Athens is a mesmerising mix of old, new and positively ancient. From the moment I left Zakynthos, I was excited about my first visit to one of the world’s most famous cities. My unexpected six weeks in the Ionian Sea had been a welcome island-hopping adventure, but I was craving city life again. Who knows how this Leitrim girl turned into a city slicker, but it was clear in the final days on the islands that withdrawal symptoms were kicking in. I couldn’t wait to get started on my Guide to Athens.
I was giddy throughout the ferry crossing to Patra. I ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ my way across the Peloponnese, taking in glimpses of Patra’s famous bridge and the landscapes of Greece on the six hour bus journey cross country. I plastered myself to the window as we crossed the Corinth Canal, willing myself not to blink for fear I’d miss even a moment.
And then there was Athens.
I’m sure mine is just another insignificant name among the millions on a long and historically impressive list of people who’ve been excited about reaching Athens. Over the next three weeks, I was going to explore as much of it as I could.
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Rambling Ruth’s Guide to Athens:
Of course, Athens starts and ends with its rich history. Even for someone like me with the most basic grasp of Ancient history and Greek mythology, I was completely drawn in. This was made a lot easier by Athens Walking Tours who invited me along on their tour of the Acropolis, the old city and the incredible Acropolis museum. It was the best possible way to discover Athens and to get an introduction to the history and the myths behind some of the world’s most important archaeological sites. I barely noticed the morning creeping into afternoon and slowly approaching evening as we walked and talked with Hermes, our tour guide with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Greek. His stories mixed history, myth, politics, culture, archaeology, architecture, preservation and important detail that I simply wouldn’t have learned if I’d visited the sites by myself.
Where to go in Athens:
Acropolis and Acropolis Museum
Its one of the most recognised landmarks in the world and rightly so. The view of the Acropolis is pretty spectacular, especially for the first time and most especially at night. The Parthenon, which stands at the top of the Acropolis, is lit up and visible from most of the city.
For those asking ‘what’s the difference between the Acropolis and the Parthenon?’, the answer is quite simple. The word Acropolis comes from ‘acro’ (peak) and ‘polis’ (city) which is usually the name reserved for the highest hill in the city. An acropolis was a fortified military stronghold which defended the cities below and while there were such forts and fortresses throughout the region, the acropolis of Athens was by far superior to all of the others and became known as the Acropolis. Ironically, the hill is not the highest in the city. That honour goes to Mount Lycabettus which was deemed unsuitable for fortification by ancient Greeks due to its steepness and unforgiving limestone terrain.
The Parthenon is the largest temple at the top of the Acropolis and the enduring symbol of a civilisation that shaped so much of the modern western world. What a lot of people don’t realise, however, is that the Parthenon is not alone at the top, or on the site of the acropolis. In fact, the hill is packed with ruins and remains of buildings. The site is steeped in innumerable histories, stories and legends. Each ruin is worth exploring.
One of my favourite Greek legends explains why there were two temples at the top of the Acropolis – the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and of War, and the Erechtheion which was dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, the God of the Sea. Apparently, Athena and Poseidon argued over who should be the Patron of the city. Olympian showdowns were quite the dramatic event. In an effort to give the city a gift and prove his power, Poseidon struck the rock of the hill at the Acropolis with his trident. A water spring appeared, but being the God of the sea, it was probably inevitable that the water flowing from the spring was salt water and not very practical for the city’s inhabitants. Athena gave the gift of an olive tree which not only provided food, but also wood. There was a clear winner. Poseidon, however, was not happy and he struck the land once more with his trident, bringing the waves crashing over the city to show his displeasure. To appease the God, the Athenians declared him a ‘shared’ God of the city and built the Erechtheion next to Athena’s Parthenon where they could continue to worship him alongside their favoured Athena.
Be sure also to visit the Theatre of Dionysus, my personal favourite of the Greek Gods. If he was Irish, he would have been known as the God of ‘craic’. He knew how to have fun. It was in his name that theatre, partying and most forms of entertainment took place.
