In ancient times, the goddess Athena looked after Athens as the patroness of the city. The small but mighty city crowned with the Acropolis has been the longest continuously inhabited capitol in Europe. It has seen its glory ebb and flow over not just centuries but millennia. So, what is it about this vacation magnet that keeps travelers coming back over and over again? What makes travel to Athens so appealing?
At first glance, Athens is not the prettiest city you’ve ever seen. With about half of Greece’s population residing in and around Athens, the overall urban sprawl of the place is staggering. Driving through the streets, I find myself asking why Athenians don’t see the overall decline of the area around them. Then, I realize, they are too busy living life. For Athens can be only defined by its people and they are- what’s the word I’m looking for? Kallos.
Athens is big. So big, in fact, it’s hard to envision covering it all in one trip. Most visitors (Xenos) focus on the area in and around the Plaka or old town. Making your home base in this area makes the most geographical sense as it makes probably 80% of your itinerary walkable. While some may say that this is the most “touristy” area of the city, there are plenty of options for everyone’s taste. If you do choose another neighborhood, be sure that you have transportation options easily available.
Eat Absolutely Everything
If there is one thing that makes me look forward to Athens it’s knowing a fresh cucumber and tomato salad waiting for me. Let me be clear: my first meal in Greece will always be a salad with a fresh tomato that tastes like a tomato! In fact, the last time I was in Athens, I was reading an article at breakfast that was about GMO free regions within the EU. And who is on that list? Greece! No wonder the food still tastes like food! Just like any other country, there are familiar dishes like gyros and souvlaki as well as dishes you may not have heard of like keftedes and pilafi. Hear me now! Eat it all!!!!!
I’d love to give you a perfectly vetted list of authentic restaurants but, in all honesty, I’ve never had a bad meal in The Plaka. Instead, try Hermion for a quiet meal and Kazakos Pantelis for the rooftop view that tucks you right in under the Acropolis.
The Central Market
Getting your head around the food choices in Athens can be a bit overwhelming. There are distinct differences between the touristy menu and the typical Greek menu especially in the Plaka. A great way to learn more about Greek food is to visit the central market. With two distinct parts devoted to meat and seafood on one side and fresh produce on the other, you can get a true sense of what makes Greek cuisine so yummy. Getting there first thing in the morning gives you a sense of the energy that it takes to get Greece’s menus out to her customers every day.
The Plaka’s Treasure
Browsing through the Plaka’s generous supply of stores will keep you busy for days. There are plenty of amazing shops to check out. While touristy t-shirt shops will always be a staple, there are plenty of gems to be found. Some of the legacies that you will find deep in the Plaka include Jewelry Stores that specialize in Byzantine styles. I highly recommend Dimos Jewelry You will find owner, Stavros, making great quality pieces that truly reflect that Byzantine style that made the Plaka’s first jewelers so famous. Another incredible jeweler named Tom (Thassos in Greek) can be found at Old Orient Jewelry. While the name is a bit deceiving, make no mistake, its history is well founded in the treasures you find down at the National Archaeological Museum.
I’m Worried Someone’s Watching Me
It’s not your imagination! You are being watched by thousands upon thousands of evil eyes. Don’t let the name fool you, evil eyes are an old superstition meant to keep evil away. You’ll find them on absolutely everything from soap to pillows. Join in the fun, everyone buys them and has them in their house. I always look for the most creative ones to enjoy. If you are still worried, check out the beads that are strung to look like over sized bracelets. These worry beads are another Greek staple that’s well worth the enjoyment.
The best place to get your evil eye swag is at Helen’s which is just in front of Hermion. Check out this old school shop for all kinds of fun stuff to bring home and share. I’ve gone year after year and always have a great time visiting the owner. For more modern inceptions of the evil eye, check out the shops along Adrianou Street.
While not the crowning achievement of the Ancient Greeks, the Acropolis is certainly the most famous of all the marble piles. Tackling a visit to the City on the Hill can be quite daunting without a little preparation. There are three distinct places to visit to take in the whole story: The Acropolis, The Agora, and The New Museum.
Honestly, I don’t think that there is any right way or correct order in which to visit the sites. The museum does a great job telling the age old story. Then again, the Agora does a fabulous job of explaining ancient daily life. Of course, the climb is so iconic that you may not want to wait. See what I mean?
Know the Controversy
If there was one thing to make sure you know before going to Acropolis, it would be the story of the Parthenon Marbles. Known also as the Elgin Marbles, this group of friezes from the Acropolis. Here’s the story in a nutshell: Way back in 1801, Lord Elgin asked the ruling Ottoman government if he could have his pick of the ruins on top of the Acropolis. The government said okay and he took what he wanted including 75 meters of the frieze. That seemed to be the end of it. Fast forward to post WWII Greece.
The modern and current government feels that the marbles were taken under incorrect circumstances and would like them returned. England is not a fan of this idea since the marbles take center stage in London. There are many twists and turns in this story and it is well worth researching. It will also explain the empty floor at the Acropolis Museum.
Make The Climb
It’s hot and dry in Athens during the Summer but don’t let that deter you from planting your feet high above the modern skyline. Here, at the top of one of the seven hills (just like Rome) that surround Athens. Stop. Take it all in. Take in this crowning glory of ancient times. Walk around the Parthenon and examine the massive columns. Envision that great goddess Athena in all her glory filling the space inside. Study the intricate copies of the Caryatids that have held up the porch of the Erechtheion opposite the temple. Check in with the restoration projects to see how they are holding back the erosion of time. It’s an overwhelming moment for any traveler.
Last, walk out to the Greek flag. Here, learn the story of Konstantinos Koukidis and why he is so important to modern Greece. Be sure to also view the amphitheater and the main gate to get a full feel of what this hilltop must have been like in its prime. I would say that climbing to the top is a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s the Summer heat that will do you in more than the hike.
On your way down, be sure to seek out a moment to climb the stairs to the rock where St. Paul talked to the Athenians. As in “a letter from St. Paul to the Athenians”. Yes, those passages in the Bible happen right at the foot of Athena’s home turf. Whether you are interested in religion or not, the stop is an interesting one to pause and think of time in terms centuries and millenia. It’s just astounding.
Get Out Of Town!
Athens is full of amazing sites and treasures. Just ride the subway to see that even when you are getting from point A to point B, you will run in to museum quality antiquities. Between the Evzones and stunning churches, and even a hilltop observatory, Athens has plenty to keep any traveler busy. I know it’s tempting to check as many museums as possible off your list and if that’s your thing, check away! But, if you are like most, you are probably wanting to balance ancient ruins with bougainvillea covered tavernas that overlook dreamy sea views.
If that’s your idea of fun, head south to catch the ferry to Hydra. This little, traffic free island has all the charm you can take. Enjoy the people watching and browse the little shops. Greece will not leave you wanting in the souvenir department. Most of all, pull up a chair. Order a drink and something delicious. Relax. Enjoy. You’re in Greece!
Another amazing side trip is to set your sights north toward a town called Meteora. World renown for it’s monasteries that are sky high, this little corner of the world is quite magical. Tour one of the monasteries and then enjoy the little downtown tavernas in the evening. This is a side of Greece that rarely get seen by the first time visitor.
If you plan to include the Greek Islands in your travels, check out our amazing post about seeing them here!