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.
It’s a city filled with history, culture, and a modern flair. Therefore, the task of seeing Athens in a day is almost impossible. However, with proper planning, we hit the key sites, discovered several new ones, and even had time to enjoy a meal.
Below we highlight the key places to visit in Athens, including significant landmarks, culinary delights, and both ancient and modern art. We also share with you the sites we chose not to see in our limited time.
With only one day in Athens, there are plenty of choices to be made, and we hope we have simplified your task with our information and recommendations below.
Our best tips for seeing Athens in a day
- 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.
Acropolis (a one day in Athens must-see)
Our first stop was the Acropolis, which literally means “high city.” This ancient complex sits high above the city and is home to many famous temples and other historic structures.
We opted to start our day at the Acropolis in hopes of arriving before the tour busses and the hordes of tourists that visit here each day. And while the crowds were massive and social distancing non-existent, it only got worse even in the 1.5 hours we spent here.
If you are on your own or with a driver or guide that doesn’t have an entry pass, our top recommendation is a skip-the-line pass. While you can get a skip-the-line pass for the acropolis only, generally, the 6 archaeological sites combo ticket is the better option.
Key sites on the Acropolis
- Erechtheion (Erechtheum)
Built between the 4th and 5th century BC, it houses the tomb of King Erechtheus and the Temple of Athena-Polias, which held the goddess’ wooden cult statue. The famous Porch of the Caryatids (seen in the photo and at the top of the page) sits on top of the Tomb of Kekrops.
It was built and dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom, handicraft and warfare. The temple is generally considered the culmination of the development of the Doric order of Greek architecture.
- Odeon of Herodes Atticus
A stone theatre built in 161 AD (renovated in 1950).
- Temple of Athena-Nike
The smallest temple on the Acropolis is dedicated to the goddesses Athena and Nike.
- Monument of Agrippa
The monument, located west (left) of the Propylaea of Athens, honours Eumenes II of Pergamon and his victory in the Panathenaic Games chariot race.
- Theatre of Dionysus
Originally built of wood in the 6th century BC, it is one of the most important theatres in ancient Greece. It honours the Greek god of wine and theatre.
This is the ceremonial entrance to the Acropolis. It was the last in a series of gatehouses built.
A side story …
The first image was taken over 30 years ago when I toured Europe as a recent university grad. It was sold to us as a postcard and mailed home. I am the third from the left. Thirty years later, I took the second shot of my girls based on my memory.
Agora (gathering place)
The Agora is another key site for any one day in Athens itinerary. Literally a gathering place, this ancient marketplace was once both a political and trade centre.
Start with the Stoa of Attalos at the Agora, a rebuilt (in the 1950s) ancient shopping and gathering place. It’s equally interesting inside and out. Inside, the Museum of Ancient Agora is filled with historic statues, mosaics, and other things that will help you understand what’s here.
There’s also an ancient portion, much of which you will walk past if you make your way to the 10th-century Temple of Hephaestus.
Greek Parliament and the changing of the guards
Every hour, on the hour, the changing of the guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier takes place in Syntagma Square (the central square of Athens), just outside of the Greek Parliament building. Built during the mid-1800s, today’s parliament building was initially home of King Otto (often referred to as the first king of modern Greece).
With limited time, we didn’t walk behind Parliament to enjoy the 15-hectare National Gardens.
Visit a museum (even with one day in Athens)
One day in Athens means time for only one of the two key museums – the National Archaeological Museum of Athens or the Acropolis Museum. A difficult choice, but with limited time, it has to be made.
- New Acropolis Museum
We opted to spend our time here amongst artefacts found at the Acropolis. As a bonus, the air-conditioned museum was a refreshing break from a blistering hot day. Cramming this museum into your day in Athen will mean planning your highlights.
- National Archaeological Museum of Athens
A bit more difficult to get to with a tight schedule, here one finds the history and the archeology of all of Greece.
