ATHENS CITY GUIDE
Making your way through the narrow streets of Athens, there's something so satisfying about seeing 19th century neoclassical houses smack dab up against ruins and buildings from ancient Greek civilizations dating back to 500BC. The Acropolis, visible from most parts in Athens, stands as a reminder both how old and how modern life is here and the struggles the city has endured. It's a testament to the gumption and survival of the people and their culture. It's gritty but elegant, rough around the edges but steeped in antiquity, rulers, and mythology 500 years before time. Being here in Athens also reminded me how nice it is to not be in a constant rush. Northern California has a similar kind of effect on me. You can feel the difference almost instantly.
ATHENS IN 2 DAYS
We have many friends who know Greece well and offered some helpful advice to help us navigate our way around Athens. Everyone agreed that when visiting (being that you have to fly into Athens before heading to the Greek islands) 1 or 2 days is really all you need to spend in Athens. We chose 2 days since we weren't going to stop back on our way home, instead we just went through the Athens airport as a layover on our way out. 1 day just wouldn't have been enough for us and it was good to have the extra time to adjust to the time difference without feeling the pressure to get everything in.
We compiled a little list, both of a few things we loved and that we missed but that came highly recommended so that when you visit you'll have a good roadmap. When you arrive it's nice to give yourself a good half day to catch up to the time change. This gives you 36 hours to get a good taste of Athens (and some Ouzo), enough so you get your food and culture fix in without fear of missing out. Also no need to rent a car. Taxis are affordable and everything you want to see is all relatively close.
We stayed at the Hilton which is a super short taxi ride (or you could walk if you wanted some exercise) to the the center of town and most anything you'll want to check off your list. The Hilton is a great option, like any legit hotel chain, especially when you don't want to worry about anything but adjusting to your environment. They also have a beautiful pool to lounge at which was the perfect start to getting into the vacation vibe. Grab a seat poolside and order the souvlaki, the trio of baba ganoush, fava, smoked tuna, and grilled pita, or the lamb burgers and feta from the Oasis Bar. It was wonderful not having to drop our bags and immediately start checking off all our siteseeing points. We also loved the Acropolis view from our room, the epitome of Athens - sitting in our modern room looking out at a piece of the ancient world.
*A side note on AirBnbs. We love using AirBnb and we did later on in our trip (in Crete) but when traveling to a foreign country and arriving foggy headed from a long plane ride, we think it's best stay at a hotel when you first get in. Should anything go wrong, there's never a language barrier, you have help on the spot, decent food, and you have direct access to information, and taxis on call. Sometime I'll tell you about our first night in our Barcelona AirBnb.
Some other hotels that came recommended:
Coco-Mat Athens - recommended from our friends Oat & John: "It's in a very desirable chic location with lots of restaurants, cafes, shopping boutiques around. Coco Mat is actually a bedding store with locations all over Greece. The hotel in Athens is used to showcase their bedding products which are actually very very nice. From the street, you won't know it's a hotel. Coco Mat's roof deck is also a perfect place to sip wine/cocktail at night. It's quiet and intimate (which is what we needed after a long day of fending off a gazillion tourists), and it has a nice view of the Acropolis which is beautiful at night."
The Athens Gate Hotel - recommended by a couple of our friends. Perfect location, right in the heart of Athens and a stone's throw to all tourist attractions.
The Ava Hotel - recommended by the NY Times. Sitting at the base of the Acropolis, it's also great option especially for a hipstery, more boutique vibe.
There's no shortage of amazing food options in Athens. Athenian hospitality, like all Greek culture, is sometimes slow but so worth the wait. If you're not stopping into a cafe for a Greek coffee and a warm spanakopita (spinach and feta pie), you're sitting down to eat. Restaurants in Greece love giving a thank you like some port or ouzo post meal. As a rule, any menu with food like grilled octopus, baked gigante beans, fava bean puree, local fish, moussaka, lamb stew, you're looking in the right direction.
Piazza Duomo It's a perfect spot for some people watching as you let your legs rest in their outdoor seating and just far enough away from the crazy tourist-packed corner of Monastiraki. Order the souvlaki, the olives, and some ice cold drinks and then continue up the old streets leading up and around the Acropolis.
Other places that were recommended or we researched:
Kostarelos - from our friend Constantine: "in Kolonaki. REALLY good. Hip, delicious, 15 minutes from the Hilton."
Ta Bakaliarakia tou Damigou is a 150 year old institution and does traditional Greek kitchen food right. Split a carafe of the house red and try the fried cod fish and squid.
Avocado is a great vegetarian spot and vegan/GF friendly (there is also one in Santorini). Still Greek but will make you feel at home as a New Yorker. The falafel plate, salads, avocado burger and vegan milkshakes are all good options.
Our first night we went to dinner late and were afraid there wouldn't be much open since it was a Sunday and very quiet by our hotel. The Hilton's front desk staff recommended we check out a string of restaurants behind the Hilton (make a right out of the hotel and then a right down the first side street). There were many options but we picked the last one on the street and it ended up being one of our favorite meals in all of Greece.
Agora Select: We got the Greek salad, grilled squid in herb oil with fava bean puree, the bolognese pasta, some red wine and it was all fantastic!
Some other restaurants that came recommended and are much closer to the tourist sites, along with having views of the Acropolis are:
Kuzina - Grab a table outside. It's a cool blend of traditional Greek flavors with a modern twist.
