Athens, Greece: A guide to the City
I present you with the capital city of Athens in Greece and a full guide of the city. I’ve been wanting to visit Greece for many years now, but somehow life came in the way and my trip would always get postponed. Completely out of the blue, I got the opportunity and I didn’t even think twice. I simply put my foot down there and then I instantly placed it in my calendar and made it happen, it was one of the best instant decisions I’ve made in my life from which I am still buzzing about even weeks after my return.
Airport to the city:
Getting from the airport to the city is pretty quick and simple with the use of a taxi. The fare is fixed at 38 Euros (during the day 05:00 – 24:00) and 50 Euros (during the evening 00:00 – 05:00). The drive itself is about 40 minutes and if you arrive during the day, you get to view the beautiful greenery while making your way to the city.
You will instantly begin to notice the graffiti tags on walls as you approach Athens, something very common in cities. The closer you get to Athens, the number of tags also increases. Many notice these elements in big cities and usually the city center is cleared up and you instantly notice the lack of graffiti tags once you arrive at the city center. In Athens however, that is not the case. They keep increasing, and right in the center, they are pretty much everywhere. The reason I am mentioning them is that it gave me a very eerie feeling and it took me a day to get used to it.
It is human nature to feel a bit unsettled when you find yourself surrounded by, not street art, but graffiti tags. You have that inner feeling of not being in a safe place, or at least that is how I felt. I have spoken to other foreigners and that seems to be the very first thing people mention. I was told by one, who was in Athens for the third time for a conference, that it was a normal feeling for first-time visitors and to not let those visuals get to me. The city has so much to offer and that if I allow myself to see the city for what it really is, then chances are, I will want to return, and how right was she.
Another thing you notice in the city is the lack of skyscrapers. There are tall buildings, but none that block the sky or are cramped together that they make you feel like they are looking down at you. There is a reason for that. From a geological aspect, they say that studies were run and concluded that due to earthquakes it would be a great risk to have skyscrapers. Others also mentioned that the government does not want tall buildings to ruin the clear views.
Whatever the reason behind it may be, it seems like there won’t be any skyscrapers any time soon. This allows tourists, as well as locals, to enjoy walks on the wide roads, with open space and no buildings looking over us. Not to mention the stunning unobstructed views of the city from higher ground, and from some locations, you can even get to see beyond Piraeus and get a clear view of the sea beyond the land.
The city itself is actually not that big. You can get around easily on foot. The roads are wide, there are museums and exhibitions everywhere, parks, coffee shops at almost every corner, tangerine trees growing on the streets and if you have the time, I would highly suggest walking and experience it for yourself. Now I am not much of a walker. I drive and usually get stuck in traffic and deal with the hassle of parking in Malta because I am just so lazy that I would rather waste 40 minutes in traffic and finding parking than getting off my behind and walking a block. But in Athens, I couldn’t get enough of walking around. I loved it. I would stop at coffee shops to get a cup of their incredible coffee and a delicious pastry and rest my feet. Days when I was eager to keep exploring, I would just get it all to go and keep walking.
There is public transportation available, as well as taxis which are very easy to get on the road and the fee is pretty small. A taxi ride of about 10 minutes, from the commercial district, is about 2 Euros – 3 Euros.
Another option, if you’re a tourist, and is my favourite type of transportation, is to buy a day or 2 days pass on the Hop On Hop Off bus. It is usually the first thing I do when I get to a new city and have a full day. I like getting the lay of the land, as well as getting to find out about the cultural and historical sites which I may want to visit in the coming days. Since there are several spots, you can get off the bus at any of the stops and get back on it when you want. These buses are pretty punctual, so they help me a ton when I want to save time getting from one place to the next and have time to explore those areas.
- Omonia Square: Commercial. The oldest square in Athens.
- Syntagma Square: Commercial and Business. The capital’s central and largest square. Close by is the Old Parliament House of Athens. Location of the National Garden and the Old Royal Palace is also known as Hellenic Parliament and the Monument of the Unknown Soldier.
The Old Parliament House of Athens.
