In recent years, Athens has been promoted in some circles as the ‘New Berlin’, a city for creators and artistic expression. Part of this trend, the colourful and often rugged and coarse street art and graffiti, stands in contrast to the stark beauty of the Parthenon rising high above the city; but 'contrast' can describe all of Athens where top-end fashion, business, universities, locally-sourced eateries, and modern day art have to give the right of way to ages-old history and culture and ancient ruins. (A financial collapse in the 2010's followed by the COVID years is enough to force any society to reinvent itself, maybe along with just a bit of discontent.) Combine the old and new, and Athens has much to offer.
None of my travelling group had Athens on their 'must visit’ list, but in planning our recent European adventure, it seemed like an obvious place to add to Budapest and Istanbul. After all, who isn’t just a bit intrigued by the Acropolis?
Athens is a short, 50 minute flight from Thessaloniki, Greece, where we had recharged ourselves for a few nights, allowing us to arrive early and settle in our hotel. Once again, we had a driver waiting (with four travellers, the cost of a driver is roughly the same as the cost of four metro tickets with way less hassle - and you get to meet a well-informed local with amazing driving skills in the process).
Athens has all manner of accommodations. Again, we chose to stay out of the 'tourist' zone in a small boutique hotel near a university and close to the base of the popular Lykabettus Hill, bordering on the well-to-do Kolonaki district. It was a perfect location, close walking distance to the historical sites, metro, and restaurants. The Bohemian Suites is a well-managed, eight room residence, with kind and helpful staff - and made-to-order breakfasts served in their garden.
You might wonder why I am not leading with the Acropolis which is usually the prime reason for visiting Athens. Well, in order to get the most out of your visit to the Acropolis, some strategy helps, so we saved that for later.
Like us, you might choose to use the first day of your visit for a self-guided walking tour of central Athens. This gave us good perspective as to where the main sites lay - we were surprised to find that, despite Athens having a population of about three million people, central Athens with all the major ancient sites is not that big.
If you look closely at the map, you will see a little circle just left of the big Lykabettus Hill - that is where our hotel was situated. (Yes, for the overall 'picture', hardcopy still comes in handy.)
Our first-day walking tour took us by the Hellenic Parliament building:
On the hour, there is a ceremonial changing of the guards who are Evzones, or elite members of the Greek military completing their mandatory service. You might want to read up on this interesting part of Athens' more 'recent' history. Only the best are chosen. Their outfits have historical significance. Their shoes weigh over three kilograms and are adorned with huge pom-poms. They step high, brush their feet on the ground, and stamp their feet in unison. There appears to be some folklore attached - some stories say that the guards came about after the young King Otto missed his horses so formed a guard unit that stomped their feet, sounding like his horses. In reality, the Evzones date to 1867 when they were official guard units. Today, only one group remains, and they are ceremonial, guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and acting as a reminder of Greece's strength, bravery, courage, and freedom. We found it humanly impossible not to walk like this for a few steps after watching the ceremony - thankfully, there are no pictures.
The Hellenic Parliament is across from Syntagma (Constitution) Square where, it is said, every major event in Greece has either been celebrated or mourned, including political pep rallies, resistance movements, demonstrations, concerts, and festivals. It's the most popular square in Athens and is a pleasant place to relax and watch people and listen to the busker of the day (we would have paid full concert price to watch the busker on the day we visited).
Syntagma Square opens up to the upscale shopping street, Ermou. Here you will find all of the high-end popular stores, but you will also run right into the Panagia Kapnikarea, the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, built at the beginning of the 11th century. This church was so prominent and important in history, Ermou Street had to be built around it.
