If you’re planning a trip to Greece, you might also be imagining how your Instagram posts will look: whitewashed buildings and technicolor sunsets. Let’s be real, you won’t find this in the country’s capital of Athens — it’s gritty and loud and covered in graffiti. But it’s also incredibly photogenic if you know where to go. Scroll down for our go-to Instagram spots that even local Athenians will vouch for!
This neighborhood has a reputation in Athens. During the military dictatorship in 1973, the Polytechnic University was a stronghold for protesting students until a tank entered through the gates. The resulting uprising killed 24 civilians. Since then, it has been a meeting place for anarchists, socialists, and students. It’s also been a popular squatting neighborhood for refugees and a thorn in the side of the current Greek government run by center-right Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Because of its turbulent history—and, one could argue, present-day circumstances—it has a vibe that you won’t find anywhere else. It’s covered in graffiti, most of it by very talented local street artists, and it’s full of beautiful old buildings. Head here to fill your feed with a sense of urban chaos.
Exarchia is not unsafe, but if you aren’t familiar with Athens (especially if you are carrying a large camera), this one may be an area to avoid. At night, Exarchia Square is not the safest for tourists, and locals are not particularly welcoming to photographers, so be careful.
The city’s high points
Athens is pretty hilly and there are a few prominent hilltops that provide amazing views of the city. Perhaps the best-known view is from Mount Lycabettus, which sits close to the center of the city’s downtown area and provides visibility for miles. You can drive up the mountain or take one of the many hiking paths that wind around the hill. You can stop on the way up and snap photos framed through trees and you’ll be able to spot many of the major historical sites as you walk.
Up at the top, you’ll find Agios Giorgios, a small church built in the 18th century resting on the ruins of a temple to Zeus. During a summer sunrise, you’ll catch some really beautiful light behind this little building. If you’re here during Easter, you may want to photograph the celebrations that happen here at midnight: it’s haunting and beautiful to witness a candle-carrying crowd outside this quaint church.
If you have enough time, hike up Filopappou (also known as the Hill of the Muses) and the Pnyx, right next to the Acropolis. Pnyx offers stunning night photos of the Acropolis lit up in all its glory. My personal favorite view of the city comes from Ardittos Hill, right behind the Panathenaic Stadium in the Pagrati neighborhood. It’s not as high up as the others and it’s a little lesser-known to tourists, but there’s a track that traces the outline of the stadium all the way up to the top which is great for runners. It also provides stunning views of Lycabettus and the Acropolis with the marble of the stadium in the foreground. Here, you’ll get a view of the city that stands out from the rest.
Any list of things to do in Athens would be incomplete without its most famous sight: the Acropolis. At the center of downtown Athens, it’s just as amazing and breathtaking as it seems. In fact, this hill has an almost spiritual quality, one that somehow isn’t dampened by the stark contrast of modern-day times and its ancient beginnings.
This citadel contains the ruins of the Propylaia, the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike, all of which have been under on-and-off renovation since 1975. It’s worth studying a map while you’re at the site so you know what you’re photographing. You will want to shoot the caryatids, the sculpted female figures that serve as support beams for the Erechtheion. If you can, try to go to the Acropolis in spring when the wildflowers are growing and the crowds are a little smaller.
The National Gardens
Syntagma Square is a crowded sea of marble (where, by the way, you should snap a pic or two of the changing of the guard, another iconic Athenian scene), but the adjacent National Gardens are the perfect antidote if you need a breath of fresh air. A little bit like Central Park, the National Gardens are designed with winding paths and trees and plants imported from around the world. Once known as the Royal Garden, it was commissioned by Queen Amalia of Oldenburg and completed in 1840. It was opened to the public almost 100 years later.
Its main entrance (and probably most photographed feature) is by the 12 palm trees, just a quick walk away from the Parliament building and Syntagma Square. If you find that spot (also known as Queen Amalia Avenue), you’re just a few steps away from another of its photogenic features: a tunnel draped in vines that bloom in the spring. Walk through the tunnel and you’ll find yourself on a paved road that leads to the Zappeion, a neoclassical building that is currently used as an exhibition and event space. You’ll want to snap a few photos of the colorful interior too, if it’s open.
