Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, Poseidon (god of the sea) and Athena (goddess of love), were having a little squabble over which one of them should lend their name to a brand new city. Poseidon struck his trident on the ground and produced a spring (for naval power FYI), whilst Athena magically grew an olive tree (for peace and general good times). Two very lovely gifts, I’m sure you’ll agree. The people decided that they preferred peace and the olive tree, and so decided to name their lovely city Athens after the goddess who had given it to them. If only all decisions could be that simple.
So, when I arrived in Athens, I was expecting to find somewhere similar to Disney’s cartoon version of Hercules, all ancient temples and gods and goddesses strutting around like nobody’s business; basically a city with a very old school vibe. It turned out that whilst, don’t get me wrong, the ruins of Ancient Greece are still very much prevalent in this glorious place, the city is hustling and bustling with a whole new modern and artistic feel to it. I am a true fan! Whilst there were plenty of visitors, it didn’t feel completely overrun with tourists in the style of fellow ancient city Rome, and crucially I didn’t feel in danger of being accidentally speared through the eye by a selfie stick round every corner. SCORE!
Related: Our Big Fat Greek Roadtrip
Find a good rooftop bar
After a few hours spent scoping out the local area, soaking in the yelling of market traders, pigeons zooming left right and centre and yellow taxis doing basically the same thing as the pigeons, I realised I needed somewhere chilled out to relax a bit before my early flight to Santorini the next morning. Cue: THE ROOFTOP BAR.
For my first very short stay in the city, I was staying at the Athenstyle Hostel in Monistiraki, and when I saw the signs by the elevator leading me to the ROOFTOP BAR, I was very much up for checking it out. Not only were the views at sunset awesome, but it was nice to have a different vantage point out of the heat and hustle on the streets below. There are rooftop bars like this one dotted all over the city, from the humble hostel bar to five star swanky versions, and if you get the chance to pay one a visit then I highly recommend it.
Entry to the rooftop bar at Athenstyle is free, though don’t expect to be able to hang around up there for long if you haven’t bought a drink! I spent one night in a dorm room there for around €28.
Get your Ancient Greek on at the Acropolis
Weirdly, and somewhat stupidly, I was considering not paying a visit to the Acropolis, perched high on a plateau overlooking the rest of the city; mainly because under normal circumstances I find the classic tourist hotspots mildly stressful due to the sheer amount of people and Disneyland-esque gloss that’s sometimes spread across these beaut places like a shimmering coat of plastic paint. I’m extremely glad that I swallowed back my fears of fellow tourists as this place is absolutely incredible. And ginormous.
The view from the Acropolis’ home on a flat-topped rock across the whole city is absolutely mental, and on the day in question a storm was brewing across the vast sprawl of ancient and modern buildings right up to the mountains, with the sun on the other side of the sky highlighting everything in a glistening gold and almost convincing me that those Gods really were very much real. The colossal columns of the Parthenon (that’s Athena’s temple, above), and the surrounding ruined temples are equally a sight to behold; especially when you consider all the many different uses these buildings have had throughout history, from temples to various Greek gods and goddesses, to mosques and churches every time the city was conquered by a group of people belonging to a different religion. Classic.
And, pals, it’s not only temples and grand entrances at this place, no way Jose! The slopes around the Acropolis are home to several theatrical landmarks. First and foremost the world’s first actual theatre, the Theatre of Dionysus. Because not only were those crafty Greeks intelligent enough to figure out astronomy and geometry and all that jazz- they also invented Theatre- and for that I salute them! As I was strolling past Dionysus’ Theatre, I ran into a group of students listening to a teacher who was explaining the whole set-up of the Ancient Greek stagey life, and let me tell you it was FASCINATING STUFF. This is the kind of place that it would pay off greatly to have a casual tour guide who can tell you all the stories you need to know; some extremely interesting stuff has happened here that I would gladly spend hours hearing all about it. Secondly the Odeon of Herodes Atticus sits a bit higher on the southwest slope and was built to house music concerts in the second century AD…despite being abandoned after a hundred years or so, these days it’s original music concert purpose lives again and they were sound-checking for a concert at the spectacular Odeon on the day I visited.
And if all that doesn’t fascinate you enough, there’s a whole collection of other interesting sights to behold; namely the amount of ladies who are intent on climbing the slopes in heeled sandals, and secondly the odd collection of animals going about their daily business. Tortoises, birds, and I genuinely spent about twenty minutes watching an army of ants collecting bits of sandstone and transporting them back to their home. Not that I’m suggesting you pay a visit to the Acropolis in order to find the ants. That would be weird.
