlaki
Leaving Athens without sampling our finest street food? We don’t think so. With a history dating back centuries, these moreish skewers of char-grilled meat are Athens’ answer to the hot dog in New York or fish and chips in London. Beloved by locals-on-the-go as a cheap and hearty snack between shopping, meetings, or bar-hopping, souvlaki comes in all kinds of tasty guises. You can even get vegetarian options these days, wrapped in pita bread and drizzled with secret sauces. You really can’t go wrong, especially if you go to one of the locals’ favourite souvlaki joints.
Watch a movie by moonlight
For Athenians, it wouldn’t be summer without spending a balmy evening at one of the city’s open-air cinemas. A bougainvillea-draped screen. The chirp of cicadas. Dodgy acoustics. The odd cat strolling in front of the picture. Whether the latest Hollywood blockbuster or an old silver screen favourite, the movies are usually shown in their original language with Greek subtitles. Two downtown classics are Cine Thision and Ciné Paris, which both have mesmerising Parthenon views. Summer cinemas in Athens are usually open from May until late September, depending on the weather.
Drink it all in
You don’t have to sightsee during the daytime in Athens. From early spring to late autumn, hit the city’s rooftop bars for some of the best Parthenon views. The capital’s red-hot bar scene is always throwing up new stars, but the cocktails up here are usually as mind-blowing as the views. From five-star hotels to secret haunts hidden in grungy arcades, there are vantage points and vibes to suit everyone in the rooftop bars of Athens. Many of these high-level hideaways also serve coffee and brunch with that eternally inspiring view.
Dance until dawn
You might want to take your multi-vitamins—and a siesta—before this one. When Greeks go out to the bouzoukia, the fun rarely kicks off before 1 am. These live Greek music clubs are modern-day temples of Dionysian revelry. You’re in for an epic (and expensive) bacchanal of table-top dancing and flying rose petals. Greeks buy trays full of flowers to fling at their favourite performers—much as over-excited fans once threw their knickers at The Beatles. No self-respecting Greek goes home before dawn—and certainly not before making a pit-stop at an all-night souvlaki joint or a 24-hour restaurant for a bowl of their favourite hangover remedy, patsas (tripe soup, an authentic experience some might prefer to skip).
Do an Olympic workout
There are plenty of scenic running routes in Athens but the most heart-racing one is the 500-metre, pine-shaded track that runs above the Panathenaic marble stadium on Ardittos Hill. Grab your Nikes—they were named after the Greek Goddess of Victory, you know—and slip through the green gate on Archimidous Street (just behind the stadium in Pangrati) to access this hidden running track with rousing Acropolis views. It’s free to use and overlooks the gleaming stadium that kicked off the modern Olympic Games in 1896, the world’s only athletic arena built entirely of marble. There’s a running track inside the stadium too, if you really want to act the sporting champion.
Say a little prayer
Wandering the streets of Athens, you’re likely to spot locals making the sign of the cross—a telltale sign that there’s a church nearby. They may not be obvious at first glance, but the magical Byzantine churches of Athens are peppered among the city’s apartments and squares. Athenians throng to church in the week before Easter on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15. But step inside a Byzantine chapel any time of day or year and you’re transported to medieval Athens. Light a candle, say a prayer or make a wish, and watch the flames flicker over the frescoed dome and gold-tinged icons. You might stumble upon a church service, christening or wedding in progress. Don’t hesitate to join in. The musky, meditative world of Greek Orthodoxy is open to everyone.
Sunday lunch by the sea
Most Athenians don’t care a jot about the shops being shut on Sundays. They’d much rather be indulging in one of their favourite pastimes: the marathon Sunday lunch by the sea. Year-round, you’ll find Athenians enjoying high-spirited feasts all along the Athens Riviera, from the fancy seafood restaurants of Mikrolimano, near Piraeus, to the laid-back, seaside tavernas of Varkiza and Kavouri. To lunch like a local: go late (never before 2 pm), order dozens of meze to share, and squabble at length over who gets to pay the bill.