One of the things I value most when traveling is the flexibility to go at my own pace. I value working with a local guide, which is the best way to bring an area to life. When I set out to plan one day in Athens, I naturally looked for the best private tour of Athens and found Alternative Athens. They kindly offered me a discount on their Athens private tours in exchange for my honest review. Read on for all the details, so you can decide if a private walking tour is right for you.
Alternative Athens offers multiple group and private tours, including the Mythology Highlights Tour, which I took, and the Delicious Athens Food Tours, which my taste buds would have loved if I had more time in Athens. There are also family-focused tours, which adjust the pace and history of the normal tours to be more manageable for young audiences. All tours are run by a licensed tour guide.
How Much Time Do You Need for a Private Tour of Athens?
How much time you need for a private tour of Athens really depends on your stamina and your tendency toward FOMO. After decades of travel, I have learned that I work best when I can be active for half the day and relax for half the day. I loved that the Mythology Highlights tour was a half-day tour, at 4 hours long. It was enough time to see the biggest sights of Athens, learn a bit of Greek culture and ancient history, and still have time to explore on our own before catching an evening flight to Santorini.
However, an obvious drawback to half day trips is that you can’t possibly see everything. I made peace with this because it was more important to me to end the day with energy and memories to savor rather than more checkmarks on my list, but I know there was much more to see and do. Alas, this just means I will have to return to the city of Athens! If you can’t bear to pass anything up, a full day tour may be a better option and allow you to see a bit more when you visit Athens. Just remember that Athens can be hot (it was 82 degrees F in late October during my visit) and the sun can really zap your energy when you’re climbing around the ruins of ancient Greece, where there are very limited options for shade. I commented several times during my tour how I couldn’t imagine doing it in July or August, when both the temperatures and the crowds would be much less bearable.
What to Expect on Your Private Tour of Athens
Our guided tour started on time, with our licensed guide waiting in the lobby of our hotel, the King George. Alternative Athens will have their guides meet you in your hotel as long as it is in the downtown area. We thought that we would be able to organize the timing of the tour to our liking, but our guide had a specific order that she wanted to visit things in – even though that meant that we didn’t get to see the Acropolis until almost midday, when the crowds were heavier.
What I really value when I take a private tour is the flexibility of being able to change up the schedule as needed. What I didn’t realize about my tour was that it follows a specific storyline of Athens from birth to death, which determines which monuments you visit when. It made for an informative, really engaging day…and it also meant that we were visiting the Acropolis at a busier time than I wanted. With only one day in Athens, it created a bit of tension for me. You get a richer experience in understanding what you are seeing, except you are seeing it with more people than you might be able to if you went to the Acropolis first.
I was surprised and happy to find that the tour covered more sites than I would have expected. In addition to the Temple of Zeus, the Acropolis, and the ancient Agora, we also got to see and experience several unexpected sites, including Syntagma Square, the Hadrian’s Arch, the Roman Agora, the Vouli or parliament building, and more.
The Mythology Tour was chock full of interesting information, blending not just Greek history but the legends of Athens as well. We learned about how Athena triumphed over Poseidon (she had better gift-giving skills!) and earned the right to have the great city of Athens named after her. We also learned that the Aegean Sea was said to be named after Aegeus, who threw himself into the water after mistakenly thinking his son Theseus had died in his attempt to kill the minotaur. Throughout the day, our expert guide shared the rich history of Athens with us, which made for an excellent tour and a very interesting day.
All the Ancient Sites You Will See
The first stop on our tour was the parliament building, which was conveniently directly across the street from our hotel. The Greek Parliament is where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies, and lucky visitors can see the changing of the guards, which happens once every hour. The Grand Change happens on Sunday mornings at 11 am, and is a more involved ceremony than the hourly one.
After sharing some history about the Hellenic Parliament, our guide led us past Syntagma Square, the heart of Greek political and cultural life and the site of an uprising in 1843, during which Athenians demanded (and received) a constitution from King Otto.
