Athens. The birthplace of modern society, democracy and philosophy. It’s interesting to read travel recaps and tips/advice for visiting Athens because there seems to be one of two themes, the “Athens was kind of gross and I didn’t love it” and “Athens is amazing and gets such a bad rap”. So I was a little apprehensive and curious to see which side of the fence I would fall on. My boy Rick Steves doesn’t love Athens, so I went in with my expectations slightly lowered.
We arrived in Athens after another 4 am flight (zzzzzz) and were taken straight to our apartment, which was within rock throwing distance to the Acropolis. We set our bags down and geeked out over the apartment a little bit (another amazing patio, my patio game was so strong on this trip), then got our heads together to figure out the day. We decided to head to the Acropolis (I think we were so enticed since it was RIGHT THERE and felt the ancient draw), which ended up being a poor planning choice. By the time we left, it was around 10 am. We walked around to the front entrance of the Acropolis and bought our tickets.
At the Acropolis, you buy one ticket (for €12) with approximately 12 stubs. There are separate entrances to a lot of the specific areas and other sites throughout Athens, and each entrance costs you one ticket. However, you get one specific stub to the main Acropolis area (with the Parthenon) so that you can only enter that area once. The remaining tickets are valid for :
- Roman Agora
- Ancient Agora
- Hadrian’s Library
- Olympieion (Temple of Zeus)
- North and South slopes of the Acropolis
- Dionysus’ Theater
Our crew was starting to get a little hangry, so we decided a snack would be a good choice before heading in. We got some little (overpriced) sandwiches from the snack shop out front. They were just ok, but they got the job done. While we were eating, we watched the droves of tour buses come in and drop people off. We briefly debated if we should do something else with our time since it was going to be obviously crowded, but we ultimately decided to head in.
SO. MANY. PEOPLE. We knew it would be crowded, but wow it was really, super duper, extremely crowded. There was no freely walking around to be had. We were basically part of a large mass/line that just moved along from site to site. Once we got up to the main Parthenon, it opened up a little bit and we were able to walk, but there were still people allll around. We immediately knew that we had made a mistake, but given that we had used our one entrance to the Parthenon, we fired up our Rick Steves audio guide and made the best of it. The temples here are amazing to see. The Parthenon is MASSIVE, and the view of Athens from up high in the background cannot be missed. I also particularly liked the Erechtheion (a temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon), the statuettes here were very well preserved. Something interesting that we learned in the audio guide was just how many times the Acropolis has been attacked. To hear it all laid out, it’s a wonder any of it is still standing!
After we left the Acropolis, we headed to the Acropolis museum. The entrance here is separate, but a great deal at only €5. The Acropolis museum was recently redone and was beautiful, open, and modern looking. Here they had a lot of the sculptures and pediments from the top of the Parthenon in front of a picture, so you could get a great idea of what the whole thing looked like. It also delved into some of the pre-golden age of Athens art and sculptures, which derived a lot of inspiration from Egypt. The museum isn’t huge and took us about an hour to get through.
One of the things we talked about in the islands was that we didn’t see a lot of the “typical” Greek foods that we were expecting, like gyros, hummus, pita, grape leaves, etc. In talking to others, we concluded that those are more typical of mainland Greece, so we were excited to get our fill of those foods here. We set off to Kostas, a small souvlaki place. Kostas has been operating since 1950 in Athens and has a limited menu and a long line, both signs of great quality food! They cook all the of food fresh, so the line doesn’t move extremely fast, but it’s well worth the wait. We were chatting in line with a woman that was originally from Athens, but lives in Germany now for work, and she said when she’s back hom she always makes a point to visit Kostas. We each got one souvlaki and a beer, but the souvlakis are on the smaller side, I probably could have split a third with Nick.
After Kostas, we walked back to the Acropolis area and walked through the Ancient Agora. The Agora is down the hill from the Acropolis and was the central meeting place in Ancient Athens (probably similar to the Roman Forum in Rome). We got to the Agora around 3, and it was practically empty. Such a refreshing change from our crowded morning at the Parthenon. We again, used our Rick Steves audio app to guide us through. The Agora was a lot larger than I expected and had a lot of buildings and art to view. This ended up being one of my unexpected favorites from our time in Athens, I highly recommend making some time for the Agora during your visit.
