Should I Go?
Three million out of Greece’s total population of 11 million people live in Athens, continuing its role from ancient times as the centre of the Hellenic world. It’s worth visiting for the remnants of the pre-Roman empire alone, but if you throw in the climate and food, it really is a no-brainer.
How Long Should I Go?
It’s great when there’s agreement on a location’s top attractions: the online guides Skyscanner, Expedia, Virtual Tourist and of course TripAdvisor all agree that the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum are top things to see in Athens. Even when you remove all the multi-day excursions, and day trips to local areas, there’s still enough things to see and do to fill a few days. Ancient Athens is quite compact, and has good public transport, which makes for an efficient use of your time.
How Do I Get There?
Athens is served by a couple of the budget airlines from London – for the 3hr 40 hour flight I’ve seen flights as low as £70 return. During summer there are also ferries which ply the Ionian and Aegean Seas.
How Do I Get Around?
Athens hosted the 2004 summer Olympics and upgraded their public transportation in preparation, so the Metro is pristine and cheap. For €24 you can get a return trip to the Airport plus three days unlimited travel. There are also busses and regional trains that stop off at the airport. To tell you the truth though, we walked most places.
How Much Is It To Stay?
The Global Financial Crisis and Grexit have had a huge impact on life in Greece – as a method for getting additional income, many families let out their homes on AirBnB. As a result of this, the prices of AirBnBs are suppressed making for some very cheap stays (£20-40), which in turn keeps hotel prices down (£40-80). We stayed in an AirBnB that surpassed our expectations.
What Shall I See?
We had three nights in Athens but with a late flight on the last day we managed to get a full three days worth of sight seeing in, despite landing late at night on the first day
Day Zero: Arrival
I arrived late at night and managed to catch one of the last metro trips into the city from the airport. The metro is very clean and efficient, and it wasn’t long before I arrived at my AirBnB where Stavros was waiting to meet me.
My travelling companions were arriving on a later flight and had to take the bus which, while cheaper than the Metro, did take a long time to get to the apartment. In the meantime, Stavros showed me around the area, where the best food places were, where the supermarkets were, that sort of thing.
The neighbourhood feels safe, and I’m starting to be able to read the signs – the alphabet only has a few differences from English and once you get your head around that you can work out what signs say. My favourite moment was on the metro when I realise the Greek word for “exit” is “exodus” (ΕΞΟΔΟΣ).
Day One: Acropolis Museum
We get up late and plan out the next couple of days. Stavros pops by and answers some questions about the things to see and has some good insights. My travel companions love photography of sunsets so we arrange to meet Zoi and Stavros later this evening to go for a walk up the Hill of Muses which overlooks the Acropolis and the rest of Athens and which has great views of the setting sun.
It gets very very hot and by all accounts the Acropolis is best approached in the cooler hours of the morning, so we decide that should wait until tomorrow for that. Instead we head out to the Acropolis Museum and then follow our nose around the rest of Ancient Athens.
It’s no wonder the Acropolis Museum is so high on the lists of things to do in Athens: it’s a very well run museum and only €5. It does a good job of contextualising what we will see at the Acropolis tomorrow, but I feel teased reading about it and seeing it from the windows but not being able to be there. Our own choice though, and in retrospect I think we’ve done it the right way around: getting the knowledge about what we will be seeing rather than looking around and then trying to find it what we just saw afterwards.
We head into town and check out the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral.
After checking out the centre of town we swing past Syntagma Square and the Houses of Parliament.
We then head south and head into the cooling shade of the national garden. It’s a bit of a maze and we manage to find our way out eventually.
We discover that the garden is across the road from the presidential palace and we watch a traditionally garbed Greek soldier slow marching under the hot sun. It’s almost Ministry of Silly Walks-worthy. Theres a distinct pom-pom on each shoe which fascinates me.
But we’ve come to see ancient ruins and this we do, after first visiting the location of the modern Olympics at the Panatheneaic stadium. You can go inside for €5 but we decide to take photos from outside and move on.
On the way back (the sun is starting to head towards the horizon), we pass the remains of Temple of Olympian Zeus (€2, combo ticket available) and take some photos at Hadrian’s Arch.
We arrive back at the apartment in time to meet Zoi and Stavros and their daughter and dog and head up to the Hill of Muses.
There’s a wedding reception at the Church of Agios Demetrious Loumpardiaris: the church is tiny so the elegantly dressed guests spill out over the paved path and mix with the casual strollers. It gives the evening an energy and friendly vibe – doubly so when we crack open the beers we bought on the way.
