Everyone knows Greece as the epicenter of ancient civilization. It was the home of democracy and astronomy. It was also prime real estate on trade routes that once zig-zagged the Mediterranean. Over 100 archaeological sites from ancient Greece remain for culturally-minded students to discover.
No wonder students flock to its historically rich attractions. Greece is currently the 12th most popular study-abroad destination for American students, hosting nearly 6,000 students annually (and it’s getting more popular every year).
But it’s not all about the ruins. Greece attracts seekers of modern culture, too. We reached out to many of them to bring you some must-see highlights from the ancient and modern worlds. From top study destinations Athens and Thessaloniki to weekend trips further afield, we’re breaking down the best places to visit in Greece to immerse yourself in the many faces of Greek culture, then and now.
Athens: Must-See Cultural Attractions Near the Capital
Overflowing with bucket-list sites, historical Athens can feel like one big tourist attraction. One study abroad student in Athens even told us she tries “to stay away from the classic, touristy sites.” However, she confessed that everyone who goes to Greece needs to see the “obvious” sites first, including the Acropolis and Ancient Agora. Luckily, you can get to know ancient Athens in a day or two (most of the big historical landmarks are grouped together and easy to visit).
Start your journey at the top of the city, the Acropolis of Athens. The UNESCO World Heritage site holds the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, the theatre of Dionysus, and the grand entrance gate of the Propylaea.
It’s also home to amazing views, like the ancient Athenian Agora with its Temple of Hephaestus, and the (less ancient) Panathenaic Stadium, famous for hosting the first modern Olympic games in 1896. To see them closer up, grab a combo pass (you can upgrade to the multi-site pass right at any site’s ticket machine) and explore multiple ruins, from Hadrian’s Library to Kerameikos Cemetery and the Roman Agora.
Want to learn more? Head inside the Acropolis Museum. It’s ten times larger than its predecessor and built to house treasures that can’t be exposed to the elements on the nearby hilltop. It also contains an archaeological excavation, a reminder that the entire area around the acropolis was a bustling city for thousands of years. Once you’ve checked it out, take the mile-long walk to the National Archaeological Museum for the best collection of Greek treasures anywhere in the world, including the Antikythera Mechanism (the world’s first computer).
One student in Athens says that no matter where you end up, the Ancient world is never far away. Ancient ruins preserved in the excavation of modern Athens, like those underneath Monastiraki Square, are a reminder that history is always underfoot.
Cultural Experiences in Modern Athens
Return to the Acropolis by night to see an opera or symphony at the ancient Herodeon as part of the popular Athens Epidaurus Festival. If you’re more of a film buff, check out the city’s outdoor cinemas. Many boast to-die-for acropolis views, like the Ciné Thision rooftop theater.
Want to know what kind of art today’s Athenians are creating? Local artists study street art in formal programs like the one at the cutting-edge Athens School of Fine Art, but you can make your own syllabus and hit the streets with a map of the best street art across the city. To find out who’s setting the Greek art world abuzz, head to the Ileana Tounta Contemporary Arts Center, a cavernous gallery with an urban garden restaurant that serves up Moroccan burgers and DJ’ed tunes out of an Airstream trailer.
The Exarcheia neighborhood serves as a hangout for today’s alternative artists and social activists. Stroll its shady streets, and you’ll discover anarchist coffee shops and live music venues like outdoor Exostrefis, where you can listen to the Greek version of blues called rebetiko. Find some in a traditional basement hangout like Navagio ton Aggelon. Outlawed in 1936 for its association with hashish and Eastern culture, this urban folk music has since earned a nod from UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
For a truly immersive and vibrant Athens experience, look no further than CYA (College Year in Athens), the premier study abroad program provider that brings all these wonders to life!
Thessaloniki: Exploring the Cultural Heritage of Greece’s Second City
According to one student, “Thessaloniki is a student city that lives day and night, any time of the week, Monday to Monday.” It’s true. You can feel the youthful energy bubbling out of Greece’s nightlife capital. But that doesn’t mean the city lacks cultural significance.
Start at the iconic White Tower to get a sense of the city’s long and rich history, start at the iconic White Tower. It first marked Thessaloniki’s port in 1430 and now holds six stories of its history in a permanent exhibition. The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and the neighboring Museum of Byzantine Culture cover the collage of cultural influences on this unique city (and you can visit all of them on a combined ticket, which also includes the Rotunda, which served as a Roman temple, Christian church, and Islamic mosque in its day).