We apparently went through the Agora backwards (the main entrance is in Monastraki area, we came in on a back road), so we ended at Monastraki and decided to walk around and check out the shops. The shops here were filled with some of the more popular Greek items, leather sandals, oils, olives, jewelry, etc. We ended up finding a really cool local foods shop (in our quest to locate some beer to carry back…) and got some meats and cheeses to enjoy as a snack, and also picked up some Greek yogurt for breakfast the next day. I was pretty excited about having an actual legitimate breakfast option. We also ended up getting some fruit (figs and grapes) from one of the food carts in the main square. We also decided to pick up some lunch for ourselves for the next day (we went on a tour to Delphi) from Thanassis Souvlaki, another highly rated Souvlaki shop in Athens. We had these wrapped up to-g0 and put them in our fridge when we got home for the next day.
When we got back, we started our normal routine of showers and enjoying beers on the patio before heading to Scholarchio for dinner. I would not consider Scholarchio to be a great local joint, but the food was quick and fit the bill. And more imporantly, we were in bed nice and early after our 4 am wake up time. The menu is set up that you can order a set amount of dishes based on the number of people in your party. Since we had 4 people, we got to pick 10 dishes (from 15 that they brought out on a tray) and each got wine for €15 per person. All in all, not a bad choice if you are nearby and want a quick meal! We got meatballs, stuffed grape leaves, moussaka, greek salad, calamari, braised lamb, tzatziki, and fried zucchini among other things that I don’t remember. The meatballs and the grape leaves were our highlights!
The next day, we had an excursion to Delphi on the agenda. We were heavily considering going to Delphi before our trip, but talking about it with some of the other folks on our wine tour in Santorini really sealed the deal for us. A couple on their honeymoon did an excursion during their stay in Athens and absolutely loved it, and even raved about the tour group that they used. We got the name of the tour company (G.O. Tours) from them and booked our trip during our first day in Athens. The tour ran us €86 per person, but we were assured it was well worth it.
In the morning we got up and had our super legitimate breakfast of yogurt, figs, honey and pistachios. It was everything I had been dreaming about for a week and a half. We met our group at a local hotel at 9:00am to get picked up by the bus. It seemed like the buses went around and collected people from their various hotels around Athens and brought them all to this main spot. From there, people got off the buses and were re-boarded according to their tours. It was pretty interesting and seemed like a good logistical way to accomplish that (the industrial engineer in me was very pleased).
The ride to Delphi is about 2+ hours from Athens. On the way there, the tour guide told us a few stories and tidbits about both Athens and Delphi. The most surprising was that the Greeks prounounce it Del-pheee rather than what I am used to, Del-f-eye. Just kidding, there were way better stories than that. According to our tour guide, Delphi was formed by Zeus. He wanted to find the center of the world and sent two of his eagles in opposite directions, with the theory that where they met would be the center of the world. The two eagles met in Delphi, and the rest is history. After Zeus found the center, Delphi was taken over by Python, a son of Gaia (Earth). Eventually Apollo defeated and slayed Python and the people built monuments and performed games in his honor. Delphi is probably best known for being a major site of the Greek oracles. The oracles were women that Apollo was said to communicated through. People would travel far and wide to visit the oracles with questions. The woman would speak and the priests would translate her answers. Our guide said that the priests usually used clever wording and vague answers to get around not actually knowing the future :).
The bus stopped once at the halfway point for a bathroom break and snacks. Here Nick and I split a couple of pastries, baklava and kataifi (the bird’s nest looking item). I also had a cappuccino.
When we made it to Delphi, there were a few other buses and tours coming in, but nothing like the Acropolis the day before. The road up to Delphi is windy. The setting of Delphi is absolutely beautiful, it’s surrounded by mountains and olive trees and we got some of my favorite pictures here.
After our tour guide walked us through, we had about 45 mins of free time to walk around and revisit anything that piqued our interest before we met at the museum. The museum was fairly small, but with our tour guide I felt like we got a great overview of the traditions and examples of art in Delphi. Most of the art was in the form of sculptures that were built to honor Apollo and other gods.
After we left the museum we were let off in the town by Delphi, where the majority of our tour group went to a local hotel for lunch. We had heard from our Santorini friends that the lunch was just ok (and would run €20 extra per person) so we found a nice outdoor area and ate our sandwiches before shopping around a little. I’m so glad that we did, because Debbie and I had our best Athens score here! We both were looking for some olive pottery, but were being pretty picky about it having to be made in Greece and of good quality. I got a bowl and Debbie got a few olive oil dishes.
Our ride back to Athens went by quickly (and I may have even snoozed a little). Our tour guide and bus driver were a little concerned about traffic getting back, as there was an upcoming election that week for Prime minister and a speech was planned that night in one of the main squares so lots of traffic was expected. We asked to be dropped off in Monastraki, but the closest they could get us with road closures was a few blocks away. Which was totally fine! We got to walk a little back through Monastraki and see a few more shops. We decided to take another route through town and hit up a restaurant that I had read about called Melilotos. Melilotos is considered to be “Modern Greek cuisine” and had a great sounding menu. We ended up getting four things to split, including a salad with goat cheese, stuffed chicken, pasta with mushrooms and chicken, and pasta with beef and truffles (this was the clear favorite). Everything was delicious! One of our favorite spots in Athens.
