Sports & Outdoor activities
Going the Distance: A Guide to the Athens Marathon
The classic Athens Marathon is a race through history. Taking part is the experience of a lifetime. Seeing the runners cross the finish line in the original Olympic stadium is a thrilling event all on its own.
490BC. The Persians fall at the Battle of Marathon, despite outnumbering the Athenians four to one. An Athenian herald named Pheidippides is dispatched to Athens, 42km away, to break the news. Once there, he utters the joyous words, νικῶμεν (nikomen)—“we have won”—and collapses. Most historical accounts then have him dying on the spot from exhaustion. This may or may not be a romanticised version of the events; though to be fair, Pheidippides had also just legged it 240km from Athens to Sparta and back again to ask for help when the Persian fleet landed in a bay near the town of Marathon.
Today, more than 1,500 marathon races are organised worldwide. But Greece is where it all began. At the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, a 42km race from Marathon to Athens was featured as one of the defining events of the new Olympic era. It was a way of recalling the ancient glory of Greece. Fittingly, a Greek water-carrier, Spyridon Louis, won the race in 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds. (Currently, Kenyan runner Felix Kandie holds the Athens Marathon record at 2 hours, 10 minutes and 37 seconds.) Every year, long-distance runners from across the globe challenge their bodies and spirits to retrace the legendary footsteps of Pheidippides. With its combination of hills, heat, and history, many find it to be the toughest—but most poetic—Marathon route of them all.
What it’s like to run the Athens Marathon
Every year at 9am on the day of the race, locals and visiting spectators line the streets of Marathon, where the ancient battlefield once stood, to cheer on jittery competitors at the starting blocks. Today, Marathon is a modest coastal town of about 8,000 residents, with a small archeological museum and an artificial lake. The runners pass around the Marathon tomb, the final resting place of the Greek soldiers who lost their lives during the legendary battle of Marathon. They then run near the base of Mount Pendeli, onward to Pallini and finally hit the streets and suburbs of the Greek capital.
Those who’ve run the classic Athens Marathon before—or done their homework—know to dread the uphill stretch after Rafina at around the 18km mark. This goes on until about the 32km, when the route shifts gently downhill to reach the wide, crowd-thronged avenues of the city centre. From there, it’s like a race through history.
Spectator sport: the best spots to watch the Marathon
Every runner who makes it across the finish line at the Panathenaic stadium, birthplace of the modern Olympics, is greeted with a hero’s applause—regardless of speed, age, or nationality. Many athletes burst into tears, exhausted and emotional. Witnessing these runners finish the race of their lives at such an epic venue is a memorable experience in itself—not to be missed if you’re in Athens, especially if you’re travelling with kids. There’s music, live commentary and the excitement is at fever-pitch.
Take our advice and head to the stadium around 10-10.30am to secure a seat on the marble tiers. You can soak up the party atmosphere and catch the first victorious runners entering the stadium, usually around 11am. Try for a spot on either side of the stadium entrance or right at the back in the centre, where the actual finish line is.
Some other great vantage points are at the 40km mark, outside the Megaron Athens Concert Hall, or a bit further up Vasilissis Sofias Avenue, outside the Hilton hotel. This is where the runners really need you to cheer them on for their final burst of endurance. There’s a grassy pocket across the road from the Hilton that makes a symbolic spectator’s choice. It’s right next to Dromeas (The Runner), a 12-metre tall glass and iron sculpture by local artist Costas Varotsos.
Instagram addicts should head a little further out of the city centre to the Katehaki pedestrian bridge at the 37.5km mark, where you can snap a dramatic aerial view of the colourful stream of runners as they pass below (the closest metro station is Ethniki Amyna).
Run your own best race
The Athens Marathon isn’t just for professional athletes. Thousands of ordinary people from Athens and all over the world register for the other running races that take place on the sidelines: there’s a 5km, 10km, Power Walking Race, 1.2km Special Olympics Race or even a Kids Race (registration for the Athens Marathon usually closes about two and a half months before the race, but you can still sign up for the side events until much later). Depending on your fitness levels, these are all great ways to feel part of this momentous experience.
