I finally visited Greece last week, the first trip to the country known as the crossroads of Europe, a first for both me and mum. We chose Athens, not only because of the cheap flights (we were flying off-season) but because we fancied a city break, full of none stop sights, history, legends and great food, and with us going in February, it had a better chance of reasonable wandering weather than say a city break to Paris or Porto.
Arrivals. All the main budget airlines fly to Athens from a good portion of the UK, regular flights leave from Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol, London and although nothing from Belfast, you can fly from Dublin, all taking approximately 3 – 4 hours. Once you have arrived, its easy to jump on Line 3 of the metro to the city centre. Many people though travel into Athens via boat, with Greeks largest port Piraeus only a short 10km ride away, so it’s easily accessible via cruise ship or if you fancy, a trip from one of the Greek islands. Once you arrive at Piraeus, hop on line 1 of the metro to Athens city centre. It is also possible to head into Athens from the neighbouring countries via train, but Athens is quite far south on the mainland, so you will be looking at quite a long trip from say Sofia in Bulgaria or Skopje in Macedonia.
Once you have arrived its super easy to get around Athens, most places are easily walkable, but if you need a helping hand or are short of time, then the metro is really easy to navigate, with stops directly by some of the main sights such as the Acropolis, Kerameikos and Syntagma. Lots more Athens transport info can be found on this helpful website but to be honest, other than getting too and from the airport, my 71 year old mum and I walked everywhere quite easily.
History Bit. Wow, I mean what can you say about this country that is at the junction of Europe, Asia and Africa, and has had people living here on this part of the globe since 270,000 BC. Greece is said to be the birthplace of the first advanced civilisation of Europe, they created a new way of living, that ended up being copied and replicated all over the world. They started the first democracy, with a model that was developed in Athens, spreading out across the country, allowing citizens to vote on the laws of the land. They started the Olympic games and produced some of the worlds greatest ever thinkers, scholars and philosophers, bringing new ideas to light about science, art and philosophy.
Athens itself is said to be named after the goddess of wisdom Athena, with the site of the original centre of the city, which was founded in 3000 BC, atop the rock where the Acropolis stands. This makes it one of the oldest cities in the world and has been continuously inhabited for 5000 years, resulting in a city break brimming full of things to see, do, learn, eat and drink.
Sights – I better start at the ancient fortress situated high up a rock, visible from most parts of the city, otherwise known as The Acropolis. This collection of remains atop the hill was the original centre of Athens, with the star of the show being the former temple, known as the Parthenon. We visited in February, and so had a dry, clear day with a light breeze accompanying our climb up, affording us the time to just wander, take in the views and visit the Theatre of Dionysus, but I could imagine at the height of summer full of crowds, it could be quite tiring and overwhelmingly busy. We entered via the south-east corner, close to the Acropolis Metro Station, pretty much opposite the newly built, modern looking Acropolis Museum. There is a larger entrance to the west with a car park, meaning bus loads of tourists arrive via this route and so it can be a lot busier, therefore I’d definitely recommend the smaller side entry gate. Back on lower ground, the recently constructed Acropolis Museum is well worth a visit, at €5 you can view many of the retrieved finds from all over the archeological site, including tools, columns and statues and jewellery.
If you are staying in Athens for a few days and plan to see as many of the historical sites as possible, then it’s well worth investing in a 5 day multi ticket pass, for €30 (reduced depending on the season and discounts available for children & seniors) you get entry to around 10 of the best archeological wonders dotted around the city and you can get the pass at any of the ticket offices that are part of the deal. The main museums and the Panathenaic Olympic stadium are not included, but we still felt it was worth it.
The Acropolis is situated in the Plaka area of Athens, which is the picturesque, colourful, old centre of the town, full of tiny streets, cafes, craft shops and traditional restaurants. We stayed in this area and it was perfect for being central to explore the whole of the city, as well as having a decent choice of places to eat each night. Like everywhere in this city you will stumble upon some kind of the historic ruins at every corner, so take your time, grab a seat outside a cafe, order a greek coffee and just soak up the atmosphere.
