One day in Athens is all cruise ship passengers have to explore the historic sites of the ancient empire and the modern portions of Greece’s capital city. The list of key places to visit in Athens includes significant landmarks, culinary delights, and both ancient and modern art. Despite the time restrictions, we managed to see many of the highlights in only one day in Athens.
Our trick to seeing Athens in a day was two-fold
- Planning our Athens must-see list in advance of arriving.
- Comparing the tours to see which ones match our list.
- Pre-purchasing a tour, or in our case, a private driver as none of the tours matched our must-see list.
Planning: Creating Your Personal Thing to See in Athens in a Day
First, the list of best things to do in Athens will be slightly different for each person. To create your “top things to do in Athens Greece” list, start with informational pages like this one, written by people you trust. This page represents what we believe are the top Athens attractions. Next, take notes. Then, get yourself a guidebook that you can carry on the ship where you might not have access to the internet. We personally recommend Rick Steves Mediterranean Cruise Ports.
Finding Athens Private Tours or Athens Shore Excursions
Next, we reviewed the excursions offered by the ship to see if any of them went exactly where we wanted to go. We generally opt for independent shore excursions, as they cost less, do more, have smaller groups, and are more personal. The ship’s tours often start more than an hour after arriving in port, have large groups, are impersonal, and frequently include a shopping stop where the ship earns commissions.
As none of the tours exactly met our needs, we opted for one of the private tours in Athens Greece. We created our own Athens itinerary with input from our guide. For us, this was the ideal option. Note: At the time of writing, only licenced guides were permitted to enter the venues with clients.
IMPORTANT: In Greece:
- A private driver can take you to destinations, tell you about them while outside, but cannot enter with you.
- An official guide can accompany you into the venues.
Check out these Athens Shore Excursions
|Sightseeing of Athens and the Acropolis||Private Guide
|Fully licensed guide and a private driver
Acropolis, Temple of Zeus, Panathenian Stadium
New Acropolis Museum, changing of the guard
|Acropolis Walking Tour||Group
|Acropolis and central Athens with an expert guide
Parthenon, the Herodian Theatre and Temple of Zeus,
Syntagma Metro Station archaeological museum
|Self-Guided Tour||Private Driver||Fully customizable
Get tips from the driver, explore on your own
|Segway Tour||Small Group
Choose: Acropolis or City Highlights tour
|Food Tour||Small Group
|Sample cuisine from shops and markets
Learn culinary history
|Athens City, Acropolis & Acropolis Museum||Group
|Fully licensed guide
Syntagma Metro Station museum Acropolis, Parthenon,
Temple of Zeus, Dionysus Theater and Sanctuary,
Changing of the Guards, Greek Parliament and National Gardens
*Viator, a TripAdvisor company offers a worry-free shore excursion guarantee with some of their shore tours (be sure to read the details on any trip you choose).
Photo Tour: Things to do in Athens in a day
Initial Historic Sites on the Acropolis
Our first stop was the Acropolis, which means “high city.” We walked past several ancient structures before coming to the most famous ones. We came here directly from the port and were ahead of the horde of tour buses that were arriving before we left.
Parthenon and Erechtheion
Views from the Acropolis
Agora (ancient market area)
Greek Parliament and the Changing of the Guard
Visit a Museum in Athens
We enjoyed the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. It was a difficult choice between it and the Acropolis Museum, but we opted to see artefacts from all over Greece as we had already stood upon the Acropolis. As a bonus, the air-conditioned museum was a refreshing break from a blistering hot day.
Other significant museums in Athens that we didn’t get to:
- Museum of Cycladic Art
- The Byzantine and Christian Museum (exhibits from the 3rd century AD to the late medieval era)
- The Numismatic Museum (one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of ancient and modern coins)
- The National Museum of Contemporary Art (located in a former brewery)
- The Jewish Museum of Greece
Stop and Enjoy a Meal or Snack
The Panathenaic (Olympic) Stadium
The Panathenaic (Olympic) Stadium is the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble. It has hosted three Olympics: the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and again in 1906. Plus it was used for events of the 2004 Olympics.
It is less popular than other sites. Therefore, unlike everywhere else we visited in Athens, it was fairly empty. In fact, it was empty enough for the girls to have a race around the Olympic track and then stand on the podium.
See the Olympic Torches
The first lighting of each Olympic Torch takes place in Greece and then tours the country. Next, the flame transfers to a purpose-built lantern for a flight to the host country. Upon arrival, the flame jumps to an identical copy of the first torch and is run through the host country. Each Olympic torch has six copies.
Each of the torches started in Greece are housed at the Panathenaic Stadium. To see them, walk through the tunnel leading out of the stadium on the far side from the entrance. Climb the stairs at the end of the tunnel to find the room.
Other Historic Sites to Visit during a day in Athens
Did we see all of Athens in a Day?
Of course not. We did see many of the highlights, but here are a few more key things to do in Athens that we missed:
- Walk the labyrinth of streets and have a coffee or meal in the old historic Pláka neighbourhood.
- Shop in the Monastiraki district.
- Stare in awe of the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus.
- Imagine participating in one of the Athenian assemblies at Pnyx, and being a part of the creation of democracy in 507 BC.
- Study the columns and architecture at the ruins of Hadrian’s Library created in 132 AD.
Travel Tips whether you have one day in Athens or longer:
- Visit the Acropolis as early in the day as possible as the ticket queue gets over an hour long.
- When at the Agora, or probably at any of the ruins, do not take a photo standing behind one of the headless statues to give the appearance of your head being on top of the statue. The guards will come running and stand over you until you delete the photo.
- If you visit as a cruise port and enjoy Athens as much as we did, you will probably want to return for a longer visit. When you do, check for the best hotel pricing at Booking.com.
- Get out to at least one of the Greek islands. We went to Mykonos. The relaxed atmosphere and stark white-washed buildings offered a sharp contrast to the fast-paced Greek capital of Athens.
- Many of my Greek images are available for purchase at Zazzle.
We visited Athens as one of nine ports as we cruised the Mediterranean on the NCL Spirit. We arrived in Athens after my favourite destination from this cruise, the historic and picturesque ruins of Ephesus Turkey. From Athens, we cruised into Venice Italy, our port of disembarkation. The ports included one port in France, four in Italy, two in Greece, and two in Turkey.
If you are heading out to sea, read next: 25 Tips for Cruising that Everyone Should Know.
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