Athens is a unique world city and full of contradictions. The Greek capital is bustling and busy, grubby and grimy, but it’s also filled with impressive, iconic and historic sites at every turn. Almost 4,000 years of culture is contained within the city’s maze of tightly packed central neighbourhoods and locals are proud to show off their home – recognised as the cradle of Western civilisation.
You’ll see history and ruins throughout the city centre. There are museums devoted to the archaeology of Athens and the city’s role in ancient Greece, the Roman and Ottoman Empires. “You go shopping and there are the ruins of an ancient Greek temple,” Panos from Athens Segway Tours told. “When you don’t expect it, you’ll see a monument connected to the ancient Greek city.”Athens has recently created Europe’s largest pedestrian zone – a 3km-long swathe of wide walkways linking many of the city’s historic sites. And as a pedestrian, you’ll welcome being separated from the traffic chaos!
I’d suggest starting your visit by spending €7.50 to ride the funicular to one of the city’s best viewing points, so you can appreciate Athens’ layout. Mount Lycabettus is the triangular-peaked, limestone hill that rises 300m above the central city skyline. But finding the lower station at Kolonaki was difficult. There are no signs. The streets are also quite steep and it was hot wandering around hunting for the station. I’d recommend getting a taxi there if it’s warm.
Everyone wants to see the sunset from the hill. As daylight began to fade, some of the people waiting to board the train were getting techy as we waited and waited. The two-minute ride only runs every 30 minutes, so it’s a good idea to get there early! Once I got to the top, it was very busy. There is a café with prices matching the sky high elevation. Then, climb some steps and you’ll reach the plateau – a square dominated by the brilliant, white-stuccoed St George’s Chapel. It’s not a peaceful experience though – the souvenir stallholders have radios blaring and you have to queue up three deep and face a sea of selfie sticks for your chance to lean against the lookout wall, the best photo vantage point.
It’s worth staying to watch the sun set on the horizon and the city light up. Athens’ wide avenues glowed with the red brake lights of traffic stretching towards the port. On the hill opposite, the floodlit Acropolis appeared more impressive as it got darker. I headed back to my hotel, ready to visit that well-known tourist site straight after breakfast.
At 8am, I was in a small queue of five people at the Acropolis ticket office, waiting for the gates to open. You’ll need to be relatively fit to climb the steps, rising 160 metres up the rocky hill to the walled plateau. The historic temples and monuments like the Parthenon lie at the end of this path. It was Anthoula Gioldasi from Athens Walking Tours who advised me to get up early to beat the heat. Temperatures regularly reach the mid-thirties in summer and some of her guests don’t enjoy that. “They don’t like the climb. They don’t expect it, particularly on a hot day.”
Anthoula explained that some people are also surprised at the number of historic buildings on site. “They hear Acropolis and think it’s one thing, like the Eiffel Tower. When they come up the hill they don’t expect to see a big area with a lot of monuments like the Parthenon, the Athena Nike Temple and the beautiful Erechtheum. All this is together.” The Parthenon is the most recognisable building – a classical Greek temple with honey-coloured marble columns. It was devoted to Athens’ female patron goddess in the fifth century BC. It’s incredible to think how this site would have been filled with people centuries ago, as their meeting and decision-making shaped modern democracy. Visitors love the smaller, white marble columned Nike Temple. It is a Victorian-era recreation of a monument built in the 5th century. “It’s a beautiful tiny temple which has been 80% reconstructed with original materials. It’s cute because it’s located so high up,” Anthoula told me.
When you’ve finished seeing the ancient ruins, it’s worth stopping to take in the sweeping views over the city. Sadly, much of the Parthenon is a building site, covered in scaffolding. Athens has been blighted by severe pollution and although the new metro rail has reduced traffic, decades of exhaust emissions has wreaked havoc on the historic site.
At 9am, the peace was shattered by the sound of stomping feet. Soldiers started marching around the Acropolis. The Greek Army certainly wants to be seen and heard, as I found when I experienced the changing of the guard later.
Three million people visit the Acropolis each year and by 9.30am, the cruise ship groups began filing in. Their chatter and the noise of the competing tour guides changed the atmosphere entirely. “Up to 1,600 cruise ships dock in the port of Piraeus between May and November,” Anthoula explained. “That means every day there are ships from big cruise lines like Celebrity, with up to 4,000 people on board. Most of those will want to see the Acropolis at the same time!”