After you’ve learned about everyday life in the Byzantine era, stroll the city’s Byzantine walls, leading up to the Heptapyrgion on the city’s acropolis. Repurposed by Ottomans and serving as a prison as recently as the 1980s, the real draw today is its spectacular city and harbor views.
If you never learned the difference between Byzantines and Ottomans, now’s the time. Wander the back streets of historic Thessaloniki to the Bezesteni Market, the Ottoman baths, and the Alaca Imaret, a 15th-century mosque. Bonus: the baths have a rooftop bar where you can sip Greek coffee, listen to traditional music, and catch an art exhibit all in one place.
Modern Cultural Gems to Discover in Thessaloniki
Music was once considered a gift from the Gods, so it’s only natural that it takes center stage in modern Greece. One student said music was central to stepping out in Thessaloniki, where live shows are traditional and extremely popular. Explore Ano Poli for tavernas and underground koutoukia to hear traditional tunes.
Then head to the modern bouzoukia (nightclubs) hosting Greece’s hottest singers and where the music keeps playing while the sun rises. After rounding up some friends and ordering a bottle, enjoy your table until dawn, and act like a local by tossing some flowers at the dancer on stage.
Along with Athens, Thessaloniki hosts the only contemporary art fair in Greece. It’s also home to a group of museums that teamed up to strengthen contemporary art culture in Greece—the Metropolitan Organization of Museums of Visual Arts of Thessaloniki (MOMus). Its galleries include experimental, contemporary, and photography, examining the crossroads of Eastern and Western culture.
In a city named the European Capital of Culture, you shouldn’t expect art to stay confined to museums. There are famous street artists’ works all over the city. One of the most noteworthy murals is right on the side of the college dorms at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Crafted by Italian graffiti artist BLU, whose credits also include shows at the Tate Modern in London, his mural shows the Parthenon columns as stacks of tumbling Euros. As students walk by, they can ask themselves whether the European Union’s economic foundation is the right way to preserve its culture.
For an enthralling and culturally rich Thessaloniki experience, choose the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT) as your top study abroad program provider, offering you the perfect opportunity to explore and embrace all the wonders this magnificent city has to offer!
Day Trips Further Afield
When we asked study-abroad students about cultural must-sees in Greece, they often answered with destinations outside Athens and Thessaloniki. So while you might call these student cities your home base, be sure to leave weekends open to the treasures you can visit across the country. Here are some top responses:
Discover Archaeological Sites on the Greek Isles
Students mentioned archaeological sites on Santorini and Crete. A woman studying in Athens said, “Akrotiri [on Santorini] has only been 5% excavated. So basically, when you’re walking around Santorini, there’s an entire buried city beneath you.” It’s worth visiting sites like this, she says, because it helps students understand how advanced Santorini’s residents really were.
Another student said study-abroad students would be missing out if they didn’t visit sites like Knossos and Phaistos on Crete, both palatial Minoan settlements. With multi-story apartments and complex art, both wow students with the sophistication of ancient Greek life.
Tour the Monasteries in Meteora
“Hike in Meteora!” gushed one student, who said there are many trails and the views were unbeatable. Meteora is one of Greece’s most stunning locations, inspiring 13th-century Eastern Orthodox monks to build two dozen monasteries high in the rock pillars here.
While the town is a lengthy train ride from Athens or Thessaloniki, students say the formidable monasteries in central Greece are “definitely worth it.” A second student agreed, saying that he had not heard of any student who didn’t like their trip there.
Immerse Yourself in the Carnivalesque
Hop a ferry from Italy or Corfu, and you may find yourself in the port city of Patras. Stay for a little while and check out the Patras Carnival. A two-hour bus ride from Athens, one student says the carnival was “an incredible, immersive experience that wasn’t part of the school’s itinerary” but was a weekend trip to remember.
Going beyond Mardi Gras, the carnival starts in January, with events leading up to Clean Monday (the first day of Lent in Greece). It culminates in the Grand Parade, a nationally-televised, hours-long procession with floats, costumes, and fireworks.
Cultural Experiences to Last A Lifetime
Aristotle said that “the roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” But studying abroad in Greece seems like an exception to the rule. After all, students here soak up culture without endless hours in the library. Instead, learning about culture in the home of Aristotle involves getting lost in streets full of graffiti art, Byzantine ruins, and ancient history. Nothing bitter there.
There are endless opportunities to learn and experience Greek culture firsthand. Whether exploring the Parthenon or visiting museums and tavernas, students in Greece have plenty of chances to enjoy the sweet fruits of their education.