Athens: Ancient ruins in the birthplace of democracy

After visiting Croatia, my friend and I wanted to continue our trip around the Mediterranean so we decided to head to Greece. Our first stop was in Athens. We were really excited to explore one of the world’s oldest cities and to have a local guide on hand. We were fortunate enough to be able to meet up with another friend whose family is from Greece and has spent a lot of summers there. She made an excellent tour guide. Being shown around by a local is always fun and makes any trip more memorable. Below are some highlights of Athens.

Things to Do:

Acropolis of Athens. This ancient citadel is located on a hill and contains several significant sights, including the Parthenon, Erechtheion, and Theater of Dionysus. This famous hill sight can be seen from several points in the city. It is an absolute must visit. Being up on the hill and seeing the proportions of the Parthenon is amazing. The hill also affords some good views of Athens. Keep in mind that most of the statues and items that were a part of these buildings are now kept at the Acropolis museum. So what is mainly here are the remains of the building structures. While we did not take a guided tour, this might be a good place to hire a guide in order to learn more about the history. It is easy to explore the grounds without one, but there is no literature up there to learn more about it. Plan to spend 1-2 hours exploring the grounds and taking in the views.

Acropolis MuseumThis is a great compliment to the Acropolis and located nearby. As mentioned above, it contains all of the statues and items that were found in the buildings and temples of the Acropolis, and it provides some historical information and context. It also has a cafe with a nice view of the Acropolis. Plan to spend 1-2 hours here.

Ancient Agora of Athens. The absolute must see ruins are the Acropolis, but this is another great set of Greek ruins for those interested in seeing more. The Agora is located in an area near the bottom of the Acropolis hill. Inside of this complex is the Agora, Temple of Hephaestus, and a Museum of Ancient Agora. My favorite part was the temple of Hephaestus because it was the most intact set of ruins and was quite impressive. The museum is also worth a stop to see some of the statues but to also get some good views out of the second floor windows. Plan to spend 1-2 hours exploring the area.

Mount Lycabettus. This hill is supposed to have some of the best views of Athens. Unfortunately, we did not have time to do this, but I would have liked to hike up here given more time. For those less inclined to hiking, there is a Funicular railway that goes up to the top, and cars can also drive up there. But according to others, the hike up is not too bad.

In addition to the above sites, there are many other ruins located throughout the city that visitors will likely pass by during their trek through the city. We passed several ruins that we were unsure what they were so a guided tour of the city might be worthwhile for those who need to know the names of everything. We did not take a tour mainly because of our limited time in Athens and because we did have a semi tour guide with us even though she also did not know the name of everything. But again I might recommend taking a tour for those who do not have a local guide already.

Shopping:

One thing I would definitely buy here are leather sandals. These are a great investment and come in several styles. They are sold all around the markets, but I would go the #1 rated place, Melissinos. This is a small shop that has been making and fitting shoes since the 1920s. On my visit, I went in and received a sheet showing the different classic styles of sandals available. I gave the employee my shoe size and the styles I wanted to try on. Once I made my final pick, the sandals were fitted to my feet so the straps were cut to fit. While some of the sandals do come in different colors (these are the ones that might require a pick up 1 or 2 days later), most of them come in one color. The sandals are made in a light tan leather that gets naturally darker with wear and time. These sandals have thick soles and were very comfortable. I wore them all over Europe for the next three months. My only regret was that I only bought one style. The sandals here are a little more expensive than the ones in the market but the quality is definitely higher. For shoe fanatics, I would recommend purchasing a classic pair here and then purchasing the more trendy (less classic) style and color sandals in the markets for a cheaper price.

I would also recommend buying something with an evil eye charm on it. This charm is intended to prevent the evil eye curse and is currently a popular symbol in Greece. It can be seen everywhere, especially in the tourist shops. And it has been put on everything from jewelry to towels. Buy this safe keeping charm to give to others or to keep as a reminder of Athens.

What to Eat:

Most people are familiar with Greek cuisine so the dishes to eat there are probably not surprising. In Athens, we had tons of souvlaki, gyros, and Greek salads, which can be found in most restaurants throughout the city. Of course we have had these dishes before in other countries, but the fresh ingredients and spices made them really tasty, and the low prices were just right. These staples were go to choices during our trip.

We also had a couple of fancier meals. One restaurant that stood out was Balcony Restaurant & Bar. This restaurant has great atmosphere. Try to sit outside on the balcony to enjoy the views. The restaurant serves a delicious menu of elevated Mediterranean dishes. The smoked octopus and traditional Greek pasta with oxtail were especially good.

For drinks, try Baba Au Rum. This popular bar has a fun and delicious drink menu. It does get crowded so be prepared to wait. The inside can get quite loud with the music, but there are seats and tables outside which are better for those trying to have a conversation. Grab a seat outside, which is what we did, and try a couple of their cocktails.

Where to Stay:

We stayed in a cute Airbnb that was not in a central district. It had a lot of character, but we did not really get to take advantage of it because we were only here a short time and were out exploring for most of it. For those short on time like we were, I would recommend staying near the Plaka district instead. This is a more lively area with lots of restaurants and shops and within walking distance of many of the sites.

Getting Around:

We arrived by plane and took an airport bus into the city. However, the bus was not clear at all. There was no English, and it did not stop at all the stops (only the ones with people waiting or when people requested to get off) so it was also impossible to count stops to figure out which one we were at. This might be less of a problem for those with a SIM card who can follow along on a map on their phone and get off near where they need to go. Unfortunately, we got in so late/early in the morning that nothing was open so there was no way to buy a SIM card. Luckily we got off in a main area and were able to Uber from there to the Airbnb. In the city, Athens does have a public transportation system, but beware that the buses are not reliable and are often late. If public transport is needed, try to take the subway which is more reliable. Tickets for the subway can be bought inside the stations and must be validated before boarding. Like most of Europe, the subway can be boarded without a ticket but getting caught will incur a fine. We departed Athens by boat. The pier is near a subway station so getting there using public transport is not a problem.

Overall:

We had a great time in Athens and really enjoyed Ancient Greece. We were able to see most of it in a couple of days, but I might recommend spending three days here for those who have more time. Most locals will recommend not spending a lot of time here and instead spending time on the islands and other parts of Greece. I would agree that for those with limited time be careful how much time is spent here. There is much more to see beyond the capital.

We visited Athens in August. On the plus side, it was not too crowded with tourists because it was the start of the off season. On the negative side, many locals take vacation during this month because it is not the busy season so smaller shops and restaurants will be closed. We tried to visit several coffee shops and restaurants that were closed for the week or even the month. The larger tourist sites and shops, however, remained open. I might recommend visiting in late spring or early fall when locals will be back, but the number of tourists will still be relatively low. The weather should also still be nice then. Athens is a good place to visit for any history buffs or anyone who has wanted to stand near the ancient Greek ruins.

Additional Tip:

While there are many books out there set in Greece, including historical accounts, contemporary novels, and travelogues, there are also a lot of original texts from classic Greek philosophers. I like to read all types of books to get know a place so for Athens I chose to read Plato’s Republic. This text is short but dense. Be sure to get a copy that has a good translation and good introduction. Reading this text provided me with an interesting insight into classic Greek philosophy and took me back to ancient times when Greece was at the forefront of higher learning. It will definitely put travelers in the mind to think of Greece during its peak when Athens was the birthplace of democracy the ruins were not yet ruins.

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