Continuing on, we passed through the National Gardens, which are beautiful and quickly transport you into a peaceful oasis. We were just using this as a transit point, but I really enjoyed learning about the native plants of Greece and getting to stroll through the park on our way to ancient monuments.
After passing through the National Garden, our first official stop of Classical Athens was the Temple of Zeus. I loved this stop, because you could get up-close to the monuments and we learned a lot of really interesting myths and history, including the Greek version of the “great flood” and Noah’s Ark. What I also loved was that it was almost entirely deserted. We were walking around the Temple of Olympian Zeus by ourselves, which felt a bit surreal, knowing that the busy Greek capital was right outside the monument gates.
On our way out, we passed under Hadrian’s Gate, or the Arch of Hadrian. It is believed that Hadrian’s Gate was commissioned by the citizens of Athens to celebrate the arrival of Emperor Hadrian for the dedication of the Temple of Olympian Zeus around 131 AD. It was so amazing to see an ancient site like this on the side of a busy, modern road, and try to imagine what it would have been like almost 2,000 years ago.
From Hadrian’s Gate, we headed to the main event – the Acropolis. Our super knowledgeable guide stopped to buy us some bottled water – a very welcome stop on what was becoming a hot day! – and we headed into the complex. This little thoughtful touch is what made this the best of the Athens private tours. I loved that we could stop when we needed to and could go at the pace that made sense for us…and that with only 2 of us and our guide, we could get into spaces that larger groups would never be able to visit. Tailor-made tours have an extra cost, for sure, but if you have limited time in Athens, like I did, those little extra services like waters and on-demand bathroom breaks make a huge difference.
The Acropolis is a lot bigger than I realized, and we were able to see Greek theaters, the Parthenon, the Erechtheion or Temple of Athena Polias, the Temple of Athena Nike, and stunning views of the surrounding area, including the ancient Greek Agora. I could not wait to walk through this Unesco World Heritage Site, and it did not disappoint. It was truly humbling to walk the same ground that has housed civilizations for almost 8,000 years. The Acropolis is full of historical sites that I had never heard of, but which I found fascinating, like a Greek theater with amphitheater seating chiseled out of rock, and a viewpoint of Lycabettus Hill, the highest point in central Athens.
The Acropolis is one of the best archaeological sites in the world, and one of the best highlights of this tour. Because of that, we were not alone, and I would have preferred to visit the Acropolis first, before any cruise ship crowds had a chance to make it to the Acropolis site.
After we had seen our fill of the Acropolis, we headed back down the many stairs surrounding the ancient ruins to our next stop – the Roman forum. Also called the Roman Agora, it was a marketplace of shops, government offices, a fountain, and a common meeting place for the citizens of Athens city from 27 BCE to 17 BCE. With the short time we had left on our private tour, we chose not to go into the Roman Agora, but our combo ticket would have allowed us to go back and explore it in more detail within 5 days of our entrance to the Acropolis. Other sites included in the combo ticket are the ancient Agora, Hadrian’s Library, Kerameikos, Aristotle’s School, and Olympieion.
The final stop on our tour was the Ancient Agora, a huge area that served as a common meeting place for Athenians, with shops, temples, various monuments, social gathering places, a law court, libraries, a mint, and a speakers platform. The Ancient Agora holds the best-preserved temple in Athens, the Temple of Hephaestus, which was in continual use from the time of its completion, around 440 BCE, until 1834, when King Otto I turned it into a museum. Because it was in constant use, it was not pilfered to the extent that the Parthenon was, where tourists would chisel off part of the marble columns to bring some home as a souvenir.
I was honestly shocked that we could cover so much history and so many incredible sights in just 4 short hours. It made my tour with Alternative Athens feel like a great value, with a ton more information and a much deeper understanding of the city than I could have hoped for. Our guide was also an excellent photographer, and got several amazing shots of us at the different temples. My husband actually wished she was less serious about the photography because he hates photos, but…they turned out great and I’m so glad to have them.
