When most people think of Athens, the first thing that comes to mind is the Acropolis. Whilst it may be the most popular tourist site, this city has much more to offer!!! We had two full days and three nights in Athens to see and do as much as we possibly could.
We arrived at the hotel around 8.30pm on the Friday night, and as soon as we checked in, we went out to explore the streets and see what Athens had to offer. But let me fill you in on our first impressions of Athens ….
Walking out Omonia Station towards our hotel, we were shocked at how run down the city was, graffiti on every surface, dodgy looking people hanging around on street corners and generally quite a lot of homeless people and beggars … we honestly couldn’t help but walk that bit faster to get to our hotel, bags held tightly!!
Once we dropped our bags at the hotel and continued down the main street, the graffiti was more noticeable. It was on every roller door covering the closed stores, street signs and basically every surface the ‘street artists’ could find. After a c.10 minute walk, we arrived at the main square, Monastiraki. We quickly realised why it was so popular, the view of course!! This square has a perfect view of the Acropolis.
The square also seemed to be where many of the locals hung around for the evening, it is quite a nice open area with access to many restaurants, cocktail bars as well as the street markets selling their goods, including tourist ornaments and hats to escape the sun, clothing etc as well as cafes and restaurants. We wandered around the streets, had a look at the massive range of restaurants on offer and also found the back-streets where the locals eat.
The markets further away from the square were all closed, but we could tell this would be popular based on the sheer number of roller doors and take-away food vendors where you can buy Gyros and other Greek snacks. The walk here, not to our surprise, continued the general theme of it looking run down, however at this stage we started to appreciate it a bit more and generally felt much safer. We came across a few stray dogs and cats, which seemed very friendly and the locals also seemed to leave out food and water, which was great to see given the general struggle the people seem to be in themselves.
Generally when we run into stray animals, thewelltravelledwoman (Jenna) will give them a very creative name such as Ginger, Spot, or in the case of the little kitten below, Stripe! To be fair, Stripe was very cute and the curiosity lead Stripe straight towards us tilting its head a bit to see what we were up to (other than taking a few photos of his abandoned stairs (or home).
Following a good nights rest, we spent the following two days exploring the main sites, which we have listed below.
What to see
Changing of the Guard (10:30am – 11:30am)
The changing of the guard happens daily, however only at 11am on a Sunday morning do the guards wear traditional clothing. This is quite impressive to see! It happens outside Parliament House and would recommend getting there around 10.30am to see the two guards do their part before the rest of the guards and marching band arrive. You will be sure to get a good spot for your photographs if you’re there early!!
The Temple of Olympian Zeus (11:30am – 12:30am)
After you have seen the changing of the guard, you can walk through the national gardens and get to the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. There were originally 104 Corinthian columns, each 17 meters high; 48 of these stood in triple rows under the pediments and 56 in double rows at the sides. Only 15 columns remain standing today.
There is an entrance fee for this site, but you can buy a ticket booklet for €12 which gives you entry in to multiple sites (including the Acropolis).
Lycabetus Hill (2:00pm – 3:30pm)
Having enjoyed a traditional Greek lunch, we walked through the city towards Lycabetus Hill, the highest point in Athens and one of the most famous hills in Athens. From the top, it gives you panoramic views over the city, including the Acropolis.
Depending on the day and your fitness levels, you have two options to reach the top. Either you catch the funicular from Ploutarchou street, or you, as we did, could zigzag your way up the hill in the blistering Greek sun. I love a good funicular, but after doing a bit of research, a few reviews mentioned the funicular still required you to walk up quite a few sets of stairs before paying €6 for a few minute return journey which actually goes through a tunnel, offering you no views of Athens until you reach the top. To be fair, you do have a 360 degree view of Athens so don’t let the tunnel put you off!
We probably didn’t pick the best time to go … we chose to go up in 35 degrees…. up a hill (yes, we’re crazy!!) but the view was worth it. When you get to the top, there is a restaurant there which sells food and drink. Instead of stopping here for some food and drinks we decided to buy some ice-cold water from one of the local guys trying to make a living. We then started the 40 minute walk (much needed after our heavy Greek lunch!) back to the hotel for a much-needed cold shower before we went out for dinner around Monastiraki Market Square.
Monastiraki Market Square (anytime, to be seen both at day and night)
As mentioned above, Monastiraki Square seems to be where it is all happening! You can buy just about anything there and the prices are fairly reasonable (compared to the rest of Europe!). The shops off the square seemed to be only open during the week so if you like to wander around and do a bit of shopping, try to plan your visit accordingly (remembering to include a Sunday for the changing of the guards!).
The Acropolis (11:00am – 12:30pm)
This would have to be the most famous site in Athens. Everyone knows about it, or has at least heard about it at some point in their life. We walked through the city and markets again, along the route to the Acropolis. It was VERY hot and humid and we wished we had of gone first thing that morning!!!
If you haven’t pre-booked a guide, that’s not a problem as you can go to the guide desk and pick one up there. They appear to work together and have set prices at a total cost of €100. The tour lasts around 1 hour and usually consists of 5 people to keep the groups small and more personal (€20 per person). There were 6 of us in the group, but the price remained at €20 per person, excluding the entrance tickets. It is helpful if you have pre-bought your tickets before getting to the guide desk, but if you haven’t, the guide can quickly buy some at their fast track service for the same cost (€12) of the aforementioned ticket booklet.
