Although still an agelessly beautiful city, the post-Olympic "European" Athens is burgeoning with energy, life, and wonders. And the only way you’ll be able to see most of them is if you have a planned itinerary to guide you through this most challenging of cities.
If You Have One Day: Athens 101
Early in the morning, pay homage to Athens's most impressive legacy, the Acropolis, and stop by the glowing Acropolis Museum. Then descend through Anafiotika, the closest thing you'll find to an island village. Explore the 19th-century quarter of Plaka, with its neoclassical houses framed by hanging bougainvillea, and stop for lunch at one of its many tavernas. Do a little bargaining with the merchants in the old bazaar around Monastiraki Square. Spend a couple of hours in the afternoon marveling at the stunning collection of antiquities in the National Archaeological Museum; then pass by Syntagma Square to watch the changing of the costumed Evzones guards in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You can then window-shop or people-watch in the tony neighborhood of Kolonaki. Nearby, take the funicular up to Mt. Lycabettus for the sunset before enjoying a performance at the Roman theater of Herod Atticus, followed by dinner in the newly revived district of Psirri.
If You Have Three Days
After a morning tour of the Acropolis, with a stop at the Acropolis Museum to view sculptures found on the site, pause on your descent at Areopagus, the site of the ancient Supreme Court; the view is excellent. Continue through Anafiotika and Plaka, making sure to stop at the Greek Folk Art Museum; the Roman Agora, with its Tower of the Winds, an enchanting water clock from the 1st century BC; and the Little Mitropolis Church on the outskirts of the quarter. After a late lunch, detour to Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens's most important Roman monuments. In Syntagma Square, watch the changing of the Evzones guards, and then head to Kolonaki, followed by a kafedaki on the slopes of Mt. Lycabettus at the café-restaurant that graces the peak, with its splendid panorama of the Acropolis and the sea. Dine in a local taverna, perhaps in Pangrati, the neighborhood near the Panathenaic Stadium, which is lit at night. This Roman arena was reconstructed for the first modern Olympics in 1896.
On day two, visit the cradle of democracy, the fabled ancient Agora, with Greece's best-preserved temple, the Hephaistion. Explore the Monastiraki area, including the tiny Byzantine chapel of Kapnikarea, which stands in the middle of the street. In Monastiraki you can snack on the city's best souvlaki, but leave room for your night of nights: In the evening, splurge at stunning new/old, hot/cool Kuzina, and then dance the tsifteteli (the Greek version of a belly dance) to Asia Minor blues in a rembetika club, or, if it's summer and you’re the hardy sort, visit the coastal stretch toward the airport, where the irrepressible bars stay open until dawn.
On the third day, start early for the legendary National Archaeological Museum, crammed with many of ancient Greece’s most spectacular sculptures, breaking for lunch in one of the city's mezedopoleio (places that sell mezedes). Swing through the city center, past the Old University complex, a vestige of King Otto's reign, to the Cycladic Museum in Kolonaki, with the curious minimalist figurines that inspired artists such as Modigliani and Picasso. Stroll through the lovely National Gardens, and have a coffee in the romantic setting of the popular café by the grandiose Zappeion Hall. Complete the evening with a ballet performance or pop music show at Herod Atticus, a movie at a therino (open-air cinema), or, in winter, a concert at the Megaron Concert Hall.