We continued our walk through the central district of Plaka, stopping by the Metropolitan Church of Athens, the church of the Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece:
Our first ancient historic site was The Arch of Hadrian, or Hadrian's Gate, dating to 132 AD, crossing an equally ancient road in the centre of Athens to the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
From there, it's a short walk to the Acropolis area. While you are discovering the area and planning your visit, a neat ‘trick’ is to find the steps and small path along the outer edge (it juts off the street Thrassilou/Stratonos) that ascends up the side of the Acropolis wall, past white-washed private residences tucked away from view. There are few tourists on the path. Unknown to us at the time, we had discovered Anafiotika, a small, traditional neighbourhood reminiscent of the towns on the Greek islands with winding narrow streets and tiny houses. There are only 45 houses remaining. Some of the streets remain unnamed, and the houses are simply numbered Anafiotika 1, 2, 3, etc. I wish we had spent more time and taken more photos in this unique little area. (Entered on the 'next time' list: find all 45 Anafiotka houses.)
Descending from Anafiotika, the Roman Agora and Tower of the Winds from the 1st century BC:
And Hadrian's Library dating to 132 AD:
Then, a laugh amidst the ruins. Our walk had brought us to the Monastiraki, Psyri, and Kerameikos areas as we started to loop back to our hotel. But first, coffee. I researched coffee shops in the area and found Little Kook Coffee on Pittaki Street. It sounded interesting, so we headed that direction only to find that Little Kook Coffee is in 'Kookland', an Alice in Wonderland theme area. We did not stay for coffee. (Kookland was created to rehabilitate a rundown area, and it is said that it is magical when lit up at night. It is a hit with families, and it's another stark contrast to the ancient ruins.)
We passed the beautiful National Library of Greece (Vallianeio Megaron):
And the Old Parliament House used between 1875 and 1934, now the National Historic Museum:
On our second day in Athens, we visited the old Olympic site (or ‘new’, depending on your perspective - not the old ancient Olympics but the old 2004 Olympics). This is one of the few Olympic sites that has not fallen to disrepair. They have preserved several of the structures such as the swimming pool complex that contains no less than five major pools. An Olympic qualifier swim meet was in progress when we visited. We were able to visualize just how grand (and exorbitantly expensive) the 2004 Olympics were with the architecturally designed buildings and walkways and fountains.
After returning to central Athens, we ended the day with a walk in the National Garden after supper. The National Garden borders the Presidential Palace.
To get to the metro station for the green line train to the Olympic site in the northern suburbs of Athens, we walked through the Exarchia district which has a reputation as being an older, more unsafe, 'party' neighbourhood; however, early on a Sunday morning, we were able to enjoy the eclectic street art amidst the rubble of Saturday night. The neighbourhood is apparently becoming more ‘acceptable’ as university students are taking up residence there. Athens is becoming known for its street art (again, the New Berlin?) and the streets of Exarchia are laden with politically-heavy graffiti messages. Other areas of well known street art in Athens are Psyrri, Anafiotika, and Gazi. A future trip for me would certainly include a street art tour (one of my favourite things - I love the 'edgy' beauty of that form of expression).
Enjoy this example of Athens street art (I apologize if there are any 'swears', but "it's all Greek to me" - I just had to fit that line in somewhere).
Finally, the reason people flock to Athens - the ‘Acropolis’. As I mentioned in my blog post about Thessaloniki, some knowledge of Greek history would enhance the experience; after all, it is the birthplace of Western civilization. I quickly learned that the Acropolis is the grouping of ancient structures high on a huge rock mound - 'Acropolis' traditionally meant 'upper city'. I am not one for paying admission to tourist sites, but the Acropolis area is truly spectacular and worth every cent. They say it might be the ‘crown jewel’ of all of Europe. The Acropolis ‘rock’ stands high above the city and perched on top were some 20 temples and ruins dating to the 5th Century BC, the most spectacular and well known in the literature about Greece being the Parthenon which defines the city landscape. There is a winding path lined with descriptive plaques climbing to the Parthenon. Once you reach the top, it is hard not to be awestruck by the engineering, the effort, the beauty, and the significance of these structures dating to so long ago. (We think that society is so smart today, but it can be argued that ancient civilizations were far ahead of us without modern technology.)
