Athens is re-emerging to its glory.
How and when to explore this ancient gift. Still magnificent and intriguing as ever.
An emerging city in the world tourism that blew my mind and exceeded all my expectations. Over the last two-to-three years I had been learning about the changes that were taking place in Athens, making it a destination instead of a pass-through city to the Greek islands. With that I gathered information and did my research to plan a well overdue trip to the mecca of the Ancient Greek civilization.
Once landing in Athens, after a quick connection in Frankfurt, the best advise that I can give you is to schedule a driver in advance. Not only in Athens but anywhere in Greece, that’s the way to make things easier for you, the best part is that you can arrange that through your Airbnb host or hotel. To my surprise the Athens airport was very well organized, modern, clean and very efficient so that kicked off things well. Once our driver, Spiros, picked us up and drove us on the toll-highway it felt immediately like we were in Athens, surrounded by dry rocky hills and mountains and olive orchards in the outskirts of the city.
There are two main areas where to stay in Athens central, which are Plaka and Monastiraki, both located on the skirt of the Acropolis, giving you unparalleled views of all the temples on the Acropolis from many different angles, all day and night around the area. If you stay in these areas you won’t need a car and you can walk around the majority of the archeological attractions, street markets, shops and restaurants. The city is a little complicated to navigate in car as a tourist hence I recommend just getting a driver whenever needed instead of renting a car.
Athens started re-emerging since the 2004 Olympics that brought an influx of investment to display the ancient city to the modern world with spectators from all over the world. After that, the city started to clean up its streets, supporting more local businesses to open tavernas (and bars), restaurants and endless shops, particularly in the central area. Another factor making a big impact on the Athenian tourism is Airbnb. Although there are many hotels in Athens, there are not as many as in other metropolis giving Airbnb the perfect opportunity to thrive. This is a business in the city and you can find hundreds of options from Airbnb. We stayed at two different apartments that felt more like hotel suites with all the amenities, right in the heart of Plaka and Syntagma. I suggest that you avoid a hotel and instead stay at Airbnb and you’ll connect more with the local community, its flavors and its regular life routine.
Now that I’ve told you about housing and transportation let’s get to the details. Where do you go? Our travel was planned for the beginning of August which meant hot weather and less crowds as usually locals and tourists head out to the islands.
With that in mind we had a flexible itinerary depending on the weather, leaving the early afternoons to chill at a taverna having an Aperol spritz and cool down with misters fans from all taverns lined up on the narrow streets. Like in Italy, August means that locals will go on vacation so the city seems quieter and more available to tourists, less lines and less crowds.
Parthenon and Acropolis
No need for introduction. This had been on my dream list since a kid and it wasn’t at all disappointing. Impressive and stoic as I’ve always imagined it. That big rock sits in the middle of the city with sprawling views of the city. Housing not only the magnificent Parthenon dedicated to the city matron, Athena, but also the Temple to Poseidon and the Temple of Nike. Walking up on the marble and travertine steps to the top of the hill, going through the gates of the Nike Temple which then leads to an opening between its tall columns to see the Parthenon sitting uninterrupted, witnessing history for over twenty-three hundred years. I could feel its glory from back then. As it was summer I scheduled a Walk tour to start with less crowds and skipping the line right at 8.00am when the site opens. Our tour guide was so knowledgeable and explained so much of the Athenian history to us, we skipped the lines and by the time we left the crowds and lines started accumulating so try to be there as soon as they open to the public.
Acropolis Museum is another highlight, situated at the bottom of the Parthenon it hosts several sculptures, relieves and artifacts recovered for the entire area. These days you can still see some excavations in the central area as it has been covered by layers and layers of time just sitting on top of all these majestic structures. The museum is air-conditioned making it a nice stop after seeing the Parthenon in the blazing sun.
Plaka and Monastiraki
Narrow streets covered with marble stone showing old and historic buildings with commercial businesses open to the public on their bottom floors. This is a great area to find restaurants for both lunch and dinner. Not to mention the innumerable shops that sell anything from the cheapest souvenirs, to the more sophisticated ones to incredible vintage Greek and Armenian rugs at our favorite shop, The Loom. Keep walking on Adrianou Street which is one of the main streets that will take you all the way back to the Ancient Angora and the Temple of Hephaestos – which I’ll describe later on. Our favorite restaurants in the area include Kuzina (by far the best one) and Adriano.
Ancient Agora and Hephaestos Temple
On the other side of Plaka, walking around the Parthenon, you’ll get to the city market which has, again, more shops and stores from jewelries, souvenirs, olive oil products and much more. As you walk through it you’ll get to Hadrian’s Library. Roman Emperor Adrian (117 -138 a.D) was a big benefactor of the city, commissioning the construction of many structures to bring Athens to its original splendor and was actually the first roman emperor to give back to the city instead of taking to Rome. His library is impressive, with tall doric columns and many ruins laid out on the ground. A few hundred feet from it, still on Adrianou street, you’ll find the Acient Agora and the Temple of Hephaestos. There is a gate to access the archaeological site, which will cost you eight euros, and this gives you access to the area that used to be the buzzing center of the city with Aristoteles and Plato discussing important topics back then, politics happening as well as physical activities in the gymnasium and Olympics competitions. The Temple of Haphaestos is the best-preserved structure from Golden Greek times, walk around the grounds and you’ll see foundations and columns of many ancient buildings that didn’t stand the pass of time. Still humbling and impressive.
Other areas of personal interest included seeing Hadrian’s Arch on one of the main avenues leading to Plaka. Then the Temple of Zeus right next to it, which was finished under Emperor Adriano.
A great hotel to checkout is Grand Bretagne, probably the most iconic hotel in the city. Here you can have a great meal or just drinks at the rooftop restaurant and bar that has 270-degree views of the city, including Parliament and Acropolis. This is a must at night, as all buildings are lit up making it a majestic view of the city, reminding us how grand this empire once was.
The city is a good reminder of Rome. It many ways they are similar, both with ancient history, historic buildings and art, delicious food, great night life with taverns and restaurants, good shopping and that Mediterranean feel that just makes life go easier. People are so friendly and more welcoming than Rome though so I really enjoyed that.