I’ll be honest. Before I visited, Athens seemed a bit overwhelming to me. I knew it was a very large, sprawling city with lots of things to see and do. But I’d also heard that some areas were unsafe, dirty or just not so nice. While these things were certainly true in some parts of the city, I found Athens to be a vibrant city that was full of life, energy and extremely friendly people. It offers a great mix of ancient history and modern art and architecture. In addition, a lot of the main tourist areas were very walkable, there was an easy to use subway system and taxis were pretty reasonable if you needed to go a further distance. In my opinion, Athens is a lot like Naples, Italy – you either love it or you hate it. Personally, I loved it. I’m going to share with you a few of the reasons why in the hope that if you ever visit, you’ll feel the same. So grab ahold of your hat and come along for an amazing adventure!
1. The Acropolis & Parthenon
I can hear you saying “Well, duh” right now, but hear me out. I’m not sure who would ever visit Athens without visiting this amazing historical gem, but just in case you were planning to skip it, think again. Visions of the towering Parthenon, sitting atop the Acropolis (or the “sacred rock”) tease you from all over the city, tempting you to climb up and explore the ruins. No matter how many times you catch a glimpse, it’ll take your breath away. And while it is impressive from a distance, it’s even more amazing up close and personal. Originally built as a fortress, this impressive structure is now the symbol of Athens. Give yourself at least a half a day to hike up, explore this masterful creation and it’s surrounding structures, enjoy the views from the top, hike back down and then grab a bite to eat and explore the Plaka District.
2. The Plaka District
The Plaka, which sits in the shadow of the Acropolis, is the oldest section of ancient Athens. Since it’s literally at the bottom of the Acropolis, it’s almost like the touristy gift shop you have to walk through to complete your visit to the Parthenon. But unlike those touristy gift shops, it’s narrow, cobblestone streets hold so much history and charm. The neighborhood is filled with artists, musicians, Let yourself get lost and just wander through the shops and stalls. You’ll find everything from souvenirs to jewelry to clothes and more. If you are a shopper, you might not want to leave!
When you get tired of shopping, pick from the many delightful cafés and restaurants and order yourself a delicious greek treat. I highly recommend the moussaka at Elaea Mezedadiko, a charming little wine bar located at 19-21 Makriyanni Street. It was rich, creamy and delicious! In fact, I could not find a better moussaka during the rest of my time in Greece!
If you’re looking for something lighter, grab an ice cream, a freddo cappuccino or try a shot of the Greek’s favourite liquor, Ouzo. It’s a licorice-flavored drink is served as an aperitif and you’ll find it everywhere.
If you’re already in the Plaka, don’t miss seeing the charming little neighborhood of Anafiotika, a cluster of small whitewashed houses that lie on the Northeastern slope of the Acropolis. Head for the Plaka stairs and keep going up. Once you’ve entered Anafiotika, you’ll feel like you’ve left the busy city of Athens and stepped right on to a relaxing and picturesque Greek Island.
So, how did this little hidden gem come to be? In 1841, King Otto I encouraged workers to come to Athens to help transform the new capital of independent Greece into a modern metropolis and refurbish his palace. Carpenters and masons from the Cycladic island of Anafi answered the call and settled into this neighborhood, calling it Anafiotika, (“little Anafi”) after their home island. Here they built stark white-washed cubic houses of stone, with flat roofs and brightly painted shutters and doors, that resembled the homes they’d left behind.
4. Monastiraki Square & Flea Market
If you aren’t all shopped out after the Plaka district, head on over to Monastiraki Square. It is easily walkable from the Plaka, but if your feet are getting tired, then hop on the subway and get off at Monastiraki. When you exit the subway, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a gorgeous square, surrounded by ancient ruins and modern art installations. You’ll also see vendors selling the largest strawberries and fruits I’ve ever seen! The flea market wasn’t exactly what I expected. It was a collection of stores and stalls under a common canopy selling clothes, shoes, hats, electronics and just about anything else you can imagine. It’s the prefect place to get all of your souvenirs and gifts for friends and family!
Once you’ve walked the length of the Flea Market, head down Iphestou Street to Avyssinias Square. Here you’ll find the oldest organized emporium of second-hand clothes, shoes, furniture, books, art and other assorted goods. It’s a literal sidewalk sale of interesting items that could keep you busy all afternoon!
5. Pittaki Street
While you’re in the neighborhood, pop on over to Pittaki Street. What used to be a dingy alley often referred to as Athen’s toilet, now houses a fun and unique art installation. Athenians collected over 150 light fixtures of all kinds to represent the city’s multicultural identity. Midcentury metal lamps, Chinese paper lanterns, 1940s floral and fringed lampshades, stained glass lamps, Moroccan mirrored shades, and the requisite Ikea lamps now hang high above this alley and shed a beautiful light on the scene below.
6. Changing of the Guard at Syntagma Square
The presidential guards, or “Evzones,” stand watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in front of the Parliament Building, around the clock. Wearing traditional costumes, including shoes with big pompoms, each Evzone must stand perfectly still for one hour-long shift showing no movement or emotion. Every hour on the hour, you can witness the ceremonial changing of the guards, where the Evzones perform a strict procession of highly stylized movements in slow motion, in order to preserve the guards circulation after standing completely still for one hour. If you are lucky enough to be in Athens on a Sunday, head over 11am for the biggest procession of the week. The Evzones are in their best costumes and a whole platoon marches down Vasilissis Sofias to the tomb, accompanied by a band.
7. Try some loukoumades!
The little balls of dough are the most heavenly treats I’ve ever had. I’m convinced they must have been sent from the Gods. In fact, the history of this donut can be traced back to the first Olympic Games in 776 BC. These delectable little fried donuts are traditionally served warm and drizzled with honey and cinnamon, walnuts or toasted sesame. Although I saw them all over Greece served with a large variety of sweet toppings, stuffed and even served with ice cream! Luckily, I had a local Greek angel to show me where the best ones in the city were. Not far from Monastiraki Square, located at Aiolou 21, Athina 105 51, Lukumades sticks with traditional dough and honey and offers the tastiest Greek donuts I’ve ever eaten! My mouth is actually watering looking back at the photos!
8. Check out some Athens Street Art
The street art scene in Athens is said to be one of the biggest in the world. You can’t help but notice the excessive amount of graffiti that coats every available surface throughout the city. That is the next generation of artists and designers turning to the streets to express social messages. And why not? The Athens School of Fine Arts even offers a course in street painting! It’s illegal and very controversial, but personally, I happen to be a big fan. Sadly, I was only able to scratch the surface on this trip. Next time I’m back, I’m taking an official Athens Street Art tour!
9. Climb Lycabettus Hill at Sunset
Well, I should say, ride the funicular up just before sunset – when the light from the sun is soft and casting a gorgeous golden glow over the city. There is a small chapel you can explore at the top. Or enjoy a coffee and stunning 360 views over all of Athens. Snap a ton of photos of Athens from every angle. Then sit back, relax and get ready for one of the most beautiful sunsets of your life!
It’s much easier to climb down the hill than up, so when you’ve had enough, head down the switchback trails. You’ll want to run on the way away from the sunset to get back to that view of the water-coloured sky. Slow down after you’ve turned the bend so you can enjoy the scene for as long as possible. It’s so breathtaking you might even find yourself exclaiming out loud. Don’t worry if people start looking at you funny. They were thinking it to. I mean, how could they not?
Did you know? Following in the footsteps of its neighbor France, the Greek government gained exclusive rights to the name Ouzo in 2006. So, if it’s not made in Greece, it can’t be called Ouzo.
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