Entry to the Acropolis plus North and South slopes: €20 (reduced to €10 in winter)
Open 8am-8pm in summer, 8am-3pm in winter
Get a breath of fresh air in the National Garden
This beaut public park sits right behind the Greek Parliament Building in the centre of the city, and considering that it’s smack bang in the midst of all the hot hubbub of Athens, this ginormous public garden provides quite a tranquil escape from it all. The palm-lined main entrance is rather beaut, and past that the park is quite a maze of twists and turns around a whole grotto of majestic trees, statues, lakes and random bits of ruined Roman and Greek buildings. There’s a collection of animals hanging out in the middle of this pocket of peacefulness as well; back in the day (a day in 1920 to be precise), the King of Greece was bitten by a pet monkey whilst strolling in the park and subsequently died of septicaemia. Poor lad. These days you’re more likely to run into slightly more timid animals like goats, antelope, peacocks and this guy, so don’t panic, pals. No risk of monkey bites here.
Entry to National Garden: free of charge, my friends!
Open from sunrise to sunset daily.
Get sporty at the original (kind of) Olympic stadium
As we are all well aware, the Greeks invented the Olympics, and it’s still possible to go and visit the original stadium at Olympia…which is in the Peloponnese. Not in Athens. Duh.
But the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens is built on the same site as several ancient racecourses and stadiums, built for the Panathenaic Games which were held to honour that good old goddess Athena. They really did love the Goddess of Love around these parts, didn’t they? After a great many years of abandonment and general disrepair, the stadium was again reconstructed (entirely out of marble might I add; fancy), for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. It’s still a rather splendiferous sight and is used regularly for various sporting and musical events, although you can also go in and have a run around yourself if you fancy getting physical…or alternatively have your picture taken in front of it, like these people.
Entry to stadium: €5 (and that fee officially includes a run or two on the track, though there is an official morning jog 7.30am-9am daily aside from this. Good times.)
Marvel at the changing of the guard
Call me crazy, but I am fascinated by any kind of official ceremony- like the changing of the guard- in whatever country I’m in, partly because it seems funny to me that nowadays it surely no longer really serves a purpose other than upholding tradition and pleasing the tourists, and partly because they’re generally rather awe-inspiring to watch. We humans are very strange creatures with our pomp and circumstance, and let’s face it- there must be more effective security systems in place for palaces and parliament buildings than a few fabulously dressed gentlemen brandishing swords, yet there’s something intriguing about it that I just bloody love, I tell ya! And the changing of the guard outside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens is like no other I have ever witnessed.
The Evzones are highly respected members of the Greek army, and wear some of the most glorious accessories I’ve ever seen on a soldier. Our English soldiers may have busbies (the ginormous black furry hats), but these guys have kilts, and pom poms on their shoes, all of which make for an over all very chic effect. They also walk at times in a way that is mildly tai-chi like, lifting one leg into the air in slow motion and circling the ankle, before slamming their clogs down on the floor and lifting up the other leg to begin the cycle again. Once they reach their post they have to stand statue-like (literally no moving allowed), until they’re relieved or are allowed to go for a very slow synchronised walk so as not to get pins and needles from being still for so long. A fellow soldier even comes along to mop their brows of sweat beads and neaten up their uniforms every once in a while which is rather helpful. All this slow-motion business is a genuine spectacle to behold, and something I’d recommend anyone and everyone needs to see.
The changing of the guards is a completely free event to watch and happens every Sunday at 11am (though it’s of course possible to go and say hi to the lads whenever you feel like it. Just don’t expect them to say anything back.)
Eat your way around the city
I’m not gonna lie, whenever I’m travelling solo it’s pretty rare that I go out for dinner on my tod. Lunch maybe, but dinner feels a bit more on the awkward side, so normally for me it’s the street-food route that I tend to go down. Luckily Athens is in no way short of options for street food; a breakfast staple is the large pretzel-like rings of sesame-seeded dough called koulouri which vendors sell from carts all along the busiest street, and various filo-pastry pies are also popular, but the number one favourite above all favourites (for me) was for sure souvlaki. I’m not normally a massive fan of pork but upon entering Kostas in Agias Irinis Square, Kostas himself informed me that if I wanted a true souvlaki it would simply have to be pork, and who was I to argue? After all, there was a sign on the wall informing me that Kostas is at an age where he’s at risk of a stroke, so I couldn’t even consider going for a chicken version for his health reasons, and in any case that pork souvlaki was bloody delicious I tell ya. Well done, Kostas old boy. You’re a true good’un.