A decade ago, there were 10,000 participants running through the city in various races during the Athens Marathon. In 2019, there are expected to be five times as many runners—and thousands more people cheering on the sidelines—all celebrating the power of human endurance and international community.
Ten unmissable Athenian experiences
You’ve ticked off the Acropolis; done Plaka. But what are the other must-do experiences in Athens? Here’s a checklist of places to see and things to do. (Hint: think outdoors, and you’re on the right track).
Take a trip to the Greek islands in Anafiotika
How so many visitors to Athens manage to miss out on romantic Anafiotika - even though it’s just below the Parthenon - is a complete mystery. A serene Cycladic village smack in the city centre, Anafiotika was built in the mid-19th century by stonemasons from the island of Anafi, summoned by King Otto I to build his palace (today’s Parliament building). By night, the islanders knocked up the humble, whitewashed dwellings for their own families. Once illegal, these flower-framed cottages are now an essential element of Athens’ architectural heritage – and charm. A perfect escape for those who don’t have time to hit the Greek islands, getting lost in the meandering, nameless lanes is half the joy.
Watch the sunset from Areopagus Hill
Athenian sunsets never grow old. The higher you go, the more impressive the show. So join the stream of locals racing up to Areopagus Hill as dusk falls. Just opposite the gateway to the Parthenon, this rocky outcrop was where the ancient city elders presided. It later served as a criminal court where murders were tried. These days, it’s a popular spot for courting couples and young friends, simply known as Vrahakia (“little rocks”). From up here, you can get a sense of the modern city’s topography as well as its ancient iconography. Wear sneakers – the rocks have been worn smooth by countless bottoms perched here over the centuries.
Catch a concert at a Roman amphitheatre
There are music venues and then there’s the Odeon of Herod Atticus (or rather, the Herodion, as every Athenian calls it). Some pretty stellar names have played at this epic 2,000-year-old arena on the southern slopes of the Acropolis. Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Andrea Bocelli, Liza Minnelli, and, of course, Maria Callas. Put them all together and they still can’t outshine the star quality of the Herodion. From May to October, it’s the main open-air venue for the Athens Festival, an international bonanza of arts and culture. On stage, global icons like Sting gaze up at the moon rising over the glowing Parthenon, as if to say: “Holy cow”. And so will you.
Wrap your chops around a souvlaki
Leaving Athens without sampling our finest street food? We don’t think so. With a history dating back centuries, these moreish skewers of char-grilled meat are Athens’ answer to the hot dog in New York or fish and chips in London. Beloved by locals-on-the-go as a cheap and hearty snack between shopping, meetings, or bar-hopping, souvlaki is abundantly available in the Greek capital and comes in all kinds of tasty guises. You can even score vegetarian options these days, wrapped in pita bread and drizzled with secret sauces.
Watch a movie by moonlight
For Athenians, it wouldn’t be summer without spending a balmy evening at one of the city’s open-air cinemas. A bougainvillea-draped screen. The chirp of cicadas. Dodgy acoustics. The odd cat strolling in front of the picture. Whether the latest Hollywood blockbuster or an old silver screen favourite, the movies are usually shown in their original language with Greek subtitles. Choose from downtown classics with mesmerising Parthenon views or Athens Riviera landmarks where you can taste the sea in the air. Summer cinemas in Athens are usually open from May until late September, depending on the weather.
Drink in the Parthenon from a rooftop bar
You don’t have to sightsee during the daytime in Athens. From early spring to late autumn, hit the capital’s “hidden city” of rooftop bars for some of the best Parthenon views. Athens is always throwing up lofty new stars where the cocktails are as mind-blowing as the views. From five-star hotels to secret haunts hidden in grungy arcades, there are vantage points and vibes to suit everyone. Many of these high-level hideaways also serve coffee and brunch with that eternally inspiring view.