We said a fond farewell to our amazing guide and walked back to our hotel through Monastiraki Square, which was full of a peaceful demonstration, buskers, and lots and lots of people. The walk back felt a little overwhelming, and we were happy to find a quiet place for lunch before our flight to Santorini later that day.
What to Wear for Athens Tours
There are a few must-haves you will need on any of the best private tours of Athens. You will need comfortable walking shoes – you will clock around 15,000 steps during the tour, and bad shoes will absolutely ruin your day.
I picked my outfit carefully, and it felt perfect for the day. I went with a stretchy, cute dress with a matching cardigan. It was chilly in the morning, but I quickly took off the cardigan and tied it around my purse. I have carried this purse through Iceland, the UK, Israel, Egypt, and now Greece. It is a good size, has lots of travel-friendly safety features, and isn’t so nice that I worry about it.
My husband wore a tshirt, shorts, and sneakers, and was both comfortable and fit in fine with both locals and tourists.
Here’s my full packing list for a day tour of Athens:
- Paul Green sneakers – I wore a pair very similar to these, and I love them. They are so comfortable, mold to your feet, and don’t cause blisters. Perfect with shorts, dresses, or pants.
- Midi dress and cardigan set – My set is from LOFT (and no longer available). Try this one instead.
- The best travel purse – The perfect cross-body bag for touring
- Sunscreen – there is not much shade on this tour, so lather up ahead of time and bring a travel-size SPF with you
- Water – a small water bottle is all you need, because you can buy some while you’re out, but it is nice to have
- Cash for tipping your guide!
Tips for Having the Best Private Tour of Athens
Our tour was an unforgettable experience, and I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to get a deeper understanding of what they are looking at. Anyone can put together the itinerary – and in fact, many tours will follow generally the same path – but it is the information and history that really brings the sites to life. Working with a private guide is a great way to see and learn a ton during a short stay. To help you also have the best experience, here are a few tips from my day:
- Be smart about your start time – If you go in shoulder or low season, you can get away with a morning tour, which will be warm but not super hot. In high season, however, the monuments will be super crowded in the morning, and an afternoon tour is best, despite the heat. If you have any flexibility, connect with Alternative Athens to get their guidance on the best days/times for your tour.
- This tour is best for fully mobile visitors – There is a lot of walking and uneven ground on this tour. Athens is not particularly friendly for mobility-challenged visitors, and you will want to coordinate ahead of time with Alternative Athens if you have any limitations in your mobility. There are a few areas with elevators around the Acropolis, but you will be limited in which parts you can view up close. We saw several people struggling with walking canes and really felt for them. These are walking tours and you will be on your feet pretty much the whole time.
- If you have opinions about your tour, make them clear at booking – My only disappointment in the day, and it was a fairly big one, was that our guide was not amenable to visiting the Acropolis first. I really wanted to see it with as few people as possible, and I believe that visiting at 8:30 am vs 10:30 am would have made a difference.
- If you’re traveling with kids, book a family-focused tour – This tour shared so much incredible information, but it was definitely geared toward adults and would be suitable for teens but not kids any younger than that. My kids are 10 and 7 and there is no way they would have handled the Mythology tour well. Alternative Athens has a kids version of the Mythology tour, which would be an amazing way to explore the sites with younger kids.
- Tip your guide! – Never forget to tip your guide if they provide you an excellent service. We learned so much and really felt like we saw all the best places in a few short hours. Even better, we came home with tons of facts. It brought the greatness of Athens to life for us and I was happy to tip our guide. I typically aim for 10% of the total price as a good tip.
I can’t recommend Alternative Athens enough. Even my husband, who dislikes organized tours of any kind, had great things to say about our tour. It was well-paced, informative, covered all the most important sites, and still left us with our afternoon free to relax. If you’re looking for private tours of Athens, look no further, and tell them I sent you!
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