Our guide was great, friendly and well informed. She pointed out all the sites we could see throughout Athens as well as the Acropolis itself. There was so much information, from the Virgin Goddess, Athena (and how Athens was given its name), to where the marble was found, why the Acropolis was built where it was built and much more that it would be an entire blog on its own, but believe me it’s well worth it!
The walk up and down from the Acropolis is the same, so we decided to stay at the top and get some more photos rather than walk back with the guide.
Acropolis Museum (12:30pm – 2:00pm)
After visiting the Acropolis itself, you have to go directly to the Acropolis Museum. Its only around 10 minutes from the Acropolis itself and its where all the original artefacts are held. They are still in the process of slowly removing some of the important pieces from the Temples and Acropolis, with many of the pieces currently at the sites themselves being replicas (good ones!) to ensure as many of these can be preserved well into the future.
There was a bit of a line up to get through security and buy tickets (as at August 2015 the cost is €5 per person), but once you’re through we didn’t find the museum too crowded and it was quite an enjoyable experience. We also enjoyed an escape from the heat, wandering through the museum at leisure in air conditioning!!
Ancient Agora (4:15pm – 5:00pm
Having enjoyed lunch, we realised we were literally sitting opposite the Ancient Agora!
The Ancient Agora is expansive and probably the best known example of an ancient Greek Agora and includes the Temple of Hephaestus, a Church of the Holy Apostles as well as the large Stoa with its many white pillars. Inside the Stoa you can also find a few artefacts, including pottery and statues. There weren’t any guides offering their services as they do around the Acropolis and we wandered through the site on our own in around 30-45 minutes, if you have the time it is well worth a visit.
Where to eat and drink
We stopped here on our first day in Athens for lunch. Dipylo was busy and full of locals, and they even had some live traditional greek music. Given it was our first lunch, we thought we’d order traditional greek meals!!! I tried the Chicken Gyros and Jenna ordered the kebab. I must admit, Jenna’s dish had a lot of flavour and I did have some food envy! I’m a sucker for trying the local dishes though and will always opt for what the waiter suggests!
A is for Athens
After seeing an amazing photo on Instagram, I had to see this view for myself! On the Sunday night, we went to A is for Athens which is located on Monastiraki Square and has a rooftop bar overlooking the square and the Acropolis. We went here to watch the sunset and see the square and Acropolis lit up at night.
If you want a table on the upper desk, you MUST book this in advance. They seem to have a high turnaround, so bookings may only be for 1.5 hours each, but the view are incredible. They have a good cocktail menu as well which helps to soak up the sun! They also sell food, so you can always have a meal here too!
We simply had to stop here, as our favourite italian restaurant in London is called L’Antica, so Antica Cafe had to be as good, right?? Well, it wasn’t as good, but it was still delicious!
The service to get you in to the restaurant was really good, and usually that is where it stops. However, the staff on this occasion were very friendly, offering advice on what is the best meal to get and what the best local beer they have on offer. The meals came out relatively quickly and were tasty. Jenna ordered spaghetti bolognese and I ordered a Greek Salad. The views were fantastic, overlooking the Acropolis and they have fans on the go trying to keep their patrons cool (during the day the fans spray out water!!).
We stopped at Diavlos restaurant and it seemed quite busy which is always a good sign! As aways, I asked what the best dish on the menu was. Their advice was the Lamb Kleftiko, so I ordered that! For those (like me) who don’t know what Lamb Kleftiko is, it is basically a stew cooked in a ceramic dish in the oven with lamb, cheese, potato, peppers and this particular one was then served in paper. The lamb was very tender and the flavours were able to spread throughout the dish, it was lovely! Jenna had the traditional grilled chicken which was also very nice. It is in a great spot for the Ancient Agora afterwards!!
Where to stay
We stayed at the Grecotel Pallas Athena which we booked on hotels.com (also a part of the Small Luxury Hotels if you are a member). It was a little out of the hustle and bustle, but close enough to be able to walk everywhere. Upon entering the hotel, we were greeted by very friendly staff who offered to take our bags and even offered us a chocolate as part of their 40 year celebration. Check-in was quick and we then dropped our bags before we went straight back out in the city. The rooms are all decorated differently, ours had a jungle theme and some ‘graffiti’ on the walls, which we thought was good given it matched our initial impressions of the city.
The hotel 5*, however we would probably only give the hotel 4* simply because of a few things which in our opinion let it down quite a bit!! First, the pillows weren’t up to standard compared to other hotels, the double bed was actually two singles pushed together (which isn’t unusual in 4* hotels) and the gym was basic. Whilst these are minor observations, the internet was intermittent throughout our stay and we found this very frustrating when trying to plan for the next day!
Getting to and from Athens Airport
Getting to and from the airport it relatively easy. When you arrive in Athens, follow the signs to the trains and speak with the person at the ticket counter. The ticket from the airport to the city centre is €8 per person. There is only one metro line from the airport to the city centre, and this will take you to Syntagma Square in about 40 minutes, where you can either exit and walk to your hotel, or change on to a different metro line (we changed and got off at Omonia Station).