This city, simultaneously historic and hip, counts 3.8 million inhabitants but it has a welcoming, small town feel. Its neighborhoods, squares and sidewalks are forever bustling with people. By necessity or choice, Athenians have always lived in the now. Life is laid-back and there is always time to catch up with friends over a frappe. Locals, many of whom are fluent in English, will go out of their way to assist visitors.
When to Go
Peak season runs from April to mid-October, however, growing demand, with some 5 million visitors annually, has seen planes and hotels fill up earlier and later each year. Summer months are best avoided as temperatures can regularly reach between 86 and 95 degrees, particularly in July and August. Autumn and winter are ideal mild-weather seasons to comfortably pound the pavements and take in the city's wealth of ancient sites and museums, avoiding queues.
The Athens and Epidaurus Festival, held in summer, features ancient plays reinterpreted with a modern take, contemporary dance, opera, music and site-specific performances. It draws some big names each year, ranging from Sting appearing in the open-air ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus theater to Bill Murray performing pieces by Gershwin. Outdoor music festivals Release Athens and Rockwave, usually held in June and July, are always good fun with top-billing acts like UB40 and Arctic Monkeys.
What to Eat
The ubiquitous souvlaki has undergone a revamp. Demand for the wallet-friendly local staple is driving competition to create the best version of the pita wrap, including vegetarian and premium meat options. Athens' dining scene is thriving, with talented young chefs opening the city's most intriguing restaurants and crafting imaginative cuisine with quality produce sourced from throughout the country and reinventing classic Greek dishes. On Athens' outskirts, new generation vintners are producing exquisite wine with indigenous varietals such as Savatiano.
Souvenir to Take Home
Greek creative studios have made great strides, with initiatives like Greek Brand New encouraging new talent to reimagine the souvenir. Cool and oft practical memorabilia inspired by Greek landscapes, colors, characters and animals can be found in selected stores. Think t-shirts emblazoned with the now-classic motto Ich Bin Ein Athener—Athens needs love and totes made with decommissioned sails. Foodies can snap up regional culinary delicacies like Kozani saffron and Chios mastiha and support small scale producers.
Sustainable Travel Tip
Athens is a walkable city and its historic center is easy to navigate, while public transport is affordable. Stroll along the pedestrianized grand promenade, created as part of city refurbishment ahead of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. It snakes around the Acropolis and links key archaeological sites. The gleaming Metro is fast and efficient. Akropoli and Syntagma stations double as museums, with ancient artefacts and a Byzantine cemetery among the finds revealed during excavation on display.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Take the cable car or a taxi from Kolonaki up to pine-studded Lycabettus Hill, the city's highest point at 909 feet, for sweeping 360-degree views of the sprawl that is Athens below, the Acropolis and as far as Piraeus port and the Argosaronic Sea. Arrive in time to catch sunset though if you want to avoid the throngs of people in peak season, schedule a morning visit. Concerts are held at the Lycabettus amphitheater in summer.