While I’m sure everyone’s favourite building on the Acropolis is the Parthenon, mine was by far the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. It was the first Odeon, a theatre designed with acoustics in mind and built specifically for musical performances. Since it was built in 161 AD, singers have sung and performers performed to audiences of thousands, packed tightly onto marble benches in a semi-circle reaching up to the heavens. It was here that I took my Mum when she came to visit. We sat on the marble steps beneath the imposing stone walls of the Odeon, with the Parthenon lit up behind us against the night’s sky and we watched Madame Butterfly.
That is, until the rain came. We soon learned that orchestras and outdoor performances don’t mix too well in Athens and, without any plan for rain cover, the opera had to be abandoned and the closing night performance came to an abrupt end. Just when it was getting to the good part!
It didn’t matter though. We weren’t too bothered about the few drops that fell. By Irish standards, it was barely rain at all. We took our time wandering to a nearby bar and took in Athens by night at the foot of the beautiful Acropolis.
The Acropolis Museum is by far the best museum in the city. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m not really a museum kinda girl. In a city like Athens, though, you’ll be missing out by not visiting just a few (the national archaeological museum was another good one). I absolutely loved the Acropolis Museum, especially the third floor which is build to run parallel to the Parthenon and with the same dimensions. This is where you’ll find the original marbles and reconstructions of those which once adorned the upper walls of the temple. It’s incredible how much has been recovered and saved but also sad to learn about how much has been appropriated by other institutions such as the British Museum. The Greeks are no strangers to epic disagreements, however, and it’s reassuring to see that they have not given up hope in this long-running conflict. Spaces have been left vacant at the museum for the hopeful return of the artefacts from overseas.
Plaka is Athens’ oldest neighbourhood and it’s now probably the most touristic. It’s worth a stroll through the streets to take in the atmosphere, but be prepared to pay well over the odds for anything you might want to pick up. Restaurants tend to ask high prices for what can often be low quality, so do a little tripadvisor research before you go for dinner to avoid disappointment. Better still, if you have a local contact, ask for recommendations. As a rule of thumb, the best restaurants in Greece are the ones the locals eat in.
For the best Gyros in all of Athens, visit Kostas. It may look unassuming from outside, but the Gyros are to die for. Get in early! Everyone in Athens orders from here for their lunch so for maximum loveliness, try to make it there before the rush.
Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch
When something takes over 600 years to complete, you know it has to be special. There may not be as much left of the ancient Temple of Zeus as you might like to see, but its impressive remains hint at the enormity of the original structure. It’s had a pretty tumultuous history and with only 16 of the temple’s 104 columns still standing, you have to see it to really grasp how huge this building really was.
If you just have a casual interest in history, it may not be worth your while paying the entrance fee. The site is visible from a fence close to the nearby Hadrian’s Arch. Saying that, though, I’d highly recommend that you buy a city pass which costs €30 and gives you entry to most of the city’s attractions, including the Acropolis, the Temple of Zeus and lots of other sites. It’s great value, especially when you consider that an adult ticket at peak season for the Acropolis alone is €20.
Hadrian’s Arch is perched at the side of the road and no entry fee applies. It’s a simple arch that was build by the Athenians as a gesture of their appreciation for their beloved Roman Emperor Hadrian. It’s an unusual mix of Roman and Greek styles which makes it unique among the arches of Europe. It’s not quite the Arch de Triomphe, but it doesn’t need to be. Besides, any landmark sitting in the shadow of the Temple of Zeus is inevitably going to be dwarfed in comparison.
Syntagma Square and the Hellenic Parliament
Syntagma Square is the centre of Athens. Probably an appropriate place then for the Hellenic Parliament to be located. The Parliament building itself is unimpressive, but draws tourists for a much more interesting spectacle; the changing of the Guard. This happens on the hour every hour. Now, to imagine what this ceremony is like, you first need to remove any images of Buckingham Palace or military operations from your mind. The changing of the Greek guard draws audiences simply because of its hilarity. Picture some of the most ridiculously attired men carrying out a kind of half-march-half-dance, usually not properly in synch.