The Hellenic Parliament.
The Monument of the Unknown Soldier.
- Monastiraki: Well known for the Flea market. A must-visit for those who love street markets.
- Plaka: Historical. Located right under the Acropolis (including Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Parthenon, Erechtheion & temple of Athena Nike). If you want to get a feel for how Athens was, this is the place to visit as it is not touched by modern construction. Location of the New Acropolis Museum and the Theatre of Dionysus, the first theatre in the world dedicated to Dionysus.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stone theatre structure located on the southwest slope of the Acropolis. The building was completed in 161 AD and then renovated in 1950.
The Periclean entrance to the Acropolis.
In the past, this was the only entrance to the Acropolis.
The Propylaea, a monumental gateway that serves as the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens.
The Parthenon, south side.
The Erechtheion, an ancient Greek temple on the north side of the Acropolis, was dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon.
The side of the Erechtheion, giving a clear view of the Caryatids.
The New Acropolis Museum. The museum has modern architecture and the use of glass on flooring and steps. This was done for visitors to be able to view ancient remains which are found below the museum.
- Thiseio: Traditional neighbourhood filled with cafes and bars. Also the location of the Temple of Hephaestus, just above the Ancient Agora of Athens and the Stoa of Attalos. Close by is also Areopagus Hill or Mars Hill.
- Psirri: Well known for the nightlife.
- Gazi: Location of Technopolis, an industrial museum, and cultural venue.
- Exarcheia: Home for Greek anarchists. Location close to the Technical University of Athens. Closely located is the National Museum of Archaeology.
The National Archaeological Museum of Athens, the largest archaeological museum in Greece. It contains some of the most important artifacts from a variety of archaeological locations around Greece, from prehistory to late antiquity. It is also considered to be one of the greatest museums in the world with the richest collection of artifacts from Greek antiquity worldwide.
- Kolonaki: Full of boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and bars. Regarded as a prestigious area. Location of the Benaki Museum and the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic art. Close by is the Byzantine Museum, the War Museum of Athens, and Aristotle’s Lyceum.
- Zappio: Historical. Location of the National Garden, the Zappeion, Hadrian’s Arch, and Temple of Olympian Zeus.
Arch of Hadrian. There is an inscription on the western side of the arch (facing the Acropolis) stating “This is Athens, the ancient city of Thesus”. Thesus was a mythical king and founder-hero of Athens. The inscription on the eastern side of the arch (facing the Olympieion or The Temple of Olympian Zeus) states “This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Thesus”. Hadrian was a Roman emperor from 117 AD to 138 AD.
- Pangrati and Mets: Historical. Closely located the Panathenaic Stadium and the location of the 1st Athens cemetery.
The Panathenaic Stadium or Kallimarmaro. The only stadium in the world entirely built of marble. It is were the first modern Olympics, in 1896, and where the finish line for the Athens marathon. The marathon is based on the legend. Pheidippides, a messenger during Ancient Greece, ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greeks’ victory over the Persians.
- Akadimia: Location of the National Library of Greece, Deanery University of Athens, and Academy of Athens. All three buildings are found next to one another.
- Filopappou: Historical. Filopappou Hill or the Hill of Muses, the Hill of Nymphs, and the Hill of the Pnyx. All three hills are now one large park and are the location of the Philopappos Monument. The surrounding area around the Filopappou hill also has interesting historical sights, such as the prison of Socrates, the Deaf Man’s Cave, and the Kimoneia (an ancient tomb).
The Philopappos Monument, view from the Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre, near the Acropolis.
- Likavittos: Mount Lycabettus is a hill 300 meters above sea level. There is a 19th century Chapel of St. George, a theatre, and a restaurant. Being on the hilltop gives visitors a panoramic view of Athens, Acropolis, and Filopappou Hill at sunset.
Athens is filled with historical and cultural sites. The sites I mentioned above are far from being all the sites there are to see during a visit. Most of these sites are the most famous ones I looked into. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to see everything. As tough as it was, I had to force myself to narrow my choices. These were the sites I prioritized:
- The National Archaeological Museum of Athens
- The New Acropolis Museum
- The Acropolis (including Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Parthenon, Erechtheion & temple of Athena Nike).