I walked down from the historic site to the striking modern steel and glass designed Acropolis Museum. It opened five years ago and is consistently rated one of the top museums in the world.
Athens Segway Tours offer an easy way to see this hilly city. They only operate in pedestrianised zones and can take you around the historic areas. I spoke with Panos from the company, who suggested that I should see the 19th-century city sights, like the National Garden, Parliament and the Presidential Mansion. “Athens is not only about the ancient ruins. It also has a lot of modern buildings, mediaeval history and modern history with beautiful buildings and beautiful sites worth people’s time and effort,” he told me.
There are two places – one ancient and one modern – that Panos says you should visit. “Pnyx Hill was the meeting place of the original Athens assembly, which was used from the 5th century BC. People sat there to listen to speakers. It’s where the citizens of Athens would meet to discuss city affairs and make important decisions. Not many people walk all the way up there,” said Panos. “We go on our Segways. It’s not that busy but it’s the birthplace of democracy and at the same time there is a magnificent view of the Acropolis Rock.” The other site is the replica of the only ancient stadium of the city. “The Panathenaic Stadium was refurbished for the first modern Olympics in 1896 and was used again in 2004. It’s a replica of the ancient stadium – huge and simple and magnificent.”
It’s worth walking around the winding back streets below the Acropolis. The whitewashed cottages, stones steps and bright pink bougainvillea makes it look more like the Greek islands. That’s because islanders settled here. There’s also Hadrian’s Arch, the symbolic entrance to the city, which was built in 134AD. The stone arch has two layers and is topped by classical Greek columns.
I was heading to a modern place where recent history has been made. Syntagma Square was the focus of the world’s media during the Greek financial problems and bail out. Today you’ll see colour-changing fountains dominate the plaza where the world’s media watched riot squads battle protestors in 2015.
Life has changed in Athens after what locals refer to as ‘the crisis.’ “It was a shock wave,” one tour guide told me. “In 2004 we hosted the Olympics and everybody was partying and going to Mykonos. They all wanted to buy a Mercedes. Everybody felt like they could make easy money. It was a very superficial lifestyle. Then the crisis came and that was a shock. It’s changed a lot.”
There’s clearly a lot of poverty and the city is not as well maintained as when I last visited in 2004. But for visitors and locals, some good things have come out of the crisis. “Lots of shops have been closing but they are reopening as bars and cafés. The Greeks are trying to be creative when it comes to these kinds of shops. You’ll see really cool places with nice decorations and design. Athens’ nightlife over the last ten years has become really unique,” Tania explained. It seems that people might not want to spend cash on products but they still want to go out and socialise.
Athens is a place where people share their politics publicly. You’ll hear musicians perform Rebetiko. This style of music hails from Anatolia in Turkey and the lyrics discuss politics and life’s hardships. That’s why it was banned during the 1970’s military junta.
I walked from Syntagma Square to the inner city area of Exarchia, famed for it’s alternative shops, computer and comic stores and cheaper bars. It’s considered to be an anarchic suburb. Exarchia has a life of its own. It’s not trendy. It’s an all time classic. It’s worth visiting. “Is it safe?” I asked. “Yes it is. It’s not safe if you’re a policeman wearing your uniform though. There is a Central Park that the mayor wanted to turn into a parking area but the locals felt there was a lack of green space in Athens and they didn’t want it covered over so they occupied the park. There are locals guarding it and people have community discussions there and theatre plays. It’s all run by the people for the people.”
I was quite on edge wandering around Exarchia, possibly because I’d heard such horror stories. I found it incredible that an alleged police no-go area could exist in the heart of one of Europe’s capital cities. There’s incredible graffiti, huge street art spanning buildings four storeys high. Some of the graffiti advised police to stay out in strong Anglo-Saxon terms. I guess that signs like that help fuel the area’s infamy.
