Here I am, up at 4am and half asleep, lackadaisically stuffing my clothes into my North Face duffel and dragging my butt out the front door and into my hosts weathered Toyota.
I stayed my final night in Rome outside the city and closer to the airport for my flight to Athens, getting a cheap little room in Ciampino. My host offered to drive me to the airport for my 6:30am flight, and obviously I took him up on his offer.
So, I buckled in, gripped the door handle of the car tightly, and he flew down the dark quiet streets and around the narrowly tight corners, seamlessly navigating between cigarette, window, clutch and gear shifter as he had no doubt done many times before, arriving at the airport, like he said, by 5am. This (somewhat surprisingly) lived up to his assertion that the trip to the airport was only a 5 minute drive. Google maps had it at 13.
I set the featured image (also, right) to the image it is for a few reasons. To me, it seems to captivate what Athens is in a single photo: the number of people representing the hustle and bustle, the graffiti on the canopy that helps depict a culture in which your beliefs and what you stand for are above all else – which is fitting for a city where the likes of philosophy and democracy were born. Even the moon in the sky is almost paying homage to Greek history and mythology, all the way to the stands of fresh fruit for the incredible food, the architecture of the buildings for their craftsmanship and a city that is dominated by the history of the Acropolis towering in the background.
I was excited for each of the cities on my trip, however Athens was going to be the first time in over a month I would be traveling with people other than, well, myself. I actually met my mother at the airport when I flew in, our flights landing within an hour of each other. That made things nice and easy as George Georgopoulos (ha, classic) drove us from the airport into the city centre. My sister flew in a few days later for the Mykonos and Santorini legs of the 2-week Greece trip.
Athens was nothing like what I had expected. As we continued to take in numerous fun-facts from George about the history of Greece (including that the name Gregory is Greek in origin and means fast… leaving me to wonder when in my life that meaning will kick-in), we came around the mountain and got our first few views of the vastness of Athens. The city seems to go on forever, with a steady sea of white rooftops that look like they’re flowing fluidly into the surrounding mountains.
I spent 6 days in total in Athens (3 at the beginning and 3 at the end of the trip) and got the unique opportunity to experience it in two different ways within two weeks: as a solo traveler and with travel companions. It gave me a lot of time to do some ‘splorin and these are the top 9 things I know you should include in your trip to the ancient city:
Top 9 Things To Do In Athens
1) The Acropolis
There really isn’t much need to have the Acropolis on here as it should be a staple of anyones trip to Athens, but it’s on here nonetheless. I mean, just look at that setting.
Im still trying to wrap my head around not only getting all that marble and stone up the side of that literal mountain, but also building what they built on top. It’s remarkable.
When it comes down to it, it’s basically a combined creation of philosophy, art and science that forms a definitive monument of civilization. UNESCO has a list of World Heritage Sites and it recognizes the Acropolis as the Symbol of World Heritage. That should put its significance into context considering some of the magnificent places that hold a UNESCO World Heritage status.
Walking up the relatively steep incline through treed areas and ancient ruins was worth getting to the entrance steps, and even overrun with tourists it was still an incredible site. Even with the crane (damn cranes) blocking every possible view of the Parthenon, walking around that structure is something that every traveler has on their bucket list. It towers the cityscape from a distance and continues to tower over you from up close. It’s something that is almost inconceivable.
A lot of the original structure has been lost due to damage or replaced due to deterioration, yet some of the original structure remains intact, which is astonishing if you ask me, considering it was built sometime in 400 BC.
Because no trip to Athens should be completed (or taken, for that matter) without a trip to the Acropolis. Take in the view of Athens, the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike. This is the centre of art, science, democracy, philosophy and math as human civilization knows it. You have to see it up close to truly appreciate the ‘hey, we’re this powerful and we can build things like this that show off our power, craftsmanship, wealth and strength’ type of feeling. You know?
2) Panathenaic Stadium
We stayed in an incredible spot that was only a 10 minute walk to Panathenaic Stadium, home of the first ever modern Olympic Games in 1896. Even if we were on the other side of the city we would have found a way to get here. Any athlete or fan of sport or history should take in this site.
An 80,000 seat stadium built entirely of marble. Yeah, marble. The entire thing! If you enjoy sport or athletics even remotely, you have to appreciate this stadium, what it means and the history that it holds.
The site has been around since the 6th century where it used to hold a racetrack that was used the celebrate the Panathenaic Games, which was celebrated every 4 years in honour of goddess Athena. Over the years and through many transitions and reconstructions, the stadium was refurbished prior to the 1986 Olympic Games.
To take in the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games. Utilize the headset tour that comes with the entrance fee to hear rich history about how the stadium was built, how the athletes prepared for their competitions, where the emperors seats were and how some of the athletic competitions came to be. Also, be sure to stand atop the podium at the end of the stadium and let your mind wander back in time to the crowd cheering your name.
3) Temple of Zeus
Ill be honest, there isn’t much of the temple left. But even still, what still stands gives a vivid depiction into the honour that was bestowed to those that were worshiped most. You feel the power of Zeus standing beneath the towering columns that are still erected.
Dating back to 470 BC, the temple was originally constructed in a six by thirteen pillared arrangement, where two rows of seven columns divided the interior into three aisles (as you can see from the photo above, only a few of the columns remain). It was 68 feet high, 95 feet wide and 230 feet in length – a monstrous monument.
The temple used to hold the statue of Zeus, a towering, 43 foot gold and ivory symbol that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Just standing in the site allows you to get a little taste of what it would have been like in Ancient Greece. Not only does envisioning the structure whole with all three pillared aisles intact, combined with remnants of where other houses would have been built, give you a sense of true Greek life and grit, but the Acropolis towering in the background is a constant, and maybe not-so-subtle, reminder of the power of Greek history.