There are historical reasons for the silly uniforms, right down to the fluffy pom-poms on their shoes. There are also sensible reasons for the slow-motion actions which relate to blood flow following long periods of standing still, but to the uninformed tourist eye, the entire ritual is laughable. Its saving grace is that it is carried out in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier, which symbolises those Greeks who have lost their lives in service.
The parliament building was once a palace and so, the original palace gardens next to it are now the national gardens and a popular outdoor space in the city. The park is the home of some more obscure archaeological sites and places of interest if you want to delve a little deeper into history. It is probably best known for its conference centre which was once the home of the Olympic councils.
Make sure you take the Metro from Syntagma Square. I know, it’s unusual that I would encourage public transport in Greece, but Athens is really quite good once you decipher the metro system. It’s not the transport that’s most interesting about the station, though. What caught my attention was the archaeology on display. When the metro was being build in the 1990s, excavations turned up innumerable finds beneath the entire city. Now, many of the metro stations show replica cross-sections of what lies beneath the city. Artefacts and discoveries from around the city are displayed at the stations. The displays at Syntagma Station were the ones that captured my attention most.
Herodes Atticus certainly left his mark on his city. As if the amazing Odeon wasn’t enough, he was also responsible for the construction of the original Panathenaic Stadium during the days of the Roman Empire. The stadium was the home of the modern Olympic games in Greece and is built on what is arguably one of the most important spaces in sporting history. On this spot, the soldier who was sent running back from the beaches of Marathon to report the victory of the Athenians over the Persians met his end. The messenger, already battle-weary and dressed in the completely impractical clothing of Athenian soldiers (adopted as part of the comical get-up of the guards at the Parliament building) reached the city after the 42km run, despite the searing August sun beating down on him. With his dying breath, he uttered the word ‘nike’, meaning ‘victory’. In his honour, and in honour of the soldiers who died in battle, the marathon was born and is now one of the ultimate endurance sporting events around the world. Its distance of 42km was set by the distance of that messenger’s final run. It’s quite the legacy and the impressive sporting venue that stands there today harks back to that glorious Athenian past.
This was exactly what I expected Athens to be. It’s busy, it’s noisy and it’s packed with the sounds and smells of a flea market. Fruit stalls lure you in with strawberries and cherries. Bread sellers waft their delicious scents around the square. Cheap knick-knack shops hawk flimsy clothes and trinkets to passers-by. Scam artists try to convince you to buy their wares while not-so-subtly scoping out your handbag or backpack (more on this later!). Once you keep your pickpocket savvy wits about you, it’s wonderful.
You can get lost in the flea market and discover just about anything from beach dresses for the price of a coffee to leather sandals, street food to upmarket tavernas. History from different civilisations exists side by side. The area is called after the 10th Century monastery that still stands in the middle of the Square (Monastiraki means ‘little monastery’). It’s within a stone’s thrown of Hadrian’s Library, one of the famous Roman Emperor’s finest architectural achievements from the 2nd century AD. Next door to the library is the 18th century Tzistarakis Mosque and in case all of that history is too much for you, you can escape from it all inside the nearby Hard Rock Café or Starbucks. So no matter what your preference is for how to spend your time, there’s an option for everybody.
I hadn’t made it to the Cycladic Islands yet, but I felt like I had once I discovered Anafiotika. It’s like stepping into a fairytale, just steps away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Athens. The little village is built into the hill at the NorthEast slope of the Acropolis and its story of how it came to be is what makes the place precious.
In the mid 1800s, Athens was in poor shape. The buildings on the Acropolis in particular posed a challenge for repairs and reconstruction because of the difficult, rocky ground they were built on. So where better to find the best builders than on the rocky Cycladic Islands? The builders on Anafi were known to be highly skilled and were brought to Athens to carry out the necessary work.