Here are some views of the Acropolis area.
On the path to the Parthenon the theatre of Dionysos Eleuthereus (look at the row of prime viewing seats with the high-backs):
Enroute to the Parthenon, my favourite site was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an open air amphitheatre built in AD 161 which still hosts events today. I can (and can't) imagine a hot summer evening with natural acoustics. We missed jazz musician Herbie Hancock by a couple of months - possible bucket list item.
I know someone who is dreaming of Herbie Hancock Live At The Acropolis:
At the top of the winding path, we arrived at the Propylaea of Athens (the gate of the Acropolis of Athens), a ceremonial gateway. The view through the columns is exquisite.
The Erechtheion or Temple of Athena Polias on the north side of the Acropolis.
And, finally, the pictures we are all familiar with, the Parthenon. The size and grandeur are truly breath-taking. A teacher and her students were visiting and instead of simply looking and chatting, they were all quietly sketching. There's no shortage of artistic viewpoints.
Here’s a couple of tips to get the most out of an Acropolis visit: you can purchase your tickets from machines at the entrance gate (we used the south, or side entrance, gate which is less busy and leads to the path that passes more of the ancient sites); go on a weekday to avoid crowds; the best time to visit the Acropolis is either early, prior to 9:00 am before the crowds arrive or after 5:30 pm when the hoards have left, both times avoiding the daytime heat - and if you go in the evening, you just might be given a beautiful sunset view looking through centuries old columns to the white-washed city below, which is priceless. We chose to go on a Monday at about 5:30 pm, and there were very few people. Another tip - we were in Athens in early May, and the temperature was just starting to rise. It becomes very hot in the summer, so a hat, sunscreen, and water are essential as there is no shade on the Acropolis.
On our way to the Acropolis, we stopped by the Panathenaic Stadium. Although it dates to 330 BC, it has been rebuilt and repurposed over the centuries. It is significant for the fact that it has played a role in Olympic Games since 1870, and the 'newest' version is built entirely of marble. It is the last venue in Greece where the Olympic flame is handed over to the next host nation.
A lesser known area of Athens but a great way to spend half a day is to visit the Pedion Areos Park where the locals gather on the northern edge of the central area, which we did before visiting the Acropolis later that day. This park dates to 1934 and honours the heroes of the Greek Revolution. It covers almost 28 hectares. It was refurbished in 1935 to 1940 when 46,000 trees and bushes were planted. The welcoming equestrian statue is of King Constantine I of Greece. On the day we visited, the annual spring bedding plant sale was in progress. There are two historic churches in the park, one being the Holy Church of Saint Charalampos and one the Archangels Taxiarches Church, as well as a theatre. We also found a kiosk with good coffee in the middle of the park (you know that kiosks are one of my favourite things). The park was quiet with no crowds.
On our way to the Pedeon Areos Park, we admired the National Archeology Museum from the outside:
A nice day trip from central Athens is to take the blue line metro to Pireaous, the seaside port of Athens. You can walk from the metro station around the dock where the cruise ships and large ferries arrive (with Greece being made up of so many islands, there were many large ferries in dock). We passed the tiny Chapel of the Neomartyrs and then visited what we agreed was one of the nicest but unheralded churches we have seen in our travels, the Church of Saint Nicholas. I would recommend strolling through the centre of the town area to the Zea Marina. The Zea Marina is an expensive dock for even more expensive yachts. We researched one large intriguing yacht and found it to rent for over 800,000 Euros per week - yes, per week. Afterwards, I realized (and was disappointed) that we missed the nearby Mikrolimano harbour which is the home to fishing boats. We did have an enjoyable and affordable lunch at a local cafe. If you are lucky in your visit to Piraeous, the produce market will be on - blocks and blocks of what is known as some of the freshest produce in Athens.
