One of the oldest cities in the world, Athens has 5,000 years of history running through its streets. It might seem like 24 hours, the blink of an eye in comparison to a few millennia, is too little time to soak it all up. But while backpacking across Europe in 2015, I found out that this might be all the time a visitor has in the Greek capital. The experience taught me that having a truly memorable experience is more about picking the right activities than it is about stuffing your day with “must-dos.” If you have just 24 hours, make it last in your memory with this itinerary of what to see in Athens.

Explore the Acropolis of Athens

Most likely, this is already on your radar — and that of every other traveler in Athens. Keeping that in mind, visit first thing in the morning or before closing in the evening to avoid crowds during the day (official open hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.). Looking up at the Acropolis from street level, you’ll notice the Parthenon dominating the summit. But on your walk up to the top, you’ll find that there’s much more to the Acropolis than just the famous pillared structure. Other sites include the Theatre of Dionysus, possibly the world’s first theatre, as well as a cluster of other archaeologically significant temples and structures around the complex. 

Stroll around Plaka

After an hour or two at the Acropolis, make your way down to the city’s old quarter, Plaka. The sites in this area cater to a variety of travelers . Leisurely wanderers can get lost in meandering streets lined with neoclassical buildings, while  history buffs can explore an array of museums, like the history museum at Athens University.  Finally, souvenir hunters and shoppers can spend their euros at Monastiraki Flea Market. If you have time, stop by the Ancient Agora of Classical Athens, a place for community gathering in ancient Greece.

busy square of athens greece with acropolis in background

Sample Greek and Mediterranean foods

We’re not quite done with Plaka just yet. Once you’ve had your fill of activities in the old quarter, take your pick of the many restaurants that might have been tempting you along the way. For lunch, try salad, souvlaki, or the myriad other traditional Greek foods that are served in abundance in Plaka’s eateries, some of which provide an excellent view of the Acropolis. Kimolia Art Cafe, a quirky stop for casual grub, and Yiasemi, whipping up a range of Mediterranean dishes, are two top choices. 

Visit the Panathenaic Stadium

The roots of the Panathenaic Stadium go all the way back to the 4th century B.C. After many millennia of athletic feats, reconstructions, and periods of abandonment, the stadium played a key role in the resurrection of the Olympic games. It served as a site for the Zappas Olympics in the 1870s, the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and another round of Olympics in 2004. In a city often associated with artistic and philosophical history, a visit to the Panathenaic Stadium will remind you of Athens’ multi-faceted past. Here, you can learn more via an audio guide, run on the track, and pose for pictures on the winners’ podiums.  

Take a break in a bookstore

You might be familiar with Homeric epics or Socratic teachings from literature classes in your school days, but no matter your interest level in ancient Greek texts, a bookstore is the perfect place for a mid-afternoon break in Athens. In shops like Little Tree Books and Coffee, you can peruse classic and modern authors in both Greek and English while recharging with a coffee or tea. If you’d like to catch an author event, move the bookstore visit to the evening, though it’s likely you’ll need to know a bit of Greek to keep up.

Climb Lycabettus Hill

Depending on how you feel after all of the above adventures (and whatever others you might have added to your day),  you can either walk to the top of Lycabettus Hill or take the cable car. The walk is about 30 minutes one way, and, at the top, you’ll have a panoramic view of Greece’s capital from the highest perch in the city. An evening visit to Lycabettus Hill is perfect for viewing the sunset or gaining a picture-perfect perspective of the Acropolis. Alternatively, you could also switch this stop with the Acropolis and catch the setting sun from there instead. 

aerial view of athens greece

Experience nightlife in Athens

Between going up and down the Acropolis and Mount Lycabettus, walking around Plaka, and visiting a former Olympic venue, you just might have worked up an Olympian’s appetite by the end of this rather physical itinerary. .  Now, there’s no better time to  stuff your face with gyros for dinner and indulge in baklava for dessert. If you’re still not ready to crash at this point, pick a bar in Psyri for drinks and live music in a former working class area that’s transformed into a quirky modern nightlife quarter. After a day of exploring history in Athens, this lively neighborhood will usher you back into the present fun and dynamic capital of Greece.

Do you know what to see in Athens during your 24 hours that we might have missed? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter