Athens is an amazing city full of conflicting realities. Parts of Athens are immensely beautiful. Athens has an amazing collection of classical ruins and an amazing history. Athens is also still recovering from a political and financial crisis. Unemployed is high and wages are low and in a population of over 4 million, 1 million are refugees. During 3 days in Athens we got to explore the history but also got to glimpse the struggles being faced in the city.
Getting to Athens
This is easy. Athens is the transport hub for accessing all of Greece, the Greek Islands and other areas of Eastern Europe. This is a large international airport and extensive train and bus services. We caught the train from Thessaloniki to Athens. This was Daniel’s first experience on a regional train service and he was pretty impressed. It was quick and very comfortable.
Accommodation in Athens
Athens is such a popular destination, even with people just passing through on the way to the islands that there is accommodation at every end of the spectrum. We went with Airbnb and chose a room in a shared apartment. For about $40 NZD per night we had a big room with a balcony that was close to the train station and about a 40 minute walk to the Acropolis. The closer you get to the Acropolis, the more accommodation costs.
Getting into our Airbnb also provided the best travel story. We’d told the host what time our train arrived and said we’d walk but had never actually given an arrival time. We turned up and discovered an apartment block and no way to let him know we were there. Fortunately a lady who lived in the building found us. She called our host and took us into her appartment, where she gave us a cold drink and cold fruit and told us a bit about life in Athens.
When to visit
We visited Athens in early June and it was damn hot. Hard to do anything heat. Just want to sit in the shade, in a pool, nursing Pimm’s or a gin and tonic hot. It was 30 degrees by 9.30 each day and reached 35 degrees in the middle of the afternoon. This made it much harder to view the sites as being in the direct sun was nearly unbearable. I therefore feel that visiting any later in the season would be foolish.
We visited when we did because it fit with our schedule and route. I think that spring would be a far more tolerable time to go and it would have been easier to appreciate the ancient sites without feeling in danger of mortal injury by sun exposure.
Highlights of Athens; the ancient sites
We had a very busy and hot time in Athens. The temperature hit about 35 degrees each day and we struggled to do much. The ‘must visits’ of Athens are much more expensive than the other places we have been but are ‘must visits’ so what can you do?
Entry to the Acropolis was €20 per person and for €30 you could buy a ticket that also included entry to a number of other attractions (Acropolis, Hadrian’s library, Roman Agora, Ancient Agora, Keramikos, Olympian temple to Zeus and Aristotle’s Lykeim). We went for that and used all but one ticket.
I won’t talk in depth about all of the sites because written down they are all a bit similar. In reality they are all very different and each have something special to offer. I do think it is best to spread them out as much as you can though, or everything just starts to seem a bit like old stone.
The Acropolis of Athens
When someone says Athens, the first image that comes to your mind is likely the Acropolis. Seated on a hill overlooking the whole massive city, the Acropolis makes for a stunning sight, from both up close and far away.
Before climbing up to the Acropolis, make sure to climb the small hill opposite. This offers an uninterrupted view of Athens in most directions. It was a really good way to get an idea of how far Athens stretches.
The Acropolis was the most popular tourist attraction we have visit so far and our time there was mainly spent jostling for shoulder room. The ticket includes entry to the Acropolis, the slopes surrounding the Acropolis and the Theatre of Dionysus. It was wonderful to see the ancient Parthenon structure still standing. We were awed to see the incredible engineering. The only downsides, other than the other people, were that you cannot get very close as there are lots of barriers and there was very little information about the structure or people of the time.
We also enjoyed wandering around the Acropolis’ slopes. There were far less people on the slopes so it was easier to get a close look at artifacts and signs. The Theatre of Dionysus was also pretty cool to see. You could even sit in the original seating, this was extra cool as most other artifacts were out of bounds.
Agora basically means villiage or settlemen. This was our favourite ancient site to visit, not because of the artifacts but because there was really comprehensive and well written signage in a small museum. There was heaps of information about emperor Hadrian and his achievements over his lifetime. This suited both of us perfectly. Daniel loves classics and I love people history.
This agora was really well preserved and we enjoyed seeing where people had lived an worshiped. It also had a nearly intact Parthenon and you could get much closer than you could to the Parthenon at the Acropolis. Although smaller than that at the Acropolis, because you could get so close it felt much bigger. Also, there were far less people, which always improves things.
Highlights of Athens; non anicent sites
We did do other things, other than visit really really old stone. In a way these were more enjoyable as they tended to be a bit cooler, or at least shaded. Athens has so much to offer day and night and there always seems to be something going on.
I have been really restrained throughout this trip and barely brought anything that we haven’t needed. I lost my restraint a bit in Athens. There are so many beautiful shops, offering boutique products including clothing, makeup, shoes, jewellery or local goods. I was able to resist buying things at such shops but spent a lot of time staring longingly into their windows.
There was also lots of very cheap stuff on offer including street stalls selling ripoff fashion items. That’s where I came a wee bit unstuck. I left Athens with a new hat, new phone case and a new pair of Nike trainers. I have justifications for each item, but realistically could have made do with what I had.
Ah, more joyous food to enjoy. We really enjoyed the cuisine all across Greece, particularly the fresh food, sweets and olives available in market places. In Athens we did not find a market to fall in love with but Daniel discovered gyros and I continued my love be affair with Bulkan stone fruit. Gyros is a take on the classic Turkish kabab. It’s a warm, thick pita bread filled with meat, salad, tzatziki and fries. They are sold at restaurants and stalls all over the city.
If you have read any of our other posts on Eastern Europe, you will notice a theme. I love fruit. On this trip I have eaten kilo after kilo of delicious stone fruit brought from markets and street stalls. In Athens I delighted in cherries, strawberries, apricots, peaches and nectarines. Wow was I happy!
In Athens we also discovered some allergy friendly foods. We’ve seen a few vegan/allergy/organic shops around but most of them just sell sugary snacks. In Athens they actually had tasty, healthy specialist foods on offer. I loved a salad/smoothie bar near the Acropolis called Froots. They made me a delicious salad with smoked salmon, sesame and avocado. I also finally got to have a fredo cappachino, a Greek staple that every local seems to permenantly have. This is basically a chilled espresso shot with chilled milk froth on top, served over ice. Bamboo Vegan make there’s with your choice of vegan milk. I had coconut milk, it was a tough choice between that and hazelnut!
The national gardens
We are big fans of finding a break in the hustle and bustle of a big city. These usually come in green form. There is nothing more calming than a walk among tall trees, and not just because you finally get some shade! Athens has a large garden area behind Parliament and Syntagma Square. It has many different paths you can take through the trees and lots of little areas where you can sit down or even have a nap. The only downside was a small zoo in the centre. There were lots of animals with not enough space, food or water. This made me very safe, especially the bunnies, house with the goats and no food or hay in sight.
You probably shouldn’t visit Athens without visiting Syntagma square. This is where any protest is held, as it is in front of Parliament. We went here for a picnic lunch one day, many locals seem to do the same. There is a lovely fountain in the centre and during our visit a skilled busker played wonderful music for all the lunch crowed to enjoy. We also got interviewed for Greek television, a wee bit exciting.
There you have it. Our highlights of Athens. I’ve gone light on the information about the different historical places you can visit so please contact us if you would like further information. We have lots more to give and would love to offer advice and share more of our experiences. Athens was our last destination in our Eastern Europe trip and now we are heading to Portugal.
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Chloe and Daniel xx
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