My Athens

By Mike Gerrard of Greece Travel Secrets

First impressions of Athens are seldom favourable. Certainly my own wasn’t, as a backpacking student trying to find a cheap hotel that was handy for an early-morning ferry to the Greek islands. The lingering memories of the city are of confusion, chaos, noise and traffic. Athens today is… still the same, thank goodness, but there is also now an improved Metro system, a new airport, swisher hotels, pedestrianised streets and even Michelin-starred restaurants.

Author Mike Gerrard in Athens

The Author in Athens
(Photo (c) Donna Dailey)

What is wonderful about Athens is how it retains its strong character. The heart hasn’t been ripped out of the city in order to create a downtown business district or identikit shopping precincts. When you’re in Athens you could be in no other city in the world. Within 200 yards of the main Syntagma Square, where the Greek Parliament sits, you find several Byzantine chapels. Some, like the Little Mitropolis next to the cathedral, have stood there since the 12th century. Stand inside its cave-like interior, with candles flickering, and the 21st century traffic is a long way away.

Bouzoukis for sale in the Plaka district of AthensShopping in the Plaka

The Plaka

Traffic has long been a problem in Athens, and the city authorities have tackled it in various ways. One scheme attempted to limit traffic by only allowing cars with odd- and even-numbered plates into the centre on alternate days. The wily Athenians responded by buying two cars… or acquiring two sets of number-plates. But traffic is gradually being edged out of the city centre by increasing the number of pedestrianised streets. Ermou is no longer an obstacle course but a place for buskers and an evening’s stroll, window-shopping in the fashionable stores.

Most visitors make straight for the Plaka district, a warren of mostly traffic-free streets on the northern slopes of the Acropolis. It really comes alive at night when the restaurants open, and while there are several good eating places there, it is also home to some over-priced tourist traps, so take care. On one of the main Plaka streets, Kidathinaion (Greek streets are usually referred to by the one main word but confusingly have several alternate spellings), there are three basement tavernas, all of which can be relied on for inexpensive food and a true Greek atmosphere.

The Acropolis and Acropolis Museum in Athens photographed by Donna Dailey for Greece Travel Secrets

The Parthenon Reflected in the Acropolis Museum
(Photo (c) Donna Dailey)

For my own first meal on any visit to Athens, though, I am torn between the old and the new. Am I in the mood for the lively 100-year-old Sigalas, where the food is plain but the waiters and customers endlessly entertaining, or do I want the sophisticated ambience of one of the fashionable new places? (Check what's currently ranking Number 1 for Athens Restaurants on TripAdvisor.)

Whichever I choose, once fortified by the food it’s time to tackle the city’s attractions. The Acropolis dominates the list of things to see in Athens, as it has dominated the Athenian skyline for thousands of years. Acropolis means ‘upper city’, and actually refers to the rock itself, on top of which the Parthenon building has stood since the 5th century BC, when the visionary statesman Pericles initiated what became known as the Golden Age

The Acropolis and Parthenon in Athens at duskThe Acropolis at Dusk

Thanks to iron in the marble, the Parthenon often emits a golden glow at sunset, but the time to visit is early morning as soon as the gates open. It is worth the early start to beat the crowds (and the heat in summer) and to have time and space to wander… and wonder. Descend the main steps on the northern side of the Acropolis to see the Roman Odeon of Herodes Atticus (above) and the adjacent Theatre of Dionysos, the first stone theatre in the world where 17,000 people would sit to see the premiers of plays by writers including Sophocles and Aristophanes.