This tiny, hidden neighborhood is like an island town within the bustling city of Athens. It sits between the old historical neighborhood of Plaka and the wall of the Acropolis and is made up of a narrow pedestrian area. Old houses that have been owned by the same families since the neighborhood was built line the street, and it feels like a mini Santorini or Mykonos because it was built by construction workers from the Cycladic island Anafi. They were hired to renovate King Otto’s palace back in the 1800s and they created an area that reminded them of their home. Besides the island-style buildings and streets, the area also has great views of the city and some particularly great street art. Since Anafiotika is so tiny, it can get packed pretty quickly. If you don’t like people milling about in your photos try to get there early.
North of the center of downtown Athens, this neighborhood is one of the most visually interesting in the city. You’ll find beautiful Neoclassical, Bauhaus, and Art Deco-style apartment buildings and a multicultural crowd. When the wealthy left the neighborhood, immigrants from around the world began to snap up apartments at low prices, and to this day is still considered one of the city’s most diverse areas. This also makes it fun to photograph! Of course, the architecture will probably be the main draw here, but don’t miss the crowds on Fokionos Negri Street, which features a market on Sundays.
The city’s modern side
Athens is so much more than its famous historic elements. There are two great examples of modern architecture in the city: the Athens Olympic Park and Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. The Olympic park requires a bit of a hike. Located in the outer suburb of Marousi, it’s a train ride away via the Athens metro system. On the other hand, if you pick a beautiful day and it will be well worth the time and travel. Perhaps its most recognizable feature is the arched entryway, which is great in photos all day long. If you love to play with interesting shadows, go when the sun is high or head there in the evening to frame it against the sunset.
At the opposite end of the city close to the sea, you can find the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. This glassy modern structure features a landscaped park that climbs up its side, a viewing area where you can check out the port and sea nearby, and a shallow pond that is often the setting for electronic boat races and light shows. On the inside, it houses an immense, well-lit library and the National Opera. Go when it’s sunny to see it at its shiny best and make sure to take a photo of it from afar—nobody will believe it’s an Athenian building.
If you’re looking for a piece of Athens that seems stuck in time, head for an old kafeneia: traditional cafes where you can get straightforward coffee, beer, and small dishes. They’re typically popular with the city’s elderly residents who come to meet friends and play backgammon or chess during the day, but there are some recently-opened kafeneia that emulate the older style while appealing to a younger crowd. One of my old-timey favorites is Panellinion in Exarchia—between the patrons and the setting itself, you’ll have a lot to photograph.
Since these tend to be very local-oriented hangouts, the ones you find off-the-beaten path are not always so friendly to foreigners — you might get ignored until you leave, or you might receive a few skeptical looks. Don’t let it deter you too much! These are the kafeneia in which the old way of Athenian life is still alive and if you’re brave enough you’ll want to capture it.
Normally, I wouldn’t recommend going to Plaka. It’s crowded and touristy, and with a few notable exceptions, the food here is not as good as what you’ll find only a few minutes away. However, it can be an endless source of inspiration for your Instagram. It’s the area that most visitors envision when they think of Athens, whether they know it or not: small winding pedestrian streets, colorful old buildings, cobblestones, and ancient trees–all in the shadow of the Acropolis. There isn’t a bad time to shoot in Plaka, and it’s exceptionally safe and tourist-friendly, so bring as much equipment as you like.
It’s not in the city, but Sounio is a very worthwhile and photogenic day trip to take if even for just a few hours. You can grab a public bus and get there in about an hour and a half or rent a car to stop at all the beautiful beaches along the way. It’s home to the Temple of Poseidon, a gorgeous ruin on the edge of a cliff that tumbles into the Aegean. It’s a stunning location and the perfect place to take some photos for Instagram. If you rent a car, be sure to stay long enough to see the temple at sunset, otherwise only summer bus-takers will be able to catch Sounio as the sun goes down. For an added photo bonus, stop in at one of the excellent tavernas between Sounio and Athens and fill up your table with seafood and snap away.
Have any spots in Athens you would recommend for great photography? Share in the comments!
Header photo by Arthur Yeti.