We enjoy chatting to Zoi and Stavros – they’re both open and candid about what its like to live through the financial crisis, and it’s eye-opening how things have changed. We swing past the site of the first Greek parliament and clamber over rocks towards our destination. Not long before dusk we notice a turtle crawling along, so entertain ourselves photographing ourselves with it.
We almost miss the sunset with our fascination with our new friend and dash across to get the best shots. After the sun sinks below the hills surrounding Athens we head back to the apartment, still chatting with our hosts, pausing only to take some photos of some political graffiti which is helpfully repeated in English. Not a lot of love for politicians or the big banks…
Day Two – Acropolis & Ancient Greek places
We get up early and head to the Acropolis, having to wait a little while in line at the ticket booth to get a single entry ticket for €20 or entrance to multiple sites for €30 (which we ended up buying). Apparently there are guides available who will talk you through the sites for an extra €20, but we decline because a) we figured we’d have learned it all the day before at the Museum, b) we wanted to set our own pace around the exhibits and c) because we’re in “cheap mode”. OK, mainly c). We’re glad we arrive early to avoid the heat and the crowds and despite this there’s still a healthy number of people here with the same idea.
After being primed yesterday, we’re quite knowledgeable about the site and there’s quite a bit up there to see. It’s equal parts fascination with the ancient monuments and buildings despite the renovation work going on, and part marvelling at the views from the elevation.
It’s very exposed, and there is lots of climbing and walking on stones which are alternately irregular, slippery or both. It was hot enough first thing in the morning, so I shudder to think what it would be like in the heat of the day. The marble magically remains cool – you can see why the ancients used it for their buildings!
We spend an hour or two wandering around the top looking at the buildings and checking out the views before heading off towards the other ancient sites included in our ticket.
Church of the Holy Apostles
Heading away from the Acropolis, the first of the other ancient buildings we come across is the Church of the Holy Apostles, a small temple built in the Athenian style. It’s a mix of restoration and original art which takes some getting used to – almost as if someone had randomly decorated a brand new temple with sections of ancient art. Worth a few minutes to duck inside though. Certainly not very large…
Stoa of Attaloa
Disappointingly, this building is a 1953-6 reconstruction, though the exhibits in the museum are authentic.
Temple of Hephaetus
An influential building which apparently owes its survival to consistently being in use since being built, usage changing over time depending on the religion in favour at the time. It sits by itself in one corner of the Agora, near the only patch of grass we saw the whole time we were in Athens.
Not much is left of the actual library – three Byzantium churches were built on the site and the ruins of these are the most prominent features here. We have a look around but the heat is starting to get to us. We decide to head towards the nearby plaza with the promise of a flea market – not my cup of tea but I figure there’ll be shade there.
The square has an enormous fruit and nut stand with huge piles of fresh produce. I don’t know if we’re delirious from the sun, but we become quite giddy in our purchases and decide to grab a metro ride back to the apartment weighted down with our supplies. A productive day sight-seeing: we’ve done well.
We accompany our hosts out to the local gyro shop for dinner. Gyros here include french fries in the wrap – very tasty.
Day Three – Plaka
One of the “must do” things we were told about was the Plaka shopping area. Not a great shopper myself, but I go with the flow and have a look around while others flit between shops and peruse the assorted wares. Not sure how much actually gets bought, but the others enjoy themselves and I enjoy the air con in each of the shops, and it’s nice to have a less hectic day after the last two sight-seeing heavy days
How Much Did It Cost?
Let’s assume you wanted to do the same trip as we did (3 nights, flying from London).
|Accommodation (per night)||£20||£40||£80|
|Transfers & Public Transport||€24|
|Combination Acropolis Ticket||€30|
|All figures are per person except accommodation. €/£ of 0.86 used Totals are for a couple.|
Would I Go Back?
Hmm – tricky one! What I should have done is climbed up to the Church of St George on the morning of the last day and enjoyed the views from up there instead of going shopping. We also did not make the Archaeology Museum and I have heard good things about the free walking tours. But they were pretty much the only things I missed out on and the views from the Acropolis were fantastic, so I don’t feel bad about them. I think the only reason to go back to Athens for me would be as a starting point for island hopping around the Aegean one summer. We didn’t venture to the port at all which by all accounts is a thriving hub of interconnecting ferries, so it would be good to see what all the fuss is about there.