Panos told me he lived in Exarchia. “Some locals are scared of it. When I tell fellow Athenians that I live there some ask why I do it to myself. But it’s a magnificent area. It’s a students’ area. It’s next the Polytechnic School and has a long history. It was the beginning of the revolt against the military junta in 1973. It is alternative. Most cultural groups and publishers are based there. And it’s generally cheaper and worth visiting so don’t believe what you hear.”
Parts of Exarchia were very run down and appeared abandoned, like one of those cities in a Bruce Willis movie, trying to function after a major catastrophic event. Then there were some bars and cafes that appeared really hip and arty. It’s an interesting place but probably not one I’d recommend to my mum if she visited Athens.
I walked back to Syntagma Square where there’s a visible military presence with the special Presidential Guard, or evzones, on duty outside parliament. It’s said to be impossible to distract them. Every Sunday at 11am there’s a special changing of the guard ceremony. 120 soldiers march in their traditional dress of red berets with dangling tassels, white smocks and stockings. Their pom-pom decorated shoes make a noise as they stride, legs outstretched. It reminded me of John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks!
Athens is a city where you can spend much of your city break outdoors. The climate is perfect for the pavement cafes that are often busiest later in the cool of the evening, after 10pm. If you’re on a budget, you can eat cheap, kebab-like gryos. They are cooked over an open fire and wrapped in flatbreads. And veggies can get a Greek take on a chip butty. But I wanted to find more quality and traditional eats so I met up with Tania Fiore from Alternative Athens Food, who gave me a taste of the local dishes.
First stop was a bakery and pie shop called Meliathos, which means bread and honey. We tasted a delicious spinach pie there. “Greeks used to be very poor people and pies are cheap and substantial. We just need olive oil, filo pastry and flour. Spanikopita contains spinach, feta, dill and fresh mint,” Tania explained.
Later, we called into another bakery to pick up freshly baked kolouri. “It’s a circular bread with sesame seeds and is very similar to a pretzel,” she told us. “What I like about kolouri is that it’s crunchy outside and soft inside and it has a sweet taste. It’s great if you cut it and put ham or cheese inside. It’s delicious.”
Our tour continued to a shop selling olives, where we were able to sample several different types, followed by a traditional butchers shop. Then it was off to the city’s old fish market, complete with a slippery, tiled floor, smells and lots of shouting. Some of the tour party were looking nervous. “Nobody is angry. They are trying to sell,” Tania reassured them.
Next, we visited an incredible herb and spice retailer. Many of the dried plants were hanging from the ceiling. “What I like about it is that they’ve stored everything like it’s an old chemist shop. In Greek culture we use spices not only for taste but also for medicinal purposes. People working in the shop will be able to tell you which herbs are good tackling stomach problems or headaches. They might recommend that you sprinkle one type of herb on your salad,” she said. I asked Tania which of the herbs would create the most authentic Greek flavour? “If you don’t have a lot of room in your suitcase and you want to recreate the taste of Greece, just take oregano home,” she said.
You can’t come to Athens without having a Greek coffee. They make it by heating ground coffee beans and water in a small copper pan on a stovetop. It’s a thick and foamy coffee but you can’t drink the last few drops in the small cup because it’s filled with grinds. “If you travel around the Balkan countries or the Middle East you’ll find that everybody claims this type of coffee,” said Tania. “It’s Turkish coffee in Turkey, Serbian coffee in Serbia and Bulgarian coffee in Bulgaria. It is originally from the north of Africa, where the Bedouins used to prepare it in the hot embers from the fire.”
The coffee residue can, apparently, be used in fortune telling, a bit like tea leaves, and I agreed to be the guinea pig. “The cup is divided into different areas of life, such as love and work. You quickly flip the coffee cup over and the way in which the sludge moves indicates what will happen,” said Tania. She didn’t seem that convinced by the theory. “My grandmother used to do this as a ritual every day – in the morning and the evening. I used to ask what difference there could be in a few hours. She used to say the second one was just to confirm.” I didn’t really get a detailed prediction but I was told that if there’s a lot of residue remaining in your cup, then money will come your way. Guess what? Most of the sludge in mine emptied into the saucer!
