Though modern Athens extends from the sea to the mountains, the city’s core, where most of the ancient sites cluster around the Acropolis, is compact and very walkable. Visitors without mobility issues on short visits may find they can get around the sights entirely on foot.
But if you want to explore Athens’ outlying neighborhoods – or just rest for a bit – you’ll find transport in Athens is affordable and easy to navigate, particularly if you load a couple of key digital tools onto your smartphone. Whether you’re headed for the airport or the Ancient Agora, here’s a guide to the best ways to get around Athens.
The Metro is a popular and cheap way to safely navigate Athens © photooiasson / Getty Images
Use the metro to get to key sights like the Acropolis Museum
The Athens metro is clean, frequent and cheap, with service from 5.30am to just past midnight daily. The system consists of three lines (red, blue and green) with major transfer points at Omonia, Syntagma and Monastiraki. Key stops include Acropoli (for the Acropolis east entrance and Acropolis Museum) and Thissio (for Kerameikos).
Line 3 (blue) connects Syntagma and the airport, but a special €18 return fare applies. Aside from the airport and Piraeus, most tourist destinations are in the center where the lines cross, so walking is almost always more efficient.
A local’s tip for riding the metro: It’s good etiquette (and makes life easier) if you start making your way toward the doors early, ideally right after the train has left the preceding stop.
Buses in Athens are very tourist friendly and easy to use © Kypros / Getty Images
Buses are tourist-friendly – but you’ll need a smartphone to check routes
Most of Athens is covered by a vast network of buses, running from 5am to midnight, with some very limited night services. The vehicles are tourist-friendly: screens show upcoming stops, and announcements are made in Greek and English.
There are no published maps of the bus routes at stops, but they are available on the O.A.S.A. website, which also has a route planner. Routes appear in Google Maps, too, so either install the app or plan your route before you head out. A few express buses serve outlying destinations, such as the airport and Piraeus, and these cost more. The Airport Express buses run 24 hours a day and leave from the Intercity Bus Terminal, Syntagma Square and the port.
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Use the tram to get to the coast
Slow but scenic, Athens’ single tram line runs south from Syntagma to the seaside, where the route splits and goes east and west along the coast. The ride from the center to the nearest beach, passing the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center, is about 30 minutes.
Taxis are an excellent option to get around Athens at night © sarra22 / Getty Images
Taxis are cheap by day, expensive after midnight
Athens doesn’t have a ride-sharing service, but conventional taxis are inexpensive and handy at night, when other public transport stops, though the night rate (effective after midnight and on holidays) is about 60 percent higher than the day rate. The challenge for visitors is that many drivers speak very little English, and some, inevitably, are unscrupulous in their dealings with out-of-towners. Be aware that there are legitimate additional charges, such as for tolls, extra-large luggage and entry to the airport.
A local’s tip for taxi-hailing: Wave your arm aggressively and shout the name of the neighborhood you’re headed to. At busy times, drivers will often take multiple passengers all headed in the same direction. If you share, take note of the meter reading when you get in, then subtract that amount when you pay.
Use a ride-hailing app to book a licensed taxi
The Beat app summons a licensed Athens taxi, gives an estimated price, and lets your driver know where you’re headed without a word. You have the option of paying with cash or a credit card.
Mt Lycabettus offers stunning views of Athens © anamejia18 / Getty Images
Cycling is still a bit hairy, and traffic-free bike paths are rare
Athens city planners are trying to expand the bike network, but sightseeing on two wheels is still difficult. Challenges include hills, reckless drivers, oblivious pedestrians and teeth-rattling cobbled streets. One longer cycle path does run to the seaside, however, so getting out of town is a breeze. Join a tour with Roll in Athens or rent an e-bike from Solebike.
You’re unlikely to need the suburban railway
Realistically, most tourists won’t use TrainOSE’s proastiakos (regional rail) services, although there is a handy route from the airport to Piraeus. If you do end up taking a regional train, TrainOSE and Ath.ena tickets are interchangeable for journeys within Athens.
Driving around Athens is a bit of a headache
When you’re up against traffic jams, narrow and pedestrianized streets and extremely limited parking, a car in Athens is more of a hindrance than an asset. Rental cars are a reasonable option for trips out of Athens, but for getting around downtown, ditch the rental at the airport if you can.
Traveling into the hills of Athens gives great vantage points for city views © saiko3p / Shutterstock
Accessible transportation in Athens
Unlike many poorly designed streets and entrances to sights in Athens, the city’s transport system does actually meet EU accessibility standards. All metro stops have elevators, usually very well placed for direct access to ticket machines, offering easy transit down to platforms. This is also handy if you’re traveling with a lot of luggage.
Above ground, buses can ‘kneel’ to street level for wheelchair users and the mobility impaired, but overall, the metro is much easier to navigate than the bus system. For a taxi with full wheelchair support, contact Special Taxi, which has a fleet of nine mini-vans with wheelchair lifts. For more resources, see the Lonely Planet guide to accessible travel, a free download.
An Ath.ena ticket makes public transport cheap
Athens has a unified ticket system, so you can use the same ticket or pass on the metro, bus, tram and suburban rail system within the metro area (except metro trips to the airport). The Ath.ena ticket – ena means ‘one’ (unified, see?) – is a paper ticket sold at vending machines in metro stations, and you can load it with single rides or passes. Single rides cost €1.20, are valid for 90 minutes, and are discounted if you buy more than one. Timed passes cost €4.10 for 24 hours or €8.20 for five days.
When buying multiple tickets, be careful with your calculations, as the ticket can be refilled only when it’s completely empty. Note that the paper tickets issued for airport buses are not refillable. If you’re worried you might lose or damage a paper ticket (or just want a souvenir), buy the sturdier plastic Ath.ena Card from a booth in any metro station. These come preloaded with either five rides (€5.70/$6.70) or 11 rides (€12/$14.10), and they’re refillable whenever you like.
If you’re staying more than a month, consider a personalized Ath.ena Card; you’ll need to show your passport. Whatever kind of Ath.ena ticked you have, just tap in on the readers at metro turnstiles or by the doors on buses (and do this on every bus, even if you transfer within the 90-minute window). You’ll need to tap out of the metro, but not buses.
Consider a Tourist Ticket to save on the metro rides from/to the airport
If you’re flying into Athens for a short visit, you might find the three-day tourist ticket useful. It’s a special Ath.ena Ticket that costs €20 ($23.45) and includes a round-trip metro fare for the airport (which would normally cost €18). But be careful with the return trip, as you must tap out at the airport within the 72-hour window.