Other significant museums in Athens Include:
- 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
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, again in 1906, and events of the 2004 Olympics.
Less popular than other sites, it was empty enough for our girls to have a race around the Olympic track and then stand on the podium.
One often missed highlight is the Olympic torches. Before each games, a torch is lit in Athens and tours Greece. Next, the flame transfers to a flight-safe lantern and is sent to the host country. Here the flame lights an identical copy of the first torch before continuing the run. There are six copies made of each torch.
Unfortunately, the room housing the original torches isn’t signposted. To find it, climb the stairs at the end of the tunnel that leads out of the stadium (the tunnel is on the far side from the entrance).
Other historic sites to squeeze into your one day in Athens
- Hadrian’s Gate
It was possibly built to celebrate and honour the arrival of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 131 AD.
One of many statues around the city dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patron and protectress of the city of Athens. This one is in front of the Academy of Athens.
- The Temple of Olympian Zeus
This former colossal temple is one of the Greek-Roman empire’s largest ancient temples.
Enjoy a meal or snack
While we ate a traditional Greek souvlaki lunch, we didn’t take photos. However, we did get some delicious shots from our morning tea.
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.
Creating YOUR things to see in Athens in a day list
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 met our needs and for all the other reasons just stated, we opted for one of a private tour in Athens Greece.
We created our own Athens itinerary in advance and then accepted expert input from our guide. For us, this was the ideal option.
IMPORTANT: Only licenced guides are permitted to enter the venues with clients in Greece. Therefore, note and understand who you are hiring:
- A private driver can take you to destinations and tell you about them while outside, but cannot enter with you. (check out the skip-the-line pass option just below).
- An official guide can accompany you into the venues.
If you hire a private driver or are doing it on your own, you will want to get a skip-the-line pass, as time is limited and places are crowded.
An official guide might already have one for you, be sure to check the details or ask if you can.
The best one we can find is this Athens: Acropolis and 6 Archaeological Sites Combo Ticket, which will get you into Acropolis, Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Temple of Zeus, Aristotle’s School, Hadrian’s Library, and Kerameikos Ancient Cemetery.
If you want a skip-the-line pass to only a few sites (including the Acropolis with an audio option), reserve your skip-the-line pass here
Hire a private guide and driver
While there are plenty of private guides out there, we generally start with Tours By Locals, as we have had good luck with them all around the world, Athens is no exception.
The guide we used isn’t currently listed. Based on reviews, we recommend Nota, a highly-rated licensed guide offering an equally highly-rated tour. Her itinerary is for a full day, including a driver and the schedule is customizable to meet your need. The comments say she is insightful, offers lots of information, and is very flexible while organizing to maximise what you see. Nota is a native Athenian who knows the city and is fluent in English. Book your day with Nota, or ask her questions here.
Check out these Athens shore excursions and tour options
Athens tips whether 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.
- Be respectful. Do not take a photo standing behind a now headless statue to give the appearance of your head being on top of the statue. We watched the guards run and stand over a tourist until they deleted their photo.
- 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.
Save on your trip and cruise with these resources
These are our go-to companies when we cruise. We believe this list to be the best in each category. You can’t go wrong using them on your trip too.
- Cruise: We find great deals at Cruise Direct.
- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Hotels: we use Booking.com (hotels at our end ports) or VRBO (self-contained).
- Cars (gas or electric): we use RentalCars to search for deals and dealer ratings.
- Set up private guides at the ports: Looking to maximize our limited time at a port, we often hire private guides from Tours by Locals.
- Travel Insurance: our go-to is World Nomads*.
Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
Don’t miss our best cruise tips.
*World Nomads provides travel insurance for travellers in over 100 countries. As an affiliate, we receive a fee when you get a quote from World Nomads using this link. We do not represent World Nomads. This is information only and not a recommendation to buy travel insurance.
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What would you see if you only had one day in Athens?
Athens is one of many beautiful cruise ports we have visited.
