To be honest Athens was never really on my radar. I almost ended up visiting the city last year due to the European Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX to those bloggers amongst you) conference being held there. I purchased my earlybird ticket as soon as they went on sale and had started looking around for places to stay.
But then I chickened out because I was terrified and ridiculously unprepared. The idea of attending TBEX was great in practice but the reality was that I’d only been blogging for around six months, had an embarrassingly low number of followers on social media, and therefore lacked the confidence I needed to be able to sell myself (and my work) effectively.
Incidentally I still don’t have a media kit, but I did invest in some business cards a few months ago, following my invite to Ice Lolly‘s Blog At The Beach.
So I sold my ticket on, and never made it to Athens.
That is, until the following June.
I was organising a birthday trip to the incredible clifftop monasteries of Meteora. Athens was so close it would have been absurd not to incorporate a visit there into my 10-day Greece itinerary.
I don’t know why but I had fairly low expectations of Athens from an aesthetic point of view. Apart from the notable historic remains scattered throughout the city, I pictured modern, dirty, polluted streets with little atmosphere or character. A far cry from the idyllic Greek Islands I’d spent many summer weeks exploring.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Athens is a beautiful city that seems to have got the art of merging centuries-old historic monuments and ancient byzantine churches with colourful street art and a thriving cafe culture, down to a tee.
We had two nights in the city before our trip to the island of Hydra, and another night upon our return, in order to celebrate my birthday.
Ordinarily I choose to stay in hostels whenever I can. I love the sociable atmosphere, the free breakfasts, the complimentary city maps, and the wealth of helpful information and tips on hand from like-minded individuals. However the hostel we’d managed to secure a private room at on the night of my birthday, was fully-booked for the two nights we needed some accommodation beforehand.
All the hotels that had available rooms were either way outside our budget or too far from the district in which we wanted to base ourselves – Psirri. On the off-chance I had a look on Airbnb, and then wondered why the hell I hadn’t used this site before (or at least since my initial booking of a private room in a lovely two-bedroom flat in central Ljubljana).
We scored the cutest little studio apartment on what was probably my favourite street in Psirri for just £60 for the two of us for two nights. That’s £15pp/pn which – considering its location and the facilities we had available to us (our own fully-equipped kitchen, shower room and courtyard garden) – was unbelievably cheap.
It was perfectly located to enjoy all that the city has to offer, as well as being only a short walk from Monastiraki metro station, from where you can catch a direct train to Piraeus Port (for Hydra or Poros) or Athens’ bus station.
We had nearly three full days in which to hit up as many of the six historic sites included in our €12 Acropolis ticket as possible, as well as taking the time to explore the city’s neighbourhoods on foot, check out its street art, browse its markets, dine in a few of its many cafes and restaurants, and indulge in its nightlife.
Whilst I cannot tell you where to find Athens’ finest restaurant, its greatest vantage point or its most reputable jewellery shop (I’d have to spend weeks in the city before I’d consider myself even remotely qualified to write that sort of guide), what I can do is let you in on a few of my favourite finds within the city.
So if you only have a few days here (as I did), here are a few experiences which should give you a pretty good feel for Greece’s (very much underrated in my opinion) capital city.
Seeking Street Art in Psirri
Historically, the Psirri district was known as one of the most dangerous areas in the city. It’s where the underworld of Athens used to reside – the hash smokers, petty criminals, and those discontent with their role in society.
Over time it developed into a working class neighbourhood full of leather workshops and small factories, where artists (Lord Byron had a house on the corner of Agios Theklas and Papanikolis Street) and musicians resided.
Nowadays Psirri feels like the sum of everything in its history combined. There’s still a dark, edgy undercurrent running through the area (reminiscent of Ravel in Barcelona), and it remains home to many of the city’s creative souls (the abundance of street art here is just one example of this), but at the same time Psirri has undergone significant gentrification in more recent years in order to make the area more desirable; more tourist-friendly.
Its run-down buildings have been given a face-lift whilst still retaining their original character, and a wealth of cafés and tavernas now line its narrow streets. Psirri (along with neighbouring Gaza) is also where you’ll find some of the best nightlife in Athens.
Mavros Gatos (Black Cat), a small ouzeri on Takis Street that serves some of the best (and most reasonably-priced) food we tasted in Athens. It’s small, traditional, understated and friendly, and we were the only non-Greek speaking tourists there!
