Athens. An enigmatic European capital that somehow has all the attributes of genteel-by-comparison Paris and Rome and also a healthy dose of chaotic charm, which quite honestly, at times is redolent of Beirut. As a city break destination, Athens -in our bias opinion!- is perfect and yet sadly many visitors see only but a modicum of what she has to offer. In this post, we aim to give you a few pearls of wisdom with which to arm yourself with before visiting our beguiling city of Athens.
How to get around
Inside Athens metro station - credits: markara/Shutterstock.com
Starting with the basics, transport. Athens has many options including the obvious choice of taxis which we have dedicated an entire post to. Aside from that, the public transport options are extensive. Ηowever, the bus system can be a little perplexing, even for locals. The easiest and least intimidating mode of transport is undoubtedly the Metro and Tram system. The Metro is a simple and fast way to get around the city with many central sites having a corresponding metro station such as the Acropolis, Monastiraki and Syntagma. It also spans a considerable area of the city making it possible to reach the port of Piraeus, the northern green suburbs of Kifissia and the airport. Once you’re in Athens, the tram is also very useful. Αlthough not the fastest way to travel, it does run frequently and allows you to see many parts of the city. It’s particularly easy to use with only 3 lines and it is an excellent way to reach the Athens Riviera.
Where to Stay
View from the rooftop of Was hotel - credits: www.athenswas.gr
For accommodation, you want to look for a hotel or apartment that is centrally located. Although on a map Athens as a city may look vast, the areas that you are most likely to visit are by in large all within walking distance of each other if you stay in the centre. What do we mean by the centre? Neighbourhoods such as Syntagma, Plaka, Monastiraki, Psyrri are all great choices. Although, for the more intrepid amongst you, there are also some really lovely neighborhoods in Athens that are now far easier to find accommodation in with the advent of Airbnb. Koukaki, in particular, has become a popular place to stay with its array of quality eateries and proximity to the historic centre. There are, however, some incredibly lovely hotels to stay in and many boast breathtaking views of the Acropolis and Lycabettus hill. One of our favorites is Athens Was, stylish and -dare I use the word- trendy. Ιt is perfectly located between Hadrian's’ Gate and Dionysou Areopagitou, a long sweeping esplanade which hosts the Acropolis Museum and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. If you’re visiting Athens on a budget, Athens Quinta is a little known but exceedingly good choice. Although described as a hostel, it is far removed from any of the usual assumptions one might make. The decor is traditional but tasteful with a pretty courtyard and a warm and inviting atmosphere. Wherever you choose to stay, if you’re planning on seeing the city, it is best to stay as centrally as possible or, if you do choose to stay in one of the neighborhoods outside of the centre, try to pick an apartment that is close to a metro station.
What to see
The Acropolis museum - credits: serkan senturk/Shutterstock.com
The city of the ancient Athenians draws millions of visitors from all over the world and for good reason. If you’re looking for recent advocates of the impressive and important nature of Athens’ sites of antiquity, look no further than Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron both of whom recently visited Athens. It is certainly a truism, no matter how obvious -and inescapable for those who usually shun the crowds and abhor the tourist trail- that staying in Athens and not visiting the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum would be sacrilege. Concomitant sites such as Pnyx Hill, Areopagus and the Ancient Agora are also must-see places to add to your itinerary. The question of course, that perhaps too many people daren’t utter for fear of embarrassment, is why? Quite frankly, it is a fair question if you do not know the history and importance of the sites around you. Without the context, it would be fair to say that the birthplace of democracy or not it means nothing if all you see are aesthetically pleasing ruins and a multitude of signs throwing fabled names such as Socrates and Pericles that everybody nods in communal agreement of admiration, but in truth cannot actually recollect why they are figures of importance. This is why we highly recommend visiting these incredible sights in the company of one of our expert, licensed guides. These are individuals who have dedicated their lives to studying the history of these sights but also possess an enviable talent of being able to share with you thousands of years of history (hundreds of hours in the library on their part) in a way that will captivate your imagination and quite possibly have you heading for the local bookstore afterwards!
After the most famous sites of antiquity, there is still an enormous amount to see. From the island-like area of Anafiotika to a plethora of fascinating museums to quirky local neighborhoods, the Athenian Riviera and nearby beauties such as the Temple of Poseidon, there is so much to do that it is worth thinking about what interests you most as a traveller. In a bid to lighten the amount of research our visitors have to do, we have done just that with our city break packages where we have designed itineraries based on the style of travellers, be they foodies, local culture seekers or parents travelling with young children.
