Guide to Visiting Athens

I didn’t really know what to expect of Athens.  In the months leading up to my trip to Greece the news media was oversaturated with headlines about the country’s debt crisis, but when we arrived we were more than pleasantly surprised.  There was little to no obvious signs of economic distress, the people we encountered were beyond warm and friendly, the streets felt safe at all times of the day and the food was nothing short of amazing.  Plus, we found that prices for attractions as well as food were relatively inexpensive, making the city at attractive option for budget travelers.  Athens ended up being one of our favorite destinations in Greece, and was the perfect jumping off point before vising some of the islands.  I suggest spending 2 to 3 days to get a good first taste of Athens, adding more if you enjoy cities or can’t bear the thought of choosing among the many museums.  Here’s what you need to know.

Getting There and Around
Chances are you’ll be traveling through the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport (ATH) or the Piraeus ferry port or a combination of both, and Athens’ metro system makes coming and going easy and efficient.  From the city center, it’s about 40 minutes on the blue line 3 to the airport and about 20 minutes on the green line 1 to the Piraeus port (there are also two smaller ferry ports, Rafina and Lavrio, so be sure to double check your ticket). Buses and taxis are other options to consider if you’re flexible on time and cost.  All public transportation in Athens (metro, bus and tram) is covered by the same ticket, which is good for 70 minutes of travel as long as you validate it in the machine before boarding.  Note that a journey to or from the airport requires a separate more expensive ticket, which you can purchase at an automated ticket machine in the metro station.

Metro station at the Athens Airport

Athens is also a great jumping off point to other parts of Greece.  If you plan on visiting any of the Greek Islands be sure to compare cost and duration between taking a ferry versus flying (Aegean Airlines has the most extensive network of flights) – sometimes spending a little more can save you a lot of time.  In addition, one of the things that surprised me the most about Athens is how compact the city’s historic center is (if you’ve been to Italy, think Florence versus Rome).  That works out to your benefit as most of the main sights are easily reachable on foot.  You can fill in gaps using public transportation, but you’ll most likely find that won’t be necessary if you strategically cluster your sightseeing.

What to See and Do
Athens is saturated with so much cultural richness and charm that the city itself feels like a living museum.  It’s no surprise that the top site for most visitors is Acropolis Hill (which sits high above the city and is crowned by the iconic Parthenon), and your admission ticket also includes free entry to 6 other archeological sites such as the Ancient Agora, Theatre of Dionysus and Temple of Olympian Zeus.   Nearby you can also climb to the top of Mars Hill (the spot where the Apostle Paul preached to the Athenians) for a striking 360-degree view of the Acropolis and surrounding cityscape.

The Parthenon on Acropolis Hill (top), Theatre of Dionysus and Ancient Agora (center) and Temple of Olympian Zeus (bottom)

There’s also a museum for every interest in Athens, the largest being the National Archeological Museum, which boats an expansive collection of Greek art and artifacts from around the country.  Others include the Acropolis Museum, a stunning architectural structure that houses the surviving fragments from Acropolis Hill (I recommend visiting the museum first to help put the site into context), the Benaki Museum of Greek History and Culture, Museum of Cycladic Art and many more.

The Acropolis Museum

Other sights to put on your radar include the National Gardens (a 38-acre public park that’s perfect for exploring), Panathenaic Stadium (a restored 60,000-seat stadium that played host to the first modern Olympic games in 1896), Church of Panagia Kapnikarea (the oldest Greek Orthodox church in Athens) and Syntagma Square (anchored by the neoclassical Greek parliament building featuring an entertaining changing of the guard ceremony every hour on the hour).

Panathenaic Stadium (left) and Syntagma Square (right)

You should also spend time in Athens’ central Plaka neighborhood with its historic old world feel and labyrinth of winding streets, perfect for shopping and strolling.  Other shopping spots include the flea market near Monstriaki Square and shops like Melissinos, run by a family that’s been in the sandal making business since 1927 with a long history of serving celebrity clientele like John Lennon, Jackie Onassis and Sarah Jessica Parker.