Across the road from this ancient place is one of the city’s newer attractions: the Acropolis Museum. This opened in 2009 and is one of the most exciting museums in the city. It shows finds from the Acropolis site, as well as fascinating explanations on how that remarkable building was constructed. Glass floors reveal what was found below, when the museum itself was being excavated, while on the upper floors the museum has been designed to give fabulous views of the Parthenon and other buildings of the Acropolis. It shows what the Parthenon would look like if the controversial Elgin Marbles, now held in London’s British Museum, were returned to their original home.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens photographed by Donna Dailey for Greece Travel Secrets

The Temple of Olympian Zeus
(Photo (c) Donna Dailey)

Walk from here round towards Syntagma Square and you pass two more of the city’s ancient monuments: Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus (above). The arch was one of the gateways to the city and built in the 2nd century AD, as was the Temple, which in its day was the largest in Greece, bigger even than the Parthenon. Although only 15 of the 104 original columns remain standing, its grandeur is undiminished.

Nearby is one of the city’s most graceful structures, the Olympic Stadium, built in 1896 when the Olympic Games were revived. There is not a great deal to see, except the beautiful smooth lines of the 47 rows of seats, which hold 60,000 people, and the occasional jogger or athlete making use of the running track. Photographers have a field day here, trying to capture the patterns and angles made by the rows of stone seats, and the simply symmetry of the place. 

The Greek Parliament Building in Athens photographed by Donna Dailey for Greece Travel Secrets

The Greek Parliament on Syntagma Square
(Photo (c) Donna Dailey)

Amble through the National Gardens, where Athenians go to read their newspapers or get some shade from the summer sun, and emerge on Syntagma Square. At the top end stands the Greek Parliament building (above), the Vouli, where the Changing of the Guard takes place on Sunday mornings: always an entertaining spectacle.

So too is the Sunday morning flea market, which you’ll find from dawn until early afternoon along the stretch of Ermou between Monastiraki Square and the Kerameikos Cemetery. You may not find too many conventional souvenirs here – unless you collect pornographic videos, flags of the world, ancient sewing machines and all the other fascinating junk that these markets throw up – but you will get a true flavour of the real Athens, and how close it still is to the bazaar culture of the Middle East.

The Monastiraki Flea Market in Athens in GreeceThe Monastiraki Flea Market

Athens Travel Tip
Bear in mind that most museums close on Mondays, so if you plan on extending a weekend stay tag the time on at the start of the weekend, not the end.

The National Archaeological Museum

Sunday, too, is the best day for seeing the National Archaeological Museum, the other major unmissable attraction in Athens along with the Acropolis. And the earlier the better, as it does get crowded with tour groups later in the day. Make for the Mycenean Hall, where the golden treasures found at Mycenae by the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann are on display (see above). Other highlights include a magnificent bronze statue of Poseidon, and the ‘Jockey-boy’, another bronze of a young boy riding a powerful horse. But these are just a few of the jewels in the world’s greatest collection of the riches of Classical Greece.

And this museum may be the best in the city, but is far from being the only one worth visiting. Like any major city, there is far more in Athens than can be squeezed into one short weekend, so the longer you can stay, the better

The National Archaeological Museum of Athens in GreeceThe National Archaeological Museum

Other Athens Museums

Other sights to see include the Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments in the Plaka, where you can listen to the exhibits… and I have even seen people dancing in here, lost in the sounds coming over their headphones. More sedate is the Museum of Cycladic Art, where beautifully-lit samples of the finest Cycladic sculptures seem to float in space. These 3000-year-old works of art have inspired modern artists including Picasso and Modigliani.

The Museum of Greek Musical Instruments in Athens in Greece

The Museum of Greek Musical Instruments
Photo by Donna Dailey

Although on my first visit I was glad to see the back of Athens, now I find it hard to drag myself away. On one memorable visit, having spent a couple of weeks researching a guidebook, I went for a final lunch at Sigalas, a regular port of call. By now the waiters knew me. When I’d finished my main course, I was given a free plate of glistening apples for dessert. When my wine bottle was empty the waiter, with a wink, deftly slipped me half a bottle that had been left undrunk on another table. There was no fawning, no seeking after a tip, just the kind of generous and fun gesture you can’t imagine happening in London or Paris or indeed many other cities in the world. This was my Athens.

Where to Stay in Athens

Some other Athens pages

  • A Drive around Attica

    This drive around Attica offers visitors high hills, beach resorts, small villages and classical sites like Marathon and the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion.

