Athens often gets a bad rap. To read some of the advice that’s out there, you’d think it was the sketchiest city on the planet. Even the most positive recommendations advised only spending a couple days there at most. Well, not us. We’d booked four nights in Athens due to moving some other August and September travel dates around, and it’s fair to say we were a more than a little apprehensive. Fortunately, I’m happy to report that not only are we not dead and/or victims of crime, we actually had an amazing time and wish more people would take the time to get to know this city.
Not gonna lie though: Athens is kinda gritty. The streets are dusty, there’s trash on the sidewalks, and everything looks like it could use a good powerwash. A lot of the buildings are really dilapidated, and there’s graffiti everywhere, giving everything a run-down vibe. Once in a while the fish markets and trash and mothballs and souvlaki shops and cigarette smoke and a million other smells all get baked together in the August heat to create an odor that’s, um, memorable, to say the least. And yeah, we passed through some streets and alleys that felt a little questionable. We never felt unsafe, but I can get how people might feel uncomfortable in some areas of the city.
One thing to remember is that Athens - like the rest of Greece - was hit extremely hard by the financial crisis only a few short years ago, and has had its fair share of economic and social issues in the past, so it’s no surprise the city is a bit of a tough nut to crack. But we never had any issues, and we found it hard not to love. Athens has plenty to offer if you give it a chance.
If you read our Budapest blog, you’ll remember we were there in the middle of a heatwave, and upon arriving in Athens it felt like we’d accidentally brought it with us. Temperatures reached up to (and often above) 100 degrees Fahrenheit before noon each day, and because of that we naturally adopted a very lazy schedule. We’d sightsee in the morning for a few hours, eat a late lunch, then retreat back to our mercifully air-conditioned hotel room and relax until it was time to head back out for dinner around 9 or 10 pm. Very European of us, I know.
That routine actually worked out really well for us. We saw a lot of the city: we hit up a different historic site each day and even found time to do a bit of hiking, but it was all spread out at a leisurely pace. I think if we had spent any less time in Athens we would have either exhausted ourselves or had to cut out a few activities. It was just too hot to be in a rush, but there’s so much to see that it would have sucked to skip anything.
If you hadn’t figured it out from my long-winded rant about channeling Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London, I’m an INSUFFERABLE history nerd. Always have been. And Ancient Greece is definitely up there on the ‘history subjects I'm freakishly obsessed with’ list (it’s a long list). This obsession goes way back to when I was a kid and developed an interest in archaeology that led me to read everything I could about ancient civilizations. In eighth grade, my friends and I put together a History Fair project - a play, no less - depicting the possible real events behind the Trojan War, and in ninth grade we had a whole unit on Ancient Greece. I feel like in some ways I've been prepping my whole life to see this stuff in person.
So I don’t think I need to tell you how humbling and fulfilling it was to finally see the Acropolis in person. It’s situated on a steep hill in the center of Athens, forcing you to trek up a million steps just to buy tickets. Then, after waiting in the ticket line for what feels like hours in the tortuous heat, you continue on upward to the entrance, moving in a vast sea of slowly shuffling people, on and on until you reach the top. It’s an arduous trek to say the least.
But then you get up there, way up on that hill, and it’s absolutely glorious. The queues, the crowds, the heat, the goddamn selfie sticks - it was all worth it to walk through the temple of Athena Nike and tread across the ancient stone path that leads to the Parthenon. Up there, you have a panoramic view of the city and can see the urban sprawl stretching out to the horizon in every direction, with the Mediterranean off in the distance. You can pick out monuments new and old - the Olympic stadium, the Ancient Agora, massive Byzantine churches - laid out before you like miniatures. It’s clear why the Ancient Greeks put the Acropolis where they did. High up above the rest of the city, you do feel closer to the gods. It’s a sacred space.
When purchasing Acropolis tickets, you’re given two options: 20 Euro for admission to just the Acropolis complex, or 30 Euro to add on access to a number of additional ancient sites. We sprang for that option and were glad we did - we were able to bypass the queues at the Ancient Agora and the Olympeion and were stunned by how empty both sites were. I don’t know if everyone was at the Acropolis or if it was just the heat, but it seemed like all the other ruins were pretty much dead by comparison. My personal favorite was the Olympeion, mostly because you could get up close and personal with the colossal columns, and there's a beautiful view of the Acropolis in the distance.
When we weren't busy ogling ancient artifacts, we spent our time eating our way through pretty much every restaurant within walking distance of our hotel. We were happy to discover that Athens is not an expensive city - we were able to get some huge, satisfying meals, including alcohol, for 20 Euro per person or less, and even at the most touristy places we never felt ripped off the way we sometimes did in other cities.
Alex and I practically worship Greek food - we eat it all the time at home and so Greece was definitely on the list of most-anticipated food countries on this trip. We are glad to report that it lived up to our hype. From souvlaki pitas to fresh seafood and tzatziki to Greek salads, everything was fresh and delicious and impossible to stop eating. Seriously - I'm writing this from Naxos, we’ve been in Greece for almost two weeks now, and we haven’t gone more than twelve hours without consuming tzatziki. I think at this point my body mass is basically 80% Greek yogurt. I’m fine with it.
The only thing better than the food was the wine. We’ve been drinking a lot of beer on this trip, which is fine, but if you know us you know we’re both MAJOR winos, so being able to have a half-liter of good red wine for just a few Euro was perfection. One of our favorite spots in Athens was a wine bar called Cinque where we did tastings of a few local Greek wines, including some truly outstanding Santorini white wines. Neither of us are big on white wines, but these were the exception. Along with our wines, we had a charcuterie board with several types of local cured meats and cheeses as well as figs, honeycomb, and all kinds of accoutrements. We’ve both eaten a lot of meat and cheese boards in our time, and this was definitely one of the best.
Between the food, the wine, and the scorching heat, we definitely had a very lazy four days in Athens, but it put us in a great mindset as we set off for nine even lazier days in the Greek Islands. Athens is definitely very different from the other cities we’ve visited so far on this trip, and I can kind of understand why it gets negative press. Apart from the ruins, it’s kind of run down and sketchy-looking, and if you don’t know the city you might think that means it’s dangerous or unsafe, but that’s just how the whole city looks and it doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. What I’m saying is don’t judge a book by its cover. I think if you’re coming into Athens expecting a romantic and picturesque European capital like Rome or Paris, you’ll be disappointed. If, however, you come in knowing a bit about both the ancient and the more recent history of this city and country, you’ll get more out of your trip. Athens requires a little bit of effort, but we think it’s worth it.