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Athens or Barcelona; a city comparison and tourism travel guide

Both Barcelona and Athens are fantastic cities, but which is better for your city-break or holiday?

We understand your dilemma. There is a wealth of information about both cities, but little stating which is the better destination and more suited for your trip.
This website will provide our unbiased opinions of Barcelona and Athens, and hopefully help you to choose the best city to visit. The article is divided into the following sections, and can be jumped to using the underlined links:
1) Introductions -
2) City scores -
3) Which one should I, friends, or family visit? -
4) When to visit and weather -
5) Who is the city suited for? -
6) The perfect 48hours (with map) -
7) Tourism details (where to stay? airport details?)

Introduction to Barcelona and Athens

The home of democracy and one of the cradles of human achievements in fields as diverse as science, mathematics, and philosophy, Athens has always been a bucket-list city. Since the first wooden walls were raised on the edge of the rugged Attica peninsula back at the start of the first millennium BC, it's been a hub of the Mediterranean.
Empires have risen and fallen here, battles have been fought, and some of the grandest temples in the world still crown the great Acropolis in the town's heart.

But this buzzing capital is also lived-in and raw. Areas like Monastiraki and Koukaki are crossed by tree-shaded avenues filled with cafes and rimmed by Orthodox churches. Plaka is a glimpse of traditional Greece – think whitewashed tavernas sizzling souvlaki on open grills.

Rough-around-the-edges Exarcheia is a hotbed for radicalism and revolution. Oh, and there's Piraeus port just down the road, where boats are waiting to whisk you away to pine-scented islands in the Aegean and Saronic Gulf.

High-level summary for Athens and Barcelona

Summary
Which city would I go to? Barcelona
Which one would I recommend to my parents? Barcelona
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin? Barcelona
Which for my food obsessed friend? Barcelona
Note: The above comparison does not consider the weather, and assumes travel at the best time of year (which is detailed later in this article)

The following sections compare the two cities and considers; how long to spend in them, when to visit, and provides suggested 48hours in each city (along with an interactive map). The final section is tourism practicalities and includes which airport to fly into, what district to be based in and how best to explore the city. We hope that you find all of this information useful, in planning your next exciting trip.

Destination details

How long to spend in the city?

Barcelona can be fully seen with two intense days of sightseeing, but if you include the beaches, the mountain viewpoints and a more leisurely pace, this leads to the conventional four-day visit.

A trip could be extended by visiting the picturesque Montserrat Monastery and mountains or the attractive coastal town of Sitges. Barcelona is much more suited for a short city break than a longer holiday, and does lack the diversity of day trips as with other destinations.

Athens can be sampledin a few days, but it can also warrant trips of a few weeks or more. It all really depends on what you want out of your visit. If it's a whirlwind tour of the famous 5th-century history sights (the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Agora), some Greek mezze, and a good night out that takes your fancy, then a weekend could be enough.

If you want to feel like a real local, sip gritty Greek coffees in corner bars in alt neighborhoods, and even escape to the islands to top up the tan, you'll need to plan longer.

Athens is most popular in the summer months, but we'd say it's not the best time of year to come. Temperatures in Greece can be scorching between June and August, with daily highs peaking around the 40 Celsius mark! Bear in mind that there's also not too much shade in the main monuments. That's especially true up on the Acropolis, where it's just marble columns and temples. If you do travel at this time, always visit the history sights as early as possible to escape the heat.

Much better are the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn. These see warm days and cool evenings of between 16-29 degrees on average. It's still usually dry, with the occasional cloud and rainfall. However, there are also fewer people around, cheaper hotels, and smaller queues for the ancient ruins.

Winter in Athens gets surprisingly cold. Snow can even fall in the height of the season. It's the best if you really don't like dodging other tourists though, with the museums and the galleries all virtually empty. Be warned that ferries to nearby islands like Poros and Aegina rarely run between November and March.

Barcelona is almost a year-round destination, and the best time of year to visit is either early spring or later autumn as this is outside of the peak season, but the weather is still pleasant.

The peak tourist season is July and August, and we suggest Barcelona is best avoided, as it is just too hectic and crowded. The weather is suitable for spending time on the beaches from May until October. The winter months are cooler and possibly wet but there is a less hectic pace around the city.

Barcelona is flashy, energetic and modern. The city has vibrant tourist attractions and is without the stuffy atmosphere of many other historic destinations. It generally appeals more to the younger visitor with its heady mix of nightlife, beaches and Instagram ready tourist attractions.

It should be noted that Barcelona is not a cheap city, being the most expensive city in Spain. Barcelona great for a short stay or a one-day visit, such as from a cruise ship.

The history lover is the traveller who will surely feel most at home in Athens. After all, this is the place of the mighty Parthenon; where the Athenian Empire once flourished. And it's got Orthodox temples and some of the most acclaimed ancient artifact museums on the globe to top the lot off. You can spend whole trips hopping between crumbling temples and learning about the hard-fought Peloponnesian War, without even scratching the surface of the amazing daytrip possibilities.

Aside from its famous historical relics, Athens also has a reputation for hedonism. Districts like anarchist Exarcheia come laced with squat bars and buzzy pubs. There's also pumping nightlife around the Plaka area, where you'll be able to dine on endless platters of saganaki cheese, hummus, and grilled lamb before heading out to dance the Zorba.