Wow! You can see a lot of Athens in one day! Thanks for the tips!
What a lovely guide! Thanks for sharing – saving it for later 🙂
Wow, well done hitting so many amazing sites in just one day! I love that your recreated that photo too, what a fun memory!
Brilliant post! Athens is fabulous isn’t it! This is a really great (although slightly exhausting sounding) day!
A Capone Connection
Greece is high up on my bucket list! I didn’t know they did the changing of the guards there. Thank you for sharing this. I’m saving it for when I am able to go there. I’m thinking of possibly doing a cruise so I can see several of the amazing islands. It’s hard to pick just one.
We loved Athens! This is the perfect one-day itinerary to take in the history and beautiful architecture! Great tips!
Athens is such an inspiring city that I ended up spending a whole week there! The monuments and museums are fascinating, the weather was fabulous, and the food is delicious! 🙂
I’m actually going to Athens later this year and I’m super excited! I will have more than just a day, but I loved reading your article and discovering some interesting tips. Thank you for putting this together 🙂
This was so informative! I’m hoping to go to Greece with my mom next spring and this guide will be so useful!!
What a great one day itinerary! I’ve yet to visit Athens but can’t wait to one day. Spending time at the Acropolis would definitely a priority. I love the photo of you visiting 30 years ago too!
If I had one day in Athens I would see the Acropolis and on my way down go to Anafiotika, my favourite neighbourhood in Athens, and then the Archaeological Museum.
Fabulous photos Rhonda I just booked my flights for Greece for a month next May/June. Love the old shot of you at the Acropolis. The photos have really helped me to decide to actually spend 3 days in Athens as there seems there is more than enough to see.
There is lots to see. I only had one day off a cruise ship. I would have liked to spend more time there.
As other commentators have said, one day is never enough time. But saying that, itineraries like this one, do help in maximising your time in a city. I’d love to visit Athens one day.
One day is never enough, but sometimes you have no choice! I’ve been in this situation before. It’s amazing to make the most of your time and know that you’ll have other awesome spots to return to someday!
Now this brings back memories. You covered a lot of the same territory I did in one day on my trip to Athens. I love the idea of hiring a private guide to take you around. You get to choose your own adventure that way!
Totally did not know that is what Acropolis meant! But it makes total sense seeing where the structure was built! Also, it is one of the really good restaurants in Florida 😉
I really enjoyed this post, you know how much I love cruising but the downside is that they leave you one day to see so much so this post its perfect to refer back if I go to Athens in the future.
I loved the picture of your girls sitting in the same post as you 30 years ago, how lovely!
I wish you a great week!
Wow, so much to discover in ATHENS in one day! I cant believe how many people were there at the Acropolis! it s certainly a great city. I pass by almost every year for a day on my way down to the Greek Islands, so I have seen most of these sites.
Sometimes we look at photos and think “It didn’t feel that crowded”, but the Acropolis did feel like that many people.
These are some amazing tips. We always try to make the most of time in places even if its a short trip. It is always good to hear other who have been successful at it too. Will keep this in mind for athens
Love your photos. It looks like the weather was beautiful when you visited. Athens is one of those cities steeped in history and mystery. And I’m sure your girls will always remember their visit to Athens, especially the chance to run on the track in the Panathenaic Olympic Stadium.
Reminds me how I really need to go back to Athens. I haven’t been for years and really haven’t explored properly!
I think your tactic of advance planning and booking a private driver and car was wise, to allow you to pack in as much as you could into the time. And getting off the ship amongst the first on arrival to port probably helped you to beat some of those crowds at Acropolis too. I went when I was four, over 4 decades ago, and there’s a photo of me on that same fallen rock somewhere in our family albums. I’ve not been back (yet) though.
We spent 3 days in Athens and I would say that was plenty before leaving on a tour. Our hotel was directly across from the Parliment.
Oh I remember those tourist postcards that were mailed to us.