There’s a plant extract that some Greeks think is almost magical in it’s properties. It’s called mastic – a resin sourced from a tree that grows in parts of Chios Island in the eastern Aegean. “They’ve tried to cultivate it elsewhere, even in other parts of the Aegean Islands, and it doesn’t work. It’s all failed. Mastic is special because it can be used in many ways. It’s edible. You can chew it like a gum. You can make sweets out of it. You can make it into liquor. It’s also used in cosmetics, soaps, creams and toothpastes. It has a beautiful smell,” Tania told me.
The Mastiha Shop, which stocks lots of mastic products, wasn’t on the food tour. So I made an arrangement to visit their stylish boutique, just across the road from the Parliament, where I spoke with Katarina. I was impressed that they had so many products containing mastic. Katarina walked me up and down the display pointing out the different goods on offer. “There are cooking sauces, smoked aubergine with mastic, spicy garlic spread with mastic. This olive oil is flavoured by it and it’s good for salads. There’s even traditional pasta containing mastic as well as chocolate, honey, cookies, coffee, tea and sweets.”
It tasted good, especially in the liqueur and chocolate I was offered. Mastic’s initial bitter taste quickly changes to the taste of pine. “It’s also used in cosmetics because of its properties of soothing and hydrating the skin. It is anti-inflammatory.”
Tania’s Alternative Athens Food Tour also took in some of the interesting shopping areas worth exploring in the city. Monasteraki used to be the commercial hub of Athens under the Ottoman Empire and was home to the bazaar. Its lanes are filled with interesting second hand stores, some selling army surplus gear, others stacked from floor to ceiling with brass, crockery and antiques.
There’s a lot of street art on display in Athens and much of it seems to offer an outlet for locals to speak out. “With the crisis, people feel the need to express their views and social anxiety with art on the walls,” Tania said, as we walked into Pittaki Street and came face-to-face with one of the most unusual sights in the area. “Locals gathered together old lampshades, including chandeliers and lanterns, rewired and weather proofed them, then strung them across the street,” she explained. “At night they bring colour to what would otherwise be a rundown back street.” I’d thoroughly recommend Tania’s food tour for a different view of the city. You can book at Alternative-Athens.com.
It’s worth mentioning security in Athens. Parts of the city feel sketchy and run down, more so than any other European city that I have visited recently. Both locals and tourists are targets for pickpockets. One of the women in the small group taking the food tour had a story about a robbery. A group of thieves rushed through the Metro train carriage that she boarded from the airport. They threw liquid, which thankfully was just water, at passengers faces and in the ensuing chaos grabbed some luggage and left before the train departed the station. Keep your wits about you and don’t carry valuables in rucksacks, which can be slashed by a thief who wants to grab your possessions.
I stayed in Athens in the perfectly located New Hotel. It was a minute’s walk from Syntagma Square and is near the shops, museums and galleries. It’s at the entrance to the Plaka district, where most of the archaeological sites are. Stefania Flenga from the New Hotel told me that Plaka is ‘the’ area to be. “Plaka has been developed by locals in the last five years with many new small nightclubs, bars and tapas restaurants opening. Greek entrepreneurs have opened designer clothing, shoe, handbag and furniture shops.”
The New Hotel is part of the Yes chain. Yes Hotels stands for ‘Young, Enthusiastic and Seductive’ although Stefania was keen to explain that the ‘young’ refers to their outlook and doesn’t mean the hotel is for young people only!
This boutique property has incorporated local culture in the room design. Some are decorated with old postcard images, others feature the design of the ‘evil eye,’ the blue stone ornament that is said to protect you from bad luck. In my room, the wall art featured Karagiozis, a shadow theatre figure from Greek folklore. “The junior suites include original art from Greek artists,” explained Stefania.
I was kindly accommodated at the New Hotel and I’d certainly stay there again. I enjoyed the unique rooms and special touches, like the welcome drink on arrival. The concierge was very helpful and I wished I’d taken his advice to get a cab to the funicular station! The breakfast choice was impressive and will set you up for a day of exploration. You can book at YesHotels.gr.
Athens is a good choice for a long weekend break, especially during the mild winter months, with double digit temperatures in February. The city centre is walkable and mixes the historic and the hip. Just make sure you keep valuables in your hotel safe and your hand on your handbag.
It takes just under four hours to reach Athens from Gatwick, Heathrow or Stansted. Easyjet and Ryanair offer the cheapest returns for around £77.