It goes without saying that everyone has their own personal travel style. Two different travelers may choose to see the same city in two completely different ways. When you think of Athens, a large concrete city may come to mind. Admittedly, I hadn’t really considered Athens an outdoorsy paradise, but my recent trip proved that the sprawling, historic capital offers a wide array of outdoor activities for each and every type of traveler.
Here are my recommendations on how to experience outdoor Athens, despite whether your idea of a perfect trip means breaking a sweat with physically demanding activity or relaxing at the beach and enjoying a fresh seaside meal. What type of outdoor Athens traveler are you?
Outdoor Athens for the Athletic Adventurer
If you can’t fathom leaving for your next international trip without packing your tennis shoes and scheduling physical activity into your sight-seeing routine, these athletic outdoor Athens activities are for you:
Climb Mount Lycabettus
Let’s start with Athens’ highest point – go big or go home, right? Climbing the limestone hill which rises high above the city is an activity for those who crave some physical exertion to get their blood pumping (and calves screaming). When you reach the peak you’ll be rewarded with spectacular 360 degree views of the city. You’ll also find the 19th century Chapel of St. George, a theatre and a restaurant at the top. Don’t worry, you can take the funicular down if you wore yourself out on the way up.
Explore The National Gardens
Behind Parliament you’ll find a lush green retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. This 38 acre garden oasis was designed and created in the 19th century by Queen Amalia. Grab your running shoes or a bike and explore the shady paths filled with over 500 different plant species. If you need a breather, take a gander at the ancient ruins displayed throughout the park or stroll through the children’s zoo.
Walk Up Philopappos Hill
In central Athens not far from the Acropolis you’ll find Philopappos Hill. The walk up the hill will satisfy both your need for physical activity and cultural curiosity. At the top you’ll find an ancient marble tomb and monument which was erected for Roman consul and senator, Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos, who was considered a benefactor to the city of Athens. Climb the hill at dusk for phenomenal views of the illuminated Parthenon surrounded by the twinkling city lights below.
Outdoor Athens for the Active Explorer
If you like to stay active and prefer to get outside and explore a city by foot, but climbing mountains isn’t exactly your idea of holiday fun, these active outdoor Athens recommendations are for you:
Take a Walking Street Art Tour
There’s no better way to see and learn a city than to walk through its neighborhoods. The Urban Tribes of Athens Tour with Big Olive City Walks is curated and led by Giorgos Papamattheakis, an acclaimed street artist and architecture student, and it showcases the city’s history and modern culture through the art and graffiti in both popular and under-represented neighborhoods of Athens.
We started the tour in Exarheia, an interesting and eclectic neighborhood which has been a hotbed for political revolt and is home to intellectuals, free-thinkers and anarchists. From gritty Exarheia the tour moved to gentrified Psyrri, an area where it’s common for building owners to commission street artists to paint their property in an effort to beautify the neighborhood. The tour concluded in an up-and-coming area of Metaxourgheio, which has become a recent mecca for the city’s artists and hipsters.
Admittedly, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the tour. I’ve always enjoyed street art, but I questioned whether I would find it interesting enough to dedicate several hours to. Luckily, I found the tour fascinating. Giorgos’ formal study of architecture and inside-knowledge of the city’s street art scene made him the perfect guide. The highlight of the walking tour was Giorgos showing me one of his commissioned works, explaining his creative process of how he developed the concept of the piece, and detailing the steps it took him to create his artwork.
Climb the Acropolis
No visit to Athens is complete without climbing up the ancient Acropolis, the rocky outcrop rising above the city which is home to some of the world’s most dramatic and historically significant ancient ruins, such as the Parthenon. The walk up to the Acropolis isn’t as strenuous as climbing Lycabettus or Philopappos Hill, but on a warm summer day, it’s no walk in the park. However, the effort is well worth it – I found the Parthenon just as impressive as I did the first time I visited several years ago.
