The capital of Greece is widely known for its rich cultural and historical heritage. With over 7,000 years of civilisation it has a lot to offer, yet it doesn’t always spring to mind as a family holiday destination. With guaranteed sunshine throughout summer and often into the autumn and with 19% of the GDP coming from tourism, taking the kids to visit Athens is not simply a good option but an educational and ethical bucket list experience.
Parents who want to visit famous Athenian landmarks and attractions needn’t worry about little ones becoming bored. Get to the Acropolis at 8am to miss the crowds and the midday heat and to get the best pictures, particularly of the Parthenon.
Hire a guide who will be able to tailor information according to the ages of your children and bring history alive for them in a way that simply looking at the 2,500 year old buildings may not.
The Panathenaic Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and The Temple of Olympian Zeus are two other landmarks that are worth a visit with kids (even pre-schoolers). Admission is free to all major archaeological sites for under 18s.
There’s plenty of open space for them to explore after hearing some of the fascinating stories about the ancient gods. Philopappos Hill, with its olive and cypress trees, is a great place to let the kids run about while still learning about history and, if you need more space, the National Garden of Athens has a kids’ playground as well as spacious pathways and gardens to play in.
Follow up your Acropolis visit with a trip to the Acropolis Museum, a state of the art building, designed by famous architect Bernard Tschumi, which houses treasures and artefacts that were found in the area. There’s a scavenger hunt around the museum to keep children entertained and under-18s receive free admission. Other museums in the capital include the Hellenic Children’s Museum with toys, games and interactive exhibits (for school aged children) or the National Art Gallery, where children can participate in creative workshops.
Ancient Greece may fill you up culturally but it won’t satisfy the appetite you’ll work up exploring the historical sites. Near to the Acropolis is the historic district of Plaka, where you will find plenty of traditional tavernas and koutoukia (family-run Greek restaurants) selling stuffed peppers, tzaziki and dolmadakia (vine leaves stuffed with rice and cooked on the stove).
Must-tries include thyme honey, Aegina pistachios, bougatsa (vanilla cream and cinnamon pie) and wine from the Savvatiano grape. Locals have a light lunch before a siesta and eat dinner late; it is normal for young children and babies to stay up for a late family dinner.
After absorbing the culture and history of central Athens, families should cast their net a little further to the coast. The Attica peninsula that extends into the Aegean Sea is fringed with golden sandy beaches and turquoise water; Vouliagmeni and Varkiza beaches offer volleyball, a play area for children and nearby restaurants and are easily accessible by local buses.
Legrena beach is quieter and without the tourist facilities of the other beaches. Made up of rocky coves and crystalline water, it is ideal for older kids to try rock-pooling and snorkelling. Asteria Glyfadas, voted the most child-friendly beach in Attica, has all the usual entertainment for kids of all ages, including a water trampoline! Other beach options include the celebs’ favourite, Astir, relaxed Yabanaki or the low-key Mikro Kavouri with shallow water that is ideal for younger children.
For those looking for more adventure there are several islands around Athens that are perfect for a day trip. Poros island is a must-visit with school aged children. The Creative Activity Centre on the island organises programmes such as mosaic, weaving and tapestry, and the rest of the island is made up of lush pine forests, neoclassical buildings and yacht marinas. The hydrofoil from Athens takes just one hour to reach the island, or if you enjoy more leisurely boat trips hop on the normal ferry for a two and a half hour journey.
The idyllic spice island of Spetses is a two-hour catamaran or hydrofoil ride from Athens and is exceptionally family-friendly. The island has a strong naval tradition, picturesque Neoclassical houses and stunning beaches. Best of all, it’s blissfully car-free (with the exception of residents’ cars), so people travel in charming horse-drawn carriages, by bike or moped. The island’s expansive piazza is the perfect spot to relax and watch the sun set over the mountains in the distance.
Aegina is the closest island to Athens and a journey on the Flying Dolphin boat takes around 45 minutes from Piraeus port. Hire bikes and cycle around the island or try your hand at kayaking offshore. To make the most of your visit, hire a private guide who will show you the highlights including quaint villages, the magnificent 5th century Temple of goddess Aphaea, old churches and the best places to eat.
A trip to Hydra is another option for families wanting to experience island life. After shooting to fame in 20th century films, the isle has an upmarket vibe and the facilities to match. Boats go three times daily from Athens (journey time is around an hour and a half on a catamaran) and once on the island there are no scooters or cars for rent, Hydra is essentially a car free island; instead, hire a water taxi or donkey to escort you and your family. Horseriding is a popular activity for kids, as is taking a trip to Spetses, the next island along in the archipelago.
Other islands that are popular family destinations include the Saronic islands of tiny Agkistri (its population is less than 1000), mythology-steeped Salamina and the volcanic spa isle of Methana.
When: To avoid visiting during the hottest season, visit Athens in the spring, early summer or autumn.
Activities kids will love: The planetarium (Evgenidio Foundation) with their IMAX shows and 3D virtual trips into outer space, Attica Zoological Park with the third largest collection of birds in the world and the changing of the guard in front of the Greek Parliament.