Beyond the Ruins: Unusual Things To Do in Athens

Though no visit to Athens would be complete without a visit to the city's ancient architecture, Athens has far more to offer than ruins
Though no visit to Athens would be complete without a visit to the city's ancient architecture, Athens has far more to offer than ruins | © zoroasto / Getty Images
You’ve climbed Acropolis Hill, marvelled at the glory of the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and enjoyed that all-important gyros. The fun doesn’t end here – Athens has no shortage of more unusual things to see and do.

The Greek capital’s most famous historical sites are more than enough to keep you occupied on a short trip to Athens. However, if you’re visiting the city for more than a few days, you might want to explore a different side to the city. Beyond the wonders of antiquity, Athens is packed with out-of-the-ordinary activities. Here, you will find some of the best things to do in Athens that you won’t necessarily find in the guidebooks.

Glyfada is known as one of Athens’s most upmarket seaside suburbs © Ion Creations / Alamy Stock Photo

Walk among the tombs at the First Cemetery

In a city as busy as Athens, this is one of the very few places where you can find some peace and quiet. Sure, wandering through a graveyard might sound a tad grim, but its architecture and history is fascinating and well worth a visit.

The First Cemetery of Athens was built in 1837 in the neighbourhood of Mets, only a short walk away from the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Inside the cemetery, you’ll find the tombs of wealthy and well-known Greeks, as well as some excellent examples of Neoclassical architecture. The absolute highlight of the cemetery is the enchanting I Koimomeni (Sleeping Girl) sculpture, which lies atop the tomb of Sofia Afentaki – the daughter of a prominent family from the island of Kimolos, who died from tuberculosis in 1873 at the age of 18. The sculpture’s creator, Yannoulis Chalepas, is also buried in the cemetery.

The First Cemetery of Athens (Proto Nekrotafio Athinon) is the resting place of many famous Greeks © Karsten Hamre / Alamy Stock Photo

Soak up the suburbs

Visiting the suburbs is a perfect way to get a sense of everyday life in Athens, beyond the iconic ruins for which the city is known.

In the summer, the glitzy coastal suburb of Glyfada is the perfect place for high-end shopping and dining – the seafood is second-to-none at Sardelaki, for example. On the other side of the map, you will find Chalandri, an up-and-coming neighbourhood with a vibrant nightlife – pop into White Monkey or Theory for an evening drink. Or, if you’re in the mood for a lovely Sunday stroll in the park, take the train up to Kifissia. One of the most affluent areas of the city, Kifissia is full of parks, pedestrian streets and elegant boutiques.

The beach at Glyfada is just a short journey from the centre of Athens © Travel and Still life photography / Getty Images
Kifissia is full of opulent architectural details, including these lion statues at the entrance of Villa Kazouli © CoinUp / Alamy Stock Photo

Party like there’s no tomorrow at Athens’s underground bars

There’s an abundance of affordable and high-quality rooftop cocktail bars in Athens. However, if you’re looking for something a little more alternative than the breathtaking view of the lit-up Acropolis, get ready to do some detective work. Some of the best party venues in Athens are well hidden.

Take Astron Bar, for example: even though this techno hotspot is smack dab in the middle of Psyrri, you’ll probably never spot it unless you know where to go. In the area, you’ll also find Embros Theatre, a former factory that has been transformed into a versatile cultural space; and Romantso, a proto-hipster joint that frequently hosts parties and events. Other great places to party are Boiler, friendly LGBTQ club BeQueer, and Crust, a pizzeria-cum-underground industrial club.

Discover the overlooked museums of Athens

The Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum are the uncontested superstars when it comes to cultural treasures. However, there are lots of other options that are frequently overlooked by visitors.

Take, for example, the Athens Numismatic Museum. It has a large collection of coins, dating as far back as 1400 BC. Sure, unless you are Scrooge McDuck the name might not spur much enthusiasm, but it’s worth a visit for its impressive exhibits.

The Numismatic Museum in Athens is home to a huge collection of coins © Jon Hicks / Alamy Stock Photo

While not exactly ‘off the beaten path’, the Museum of Cycladic Art is definitely underrated compared to the heavyweights. Among its vast collection, you’ll find ancient artefacts salvaged from Bronze Age Cycladic civilisations, as well as a plethora of painted vases and everyday items. Among the exhibits, you will find the best known artworks to have survived from this era: simplistic marble figures depicting women with their arms folded, known as FAF, or ‘folded-arm figure(ine)’, among archaeologists.

The Museum of Cycladic Art hosts objects from the Bronze Age Cycladic culture © AegeanPhoto / Alamy Stock Photo

Explore the nature that surrounds the urban jungle

In need of more open space and fresh air than the central National Garden can offer? Athens is surrounded by stunning natural beauty, perfect for short escapes from the city.

On the 60-kilometre (37-mile) drive between Athens and Cape Sounio, you will find dozens of beaches and coves, meaning it’s easy to combine a city break with a dip in the Aegean Sea. Among the most beautiful is KAPE, situated close to the Temple of Poseidon. Alternatively, you can dive into Vouliagmeni Lake, a protected thermal spring where the water temperature stays between 22-29C (72-84F) all year long due to an underground volcanic tunnel. If you are up for a hike, head out to the Penteli mountain and marvel at the gaping gulch of Chaos crater, a collapsed cave with a width of over 50 metres (164 feet).

KAPE beach is a short drive from central Athens © George Atsametakis / Alamy Stock Photo

Stop and smell the roses at Diomidous Botanical Garden

The Diomidous Botanical Garden is located just 9km (5.6mi) west of the centre of Athens. Named after its donors, Julia and Alexandros Diomidous, the botanical garden spans around 185 hectares (457 acres) and is a perfect spot for picnics or strolls. The gardens – the biggest of their kind – are home to over 3,000 plant species from all over the world, and are grouped according to their origin. Be sure to check out the historical plants section to discover plants mentioned in Greek mythology, such as the ‘narthex’ – the giant fennel stalk in which Prometheus is meant to have hidden fire stolen from Zeus.

Diomidous Botanical Garden is a veritable oasis away from the hubbub of Athens © photo_stella / Alamy Stock Photo

Find the best sunset in Athens

Contrary to what you might expect, the best view in Athens is not to be found in the hill of the Acropolis. Sure, it’s magnificent, but you’re missing one essential part of the Athenian skyline – the Parthenon itself! If you want to watch the sunset, your best bet is to climb the 277-metre-high (909-foot-high) Lycabettus Hill. From there, you can bask in the glory of the purple sky, contrasting ethereally with the lights of the busy city below. The hike to the top is enjoyable and doesn’t require a lot of effort, so don’t worry if you’re not in top form! However, if you are looking for an easier option, Strefi Hill is nearby and offers almost equally beautiful views of the city.

Lycabettus Hill is a prime spot for panoramic views of Athens, best enjoyed at sunset © Mlenny / Getty Images