We stopped again at our favorite shop on the way home and picked up some more yogurt. We chatted a little with the owner there and sampled a few different kinds of nuts. We ended up getting some more pistachios. The owner told us that all of the foods and snacks they had in their deli case were made by his grandmother daily and brought in.
More drinks and patio sitting once we got home!
For our last day, we slept in a little, ate another yogurt and fig breakfast, and headed out to the National Archaeological Museum. The museum is the largest in Greece and has the largest collection of Greek artifacts. The museum is organized by historical period and medium and goes from Prehistoric, through Classical and ending with the Roman period. The museum has both tour guides and audio guides available. However, the cost of the guided tours isn’t very clear and seems to depend on the number of people that you have present. Of course, all of this was irrelevant for us, as we had our Rick Steves audio guide fired up and ready to go. My favorite statues were the ones in the Classical and Hellenistic period that depicted the Greek gods (this was a personal favorite). We also got to see the actual frescoes that were retrieved from Akrotiri. We took about two hours in this museum. In my opinion, this is a must-see if you are visiting Athens! It gives you a great view of the history of the mainland and a lot of the islands as well.
We originally intended to find a nearby place for lunch, but struck out with two locations being closed. We eventually decided to just go with something easy and open, and ended up at a pretty touristy location, Smile Restaurant. This place checked all of my normal “do not eat here” boxes, a lot of advertisement, pictures of the food, menus in multiple languages, advertisements for other tours around Athens, etc. But it was also pretty highly rated on Trip Advisor (#39 out of 2000+ restaurants in Athens) and we were hungry. I was pleasantly surprised with the food and I finally got my pastitsio that I hadn’t been able to find anywhere. Nick and Bob got the souvlaki, and we also ordered the Greek salad and the Special Smile Salad.
After lunch, we set out to cross off the rest of the sites that came with our Acropolis ticket, as well as the Olympic Stadium.
We started with the Olympic Stadium (officially called the Panathenaic Stadium), which housed the first instance of the modern Olympics in 1896. The original ancient Olympics were held in the Greek town of Olympia. It’s only €5 to enter the stadium (and that comes with a free audio guide and the opportunity to run around the track!), but we were more interested in continuing on to some other sites and didn’t want to invest the time.
Our next stop was the Olympieion and Temple of Zeus. We saw the columns that make up this site from walking around town, and they seemed to be the largest and very well preserved. Seeing them up close was really cool. They are located at a big intersection in Athens, so it’s really neat to see the old and the new so interspersed. To get some background on these sites, we listened to parts of the Athens City Walking Tour from the Rick Steves app. You are able to select specific tracks from the tour, so we just did that for whichever site we were at.
Right around the Olympieion, you are also able to see the Arch of Hadrian. Hadrian was an emperor of the Roman empire, but held a great admiration for the city of Athens. He did a lot of work to restore and preserve the city, and aimed to make it a cultural center of the empire. The arch was built by the Greeks to honor Hadrian and all he did for their city.
Next we headed to the Acropolis to see if we could sneak back in to the main area during a non-crowded time. This was a no-go, so we explored the North and South slopes. This was really neat, there were a lot of intricate caves where people used to place statues and trinkets to honor the gods on their trek up to the main Acropolis. We also got to enjoy some more great views from this vantage point.
We decided to head to dinner close by again, we were all a little worn from all the activity of the whole trip and wanted to have a relaxing last night. I actually don’t even remember the restaurant we went to, and have no pictures of the food, so it must not have been that great. We took one last walk through Monastraki and headed back for some beers and patio sitting, the perfect way to cap off our trip!
All in all, I really enjoyed our time in Athens and Delphi. I would certainly add Athens to your Greek itinerary, there are things that you see here that you don’t get from any other place in the world. It was inspiring to me to be among such important and ancient artifacts, and in a spot where so many events and people existed that affect our culture and way of life, even today. However…I can kind of see why some people dog Athens. The easiest comparison is to Rome, they both are large cities that have similar ancient culture and ruins. Athens certainly isn’t as pretty as Rome (SO MUCH GRAFFITI) but I found it easy to overlook that to appreciate the food and the culture here.
And that’s it for our Greece trip! Next I want to do a “planning” post with tips and tricks that we found useful, specific to Greece. Then it’s on to recap our December trip to Asheville, NC
Have you ever been to Athens? What was your favorite site? Did all of the graffiti turn you off at all?