Roll home from the bouzoukia at dawn
You might want to take your multivitamins – and a siesta – before this one. When Greeks go out to the bouzoukia, the fun rarely kicks off before 1am. These live Greek music clubs are modern-day temples of Dionysian revelry. You’re in for an epic (and expensive) bacchanal of table-top dancing and flying rose petals. Greeks buy trays full of flowers to fling at their favourite performers and wouldn’t dream of going home before dawn. Certainly not before making a souvlaki pit-stop en-route - or slurping down a bowl of their favourite hangover remedy, patsas (tripe soup), at an all-night eatery.
Do an Olympic workout
There are plenty of scenic running routes in Athens but the most heart-racing of all is the 500-metre, pine-shaded track that runs above the Panathenaic marble stadium on Ardito's Hill. Grab your Nikes - they were named after the Greek Goddess of Victory, you know - and slip through the green gate on Archmidous Street (just behind the stadium in Pagrati) to access this hidden running track with rousing Acropolis views. It’s free to use and overlooks the gleaming stadium that kicked off the modern Olympic Games in 1896, the world’s only athletic arena built entirely of marble. There’s a running track inside the stadium too, if you really want to channel your inner Usain Bolt.
Say a little prayer, Greek Orthodox style
Wandering the streets of Athens, you’re likely to spot locals making the sign of the cross — a telltale sign that there’s a church nearby. They may not be obvious at first glance, but the magical Byzantine churches of Athens are peppered among the city’s apartments and squares. Athenians throng to church in the week before Easter on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15. But step inside a Byzantine chapel any time of day or year and you’re transported to medieval Athens. Light a candle, say a prayer or make a wish, and watch the flames flicker over the frescoed dome and gold-tinged icons. You might stumble upon a church service, christening or wedding in play.
Sunday Lunch by the Sea
Most Athenians don’t care a jot about the shops being shut on Sundays. They’ d much rather be indulging in one of their favourite pastimes: the marathon Sunday lunch by the sea. Year-round, you’ll find Athenians enjoying high-spirited feasts all along the Athens Riviera, from the fancy seafood restaurants of Mikrolimano, near Piraeus, to the laid-back, seaside tavernas of Varkiza and Kavouri. To lunch like a local: go late (never before 2pm), order dozens of mezze to share, and squabble at length over who gets to pay the bill.
It’s not all about world class heritage. Athens also exceeds at cultural and athletic events that entice artists, visitors and participants to explore the oldest new destination.
Athens & Epidaurus Festival
Greece’s foremost cultural festival and one of the oldest performing arts festivals in Europe (1955), the Athens & Epidaurus Festival annually presents numerous theatre, dance, and music artists, acclaimed in Greece and globally, attracting large audiences from around the world.
Performances are held in June, July and August. Athens Festival performances are held between June 1st and mid to late July. Epidaurus performances are held every Friday and Saturday, from early July to mid-August.
The Athens Festival is staged at the following venues:
Odeon of Herodes Atticus: The Festival’s main performance venue, with a capacity of 5,000, the Odeon is located at the foot of the Acropolis. Built in honour of Herodes’ wife, Aspasia Annia Regilla, this exquisite Roman Odeon dates to the 2nd century AD and was restored in the 1950s. Capacity: 5,000 (4,500 tickets up for sale).
Other venues include: Peiraios 260, a former industrial complex renovated to accommodate Greek and international avant-garde artists from the fields of theatre and dance; the world-famous Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus and Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus; andarious neighbourhoods of Athens and Piraeus, including outdoor spaces and archaeological sites, for site-specific performances.
The Authentic Athens Marathon
The Athens Marathon is an annual race held in Athens in November, bringing to life two strands of running history. Not only do the races finish in the legendary Panathenaic Stadium where the first modern Olympic games took place in 1896, but the original 42K race course covers the original marathon route of Pheidippides, who in 490 BC ran from Marathon to Athens to bring news of the victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.
Athens boasts a vibrant running and cycling scene with frequent meetings and events taking place as more residents and visitors realise they are a great way to get to know the city.