Some of the many ferries in dock:
The tiny Chapel of the Neomartyrs:
The beautiful Church of St.Nicholas, the patron of sailors, from the early 19th century:
Views from the produce market:
The ultra-wealthy Zea Marina with the yacht that rents for over 800,000 Euros per week:
A ‘must do’ for the perfect view of Athens is to climb the Lykabettus Hill in Kolonaki, winding high up through hundreds of cacti just ready to bloom in early May (you can take a funicular if you wish). We stopped halfway up at the Prasina Tenta or Green Tent cafe where your coffee is priced accordingly for the amazing view of the Parthenon in the distance - an example of a great tip from an airport shuttle driver. At the top is the old St. George church and yet another amazing view of white buildings and parks and the sea and, of course, the Parthenon on the horizon. The park is a true respite and a great place to burn off energy. Besides the manicured path to the top, there are many rough paths crisscrossing the park and descending into a nice little canyon. We wondered at the abundance of police lining certain streets bordering the hill, only to find that the Greek president was in his personal residence at that time. (As I said, the Kolonaki neighbourhood is financially well-off.)
Our ‘coffee view’ from the Green Tent cafe:
The Lykabettus Hill walk (we were surprised at the abundance of cacti):
The sweet little St. George Church at the top:
But if you become tired of ancient history and ruins yet still want some history of some type, the Hellenic Motor Museum offers a private collection of more than 110 highly polished cars from the 19th and 20th centuries, the most expensive being a $3,000,000 BMW. You will drool over the Bentleys, Bugattis, Ferraris . . . and if you are a car enthusiast, the photo 'ops' are endless.
Here's just a little taste. Click on the arrow on the right of the picture.
They couldn't forget the original car from the 'Modern Stone Age Family' (so fitting for Greece with it's love of ancient stonework and history):
And this is the only car we could touch:
Following our introduction to Greek culinary skills in Thessaloniki, Athens did not disappoint. We found a couple of restaurants that prided themselves on creating Greek food with a modern touch and with fresh-sourced ingredients, and we were again impressed with the quality.
Finally, after trying the near-toxic drink Palinka in Budapest, I swore I'd never again try a nation's traditional drink, but when in Greece, you try Ouzo, which can only be produced in Greece and Cyprus. The 20 year-olds working the front office of our hotel schooled us on correct form. Mix it with water. It does have a nice liquorice smell and taste, and the water certainly dimmed the alcohol content. It still wasn't my favourite drink, but it was nowhere near as unpleasant as that Palinka. We left the unfinished bottle with the 20 year olds.
A few closing hints: don't be surprised if there are several different spellings for the same place or street - for instance Filopappou or Philopappos, Lycabettus or Lykavittos - and then there is also the Greek spelling; American Express cards are not widely used; and don't flush the toilet paper - put it in the garbage can beside the toilet as the sewage pipes are too narrow (you'll get used to it).
So, what about Athens? I think your view will depend on what you like or what you expect. One of our group thought it was one of his favourite cities in the world while one thought it was a bit underwhelming. It does not have the grandness of the imposing structures lining an impressive river like Paris or Budapest or London, but you'd have to admit, that Parthenon is a sight. And if you like history - ancient civilization history - Athens is definitely the place for you.
I liked the 'vibe' of Athens. It's a modern but hard working, somewhat gritty city that is reinventing itself after years of hard times to become more than just the Acropolis. We just touched the surface. I'd love to return with a bit more knowledge - there's still so much to see: to explore some ancient sites in more depth, to venture into some smaller neighbourhoods, to tour some museums such as the National Museum of Contemporary Art or the War Museum, to visit the First Cemetery, to walk the Filopappou Hill and park, to check out street art, to visit the fishing boat marina, to catch a concert at the Acropolis, to explore an island or two . . .
But however Athens continues to define itself, and whatever it becomes, the grand old Parthenon will simply watch from high above, unchanged for thousands of years.
**I hope you have enjoyed this blog. I try to be accurate in dates and in naming buildings and sites, but there is just so much to see when travelling in huge cities, mistakes can be made; it's always good to do your own research.**