If you’re up for a less meaty experience, Vegan Nation makes a whole selection of tasty goods either to sit in and sample at the tiny shop in Psyri or to take away. The smoothies and salads are particularly da bomb, however they also do vegan versions of Greek classics like moussaka as well as dishes from around the world like sushi and tacos. No holds barred in this place, and I appreciated that you can be sure it’s fresh as a daisy food.
Ever the fan of a good coffee/bookshop combo, I very much appreciated Little Tree Books and Coffee, located on a quiet corner near the Acropolis museum. With a cozy interior and big wide open windows next to a few tables and chairs underneath the shady trees outside, it was mainly home to students and hipstery people with interesting haircuts, plus a very small selection of English books if you fancied a browse. Beaut food, friendly people and a surprisingly tranquil atmosphere all combined to lead me to the conclusion that this place is an absolute gem.
During the five days I stayed in an AirBnB near the Panathenaic Stadium I also went into the pastry shop round the corner every morning for a coffee, pastry, and chat with the owner, who told me all the tales of his beloved city. The food and coffee was great but it was the stories and occasional free biscuit, I’m not gonna lie, that kept me coming back on a daily basis. What a legendary man! Kekkos has a ginormous selection of traditional freshly baked pastries and sweets, and let’s face it, this is not the experience I would have had if I’d have stuck to Starbucks/McDonalds/whatever other chains are gradually spreading across the world.
Go on a ruin hunt
The city as a whole is absolutely packed with old temples, houses and public spaces which are still being uncovered and dug up as we speak. It’s pretty full on marvellous. Whilst it’s possible (and probably quite beneficial) to plan where you’re going just so you at least know what it is you’re going to be looking at, I went for the whole ‘stumble-upon-it-then-research-it-later’ technique, which I believe I’ve pretty much got down to a fine art.
Of course it’s also always a great idea to keep track of where it is you are in relation to your AirBnB/hostel/hotel; this is something I failed to do after spending too long following a trail of old bits of stone across the city one day and subsequently got caught for a lengthy amount of time in a torrential downpour with zero phone battery to check the old GPS sitch. How very awkward. And more than a little damp.
Explore some of the most awesome neighbourhoods in the city
Going back to the wandering random ruins point, this is an extremely walkable city which holds a massive concentration of different neighbourhoods both antique and modern, within a fairly small area. IT’S JUST BLOODY BRILLIANT I TELL YA! Don’t get me wrong, maybe just wandering around and seeing what you chance upon isn’t exactly to everyone’s taste, but whether it’s the graffiti-covered and bunting-shrouded alleys of Psiri, the grand tree-lined open avenues around the presidents house, or the crowded and noise-filled flea market of Monastiraki you will never be short of something interesting to spot or exciting to hear and for that reason I don’t think Athens is a location I could ever become bored of.
What. A beaut. City.
TIPS FOR VISITING ATHENS
- A metro runs directly between Athens Airport and the city centre for €10 one way, with a journey time of around forty minutes.
- Or…bus X95 runs between the airport and Syntagma Square for a mere €3.20 which is a bargain in my opinion, folks. It just might be wise to check at the ticket office that there won’t be any strikes before you need to actually board the bus. That old chestnut caught me out on one of my several trips back and forth.
- A taxi between the two if you do get caught out by either strikes or setting your alarm for 4pm instead of 4am (it happens to the best of us), is around €38. Ouch. However, hopefully all taxi drivers are as nice as mine and will also declare that they simply must stop and get coffee for both driver and passenger. What a guy.
- If you’re getting a ferry to or from Athens, bear in mind that the port is not called ‘Athens.’ It’s Piraeus. FYI.
- Piraeus is also connected to the centre of the city via metro, so no worries there pals. No worries.
- When you buy a metro ticket, you don’t go through any ticket barrier or validate your ticket anywhere before boarding the train, so don’t panic if you can’t find any machine to do this because such things do not exist.
- Steer clear of the restaurants aimed specifically at tourists. They are not the one. Not only are they generally completely overpriced (Greece in general is an extremely affordable country to travel in- I mean, coffee for a Euro!? Gyros for two!?), but the food is just more guaranteed to be nicer at a family-run place.
- I love Athens.