City Guide: Athens, Greece
Despite what you may have seen on read in the news Athens, Greece is a great travel destination. My tip, plan ahead and keep up to date with what's happening and you should be fine.
Getting to Athens is your first step. If you're arriving by air you'll likely fly into Athens International Airport (ATH). When I flew to Athens I took Delta, but those flights were recently suspended. From the U.S. you can connect through most major European hubs. Greece is part of the European Union which makes any flight from a European country to Greece essentially a domestic flight. You can also arrive in Athens by cruise ship and train.
Athens is a sprawling modern city and the metropolitan area is home to nearly four million people. The city is the capital of Greece and located on the southeastern side of country. The city is rich in history and is named for Athena, the ancient goddess of wisdom. You will find historic sites at nearly every turn as you navigate this city.
I recommend staying in the city center. There are several major brand hotels. I stayed at the Crowne Plaza City Centre, but also spent time at the Hilton Athens and highly recommend both hotels. There are obviously many other hotels that are perfectly suitable, just keep in mind hotels near the city center will be walking distance to many attractions, shops and restaurants.
Before I get into my recommendations on what to see let me first address the economic conditions in Greece. While ever changing, the city definitely shows signs of economic turmoil. Several times during my two week stay protesters gathered in front of the Parliament. Once during my stay public transit workers went on a 24 hour strike. While these were inconveniences they did not at any time put me in danger or stop me from enjoying my trip. Most of the people I encountered were very warm and welcoming and I would not hesitate to return for a follow up visit.
Greece currently uses the Euro. Many shops and restaurants also accept major credit cards. While I found Mastercard and Visa to be widely accepted, there were a few places that took American Express. Taxis in Athens are relatively convenient, but make sure the driver starts the meter and have small bills and change available. Some cab drivers are reluctant to make change. The city also has a fairly extensive subway and tram system. I found the best way to see the sights was on foot. If you go this route wear comfortable shoes.
Here are a list of sites I highly recommend:
- The Acropolis
- The Acropolis Museum
- The Plaka
- Mt. Lycabettus
- The Mediterranean
The Acropolis is home to the Parthenon and one of the most iconic structures of the ancient world. The climb to the top of the Acropolis is steep, but worth the walk. You will experience magnificent views of not only the ruins but also the city. At the base of the Acropolis is the museum and I recommend a visit if you have time.
The Acropolis is surrounded by the Plaka, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. The Plaka is a mix of old buildings, narrow winding streets and historic ruins. Plan several hours to navigate this maze of shops and restaurants. This is definitely a popular destination for tourists and while it's not the best spot in town to find a deal, there are some good restaurants. The Plaka is also where you will likely do some of your best souvenir hunting.
While in the Plaka make sure you stop by Brettos Bar. You can't miss the hundreds of colorful bottles that line the walls of this old bar. The staff is friendly and willing to help you try any of the numerous liquors they produce. If you haven't had Ouzo, this is a good place to try it. Ouzo is an anise-flavored liqour that I think is a bit of an aquired taste. Brettos is a great place to pick up some souvenirs for your friends who like to drink.
Mt. Lycabettus is a hilltop in the center of Athens that towers more than 900 feet above sea level. You can take the long winding path up to the top or take the Lycabettus Funicular. The Church of St. George sits atop the mountain. It's white exterior is in sharp contrast to the deep blue skies often seen over Athens. I chose to walk to the top and I highly recommend this route if you can make the trek. It takes about 20-30 minutes to get to the top by foot.
While not in the city center, make sure you make a visit to the coast. The mediterannean is beautiful. There are numerous day-cruises which depart from Athens. I did not get a chance to check them out, but it's defintiely on my to-do list if I return to Athens.
Before I wrap I wanted to mention the food. If you like Greek food you will love Athens. I discovered some amazing restaurants. Get out an explore the local eateries. People in Athens eat dinner late. If you show up at a restaurant at 5-6pm there's a good chance they may not be serving dinner. I found arriving between 8-10pm to be the sweet spot. Many restaurants prepare a set menu each evening and their foods stew for hours before they are ready.
Don't expect to see much beef. You'll mostly encounter chicken, lamb and pork. If you like tzatzki you're in for a treat. Hummus is not Greek, so don't expect to find it on the menu. Greek food is full of flavor and I found most restaurants were happy to answer my questions. English is widely understood in tourist areas, but many locals may not be all that fluent.
In terms of beverages Heineken seemed to be served just about everywhere as well as a couple of Greek beers Mythos and Alfa. American beers are hard to come by. You will also find a full selection of wines and alcohol at many restaurants.
In summary, Athens is a vibrant city full of history, culture and amazing food. My recommendation is take two to three days in Athens and then get out and explore the Greek islands.