When I think of Athens, I think of history and food. So I think I would go with the day the way you did. I’m not really a huge city person so one day would be enough for me at a time, then maybe go back another time. Greece is definitely at the top of the list for me though! I love the old photo you had from your previous visit – and the photo of your girls on the track! Fun!
Ah, I want to go to Athens so badly! When we lived in Romania, Greece was only a stone’s throw away from us, but at that time we couldn’t travel anywhere outside the borders. Now we have to cross the world to get there and it’s not so easy anymore, but I still didn’t give up hope that I’ll make it there someday. Your pictures are fascinating.
We were in Athens for nine days. But if we had only been there one day, I would have gone to Plaka, and the main square, visited one of the churches. Eat an authentic Greek meal. Go to the street market with antiques. Oh, and visit one of the islands. But the Acropolis was a major disappointment – and you are talking to an artist here. The pillars are the only thing to see there. In the museum you are nor allowed to take pics. We were planning to spend there a whole day, but in two hours we got bored and left for the city.
JM Illinois U.S.A.
Oh my goodness the crowds are too much; but the sights are worth it. I like the old picture versus the new picture of you. Show less crowded in the old old days. You are a lucky person to have been there twice. Good planning. I like at the end what to to and what not to do.
Love all your pictures and especially the post card! Teresa
Wow Greece is just so beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing your experience and the incredible pic 😀
I love the photo where you are pointing up at the columns. This is on my (long) bucket list! So much history, and lovely views too.
You packed a lot into one day and seemed to capture the essence of Athens. My son really wants to go to Greece. I’m going to save this and share it with him.
That was amazing. I love all of your pictures. I like the 30 year postcard. That can be a family tradition. You make me want to travel to Greece. I’m in Nashville TN, and we have the recreation of the Parthenon here. I visit that park alot it’s my favorite. Thanks for sharing
The pictures of Athens are beautiful and stunning! I want to visit someday! I LOVE all the art there. 🙂
That was one busy day! Fascinating and fabulous.
What beautiful photos. Thanks for sharing. That is a place that I would love to go to.
Alissa A Apel
That’s amazing you got to fit that into one day! WOW! So much history at your fingertips.
The secret is having a driver. No wasting time looking for parking, and he is right there at the end of every activity, ready to take us to the next one.
Thanks for sharing some wonderful images. I don’t believe that I will ever get to visit Athens and these images are beautiful. Have a blessed day.
I would love to go to Athens, but it looks like I won’t get my one day at this point; so I’ll have to vicariously live it through you.
I wouldn’t care for those crowds, but I haven’t cared for them for many years.
Beautiful city and great shots.
Have a fabulous day. ☺
Indah Nuria Savitri
Greece has always been on top of my list.. I sincerely hope I can go there soon. Really appreciate your tips, Rhonda
Great pictures; looks like you had a blast, short visit notwithstanding.
L. Diane Wolfe
That is amazing your were there 30 years earlier in a similar photo. Such a beautiful place. If that crowd was beating the crowds, I’d hate to see what it looks like when it’s really busy.
What a fantastic trip lots to see I like the photo of you and hubby and the lovely view behind you too 🙂
Have a pittabreadtastic Day Rhonda 🙂
It would be hard to spend just one day in Athens!
Beautiful photos. You spent your time well.
Wish I have the resources to travel at this part of the world.
You packed a lot into one day, I’m impressed. I’ve always wanted to visit the Acropolis!
Nano @ Travel With Nano B.
I always wanted to go to Athens. How wonderful that you got to revisit the place with your girls!
What an amazing trip, fun to see your card from 30 years ago. The structures are wonderful, I just hope they remain in-tacked!! Karren:)
Always wanted to go to Athens. I was fascinated by ancient Greece from an early age.
I still can’t afford a visit to Athens. It’s actually on my plan but my funds aren’t enough yet. I really envy this trip of yours. Anyway, nice photos you got there.