I wrote more about these places in my Historical article, as there was much to mention!
I was planning to visit other sites, but when I was there, I realized that I had to choose from seeing the locations above lightly and rushing off to the others or to make the most of these sites and suffer the consequences of not seeing other sites. I chose the latter.
Let me begin by saying that I am a huge fan of Greek food. It is light and filling, but what I should point out is how rich the taste is, even just the fruit and vegetables. I honestly can’t even begin to explain just how incredible the food is there. During my visit, 2 restaurants stood out the most. I highly recommend Atitamos for those who want to try authentic Greek cuisine and for those who would be interested in Greek and Asia Minor cuisine then you have to check out Savvas.
As previously mentioned, there are coffee shops with a selection of pastries, salads, and snacks almost at every corner. I simply couldn’t get enough of the coffee. I am not sure what type of coffee the coffee shops use, or they might not over roast the coffee beans, but whether you ordered, whether a robusta or arabica, the taste is bitter free.
The population of Athens is around 5 million, with Greeks from all over the country who moved to the capital, mainly driven by unemployment. One thing to note is that although central Athens isn’t as big as I thought, there are so many people living in the city, Athens doesn’t feel crammed with people. I was there in winter, and there were plenty of tourists, mainly driven by business tourism for conferences. I would imagine that in summer the city would be a bit more packed.
Athens is filled with Greeks from all over Greece. I have spoken to some of the Greeks and most of them are from all Greece. As a nation, from my experience, they are very friendly and helpful. I had an incident where I was asking for directions at a small coffee shop and the girl was unable to help as she wasn’t from the neighbourhood. She instantly asked one of the clients whether they could help out and before I knew it, the entire coffee shop was helping me out, and one elderly man and his wife even offered to walk me to my location as it was getting dark. When I first moved to Malta, I remember this type of welcoming and helpful nature from the Maltese. I have not come across this in other countries, and least of all in capital cities. It was a huge surprise for me to get experience this nowadays and in a capital city nonetheless.
Another situation which caught me by surprise was when my friend and I just left a restaurant after having dinner and were about to get the taxi to the hotel. As we were walking, we saw a van suddenly stop and people in red jackets were rushing out. We saw them approach the homeless people, sleeping on the street. I honestly first thought that it may be some sort of raid to tell them to get off the streets. But then I witnessed an extremely emotionally warming to the heart moment. These were workers from the Red cross and they went up to every single homeless person in those streets, handing them warm food, water, and blankets. I have lived in Malta for just over 23 years, and I am lucky that on this island, we do not have homeless people. Whenever I go abroad, especially to big countries, my heart breaks to see that there is a reality that people literally have nothing. It is shocking to me every time I go abroad and it reminds me of just how extremely hard life can be. So for me to see people helping out these people, whom you only really get to see at night, sparked a little hope deep down.
On the next day, we got up pretty early and were sat on a bench waiting for our favourite restaurant to open. While sitting there, I noticed how a man came out on the grass and started feeding the pigeons. I also noticed that there are no stray cats or dogs in the city. It seems that, although the country is definitely suffering from the economic aspect, the people however seem to make the most of life by the little things. In my days there, speaking to locals, asking them questions about their life, not even once did anyone complain regarding their life. They weren’t over-exaggerating their happiness either, they were real and true. They spoke of the country with dignity. They are all very well aware of their heritage and how rich the country is when it comes to the knowledge and structures that were created many years ago and which the rest of the world use till today, but they are not big-headed about it. They also are very aware of the fact that their economy is suffering. But who is perfect? Who has absolutely everything running smoothly nowadays? No one. All in all, the people are extremely friendly and humble.
In conclusion, Athens surprised me. I thought I was prepared for what I was about to experience, and my expectations were a tiny dot compared to what reality really was. It was much richer and the entire experience was incredible. I look forward to returning, as there is much of Athens I still must experience and the rest of Greece.