A street in the Plaka (left) and handmade sandals at Melissinos (right)

Where to Eat and Drink
Greek food is easy to fall in love with.  Most of what you’ll encounter is rooted in an ensemble of simple ingredients including fresh produce (especially tomatoes and eggplant), grilled meats, seafood, olives and cheeses.  Seriously, who knew that feta could be prepared so many different ways…  We had some of our most memorable eating experiences at tavernas (rustic neighborhood restaurants with a limited menu) where we would order an assortment of small sharable plates called mezedes.  This made is so we were able to try a variety of things without spending a lot.  And without fail, we ordered a traditional Greek salad every single night with dinner (you can find the recipe here).  We had heard that the Greeks typically dine late around 10pm, but generally encountered decent crowds as early as 7 or 8pm.

In Athens, you’ll find tons of places to places to eat and drink throughout the Plaka and surrounding neighborhoods.  One of the places we ate was To Kafeneio (Epicharmou 1), a small restaurant tucked into a quiet side street, just steps from Acropolis Hill.  Oozing with ambiance, we sat at one of the outdoor tables that lined the cozy alleyway, surrounded by trees, flower boxes and lights.  The service was super laid back and very friendly, surprising considering we were in the heart of tourist Athens.  We ordered a carafe of aromatic house white wine, the meatballs with “the” sauce (which had a hint of savory sweetness) and arguably one of our favorite Greek salads of the entire trip, topped with a big salty block of feta.  We finished the meal with ouzo (a strong anise-flavored liquor) and Greek coffee (made with loose grounds that settle at the bottom of the cup, similar to Turkish coffee).  As the waiter brought my coffee a little dripped onto its saucer, which he said is believed to be good luck.  As the crowd grew more tables were added to the street so the restaurant never felt empty.  Then came the accordion player who cheerfully serenaded the diner crowd, and the fearless stray cats hoping that someone would drop something that they would happily devour.  When in Greece, right?  When we got the check we were surprised that our entire meal was under 30 euros.  Delicious and affordable.

Amazing food and drink with a side of ambiance at To Kafeneio

We had another great meal at Taverna tou Psirri (Eschilou 12), which is located in the Psirri neighborhood north of Monstriaki Square, an area that’s popular for nightlife in Athens.  It was a little early when we arrived, but don’t be discouraged if the restaurants look empty since many have “garden seating” in the back.  Passing through the kitchen on the way to our table, the waiter invited us to observe the night’s special dishes to “see if anything inside looks good”.  Of course it all did, but what sold us was the grilled vegetable stack made with fresh parsley, tomatoes, red bell pepper, zucchini, eggplant and potatoes.  We ordered this along with a Greek salad (naturally), tzatziki dip, grilled feta topped with spicy paprika, a carafe of house white wine and a glass of ouzo.  The restaurant filled up quickly and the lone waiter worked extra fast to make sure all of the tables were taken care of.   We didn’t mind the slightly slower service since it was nice to sit back and enjoy an al fresco meal under a canopy of trees and stars, removed from the street and foot traffic passing by.

Greek salad, grilled feta and the vegetable “special” at Taverna tou Psirri

And for a midday break, I loved treating myself to an ice cold Nestcafé frappe.  Different than the sugary coffee beverages we are familiar with the United States, the Greek variation is strong and frothy with the option to add a hint of sugar or milk.  I found it to be a great way to cool off and keep my sightseeing energy up.

Where to Stay
We wanted to be close to the major sights since our time in Athens was limited and stayed at the Central Hotel in the Plaka neighborhood.  This centrally-located hotel was within easy walking distance from the Syntagma Square metro station (about 5-10 minutes) and proved to be a super convenient home base for sightseeing.  Our double room was a little on the small side, but clean with modern furnishings, and the hotel’s staff were very pleasant.  The complimentary breakfast buffet in the morning offered a nice variety of items including Greek yogurt, fruit, cereal, meats, cheeses, vegetables, baked goods and beverages – perfect for getting up and hitting the ground running.  Plus the Central Hotel also has a rooftop bar and jacuzzi hot tub with a pretty killer view of Acropolis Hill.

Central Hotel in the Plaka neighborhood

Also Good to Know
Before our trip I also wondered if we would experience any language barrier trouble since the Greek alphabet looks more like symbols than the Latin letters we are familiar with (there’s a reason for the saying “It’s all Greek to me!”).  To my relief, it was surprisingly easy to get around and communicate since most signs and menus were listed in both Greek and English, and the people we encountered were usually more than happy to help.  Like any other place you may visit, it’s always a good idea to have a few basic words and phrases in your back pocket like kalimera (good morning), yasas (hi/bye), parakalo (please) and efcharisto (thank you).

This way to the Acropolis
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