Last September, I travelled to Athens with two great friends to begin an adventure around Greece. We thought we would spend about two days in Athens having thought and heard that it would be enough before heading to the islands.
Were we ever in for a surprise! This city completely exceeded any expectations we had before arriving. You see a lot in the news about the struggles that Greece has faced with the economic crisis, particularly being played out in scenes in Athens.
You can see the city regenerating and a feeling of youthfulness amidst ancient sites. Athens is truly fantastic - it is welcoming, fascinating, enormous and so much to see and do. We knew after our first evening there that we didn't set aside nearly enough time to explore this great city.
Right from arrivals at the Athens International Airport (Eleftherios Venizelos), we received a warm welcome. One of my favourite things while travelling is to meet new people and learn about their city from their perspective. In what might have been a serendipitous moment or twist of fate, the taxi we hopped into in the taxi rank was with the super Stamatis. Stamatis was so friendly and fun, chatting to us and welcoming us to Athens. As a proud Athenian, he was pleased to hear this was our first time to his city. As we made the drive from the airport into the city to our flat, he talked about the history of Athens, pointing out and explaining all the sights we passed. He also talked about current events in recent years and how the Greek people have been coping. He also offered us some great tips and recommendations as well. We ended up calling him a few times during our trip due to the fantastic service we received. Stamatis runs Opa Taxi and Tours (www.facebook.com/opataxiandtours) with his partner, Debbie, who are such wonderful people who made us feel instantly like friends. They were quick, always on time, passionate about Greece, brought us water in the heat and great fares. As women travellers, we really appreciated this service, feeling safe and not being taken advantage of. If you are looking for a warm welcome to Athens and friendly transportation, we would highly recommend them!
We enjoyed exploring Athens, wandering through its ancient sites and modern neighbourhoods. It felt surreal to visit places such as the Acropolis, which looks over the entire city. And the Athenian light... it is ethereal and we often felt as though the ancient Greek gods were watching over the city and creating magic in the skies.
Athens International Airport serves the world well with many direct and connecting flights. It is also a great place to travel onward to many of the Greek islands or elsewhere. It's a modern airport with many different restaurants and great shopping.
Take Opa Taxi and Tours to travel either to or from the airport, as well as around the city or another destination for great services and fares.
The subway/metro is also a great option to travel around this enormous city.
We opted to stay at a property in the city booked through our favourite site, Airbnb. We stayed in a beautiful vintage home in the lovely Thissio neighbourhood. Thissio is near the centre of Athens and has many cool cafes and bars to hang out in, as well as feeling quite traditionally Greek. After checking into our new home for the next few days, we walked to the main area of Thissio, which is essentially a wide, mainly pedestrianized, avenue. There are amazing views of the Acropolis from Thissio. Our first night felt magical, having dinner outside in the warm air with the Acropolis looking over us glowing with warm light and watching people wander by. We also loved that this neighbourhood didn't feel as touristy as other parts of Athens, such as Monastiraki. It's also easy to walk to many key neighbourhoods and sites, such as the Plaka. I will definitely look to stay in this neighbourhood again when I visit Athens again.
Things To Do and See:
- The new Acropolis Museum is a must-visit. This beautiful designed and curated museum houses priceless antiquities. Situated at the base of the Acropolis, it is light, airy and ultra modern. While entering the museum and up the Gallery of the Slopes, you can see the foundations of Athens underfoot through glass, perfectly blending today's world with the ancient world. As you go to the top of the museum to the Parthenon Gallery, floor to ceiling windows allow you to look at the remaining original friezes replicating the Parthenon, while going upwards outside to the Acropolis at the top of the hill. I would recommend checking out the lovely cafe - especially the outdoors terrace (even just for the view!).
- Not to be cliche, but you just cannot go to Athens and not visit the Acropolis, considering it is a major symbol of ancient Greece and represents the birth of Western civilization! The site itself is majestic and fascinating to walk around. It feels surreal to sit and look at the Parthenon, for example, and try to imagine what life was life in ancient Greeks walking around this site. I would recommend visiting the Acropolis either early in the day or towards sunset to avoid the blazing heat and peak crowds. We went in late afternoon and watched the sunset. I can honestly say that I have never seen skies quite like those I saw there. Swirling colours of orange, yellow, pink, purple and blues danced across the sky, making the monuments and the entire city glow and shine. Incredible! The walk up can be a bit steep and tricky, so be careful and take that into account.
- Be sure to visit the National Archaeological Museum. Firstly, the exterior of the museum is beautiful to see in its rich reds and grand entranceway. There are so many incredible things to see on display in this museum that it's hard to wrap your head around. The Mask of Agamemnon can be viewed here, for example! There is a lovely courtyard to relax. Many statues can also be seen here - just don't try to do your warrior two pose with Zeus (the staff don't like it very much!).
- Take a walk through the Ancient Agora, which was the centre of political, social, cultural and judicial activities in ancient Athens. It is a fascinating site to walk through and particularly recommend seeing the Stoa of Attalos, Church of the Holy Apostles, Temple of Hephaestus and Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios (one of the sites where Socrates shared his philosophical views).
- Take a taxi up to the top of Lykavittos Hill (very steep!). There is also a cable car that can be taken. The views are spectacular both from the restaurant that is there and surrounding St George's Chapel. This is a wonderful sunset location as well.
- Take a leisurely stroll through the lush, green National Gardens of Athens for a break from the busy streets, which is in the centre of the city.
- Visit the Temple of Zeus. Although there are only a few remaining columns on the site, they are enormous and loom over you, making it easy to imagine how dominating the site would have been at its height. A fascinating place to check out. Hadrian's Arch is also just on the edge of the site and worth seeing as well.
- It often feels that Athens itself is a living museum with so many different large and small and subtle sites, artifacts and relics to see. I would recommend just wandering around different neighbourhoods to see what you come across. For example, duck into different metro stations as they exhibit many antiquities discovered during construction. It is said that the largest excavation program ever undertaken in Greece was during the construction of the metro, uncovering more than 50,000 findings. We enjoyed checking out the Syntagma metro station, where you can see the many layers of Athens dating back to ancient times, including preserved skeletons in burial tombs amongst the different layers.
There is truly so much to see, do and experience in Athens that two to three days isn't nearly enough, although it will give you a flavour. We can't wait to go back and experience more that this great city has to offer! It is definitely a city that is overlooked and underestimated.