The word “Athens” conjures images of spectacular history: the Parthenon towering over an ancient city, the original schools of democracy, and massive marble statues. Its reputation is merited: Athens is over 3400 years old, and remnants of the past appear seemingly every step (sometimes in a museum, sometimes next to an H&M). Classical Athens—the peak of the city-states civilization around 300 BCE—is, of course, the immediate draw, as the mind-bending array of temples, art, and history have overwhelmed travelers for centuries (even writers in Ancient Rome geeked out when they finally got to visit the Acropolis). Today, though, the classical era is but a part of a much longer story. With a population of nearly 3.75 million people (roughly a third of Greece), Athens is very much a living, breathing, car-honking, expletive-shouting city, as evidenced by its omnipresent street art and stray cat army. Amid the tumult you’ll the ouzerie culture and alternative youth scene of modern Athens, which have their own feisty, yet laidback, charm. Balance your shots of the Acropolis with some shots of ouzo at a local taverna, or a strong coffee in rebellious Exarchia. From museums to night clubs, parks to packed bars, flea markets to fat souvlaki pitas, Athens has both your inner-nerd and inner-socialite covered.
The Greeks love food—and as long as you hit up the right eateries, you’ll understand why. Grilled meats are easily the most common food in Athens, served at traditional tavernas and fast-food stops in the form of souvlaki (chunks of meat on a skewer) and gyros (shredded meat wrapped in pita). Both of these staples are usually served with tzatziki, a sauce made with yogurt, cucumber, and garlic. Moussaka, a casserole-like dish of meat, eggplant, and Béchamel sauce, is another local favorite. The Greeks also make delicious meatballs, called keftedes. Greek salad, which consists of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and feta dressed with olive oil and vinegar, is not just for vegetarians, either. Travelers with a sweet teeth will love the baklava and loukoumades (traditional Greek donuts). Be warned that Greek cuisine typically involves lots of oil and salt. Athenian restaurants rarely provide free bread and water with your meal, so make sure you’re willing to shell out a few euro-cents before the waiters sneakily slide the bottle and breadbasket onto your table. Plaka, Monastiraki, and Exarhia are generally the best neighborhoods for local fare and street food, while Syntagma and Kolonaki are good places to find a swanky cafe or fancy dinner.