If you're planning a Greek beach holiday, then Athens is a good arrival point. You're likely to be a little disappointed if you hang around too long, though. The only sands within reach of the centre are in Vouliagmeni to the south and they certainly aren't the best in the country.

Barcelona
Barcelona is a tremendous destination for a 48-hours, and excels as a short-stay destination. Below is an interactive map for 48 hours in Barcelona; day 1 is highlighted in green and day 2 in yellow, with optional sights marked grey.

The first morning would start on the La Rambla the authentic shopping street, which is so popular with tourists and locals alike. For the middle of the day explore the Gothic Quarter, which contains the cathedral and Picasso museum.
For the final part of the head towards the harbour and the lively Barceloneta district, that lies the beaches. For the evening both Gothic Quarter or Barceloneta boasts restaurants, atmosphere and entertainment.

Barcelona cable car

The cable car up to Montjuïc Castle provides wonderful views over Barcelona

For the second day begin by visiting the awe-inspiring Sagrada Familia basilica, with is whimsical towers, intricate carvings and masterpiece of Antoni Gaudí. The theme of Gaudí continues with the next sight, the Parc Guell, which was designed by him and includes delightful mosaic-covered buildings and wonderful views of the city.

The final area to discover is Montjuï, where you can ride the cable car to a stunning or visit the MNAC museum housed in the grand Palau Nacional.
The finale for your time in Barcelona is the inspiring Magic Fountain light show, held at the fountain near the MNAC museum (Wed-Sun peak season).

48hours in Athens
Searching for an all-round fantastic 48 hours in the Greek capital? Look no further. This culture-packed and monument-filled itinerary whizzes you through all the mainstay sights and even into some downright gritty local districts. Enjoy…

Day 1: Start as early as you can and head straight through the Plaka area up to the base of the Acropolis. The best way to reach that grand monument is via the winding roads that link up the tavernas with the great Propylaea gatehouse that dates to 437 BC. It was commissioned by Perikles in the aftermath of the Persian War and leads to the symbolic heart of ancient Athens: The Parthenon.

Getting there early means you can hopefully dodge the crowds and the heat. Take some time to wander to see the hulking columns and design – it's considered to be the finest Doric temple on the planet. The next-door Erechtheion also catches the eye. It was built after 421 BC in honour of Poseidon and Athena, famed for its Caryatid statues of female figures. A lookout point on the south-east end of the Acropolis is perfect for taking in the city views.

For lunch, go for the vibrant area of Koukaki, checking out the Theatre of Dionysus en route. It's filled with hip cafeterias and bakeries, all huddled under plane trees and bougainvillea. It's a short walk from there to the acclaimed Acropolis Museum. You can while away the whole afternoon within, uncovering the story of the legendary building and the politics it represented.
Think about ending the day with a walk through the pine trees to Filopappou Hill. That's home to the place where Socrates was imprisoned in the early 390s BC and tops out with some of the most stunning views of the Acropolis there are.

Parthenon athens

The Parthenon was dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, who is regarded as the patron of the city

Day 2: The café culture of Monastiraki gets the day rolling – think about grabbing a traditional Greek coffee and pastry in one of the local bakehouses. A quick stroll through the blocks southwards then takes you to the Agora.
That was the epicentre of life in the ancient city state, complete with shrines and marketplaces and statues. The piece de resistance is the Temple of Hephaestus, which crowns a hillside on its northern end. Nearby, the blocks of Syntagma and Syntagma Square offer a glimpse at the modern edge of the Greek capital.

The vast plaza at the area's heart hosts the Old Royal Palace of the Greek monarchy. There are also countless places to sit with a cold lunchtime beer. Finished? Go south and you'll find the mighty Temple of Olympian Zeus. It is half ruined but still draws a gasp from most visitors on account of its monstrous Corinthian columns.
In the afternoon, catch a tram towards the National Archaeological Museum. Inside, you'll discover perhaps the richest collection of ancient artifacts there are in the world.
What's more, the district on the doorstep is Exarcheia. Be careful with your valuables in those parts, because it's rough and gritty, but the streets ooze character and have perhaps the most hedonistic bars in the country.

Once in Barcelona all of the main sights are close and can be easily walked. The standard of food and service at restaurants in the tourist areas varies dramatically, it’s always advisable to check reviews first.

Traveling from Athens airport is best done using the metro. Line 3 links directly to the terminal. The fare is a flat €10 and the journey takes around 40 minutes each way. If leaving the city, be sure to catch the right train, because not all departures on the line go to the same place.

Always beware of pickpockets, muggers, thieves and scams in Athens. The capital is generally safe, but certain areas – the Plaka, Omonoia Square and Exarcheia especially – do see regular crimes against tourists. Try to keep a hand on your wallet and an eye on your bag at all times.

Political upheavals in Athens are a common problem. Widespread discontent with the government has led to regular protests and marches since the 2000s. They can sometimes bring the whole city to a standstill and are worth avoiding – teargas, clashes with police and even Molotov cocktails have been known to play a part.

Getting around Athens is relatively easy. You've got a metro network that links most of the main tourist areas and the airport. Above ground, there are buses and trams going out to lesser known neighborhoods. There are both kiosks and vending machines at the entrance to most stations for you to buy tickets. They cost €1.40 and are valid for 90 minutes from the moment of validation.

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