Ancient Agora was the heart of ancient Athens, with people living here as far back as 3000 BC. Its part of the multi-pass ticket and you can easily spend a couple of hours exploring. We had a long walk all over the area, constantly stopping to investigate the many many things on show. Highlights included the museum in the Stoa of Attalos, the Statue of Hadrian, the incredibly impressive Klepsydra or water clock, the remains of the ancient main road that lead to Piraeus, and make sure you walk up to the Temple of Hephaestus as the views across the city are breathtaking and perfect for a selfie with the Acropolis in the background!
About a 15 minute walk from Ancient Agora past the Thiseio metro station is Kerameikos. One of the lesser visited archeological sites I believe, but if you have time to spare, I would recommend a visit and it’s also included in the multi-ticket. Within this large and still being excavated site, is a museum, a burial ground, the ancient walls of the city and it was the area of town where the majority of the pottery was made, some of which is now displayed in the on site museum.
As you walk back from Kerameikos towards the centre of the modern city, you will more than likely pass through the bustling neighbourhood of Monastiraki. Lots of restaurants, cafes and tourist shops line the streets, and there is a famous flea market here too to peruse although we found it quite loud and hectic. You wont be able to avoid the area though, as there are far too many sites located around here, including the fascinating Hadrian’s Library. Originally built in 132 AD the famous Roman Emperor built a massive complex for people to read and learn, which included study rooms, reading rooms and a garden to relax in. Roman Agora is just a 2 minute walk from the library which you enter via an imposing gate, the whole area was financed by Julius Caesar with the highlight here being the Tower of the Winds, an ancient time and weather station, so cool! Both Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library are included on the multi-ticket too, see told you it was worth it.
For a breath of fresh air and some greenery, we spent an hour away from the ruins, and climbed up Philapappos Hill to the monument on the top. You can easily find the signed entrance to the hill and the various paved trails, close to the South West entrance of the Acropolis. With water and snack bars, we slowly made our way to the top for some outstanding views, it’s a popular spot for the locals and tourists alike and a nice getaway from the hustle of the streets below.
Heading east away from the main sights in the centre and across the busy main road, you cannot fail to notice Hadrians Arch. This ancient marble gateway used to cross one of the main roads from the centre of Athens and although quite a lot is missing, it still makes an impressive image. Behind the arch we could see another vast area of columns and other remains, so we followed the pavement round to the left and came across the entrance to Temple of Olympian Zeus. This gigantic temple was erected in honour of the god of sky and thunder himself, although construction was slow and took over 600 years to build from start to finish and then fell into disrepair about a century after it was built. It’s worth a visit to appreciate the sheer scale of the place, which was the largest temple in Greece, and you can put your purse away, as its also part of the multi-ticket deal!
Opposite the grounds where the temple is located is the National Gardens, a place we walked through a number of times on our trip. Of course there are ruins dotted around here, but there are also busts, including one of Lord Byron who visited Greece and fell in love with the country. There are beautiful palm tree-lined paths, ponds, colourful trees, cafes and if you pass the Zappeion exhibition building, climb up the steps and peek inside to the pretty atrium.
Visiting the national gardens may not be top of anyones list visiting the city for the first time, but as you exit the gardens from the south-east you are instantly greeted with a spectacular view of the The Panathenaic Stadium so its worth taking the scenic route to the stadium instead of the dusty pavement for sure. Originally it was built in 330 BC for the Panathenaic games which involved nude men competing in various athletic events as well as horse and music competitions, which I can’t imagine getting an afternoon slot on BBC TV nowadays. It was abandoned after the 4th Century when Christianity came into favour and naked bloody duels were no longer seen as entertainment, but it was refurbished and brought back to life as the venue of the first international Olympic games in 1896 and most recently used in the 2004 Olympic games that were held in Athens. All that alone should be enough reason to visit this magnificent piece of history, but it’s also the only stadium in the world made entirely of marble. Although it’s not included in the multi-ticket its only between €2.50-5 to visit and for this you get full access to the stadium, the stands, the competition floor, a museum and obligatory giftshop as well as the chance to climb upon the medals stand, so its definitely worth it!