Six Dogs (6-8 Avramiotou Street) simply looks like any other nondescript underground bar from the outside, but follow the neon purple stairs and you’ll find a lovely leafy candlelit garden and some relaxed, ambient music. Drinks are a little pricey but it’s a beautiful spot to start the evening.
The Party (31 Kariaskakis Street) is the place to go a little later on when you fancy some live music and cheap(er) beers. There are bands playing here almost every day of the week and a live Jam session every Wednesday evening.
Witnessing the Changing of the Guards in Syntagma Square
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (in the forecourt of the parliament building) is guarded by the city’s evzones, the presidential guards whose eccentric uniforms (we’re talking batwing shirts, layered mini skirts, tights, knee-tassles and pom-pom shoes) are based on the attire worn by the Klephts. Apparently the white skirts have 400 folds in them to represent the 400 years of Ottoman occupation over the Greeks.
The guards are chosen for their stature (these men are tall!), physical condition, strength of character, and mental well-being, and undergo rigorous training before upholding the role.
Show up on the hour any day of the week to witness the strictly choreographed, but fascinating ceremony of the changing of the guards. But show up on a Sunday at 11am and you’ll be rewarded with the full-length official ceremony and kilted, pom-pom footed guards whose synchronised performance of high kicks and marches will keep you transfixed for its duration.
Admiring the View from the Rooftop of A is for Athens
I wasn’t really concerned about the quality (or the price) of the drinks here when I saw this view. From the rooftop you can look down on to bustling Monastiraki Square whilst sipping an ice-cold frappé under the watchful eye of the ancient Acropolis.
Wandering the Historic Streets of the Plaka Neighbourhood
Plaka is located on the northeast slope of the Acropolis, between Syntagma and Monastiraki Square. Granted, the main streets of this charming neighbourhood are cramped, crowded, and overrun with gift shops and tavernas, but move away from the main tourist street and you’ll find narrow, winding, traffic-free streets, and beautiful neoclassical architecture.
You can actually make your way up to The Acropolis from here, through the maze of ancient streets that make up the Anafiotika quarter.
Anafiotika is actually part of Plaka but its narrow alleys, whitewashed houses, colourful doorways, vibrant Bougainvillea, and abundance of adorable felines, is reminiscent of a Greek Island much more so than the back streets of Greece’s capital city.
Browsing Monastiriki’s Flea Market
Nowhere else in the city is the wonderful mix of ancient and modern, of splendour and grit, and of charm and chaos, so prevalent as it is in Monastiriki Square.
One of my favourite activities in this area was to browse the eclectic mix of items for sale in Athens’ bustling flea market. Reminiscent of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, you can pick up anything from military boots, old coins, and religious paintings, to rare, classic motorcycles.
My parents discovered this unique emporium when they visited the city over 40 years ago, and it sounds like it’s changed very little since!
Taking Full Advantage of Your Acropolis Ticket
As I mentioned before, a ticket to The Acropolis will cost you €12. But what’s great about this ticket is that not only does it also include entry to five other ancient sites (Ancient Agora, Keramikos, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Theatre of Dionysos), but it’s valid for four days, which actually gives you a sufficient amount of time to fully appreciate all six sites.
I loved the quietness of Ancient Agora and Keramikos. In spite of the huge number of tourists that pass through their gates on a daily basis, the sense that you are joined by anyone else is lost amidst the vast leafy grounds, scattered with crumbling remains dating from as far back as the fifth century BC.
In the grounds of the Ancient Agora, you’ll find three notable structures – the Temple of Hephaestus, the Stoa of Atalos, and the Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles.
The site of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus is a short walk from Plaka, smack bang in the middle of a busy intersection and surrounded by residential areas and distant, tree-covered hills.
But as the traffic rushes past you in every direction, you can stare up at those centuries-old imposing marble pillars, that tower 17 metres above the ground, and totally lose sight of where you are.
Spending that Magical Golden Hour Photographing The Acropolis
Although you will not be able to catch a sunset up here if you visit in summer (the grounds close at 8pm and the sun doesn’t set until a good hour or two later), you can witness something even more magical in my opinion – one of the most iconic ancient sites in the world bathed in the soft, diffused, ‘golden’ light that the hour before sunset brings.
The long shadows help to pick out details of the subject you’re photographing, adding texture and depth to the image.
Whilst I failed to get a decent photograph of The Parthenon itself (due to it being more scaffolding than stone!) I loved soaking up the atmosphere of wandering between the Acropolis buildings and gazing down on to the city below.
Have you visited a city before that’s surprised you, in a good way? Which one was it, and how did your expectations compare to the reality?