By day, the men worked hard on the city’s buildings and by night, they secretly constructed homes on the hill in the same shape and style as their home villages. The resulting settlement is known as Anafiotika, meaning ‘little Anafi’. The beauty of the village is that the Athenians never knew about its construction. According to an old Ottoman law, any buildings that could be constructed between sunset and sunrise were considered to be the property of the person who had built it. The Greek authorities had a very different view on this and basically outlawed the village. Its inhabitants refused to move to make way for demolition teams and so most of the village still stands. Because the dwellings there have only recently been recognised under Greek law, these houses were not historically sold and so quite a number of the 60 houses on the hill still remain in the families and the descendants of the community from Anafi that first built them.
The Hills of Athens: Lycabettus, Philopappou and Mars Hill
The Acropolis may be the most famous hill in Athens, but it’s certainly not the only one. As I mentioned earlier, Lycabettus Hill is the highest peak in the city and its summit consists of a church, a restaurant, a coffee shop and an open air amphi-theatre. If there’s one thing Greeks do in style, it’s concerts. What better backdrop than the Acropolis by night?
The hill itself is the real attraction though and the views are some of the most photographed in Athens. To make the most of the views, walking to the summit is your best option. It’s quite the trek, though, so a taxi to the highest point of the road might be an option. You will still have to climb quite a few steps to get to the top of the hill. Depart from Aristippou Street in Kolonaki for walking or taxis. Alternatively, you can take the funicular railway right to the summit, but because it’s enclosed, you’ll miss out on all those incredible views.
Philopappou Hill is like another world. Moments away from the tour busses and the crowds at the base of the Acropolis, I stepped across some pine cones and into the woodland at the bottom of the hill. It was almost deserted. I climbed to the top and found a rocky outcrop looking out on the Acropolis with no other tourists vying for space to take photos. In fact, I met only a handful of people throughout the evening and was barely aware of the city sprawled out below.
Mars Hill, on the other hand, was teaming with tourists and young Athenians hanging out once night had fallen. It’s not so much a hill as a large rock which is accessible by climbing a purpose build stairs cut into its side. The hill was used as a court for murder trials in antiquity and it’s said that Ares himself, that pesky God of war and violence and all things naughty, was brought before a murder court here. It was also the altar from which St. Paul delivered his gospels in the earliest days of Christianity. It’s about as ironic as a Greek tragedy, then, that Mars Hill is now a hot spot for theft after all the justice and goodwill dispensed throughout history. Whatever you do, just don’t whip out that fancy new camera or get distracted from watching your belongings to get that perfect shot. There are plenty of people lying in wait for just that moment.
My inner hipster was unleashed when I first discovered Gazi and Technopolis, the former Gasworks which is now home to museums, craft markets and all sorts of events that make up the Cultural life of Athens. I hadn’t heard of the area and was surprised to come across it during Athens Jazz Festival. I found myself returning again and again.
One reason to return was for Dinner in the Sky. I had seen the restaurant suspended from a crane that first night of the Jazz Festival and I was hooked. I wasn’t leaving Athens until I’d been up there! So, a few weeks later, I found myself sipping on Dutch courage in the form of a glass of wine before being strapped to a seat in the open air restaurant which was then hoisted high up above the city just before the sun set over Athens. There we rotated for the evening.
The food was great. The views were stunning. The atmosphere was just amazing. All of the guests were giggly, which may or may not have been helped by the free flowing wine. The staff injected energy into the whole experience and had us all grinning from ear to ear from the very first moment until the last. When I discovered that the seats swivelled, I was pretty thrilled about my corner seat and dangled my feet into the nothingness between me and the lights far below. This was beaten only by discovering that the seats also reclined. My belly was filled with dinner and a teenage rollercoaster style excitement… and possibly some mild terror, but nothing that couldn’t be solved by another glass of wine.