Stavros Niarchos Foundation - credits: https://www.snfcc.org/
There are also places worth seeing that certainly are completely off the tourist radar. One of our favorites is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre which is an impressive feat of architecture and engineering but rather, more importantly, a centre designed to benefit the people of the city. However, not just for locals, it has an impressive rooftop park that holds a free outdoor cinema during the summer, offers rent-a-bikes for as little as €3 per hour and plenty of places to grab a bite to eat. Head over to our post about the foundation for more ideas of what to do whilst you’re there.
If there’s one site that we would really love more people to know about, however, it is the Mansion of Benizelou. Located in Plaka and quite possibly Athens’ oldest surviving house dating back to the 16th century, it is the ancestral home of the aristocratic family of Benizelou. Their daughter, Revoula, later claimed her place in history as Saint Philothei after her philanthropy and feats of bravery eventually drew unwanted attention and ended in her death. The house is a remarkably well-preserved example of architecture pre the revolution of 1821. In the very heart of Plaka, it is passed by, by many without a second glance, but it is a fascinating remnant of history that is perfectly placed for you to see on your walks in Athens.
Events to check out
Ancient herodes atticus theatre - credits: Nataliya Nazarova/Shutterstock.com
Athens, whilst host to many an exciting event (gallery openings, theatre, music, dance, workshops, the list goes on) for visitors, it is often not particularly clear as to when and where events are taking places. A great way to find out what events are taking place during your stay is Why Athens-a site which regularly posts events taking place in the city. For music, in particular, try ticketservices.gr and even if the music is in Greek and of a completely new genre to you, a night at Theatre VraxonMelina Mercouriis not to be missed. Sheer rock face, cleverly lit, provides an atmospheric backdrop for performers and the slightly novel experience of grilled sweetcorn, souvlaki (but of course) and cans of chilled beer. It is really something to share with friends for those of you seeking out a truly local experience, far from the tourist crowd.
For those of you visiting Athens this winter, from November until March 2018 the visually impressive Van Gogh Alive exhibition will be showcasing the prolific artist’s work in an exciting forum, enhanced with screens and video imagery bringing to the viewer the full vibrancy and colour of an artist’s mind. A wonderful outing for all ages, the Megaron Hall hosting the event is easily accessible by metro. Simply take the blue line and get off at Megaro Mousikis station.
What to eat
Kir Aristos - credits: Kir Aristos
The city is bursting with simply great places to eat. Whether you are after traditional fare, fusion cuisine or a taste of one of the many cultures that have chosen to call Athens home, the choice is endless. However, it is also not without pitfalls, so be sure to do your research and avoid the dreaded tourist traps! For an up-to-date guide on the best and brightest of Athens’ cuisine have a look at our Athens Agenda; a portfolio of handpicked places which we’ve sought out for you (and ourselves!) to discover the very best of what Athens has to offer. It’s also worth bearing in mind that although you may be reluctant to leave the historic centre, there is a pack of surrounding neighborhoods that are fast becoming favorite haunts for our discerning local foodies. If you’ve taken off for the day to the Athens Riviera and you’re in search of a truly excellent yet cosy taverna, one of our favorites is Kir Aristos in Paleo Faliro. Technically a kebabtzidikon (=kebab shop)rather than a taverna -which if you’re amongst locals is definitely more than semantics- Kir Aristos serves incredible food at very reasonable prices and has welcoming decor to match. Be warned though, at the weekend you’re best to phone ahead as every table in the house is usually taken, a testament to its quality. If you'd like to taste delicacies from the Greek islands without leaving Athens, you can visit 'Lesvos', the traditional meze restaurant located in the Athenian neighborhood of Eksarxeia. There you will taste fresh fish, meze and ouzo from the island of Lesvos that are both mind-blowingly good and affordable in price! Its homey vibe and live music (depending on the days and hours you visit it) are the icing on the cake!
If you’re a die-hard foodie or simply looking for something a little different this year, we’ve designed something with you very much in mind! Imagine three days of culinary heaven, from farms to tucked away delis to tavernas with the most incredible food and views to match. Mixed with a healthy dose of mythology and dash of local sightseeing it is the perfect recipe for a long weekend getaway!
The current tendency to focus on the gloom of crisis, be it economic, migrant or of another nature, has perhaps tainted the general perception of Athens. Yet, through it all, she remains a city of promise, unexplainable charm and an unbeatably exciting mix of heritage and modernity. For those who have not visited there are assumptions and expectations, but for those who take the time to explore, Athens is a discovery of what is possible and ultimately, addictive.