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Athens or Florence; a city comparison and tourism travel guide

Both Florence 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 Florence 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 Athens and Florence

Florence comes at you in a flurry of priceless art, pastel-painted jewellers, romantic piazzas, marble-gilded basilicas, saffron-scented risotto – the list goes on. Nestled into the lovely Arezzo hills in the northern part of Tuscany, the regional capital is famous around the globe.

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 Florence

Summary
Which city would I go to?Florence
Which one would I recommend to my parents? Florence
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin? Athens
Which for my food obsessed friend? Florence
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?

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.

Florence demands at least two days. Lovers of this enchanting town will surely scoff at that. They wax lyrical about how Florence seduces folk who pass its way into staying weeks, months, years, and even whole lifetimes. Still, we think it's possible to check off the main sights, try the top dishes, and explore the historic center with around 48-72 hours total.

In the peak season there are extremely long queues for the galleries and Duomo cathedral; to avoid wasting precious time, it is advisable to pre-purchase tickets and start the day sightseeing very early (before 8am).

There are many good day trips from Florence, which are easily accessible by train, and include Siena, Lucca, and Arezzo. Florence may be a smaller city, but a fabulous one-week holiday could be had based here.

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.

You've got to remember that Florence is up there with the most famous in Italy, and the vast majority of the 15.4 million visitors that come annually turn up in the summer months! That sends hotel rates skywards between June and August and means you'll need to jostle for space in front of Giotto's Bell Tower and the Duomo.

The ideal time to visit Florence is from April to June or September and October. They have good weather, fewer people, and cheaper prices, not to mention food festivals and wine harvest events. Winters are cooler and possibly wet but have the lowest number of tourists.

Culture and art are the pillars of Florence. Lovers of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance will feel right at home between the Accademia Gallery and the Uffizi. Within their halls are iconic sculptures like Michelangelo's David, The Birth of Venus by Botticelli, and Caravaggio's haunting Medusa. And that's only scratching the surface!

Adding to the mix are the intriguing collections of the Museo Galileo for science buffs, the Ponte Vecchio for architecture aficionados, and tasty Tuscan farm foods for gourmands. Downsides include high visitor numbers, so it's best to steer clear if you're not a fan of crowds, particularly in the summer.

Florence is not an overly expensive destination, is relatively safe and has a small city atmosphere.

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.

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.

48 hours in Florence
Early morningstarts are key in Florence, to hit the galleries and basilicas before the crowds. Don't worry, though, this two-day itinerary has time to rest with beautiful views in Renaissance gardens come the afternoon…

Day 1: Make for the Piazza del Duomo for the break of dawn – seriously, the earlier you can get there the better. That way, you can snap shots of the great cathedral and adjacent Giotto's Bell Tower without plumes of visitors getting in the way!
Look to the green-white marble inlays and the striking Gothic Revivalism of the whole building and think about hitting the 87-meter high lookouts of the belfry for some sweeping views across the city and the Apennines.

Traditional Tuscan design oozes from the lovely Palazzo Vecchio on Piazza della Signoria – this is the town hall, dating from way back in the 1400s. Grab an on-the-go pizza slice and make north to Galleria dell'Accademia after that.

Day 2: It's a museum morning in the famous Uffizi Gallery on day two. For art lovers, the journey here is a rite of passage. The collections span several wings of a great palace in the heart of central Florence and can take hours on end to appreciate fully.

Highlights that simply can't be missed include The Birth of Venus (Botticelli), Laocoön and his Sons (Bandinelli), Raphael's portrait of Pope Leo X, and Caravaggio's unforgettable Medusa. Back outside, the Ponte Vecchio bridge isn't far. It was once a butcher's market but is now famous for its jewellery boutiques.
On the hills beyond are the handsome Boboli Gardens, all brimming with babbling fountains and carved statues. Further up again is Forte di Belvedere, where even more breathtaking views of Florence are on offer come the evening.

Florence
The best place to touchdown on a flight is surely Amerigo Vespucci International Airport. A mere 15 minutes' drive (7km) in a taxi, or 30 minutes in a train, can link you from the downtown to the terminals there.
Unfortunately, the bulk of Europe's budget carriers will jet into Pisa. That's still close – around 1-1.5 hours (83km) in the bus to the west.
Avoid flying into Bologna, as this is even further away (115km), and bus transfer 1.5-2 hours.

In terms of neighborhoods, you'll want to focus on bedding down within the SS67 ring road. More specifically, the districts of San Giovanni (the historic core) and Santa Croce are perhaps the most central, even if the latter retains a lived-in Italian feel. San Marco is a whisker to the north, hosting the bulk of the low-cost hotels and guest houses. Oltrarno boasts buzzy nightlife venues and hip coffee shops.

You probably won't need any forms of transport in Florence other than your own two feet. The town is eminently walkable. Be sure to bring comfy shoes that are suited to long days, however, especially if you're keen to scale to the lookout points around Piazzale Michelangelo.
For exploring the surrounding region, a rental car is a must. These tend to be cheap in Italy and are best organised from the airport to avoid driving through the centre of town.

Aside from the infamous Stendhal syndrome – a condition supposedly caused by exposure to too much beautiful Florentine art – there are no standout risks to visiting this city. The centre is generally safe and well maintained, crime rates are relatively low, and the locals are often happy to help out.

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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