It’s supposed to be a once in a lifetime experience, but I have a feeling I’ll do it somewhere again. Of more than 50 cities worldwide that offer Dinner in the Sky, I was so pleased that I’d discovered it in Athens. Dinner with unobstructed views of the Parthenon and night? Now tell me what could possibly be better than that…
Rambling Ruth’s Guide to Eating your way through Athens
History and tourist attractions were not the only things I got to discover in Athens. I’d already been in Greece for 3 months before I arrived in the capital but it was only in Athens that I really started to discover Greek food. I’d dabbled a little during my 6 weeks in Thessaloniki and I’d eaten all the gyros and feta that you could shake your souvlaki at, but I had barely scratched the surface.
My appetite was properly whetted by Culinary Backstreets who brought me through Plaka on a voyage of discovery and edible delights. In one fell swoop, every good intention I ever had went out the window. It was all worth it. Have you ever heard of Bougatsa? Well neither had I until Carolina, the insanely knowledgable food tour guide brought us to a little bakery that appeared to be hidden away. From there, we went on to try all sorts of gastronomical goodies including recreations of meals eaten in antiquity, meze, sweets, breads, coffees, olive oils, tzipouro, dolma, gyros and other treats that shed a little light on the culinary culture and its development throughout time in the historical district of Athens.
Stuffed with food, the new-found foodie in me would not be satisfied. I got a little more adventurous and started to discover more Greek food that I had simply been unaware of up until then. How had I lived without all of this in my life? I needed to be able to recreate some of the deliciousness and my friends at Athens Walking Tours had just the solution. I joined their Greek Cookery Class and soon found myself enjoying one of the best nights you can possibly have in Athens.
We learned some of the most popular traditional dishes found on a Greek table including roast lamb with lemon and oregano, spanakotiropita (cheese and spinach Pie), zucchini (courgette) balls, tzatziki, horiatiki (traditional Greek salad), dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaves) and a lemon yoghurt dessert.
Not only did we learn how to make delicious food. We also ate it. All.
Surrounded by new friends and merry from the first glass(es) of wine I’d had since my period of abstinence (this was before Dinner in the Sky), I enjoyed a fabulous Greek dinner the way Greek dinners are supposed to be enjoyed – happily.
Rambling Ruth’s Guide to Safety in Athens
The pickpocketing is very real. It surprised me just how big a problem it was. I visited Rio a few years ago and spent my time worrying about getting robbed because of all the warnings I’d heard, but found that a healthy dose of vigilance was enough of a safeguard. I honestly believe Athens is worse. The reputation that Barcelona has as the European capital of pickpocketing could easily be transferred to the Greek capital.
I’m not scare-mongering. I saw it with my own eyes. My first encounter with a pickpocket in Athens was on the night I arrived. Full of excitement and the joys of being in a new city, I stood on the escalator coming out of the metro. a young guy of about 15 or 16 slipped into the space on the step ahead of me and blatantly reached for the backpack of the girl in front of him. He started to open the zip on her bag when my Irish Mammy syndrome kicked in. It seems you don’t actually have to be an Irish Mammy, you just have to act like one to have the desired effect. Without actually thinking about what I was doing, I started smacking him about the head and shouting at him about what a disgrace he was and had he any idea how much trouble he’d get himself into if he carried on like this?…
He scarpered pretty quickly, but it turns out that he wasn’t the only one. Placed strategically along two parallel escalators, four or five guys of the same age, all standing next to young women wearing bags on their backs, suddenly started to run. Conscious of the oversized bag on my own back, I jerked sideways. I’m happy to say I caught one of them with the edge of my bag as he tried to whizz past me. Nobody was robbed… that time.
I mentioned the incident on Facebook that night to warn solo female travellers and anyone else who cared to read it. When I woke up in the morning, I was amazed to find over 400 responses to my post, all sharing stories of being targeted, robbed and having backpacks and handbags slashed in Athens. Amid the stories were numerous suggestions to invest in Pacsafe luggage and accessories. So I started my day by ordering the first piece – Pacsafe Venturesafe 200 GII Anti-Theft Travel Bag, a backpack designed with safety in mind and featuring clever zips, pockets and anti-slash materials.