4) Odeon Theatre
Name sound familiar? Chances are you’ve stumbled across an Odeon movie theatre in a location somewhere near where you live. Well, this is where the name came from.
Built in 161 AD, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus is on the southwest slope of the Acropolis, and with a capacity of 5,000 people it was mainly used as a venue for music concerts. Today, the theatre is open from May to October for the Athens Festival, featuring acclaimed international and greek performances. Unfortunately, we were there after the festival had ended, which was too bad because taking in a show here would have been an experience to remember.
There are few places around this world that might rival this one for a concert setting. Even though we didn’t get to take one in, you could imagine what it would be like just standing around the outside, marvelling in the craftsmanship of the marble seats combined with the city view of Athens in the background. Not to mention the Parthenon looking down on you from above. Now that’s cool.
5) The Acropolis Museum
I mentioned above that the Acropolis is deteriorating, and the Acropolis Museum helps fill in a little bit of the picture and preserve what pieces still remain.
This place was wicked. Its not like your traditional museums with a number of rooms spread out all over the place with varying artifacts that make it tough to know where to start. Instead, it was more of a representation of the Parthenon, where you could imagine where the columns would be lined and where the centre of the temple would have been. The museum was three rectangular floors with statues and bits of history spread out around the hollow centre. The main area of the museum was the second floor, where some of the original pieces of the frieze, which were carved pictorial metopes and positioned as if atop the Parthenon itself, providing an up close and personal image of their incredible detail.
For a reasonable price, its a solid 2 hour part of your day that includes interesting history and a simple way of getting it. I did this my final day in Athens and I am glad I did. There were tons of little signs with history and it was simple to wander with ease. They’re stingy about takin’ pics in some areas though, thats for sure.
6) Mount Lycabettus
Other than the Acropolis, Mount Lycabettus might stand out the most among the Athena skyline. Yet, somehow my mother, sister and I managed to ‘get lost’, if you will.
We knew there was a cable car, and we knew the general direction of said cable car. We also knew you could walk up but we wanted the cable car, of course (lazy, maybe). We ended up walking around the entire mountain in search of the cable car, before eventually wandering through some trees and up some dirt paths before stumbling upon the parking lot near the top. We found the cable car to go down, and when we walked out it was one of those ‘oh shit, we walked right passed this place… almost 2 hours ago’ moments. It was a good laugh.
Needless to say the views from the top are amazing and some of the best in the city, with the expanse of buildings, the Acropolis and the ocean in the background. Not a bad spot to enjoy a beer or coffee.
A true 360 degree, unobstructed view of the city of Athens and beyond. The views alone make it worth going, but the fact that it has a few cafes and restaurants at the top makes it that much more appealing and worth-while. Enjoy a cappuccino and take in the beautiful scenery.
7) Central Market Athens
This place was crazy! The rows of meat and fish almost seemed to blend together like a maze, allowing it to feel like it was almost never-ending. I got startled a few times by cleavers slamming down on the cutting bored, separating meat from bone with a blend of finesse and power. Mix that in with Greek shouting everywhere and it made for a memorable experience. You can literally find anything here: meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, and grain, to name a few.
We ended up getting a few fresh pieces of pork and some sole filets (which you can see, cooked, in the picture below) for a few dinners. Add in some olives, feta, pita and tzakiki and it made for a pretty damn good traditional Greek meal.
Its a pretty interesting experience to wander the aisles, seeing pig heads and other body parts hanging everywhere with livers and hearts strewn out on the tables, but no better option for fresh meat and fish. It would be ideal to go in the morning when things are freshest, but there is still plenty of selection in the early afternoon.
8) Eat The Food
Words can’t describe how much I love greek food. The first meal my mother and I got was a traditional Greek salad. None of that lettuce garbage, but a big ol’ bowl of tomatoes, onion, cucumber and olives with a huge chunk of feta cheese.
We got a lot of olives, pita and tzaziki (a lot) while we were in Athens to go along with whatever else we were having. I couldn’t get enough pork gyros in me, they were so, so, so good. My final 3 days in Athens after I got back from Santorini, I literally ate a pork gyro from the Pita Bar around the corner for every lunch and dinner. I think the only reason I didn’t get one for breakfast was because they weren’t open. Plus they were 2 euro, so, you do the math. Vacation, right?
Why You Need To Fully Experience The Food
Because there isn’t much better. The cuisine is exquisite and it doesn’t matter where you have it, whether its a street vendor or fancy restaurant, your mouth will be salivating at whatever it is. Also the roasted potatoes. The roasted potatoes we had at the one restaurant were the best potatoes I have ever had in the history of eating potatoes. They were that good, noticeably and significantly good.
Have you have heard someone say the word potato so many times?
9) Wander (Get Lost)
Just go. Athens is huge, but with some details in place you can, and should, afford to just take the two-foot-express and dive into the beautiful history and scenery of the city. Within the first day we had a solid general direction of travel and had done a fair amount of walking. For anyone that knows my mom, you know she’s a real walker, so we walked.
I would actually rather walk than take a form of transit when traveling. One because I’m cheap, but also because I think its the best way to experience a city. Take those streets and alleyways you wouldn’t otherwise, walk 10 blocks in one random direction and then head 10 blocks in another. Its the best way to see the core of a city and what makes it tick, and provides ample additional opportunities for kick-ass experiences.
In conclusion, Athens is an incredible city, steeped in history with almost too-much to offer. I was able to hammer out a lot in my 6 days there and there was still so much more I wanted to do. No trip to Greece is complete without a stop in Athens.