Common wisdom suggests that Athens (Αθήνα) is a single-day destination. For a city of its size, it has too few remarkable points of interest to warrant a longer stay.
There is a measure of truth in that. Only one sight in Athens has to be considered a must; many other archaeological sites in the city center can either be viewed while walking by or completely bypassed in favor of more impressive sites elsewhere in Greece. As a result, you will probably not linger in the Greek capital for long, even though the sheer volume of the ancient Greek sites can probably sustain archaeology buffs for quite some time.
On the flip side of that argument, the city is very lively – a less highlight-oriented visitor will find many interesting locations to explore here.
Acropolis ♥♥♥ is obviously unmissable. Both the scale of the Parthenon and the views over the city are magnificent; the better preserved Erechtion is exquisite. Tip: come after 5 pm to get in with practically no lines.
Acropolis Museum is a separate entity with a separate entry ticket. It reputedly holds a magnificent collection of ancient Greek artifacts, which is bound to become even more magnificent once the push to recover Parthenon’s parts that are currently on display in the British Museum in London comes to a resolution.
All Athenian archaeological sites are open-air museums, which means that you technically can view them without paying for tickets and stepping in. Especially if your itinerary through Greece takes you to other ancient sites in various parts of the country. A pedestrian path around the Acropolis takes you by most of the central Athens archaeological sites. Among the key ones are Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Zeus Temple, and Hadrian’s Library. Even an exterior look can occasionally constitute a visit. For instance, the Horologion of Andronikos ♥ is technically on the grounds of Roman Agora, but there are information stands accessible to the passerby to explain a lot about this “Tower of Winds”.
There are several high hills in the city center to climb for expansive views. Areopagus Hill ♥ offers the closest look at the various ancient ruins. Philopappos Hill ♥ provides a level look at the Acropolis, as well as panoramic vistas over the entire city; plus, it has its own ancient monument at the top. The highest hill in the city, Mount Lycabettus, can be reached by a funicular and has a restaurant at the top.
On the east and north side of the Acropolis Hill lie two vibrant neighborhoods of Plaka ♥ and Monastiraki ♥, both fairly commercialized and full of people, especially in the evening. A portion of Plaka, called Anafiotika ♥, was built by its first occupants to resemble the island villages of their origin – exploring its narrow walkways is especially worthwhile if you don’t get to explore any such villages firsthand.
The Orthodox Church ♥ on Monastiraki main square is among those that are very ornately decorated. The Metropolitan Cathedral ♥ has been very recently restored and is definitely worth a look.
Large squares on the main road ring in the city are all nice without being exceptional. You probably will find yourself on Syntagma Square at some point regardless, so time it for the top of the hour when you can watch a fairly uniquely choreographed change of guard ♥♥ at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier.
Off Syntagma starts the National Gardens ♥, a nice oasis with a children’s playground, a picturesque lake, and a small petting zoo.
The Metro network serves the main central points of interest, but is not very extensive, and runs not too frequently (especially on weekends); it can also be subject to strikes. There are other modes of public transportation available as well. Taxis are plentiful and comparatively cheap to get around the central areas.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Athens. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.
In the “memorable stays” category, the apartment on Despos Sechou (link), around the corner from Syggrou-Fix metro station in the Koukaki neighborhood, is close enough to the central sights while situated in a not-too-touristy area that is nonetheless full of cafés and food shops. It is a large and a bit old-fashioned apartment (there are antique-quality furniture and dishes), not renovated any time recently, but fully adequate, with balconies on two sides, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a/c in all rooms.
The capital city can serve as a springboard to a number of locations in Attica and Peloponnese.