If you fancy a quiet reflective walk whilst you are over in this part of town, then the First Cemetary of Athens is a 15 minute walk away. Many notable Greeks are buried here, few small churches on the grounds to see aswell. Close by is Varnava Square where there are lots of nice cafes, restaurants and bars which appear to be visited more by locals than tourists, which is always a good sign and we had the most delicious falafel for lunch at the Baba Ganoush Falafel Shop.
Heading back towards the centre, and close to the Stadium and National Garden is Aristotle’s Lyceum, which was a secondary school or gymnasium and the first of its kind in the world. Although we read the opening hours as 8am-8pm, it was most definitely closed when we arrived around 4pm one day, and we weren’t the only ones who seemed to have been misinformed about the opening hours, but we were still able to glance through the surrounding gate to get a sense of the place and its history.
Pretty much round the corner from here is the Parliament building and Syntagma Square, the central square of the city, site of many protests and celebrations over the years. There is always stuff going on, including lots of cafes and restaurants, while across the street at the Parliament building is the tomb of the unknown soldier with a changing of the guard every hour (official ceremony is every Sunday at 11am). Look out for the rather unique slow walk and check the soldiers uniforms complete with pom poms on the shoes, it’s a strong but culturally significant look.
Probably the most important museum in the city is the National Archeological Museum of Athens and its jam-packed full of historic finds from all over the country. It’s a little stuck out to the North of the capital, but a short walk from Omonia and Viktoria metro stations. Not having quite made our 10,000 steps for the day, we walked from Syntagma Square up along Omonoia to the museum, as there were some pretty impressive and historic buildings along this route. The Academy of Athens is a hard to miss neoclassical building with statues of Plato, Socrates and Apollo out front, next door is the National University of Athens another neoclassical building and one of the largest universities in Europe and next door to that, the National Library of Athens, the third neoclassical building in a row, so its makes for an interesting walk and really brings home the scale of history around every corner of this city.
Coffee and Cake. Our first taste of thick dark Greek coffee was at Aioli Cafe Snack Bar, super friendly, with outdoor seating in the Plaka area, it was a great place to rest our weary feet. Attika Aptonoieia at the bottom of the busy shopping street Ermou was another great place we found for coffee with the most delicious selection of sandwiches and cakes, offering a soya milk option, with outdoor seating opposite the Panagia Kapnikarea Church and its well worth sticking your head inside this tiny church whilst you’re there. Round the back of the Acropolis museum is the delightful Little Tree and Books Coffee Shop, friendly service with none-dairy milk options and to die for cakes and brownies, I would have returned here had we the time. Another find was the Bread Factory no none dairy options, so I had an espresso, but the sticky lemon cake was so good!
Eats First off we tried to visit Ariston as any quick internet search will tag it as probably the best place to try the traditional pies, unfortunately it was closed when we eventually located this small bakery, we aimed to return but we never quite made it back. Yiasemi though, we did make it too, and had our first taste of Greece sat by the Plaka steps, devouring a crumbly, juicy spinach pie with a local beer, be warned though, this place is very popular and you may need to wait a while for service. We ate quite a few times around Kidathineon Street in Plaka on recommendation from our hotel, here there are lots of little cafes, ice cream parlours and restaurants, all offering deals for 3 courses and a glass of wine (or beer) for under €20. We had great local dishes and friendly service at Acropolis Taverna, Byzantino Taverna and Trattoria as well as another 3 course meal deal with great portions at Scolarchio also in Plaka, all with vegetarian options too. None dairy ice cream is no problem for the Greeks with dairy free ice cream and iced lattes on offer at Ice Queen Gelato opposite the Acropolis Metro station and one night we sampled local dishes at Ydria close to Hadrians Library in a lively little square and then had a glass of wine and cake sat in the window at Meliartos for our dessert, perfect.
Extras: Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, Catching a Funicular up to the top of Lycabettus Hill and the Benaki Museum of Art, Culture and History.
Always Be Polite: Thank you : Efharisto Good Morning: Kalimera Hello: Yassas