Strofi - Sit out on the balcony, order the whole fish.
Dionysos Zonars - Modern Greek food with excellent reviews.
If you have the time and really want to see an overview of Athens from a hometown POV, hire George the taxi driver. For about 150 euros, and a half-afternoon of activities, he'll take you down to the coast to visit temples like Poseidon that are a little off the path that you otherwise would probably miss. As incredible as the reviews are, we are going to have to save this for a later trip to Athens.
DAY 1: As we mentioned our first day pretty much just consisted of relaxing by the pool, eating good food, and getting a good night's rest. We definitely could have fit in some more activities the first day but this was vacation after all ;) Going to a couple museums would also fit into your first day nicely. We did run into some unexpected hours of museums while here so make sure to check before you head out.
Museum of Cycladic Art - an easy 15 min walk from the Hilton and can be done in 45 mins - 1 hour.
National Archaeological Museum of Athens - Athen’s version of the Met or the Louvre and can be done in 1 - 2 hours.
DAY 2: Our second day we woke up refreshed, felt pretty acclimated, and were ready for a full day of exploration. We took a quick taxi to Syntagma Square which is a great meeting point in Athens and is walking distance to just about everything. Right past the McDonalds in the square is the beginning of Ermou Street which is closed to auto traffic and leads you down to our first location.
*Note - this is the order that we did things but if you completely reversed it, it would also be just as wonderful. We had friends that had differing opinions on what to do first and last but we don't think you can really go wrong. We would suggest going to the Acropolis either first thing in the morning at 8am to dodge tour buses coming in or waiting to just an hour and a half or two before it closes so the crowds have thinned out and you can see the setting sun. When we went it was very hot so I'm not sure if it would have made much of a difference going first thing in the morning or waiting later in the day (we went around 5:30p) but we are glad we did not go in the middle of the day because there were still a good amount of tourists while we were there. Okay, back to stop #1....
Monastiraki - Known for it's flea market vibe and iconic landmarks including the ruins of Hadrian’s Library, the Ancient Agora, Tsisdarakis Mosque and countless small shops selling everything from handmade sandals and fresh fruits to souvenir T-shirts. The Cathedrals and Greek Orthodox Churches around are like living museums. After you've had your fill of Monastriraki, check out the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens for some good photos ops. Across from here is the lunch spot we recommended, Piazzo Duomo. After our bellies were full, we cooled down, posted some snaps on social media, we headed to the area known as the Plaka.
Plaka - It’s quintessential old Athens and we could have (and I think we did) spend hours walking around the quaint, windy streets. It's easy to feel like you're getting lost but we didn't mind since every street is as charming as the last and there are many places to grab a Greek coffee as you stroll along. We definitely did rely on Google maps to get us back on track and to our next location.
Temple of Zeus - To be completely honest we were hot and tired and didn't actually pay to go in but we felt as though we were up close and personal just looking at it through the gate. We have to say, it was more impressive than we had thought it was going to be. Just a few streets away from here is the Acropolis, where we headed to next.
Acropolis Museum - A great place to cool off in the AC after walking around all afternoon and it's pretty amazing to marvel down at the excavations. Again, make sure to check the times because it closes early on Mondays. Afterwards, we sat right outside the museum for a while listening to the street musicians, refilled our bag with cold bottles of water and read up on the Acropolis before venturing up to the top (the Acropolis is right across from the museum).
Acropolis / Parthenon - Tip #1: There was a long line to buy tickets but only 1 person in the cash only line. Luckily we had cash so we were able to surpass everyone else. Tip #2: If you need an excuse to dust off your old student ID, this is the place to do it. It cut the cost in half from €20 to €10. This might have been the case for the other museums but we didn't try - would be worth asking though. After hiking up to the top and spending a couple hours dreaming what it would have been like to have been around 500BC, we headed down to get dinner at one of the restaurants we recommended above. Unfortunately it's closed on Mondays and after heading to a famous spinach pie bakery after that to find out it was also closed our legs couldn't take us anywhere else. We grabbed some quick food, took a taxi back to the hotel and collapsed in bed.
We were completely pooped by the end of our time in Athens but our friend Amy suggested to watch a film at the Le Cine Paris outdoor cinema. It was built in the early 1920's and has great rustic charm. We loved this tip but just didn't have the time to go. Amy said, "My one hidden gem recommendation is to go to Le Cine Paris. It's an amazing evening activity - under €10 and you can drink wine and have a view of the Acropolis in the background. Plus the movies are in English. I think we were the only non-Greeks there and LOVED it. Plus since dinner is served late, you can have dinner afterwards :)"
This picture is pretty grainy but we had to capture the site we woke up to at 5am to head back to the airport. We pulled back the curtain in our hotel room to be greeted by the largest orange moon we have ever seen. It felt like we were looking at Mars and it was mind blowing thinking how this is the same moon that Plato, Socrates, and Pericles were also looking at while sitting in the Parthenon. A pretty epic way to say goodbye to Athens.
There are other sights that could keep you busy for a few more days (the National Gardens, shopping around Kolonaki, Athens Central Market, and the Panathenaic Stadium to name just a few) but this itinerary should keep you feeling content and revved up for the trip ahead. Keep an eye out this month for our guides to Crete and Santorini.
Stin ygeia` sas !!