I knew I’d done the right thing when I felt someone brush suspiciously close to my back a day or two later at pedestrian lights. I span around, fists clenched, and stopped him from helping himself to my belongings. Then I swung the backpack under my arm and carried it awkwardly until my new bag arrived and brought peace of mind with it. The fists stayed clenched until I got it. That’s not to say that I condone violence, but a healthy dose of self-defence may just save you a lot of heartache. Or, at the very least, teach someone a lesson. (Just ask the girl who tried to pick my pocket in Paris and ended up with a laptop to the face #sorrynotsorry).
There are scams and schemes everywhere in Athens. Be vigilant and don’t leave anything valuable in sight. Kids will approach you at outdoor restaurants selling flowers or other rubbish. They’re really scoping out your table. If they leave something down, make sure they don’t pick up your phone or purse when they leave. Anyone who tries to give you a ‘free’ bracelet will then try to convince you to give them money. Don’t entertain them. The longer you argue with them, the longer they and their lurking friends have to suss out exactly how to relieve you of your money. Basically, if something is free or really great value, you should probably avoid it or immediately look for a catch because there’s very little in Athens that comes free or cheap.
Rambling Ruth’s Guide to Accommodation in Athens
I learned the lesson about Athens’ schemes and scams when I booked an apartment for my Mum’s visit. I had booked it before I arrived in Athens, believing I’d gotten a great deal. Once in the city, though, and learning a little about the value of things in Athens, my alarm bells went off. A quick recce taught me that I was right to worry and the apartment advertised as being in the ‘best area of Athens’ was in fact on a street where you could easily entertain yourself by playing ‘spot the prostitute’. If your idea of a holiday rental includes stepping over a junky to get through your front door, then Tompazi Apartments is the place for you and you will find it listed on most booking engines. Their customer service is almost as horrific as their apartment and you will only get yourself upset if you try to cancel your booking. Your safety is really of zero concern to them. If, like me, you actually value your safety and the safety of the people you’re travelling with, I would suggest you avoid it at all costs.
Be wiser than me. Read reviews and have enough common sense to realise that Athens has more than its fair share of bad, bad accommodation. Go on the advice of friends who have visited, of highly rated reviews or of trusted travel writers or bloggers. My recommendation for solo travellers or couples is to stay at A for Athens because of its awesome rooftop bar and nighttime views of the Acropolis. For families or groups, or if you’re looking for the freedom of an apartment, I’d recommend booking 6 Tholou which also has fabulous Acropolis views.
Rambling Ruth’s ‘Likely to’ Guide to Athens
Likely to See in Athens: The Acropolis. It’s usually everybody’s first port of call and rightly so. And if you don’t visit the site itself (it’s tricky for people with mobility problems, or maybe you’ve been before), then you’re still more than likely to catch glimpses of the hill from all around the city.
Likely to Do in Athens: Learn about history. There’s just so much to see and learn. I can see why people studying archaeology, literature, drama, philisophy, politics and so many other disciplines can end up dedicating their lives to their studies and still always have more to learn. Even if you don’t intend to learn during your trip, you’re likely to pick up a few bits and pieces.
Likely to Hear in Athens: It is a vibrant city and with that, unfortunately, comes quite a lot of noise pollution. It’s almost impossible to get away from the noise, but you might find a quiet moment on Philopappou Hill.
Likely to Taste in Athens: All things good! Everywhere that I’ve visited in Greece so far has had something I’ll remember it by and Athens was definitely the food.
Likely to Discover in Athens: All sorts of historical and archaeological finds. Just look around you. And look beneath you. It’s not uncommon to look down and realise the ground of the carpark/street/front yard you’re walking on is actually fortified glass with archaeological remains below.
As always, I love to hear from you. I was once told that people either love Athens or they hate it. Which are you? Feel free to get in touch, leave a comment, share some love or correct me if I’ve gotten something wrong!