  • Piraeus

    Piraeus is the port of Athens from where many ferries to the Greek islands depart, and it also has an Archaeological Museum and the Hellenic Maritime Museum.

  • Where to Eat in Athens and Piraeus

    If you're wondering where to eat in Athens and Piraeus we have a few suggestions including some favorites around the Acropolis, Omonia Square, and Syntagma.

  • A History of Athens

    A History of Athens from the first people to live on the Acropolis through the Golden Age of Pericles and Alexander the Great to the military junta.

  • Greek Architecture

    This beginner's guide to Greek architecture explains how to tell your Ionic from your Doric columns, and what to look for in temples and Byzantine churches.

  • Entertainment in Athens

    There's all kinds of entertainment in Athens whether you're interested in theatre, dance, classical music, jazz, Greek music, rock music, disco, opera or movies.

  • Easter in Athens

    Easter in Athens is, like everywhere in Greece, the biggest religious celebration of the year and this page tells you what to expect over the Easter weekend.

  • Cape Sounion and the East Coast

    The beach resorts of Athens are easily reached from the city and also close are Cape Sounion with the Temple of Poseidon, ancient Marathon and Rafina's port.

  • The Best Things to Do in Athens

    The best things to do in Athens, Greece, include top archaeological sites like the Acropolis and must-see attractions such as the National Archaeological Museum

  • Best Cocktail Bars in Athens

    Two of the best cocktail bars in Athens, MoMix Kerameikos and The Clumsies, are making creative cocktails using that most Greek of Greek spirits, Metaxa.

  • Athens: Travel Information and Advice about Athens, Greece

    Athens is a top vacation destination. The Greece Travel Secrets Athensguide has information on hotels, museums, Athens airport and all the best things to do.

  • Athens Weather and the Best Time to Visit

    The Greece Travel Secrets website looks at the Athens weather, the chance of rain, the climate in summer and winter and the best time to visit Athens.

  • Athens Walking Tours and Other Experiences

    Athens walking tours and other experiences like cookery lessons, ceramics workshops, dining with a family, and street art are available from Alternative Athens

  • Athens to Santorini

    There are lots of flights from Athens to Santorini as well as a ferry service from Piraeus, with flights to Santorini leaving from Athens International Airport.

  • Athens International Airport

    Athens International Airport is east of Athens city centre with its own Metro train station, buses to Athens and Piraeus, taxis and car rental offices.

  • Athens in the Rain

    Athens in the rain isn’t something you’re likely to experience but here are suggestions for things to do in the rain in Athens including museums and shopping

  • Athens Food Tours

    Athens Food Tours are being introduced by new company The Greek Fork, and will include tours of the Central Market, and the best street food.

  • Athens Events and Public Holidays

    If visiting Athens it helps to know when major events and public holidays take place, as some shops and attractions may be closed, but to be there at times like Easter can make for a magical trip.

  • Athens Eaters Guide

    Athens, an Eater's Guide to the City, is published by Culinary Backstreets, who do walking food tours in Athens and the book recommends the best places to eat.

  • Athens Dining Guide

    This Athens dining guide doesn't list restaurants but gives practical advice on types of eating places, tipping, hotel breakfasts and picnics.

  • Athens Culinary Tours

    Athens culinary tours are among the food walking tours offered by an unusual company, Culinary Backstreets.

  • Athens Car Rental

    Athens car rental options include almost all of the major international car hire firms such as Avis, Budget, Hertz, and Europcar.

  • Athens Airport Hotels

    Athens Airport hotels include the luxury Sofitel at the terminals, Holiday Inn near the airport, and others close by like the Hotel Pantheon.

  • Athens Airport Car Rental

    Athens Airport car rentals include Alamo/National Car Rental, Avis, Budget, Europcar, Hertz and Sixt, all with offices at the airport.

  • Athens Acropolis

    The Athens Acropolis has the city's most iconic building, the Parthenon, along with other historic buildings and is where the Elgin Marbles were taken from.

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