I was completely scared going to Athens. All together, I had ten days booked in the capital. Everyone that I ran into on Santorini had mentioned that Athens was a dirty city with not much to offer, spending only one or two days there. Some grimacing faces appeared when I mentioned my length there. I didn’t know what to expect as my ferry from Santorini arrived. It was definitely not Paris, I could tell you that.
The buildings are really… modernly dated…? Truthfully, it’s just a lot of beige concrete with green awnings. At the time of my arrival, I was still unaware of the bankruptcy that the country went through a few years back. Now with that knowledge, it makes sense. The city just looks poor truthfully. But it does have a lot of charm. I studied art and design back in college, so I was ecstatic of the street art culture I found. I met this woman from New York on my way to Delphi. She was a fancy-schmancy art director and apparently inquired about why there was so much graffiti and tagging around the city. It really became predominate as a cause of political expression against the government apparently. And then most of the tagging and graffiti you have seen now has followed shortly afterwards. The police don’t really have the resources to stop the illegal art, and the city has even commissioned some local artists to do some paintings around the area creating some really unique pieces. You can see more about the street art in this article.
Truthfully, it was overwhelming at first with the amount of options for food. I made a point to try a lot of traditional Greek foods on Santorini, so there wasn’t anything at first sight that I needed to try. A lot of the main Greek restaurants that I would try to go to would be in Psyri or Exarchia area, which is a bit north of the Acropolis. It’s a lot less touristy so you’re paying more local prices (7 to 8 euros an entrée) and start to see more Greek hospitality: free bread, raki/ouzo shot, dessert. I noticed here they have a lot of platters for two and four people. Two of my roommates and I went to a restaurant in Exarchia area and got a meat platter for four (equaling about 9 euros a person) and would recommending eating like that every night.
Right outside the Monstraki square is a cocktail bar known as SIX D.O.G.S. What’s so unique about it is the fact it’s basically a secret garden within the city. You find the marquee signs to the entrance in an ally and it leads you underground to pop up into a cozy paradise. The food here is simple but unique. I had a cherry lemonade and a PB&J bagel for lunch. I paid about 12 euros for the little lunch. The crowds are a lot busier at nights and will occasionally host bands and other artists. My biggest regret of the trip was not discovering this place sooner. I came here on my last day, but would certainly come again if I found myself in the city.
The sweets were probably the highlight of the whole city though. Right behind the Monstraki train station, adjacent to the Ancient Agora entrance, are two of my favorite spots. The first one is called Hans & Gretel. It’s a candy place so be prepared to gain twenty pounds just by walking inside. The highlight of this place is its trdelniks, a traditional Czech dessert. Trdelniks are basically a split cake, rolled from dough that is wrapped around a stick and topped with sugar. You can actually see them make the trdelniks outside as you’re passing by. But when you order it, they allow you to put any kind of ice cream you want inside of it, as well as sprinkles, m&m’s, and marshmallows. Half of the trdelniks was 2.50 euros while a full one cost me 6 euros. It was truly a treat.
The second place is called Vaflaki. It’s mainly a gelato place, where they sell homemade gelato. Or you can take it to the next level and order one of their waffles, which was one of the best waffles I’ve ever tasted. You can get scoops of the gelato, mix and match from a wide variety of flavors, and add nutella syrup, and one topping! My mouth is literally watering imagining the taste again. The waffle with one scoop of gelato (which is a perfect amount in my opinion), nutella drizzle, and one topping costs about 5 euros. But you can always request for extra whatever for only a little bit more.
Athens is a really relaxed city compared to most of the other European cities. I can see why many people justify spending only a day or two there.
Obviously the highlight of the city is the Acropolis. You can pay 20 euros for just the one site, or pay 30 euros for the Acropolis and about 7 other archeological sites as well. I paid the 30 euros as I had more than enough time to kill in the city, but the Acropolis is really a must and shouldn’t be passed up. One thing that most websites don’t tell you is that there’s also a flag ceremony in front of the Parthenon at opening and closing times. Avoid the heat and crowds to really immerse yourself into the wonder of the Greeks by avoiding the early afternoon. You won’t regret getting up an extra hour early or later.
The only two other archeological sites I recommend paying for are the Ancient Agora and the Temple of Zeus. Most of the other sights are almost completely ruined, or you can see from afar.
A hidden gem that not most people think of doing is actually hiking to the top of Mount Lycabettus. It’s the largest point in the city of Athens. The view is phenomenal. It’s a bit exhausting walking up the path midday as there gets to a point no more trees are shading you. So either bring a water bottle or try to time it around sunset for a stunning experience.
If you happen to be visiting in the summer months as well, there’s a small outdoor theatre known as Thision Open Air Cinma right outside of the Ancient Agora. The movies are about 6 euros each (which is a steal coming from America) and can be any language (but they are always subtitled with Greek and English subtitles). Best part about this theatre? You can see the lit up Acropolis from your seat while watching the movie. It is truly an experience you won’t forget.
- Monstraki Flea market happens every Sunday until 3 o’clock in the afternoon. If you’re in town for it, it’s worth seeing once especially if you love antiques.
- The National Botanical Gardens is a must if you love to escape from big cities. It’s right next to Syntagma Square where the switching of the guards happens at the Tomb of the Unknown.
- Though they have the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, you can still take the Green line metro to go see the 2004 Olympic Stadium. It’s one of the last few stops on the line and is really remarkable to see how much it fell into ruins.
- They have day trips to Cape Sounion and Delphi. I thought that Delphi has a bit more substance to the tour if you had to choose one, though it does cost a bit more money.
- Meteroa was probably the highlight of my trip and they offer a few tour variants to see this wonderful sight.
I walked a lot during the beginning of my time here. There’s a lot of artwork that I loved stumbling upon (even ran into a group of people doing performance art with suitcases on my first day!). The roads right around the acropolis (Plaka, Monstraki, Sytagma area) are worth exploring on foot.
But the metro system in Athens is reliable, quick, and easy to navigate. If you do the metro, please read the signs and follow all instructions! There are metro police who do not understand English well and aren’t always nice even if you’re a tourist. I had a bad experience on my last day with one of them and became a huge headache for the rest of the following weeks despite not even being in Greece!
I took the main train to Kalabaka for a quick visit of Meteora. It was supposed to take five hours but got in late about 30 min. And it was incredibly hard to figure out which coach was mine to even board the train. While coming back to Athens, the train took an extra hour to get back home. If you plan on using the train for transportation, expect delays. Be sure to bring entertainment on the train too as there is no wifi.
I loved Athens, probably a lot more than the average person, but I wouldn’t book another 10 days there. I would rather spend more time traveling inland or exploring another island.
All photographs were taken by Seth Stelly. Like them? Check out more at this website.