From Athena to Zeus: sightseeing in Athens

IMG_2119Even though we are pretty experienced travellers – Greece is my 52nd country – planning our time in Greece has been daunting. In most countries or cities there are a few major attractions that you know you ought to see. 

But the sights of Greece are pretty overwhelming… In a country with this kind of history, what do you want to see in a few days? And how do you get around?

Our base for planning this trip was a three day conference in Athens. We decided to follow the conference with two full days in Athens to see the Acropolis, the Parthenon and other major sites in the city. And then we would select 3 islands for a taste of island hopping.

We checked out a pile of Greece guides: Lonely Planet and other books, Rick Steves’ DVD’s, fly over DVD’s that showed all the attractions. And we got even more overwhelmed… How do you decide which islands to visit when there are 1,800 islands?

IMG_2209We decided to determine the Athens sightseeing once we got there, which turned out to be a good move. In the books, I couldn’t even find out the difference between The Acropolis and The Parthenon. Maybe that is obvious once you’ve been here, but not while you are planning… We needed Athens 101 advise…

We started by booking an AirB&B close to the conference center. It turned out to be walking distance, easily reached by Metro from the airport, and very close to the heart of the city. For less than half the cost of a hotel room, we had 2 rooms and a kitchen in a very quiet apartment building: https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/19603934 Next door was a lovely taverna where we sat outside on the balcony under the grape leafs to enjoy wine, Greek salad and freshly grilled chicken for 11 euros.

We soon learned that the Metro is easy to use: you buy a 90 minute ticket for E1.40 and clear maps show you how to reach your destination, from the airport to the port of Piraeus and many stops in between. Two stops from “our” Metro station was the Acropolis and the old city part called Plakka. https://www.hop-on-hop-off-bus.com/athens/combo-hop-on-hop-off-classic-tour-of-athens_29715

The Metro is fast, efficient and cheap. The ticket machines have buttons for many different languages that talk you through the process. But beware: pick-pockets hang out in the Metro. A friend from Canada had his passport and wallet stolen on his first short ride!

To get a better idea of the attractions and their locations, we bought a two day pass for Athen’s Hop-On Bus. For 14 euros we could ride unlimited and get guided walking tours. First we took the bus and simply stayed on it for the two hours it took to drive its loop around the city. Map in hand, that gave us a clear idea of what was where and what we wanted to see. 

IMG_2156Then we strolled all over the myriad of cobblestone alleys that is old  Plakka, enjoyed lunch on a shaded green square (it was 36º each day in September!) and watched the changing of the guard at the Government Building. We didn’t realize til later that we were very lucky to see this on a Sunday: the guards wear their traditional Greek outfits with white skirts only on Sunday. We walked through the National Gardens and visited the stadium where the first of the modern Olympics were held in 1896.

The next morning we left our apartment early. Rather than take the Metro (2x 1.40 euro) we took a taxi which dropped us off at the path that leads up to the Acropolis for 4.50 euro. Taxis are cheap in Athens, and plentiful. Most of the drivers speak English. They have to use their meters and will give you a receipt.

In the cool of the morning we set off to walk the slopes of the Acropolis. You need to buy a ticket to do so. The 20 euro ticket was the most expensive we paid for any admission in Greece but also contributes to the mind blowing renovations of this thousands years old attraction. We learned that The Parthenon is the iconic rectangle of pillars on top of the mountain. The entire site, including smaller temples and what used to be a city, is referred to as the Acropolis. IMG_2218

Going early in the morning helped to not have crowds in our photos. We were able to take many photos without hordes of tourists obstructing our view. We walked all the way around the top of the mountains and enjoyed reading the interpretive signs. We were back down by 11 AM and then went to the modern, air conditioned Acropolis Museum. This houses many of the original statues and tableaus that were removed from the Parthenon and are being renovated here. Gorgeous museum with great views of the real site. Entrance fee is 5 euros. If you go later in the day, it is a good idea to buy your ticket online to avoid wasting time by standing in a long queue: https://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en

After lunch in Plakka, we took the Hop-On bus to the National Library. Unfortunately it was closed due to a move.

When visiting Athens, be sure to wear comfortable, flat shoes. You’ll do lots of walking, up and down hills, and the sidewalks are often broken and uneven. They are also very slippery because much of it is slabs of marble or smooth tiles.

IMG_2271The Greek word graphein means “to scratch, draw, write”. Wall writing is  found in many ancient places, but the habit was especially popular among the Romans. No wonder then that Athens is the capital of graffiti! I have never seen so much graffiti in any city! At times it seemed that every available square inch that can be reached from the sidewalk, is covered in paint. Often this graffiti is art – but it does seem a bit much when every wall, door, lamp post and sign is covered in swirls and letters. IMG_2275

Food is expensive in tourist areas like Plakka. But as soon as you venture into a regular neighbourhood where locals live, there are plenty of little supermarkets and fruit stands. You can buy amazing tomatoes, peaches, nectarines and grapes. And of course Greek yogurt and cheese is the best for a simple, affordable lunch.

One of my favourite nights, so far, was spent eating on the rooftop of a hotel and watching the sunset. Slow as molasses, it turned the Parthenon from yellow to orange to pale beige. Then we watched as, slowly, the lights came on and the ancient temple towered over the city in orange and green light.

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