It might seem like a strange focal point in a place so heavily steeped in ancient history and mythology, but the high point of Athens for me is the hills (no pun intended). The lighter-than-usual tourist traffic (courtesy of the Covid-19 era) ain't such a bad perk, either.
Why do I find hills so damn satisfying? Let's break it down to a few main points.
The exercise. The idea of slogging up a steep hill in the blazing sun, drenched in sweat, could be perceived as a mild form of torture to some, but I relish the grossness and rise merrily to the occasion. Besides burning some calories and the accompanying dopamine high, there's always a sense of accomplishment that comes with reaching a summit, even if it's not Mount Olympus.
The view. I think anyone can justify the effort involved in climbing a hill for this reason alone. Hills offer far-reaching views of a landscape that you just can't get from below. No further explanation needed.
The peace and quiet. A break from the busy city below is sometimes necessary, and the tops of hills aren't usually crowded (especially if they're inaccessible by road because not everyone is motivated to haul their ass up there on foot). Something about staring out into the beyond evokes a momentary sense of inner peace and inspires deep contemplation (at least for me). For extra emo points, time the hill summit to coincide with sunrise or sunset.
Luckily, there are several easily accessible hills in the center of Athens, each offering a different perspective of the city. Here are a few of them.
The Acropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is quite obviously the landmark hill of Athens. The name "Acropolis" translates to "high city," and although other city-states in ancient Greece had their own acropolises, the Acropolis of Athens is the most iconic––especially for the postcard-friendly Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the worship of Athena, Athens' patron goddess.
The Parthenon, built in 447 BCE, is the Acropolis' main attraction.
The Acropolis also includes the Propylaea (the monumental main entrance), the Erechtheion (a temple dedicated to Athena as well as other gods), and the Temple of Athena Nike (i.e., Athena in victory). Basically, it was all about Athena up here, and for good reason. She represented wisdom, justice, strategy (especially in war), and skills/crafts––all very important attributes to the ancient Athenians.
At the time of writing, a single-entry ticket to the Acropolis costs €20 from April to November and €10 for the other months (discounts are available for certain groups). There is also a combination ticket for €30, which covers the entrance fee for the Acropolis and six other archaeological sites in Athens.
Entrance is free on the first Sunday of each month from November 1st to March 31st as well as on other designated "open days" throughout the year.
Understandably, the thought of visiting archaeological sites at the moment might inspire anxiety more than fascination. On the flip side, the influx of tourists on the Acropolis right now is much less than its normal level of chaos. If you find that argument convincing enough to visit, here are some pandemic-formulated guidelines for protecting yourself and others during a visit to the Acropolis or other museums/historical sites in general.
How's the view? Maybe I'm tough to impress, but the Acropolis is actually not my favorite vantage point in Athens. (Don't get me wrong, the views are very nice, but it has other hills to compete with.) Your main incentive for visiting the Acropolis should be to take in its history and architecture (and maybe snap some selfies, if that's your thing).
Lykavittos (Lyabettus) Hill
The highest hill in Athens, which can be seen in its full, 277-meter form from the top of the Acropolis, was my favorite for a few reasons. For the physical effort needed to ascend it from the bottom, yes. For the handsome, shirtless boy I bumped into at the top, yes. For the amazing views (irrespective of its manscape), yes.
And for the much-appreciated cool breeze that awaits you at the top.
A top-notch view from the top of Lykavittos Hill in Athens
There are a few options for reaching the summit. My preference is to walk the trail through the woods from the base, which leads to a final climb up some flights of stairs (I didn't count them, but there's more than a few). You can also drive along the paved road or take the cable car (€7.50 for a roundtrip/€5 for one way). The stairs are unavoidable if driving, but I assume the cable car bypasses them entirely (I actually didn't see the drop-off point for passengers on my way to the summit).
At the top of the hill is a restaurant and a chapel (Agios Georgios) along with a small viewing area. If tourism was in full swing, this little lookout spot would probably reach its capacity quickly, but the few times I've gone up I've had plenty of breathing space.
How's the view? In my opinion, Lykavittos offers the best views of the city, hands down. There are no fees to access it (unless you take the cable car), and you'll encounter fewer tourists here than on the Acropolis.
Just a short walk from the main entrance to the Acropolis brings you to a vast green space known as Filopappou Hill, which is made up of several smaller hills: the Hill of the Muses, the Pynx––where democratic assemblies were held in ancient times––and the Hill of the Nymphs, the site of the National Observatory of Athens.
Walking along the paths at the top of Filopappou
I like this hill for its greenery and relief it offers from the crowds at the bustling Acropolis next door. You can find shade, solitude, and even some inspiration here (the nine Muses were goddesses who inspired intellectual thinking and creativity in different subject areas). There are also some notable monuments and ruins scattered throughout the area, including "Socrates' Prison," which may or may not be where the philosopher was imprisoned before his trial and execution in 399 BCE.
The "prison" on Filopappou Hill where Socrates was allegedly held before his execution
View of the city from the Pynx, the site of democratic assemblies during ancient times. The epicenter of art and learning, Athens was the first in the world to establish a democracy (in ca. 5th century BCE).
The Doridis refractor telescope of the National Observatory on the Hill of the Nymphs
The only option for getting to the top of Filopappou is to walk. But it's not nearly as high or steep as Lykavittos, so it's less of a sweat session. You're also mainly under the cover of pine trees and out of direct sunlight.
How's the view? Filopappou is free to visit and provides the best view of the Parthenon. I would actually recommend going here as an alternative to the Acropolis itself (if you prefer to avoid the Acropolis entrance fee).
The views of the city from the top of Strefi Hill are well worth the detour from the tourist track into Exarcheia, Athens' alternative neighborhood. You're much less likely to bump into tourists here than on the Acropolis, Lykavittos, or Filopappou, and more likely to encounter locals.
View from the top of Strefi Hill in Exarcheia near sunset
Like Filopappou, the hill is forested and easy to ascend by foot. Some tourists may hesitate to visit Exarcheia given its reputation as a hotspot for riots, and the hill may harbor some eccentric characters, but I found no signs of sketchiness here during the daytime or early evening. However, I did notice a decent amount of litter on the hill. So, if you decide to visit and feel like doing a good deed, bring some gloves and a garbage bag with you.
How's the view? There are panoramic views of the city from the top and an especially great view of Lykavittos. The Acropolis is also visible in the distance.