Explore Athens Through the Eyes of a Local
The city of Athens’ tourism bureau has developed the unique “This is my Athens” greeter program where locals take visitors around their city… at no cost to you! (Yes, you read that right: you pay nada). The program volunteers are Athenians who are passionate about their city and eager to share their inside knowledge of its history, culture, restaurants and nightlife. The best part is that you can tailor your personal experience according to your interests and the local’s expertise.
While in Athens I had the pleasure of spending an evening with outgoing Dimitra, (a free spirit who knew all the best hidden-gem and hip nightlife spots), Dimitris T. (an Athenian with a breadth of knowledge regarding the city’s history, culture and art), and Marina (whose zealousness for all things food and wine related was infectious). The best way to peel back the layers of a city and begin to really get to know it is through the eyes of a local, and in my opinion, no traveler to Athens should miss out on experiencing this program. You can peruse the full list of city greeters who will help you make the most of your time in Athens here.
Outdoor Athens for the Relaxed Traveler
If your definition of being outdoorsy means enjoying a cocktail on a patio or reclining in a sun-lounger while enjoying stunning island vistas, I’ve got you covered with these relaxed outdoor Athens activities:
Enjoy Dinner and a Movie Al Fresco
You won’t have to wander far in Athens before finding a charming spot on an outdoor terrace to grab a bite or enjoy a cocktail. Each neighborhood has its own vibe, but if it’s your first time in the city, I would recommend the historic district of Plaka. Plaka’s labyrinthine streets lined with well-kept neoclassical buildings is undeniably charming, albeit a bit touristy. After dinner head to one of the city’s outdoor cinemas to savor a movie under the stars. There’s a slew of outdoor cinemas spattered throughout the city, but here’s a few for you to check out: Cine Paris (if you’re coming from dinner in Plaka), Thision Open Air Cinema (located in a garden setting facing the Acropolis), and Cine Dexameni (located in the upscale trendy area of Kolonaki).
Cruise the Nearby Greek Isles
I had always considered Athens a must-see cultural metropolis, but I had’t realized that the city also makes a great base to explore the islands of the Saronic Gulf. I was surprised to learn that I could take a day trip to explore three picturesque Greek islands and still be back to my hotel in Athens by dinnertime. How could I possibly resist?
I set sail on my Athens One Day Cruise with Hydraki at 8:00 a.m. After about three hours we reached the first and furthest of the three islands we would be visiting. Hydra is an extraordinarily attractive island popular with celebrities and jetsetters. (I promise your jaw will drop as your boat pulls into the harbor and you catch your first glance of the island’s dramatic tiered landscape). After you disembark, you’ll have time to explore the narrow stone-paved streets where the only “transportation” allowed on the island are donkeys. The next island is scenic Poros, where you’ll have time to stroll the lemon tree-lined walkways or climb the island’s clock tower for a panoramic view of the coastline.
The last island on the day’s itinerary is Aegina. If you are cruising with Hydraki you will have the opportunity to purchase one of three different excursions for your time in Aegina, or you can choose to wander the island on your own. I chose to purchase the swimming excursion where the company transported me by a small boat to the nearby uninhibited island of Moni. Moni is a breathtakingly beautiful private island known for its crystal clear aqua water and deer and peacocks wandering the beach. (!)
Head to the Athens Riviera
You don’t have to hop on a boat to enjoy the natural beauty of Greece’s Saronic Gulf – you’ll find the Athens Riviera just 10 miles south of the city. A quick escape from Athens, the Riviera allows visitors the opportunity to swim in the gulf, stroll the coastline and marina areas, participate in water sports or enjoy a seaside dining experience. The crowds stick around after the sun goes down to revel in the Riviera’s pulsing nightlife scene.
Which of these activities would you like to experience most? What type of outdoor Athens traveler are you?
Special thanks to the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau for inviting me to the city of Athens. As always, all opinions are my own.
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