Prior to our arrival in Athens, we really didn’t have too high of expectations for Greece’s capital city. We saw our time there as many others do: an obligatory stop and precursor to Greece’s main attraction: the ISLANDS. Our first and last days of our Greek adventure occurred in Athens, serving as the sturdy yet uninspiring bookends to the real juicy literary feasts of our trip: the incredible islands of Crete (stay tuned for a soon to be published post) and Santorini. We spent a total of about thirty-six hours in Athens, and I feel like that was just the right amount of time to see everything we wanted to see without overstaying our welcome.
Did we love Athens? Nope. Did we hate it? Nope. Do we feel compelled to ever return? Still nope. It’s not a particularly alluring city like so many European gems like Prague, Barcelona, and Brussels. In fact, it’s pretty dirty, gritty, and crowded. At the same time, the historical sites are downright impressive and I feel rather fortunate that we witnessed firsthand the remnants of the amazing accomplishments of Greek society. I mean the fact that Greece is the birthplace of democracy and Athens is considered the cradle of Western civilization is no small feat. So while Athens may not be nearly as sexy and sophisticated as many of its urban neighbors, its role and significance in our world’s history simply cannot be dismissed, making it a must-visit destination in its own right.
Below are the highlights of our thirty-six hours in Athens…
ATHENS BY NIGHT TOUR
We arranged a private Athens by Night tour with the company, Private Greece Tours in advance and they couldn’t have been more accommodating. Because we arrived in Athens in the afternoon and we were leaving the next morning for a day trip to Aegina (my next post!), I felt like this evening tour would give us the most bang for our buck in ensuring that we visited as many of Athen’s key historical sites as possible. Yes, our final day of our trip would have us returning to Athens, but I wasn’t sure if we’d be up for a ton of sight-seeing by then, and if you have learned anything about me as a traveler, I never want to miss a thing! Our guide/driver was extremely knowledgable and knew so much about Greek history that it nearly made my head spin! Because it was a private tour, we had the utmost flexibility and complete control over how our time was spent. An absolutely wonderful tour company to work with.
The first stop of our tour took us to Lycabettus Hill, Athen’s highest point, and was timed perfectly to watch the sun set over the city. With Athens at our feet, we were enveloped in sweeping panoramic views of the metropolis.
We then visited some additional historic and iconic sites…
The Panathenaic Stadium hosted the first Olympic Games in 1896. It’s also the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble.
The Trilogy of neo-classical architecture in Athens: the National Library, the National University of Athens and the Academy of Athens
The illuminated Acropolis and sprawling views of the city lights were highlights of the night.
Mars Hill (Areopagus Rock) is a marble hill next to the Acropolis that’s the perfect place for star gazing and Acropolis viewing. It’s a popular spot for locals and visitors alike and we loved the vibe here. The rocks are super slippery but so worth the climb!
Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Presidential Mansion
Plaka is a historic neighborhood located at the base of the hill topped by the Acropolis. It is known for its labyrinthine alleyways, numerous shops, restaurants, and tavernas. We really enjoyed meandering the neighborhood’s pedestrian-only streets as well as wining and dining at several local spots. We enjoyed meals at both Café Diogenes and Moma. Although Plaka’s teeming with tourists, we still found this to be the most charming region of the city. A great area to get lost and explore!
Another popular area for both Athenians and tourists that extends from the lively Monastiraki Square. This district is primarily known for its flea market (we spent about three minutes here tops–it was way too touristy and kitchy for our taste) and cozy tavernas.
As the most remarkable monument of ancient Athens, the citadel of the Acropolis dominates the city and contains the remains of several ancient buildings of great architectural and historic significance, the most famous being the Parthenon. Perched upon an extremely rocky hilltop, the imposing complex looms over the city and is unrivaled as Athen’s most important site.
From the Plaka neighborhood, the ascent to the Acropolis is relatively easy and very scenic. There are a number of steps to tackle, but they’re not too steep and the views from the top certainly make the climb more enjoyable.
While we were able to view the Acropolis from afar during our night tour, we weren’t able to enter the complex since we arrived after closing time. On our last day in Greece, we had a proper visit and took our time exploring the ancient site.
Thing to know: In the summer, the complex is open from 8am to 8pm and tickets cost 20 Euros per person. Ticket prices are reduced in the winter, as are opening hours. You can buy a multi-site ticket for 30 Euros that includes admission into additional archaeological sites of Athens, including the Ancient Agora, Hadrian’s Library and the Roman Agora.
A TALE OF A FANTASTIC BUT CONFUSING RESTAURANT
We spent our last night dining with friends at the wonderful Kastelorizo Restaurant where every bite of food is more delicious than the last. But good Lord was finding the right location confusing! They have three different locations, and the one that we dined at was the Kifisia location. At least I think this is the case…weeks later and I’m still confused! It’s about a fifteen minute taxi ride from the city center but I assure you that the food and service are 100% worth the trip. Just when you think you can’t possibly eat another bite, the hospitable staff surprises you with (complimentary) treat after treat including watermelon, ice cream, doughnuts, Raki, and (my favorite) Limoncello. Funny how there always seems to be more room for dessert. Highly recommend!
It turns out the food, wine, and company were all so distractingly wonderful that I forgot to take photos! That’s right, me! The person who takes a million photos! Truly the sign of a great evening.
THE ROOFTOP SCENE
There is no shortage of fabulous rooftop restaurants and bars in Athens and most offer panoramic vistas of the city as well as unbeatable sightings of the Acropolis.
We enjoyed tasty light fare of grilled octopus and a Greek salad (our first of many of each of the trip) at the Central Athen’s Hotel’s Thea Terrace Bar while the Acropolis served as a magnificent backdrop. Not a bad way to launch our Greek adventure!
The Grande Bretagne Hotel’s GB Roof Garden in Syntagma Square is as impressive as it is gorgeous. The unobstructed views of the Acropolis, Lycabettus Hill and the Parliament are spectacular. A fabulous place to grab drinks and marvel at the surroundings!
Meeting up with friends was the perfect way to celebrate our last night in Greece.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at two different hotels during our time in Athens and while I would recommend both, I probably give the edge to the second one that’s listed.
*Divani Caravel Hotel: Spacious room, friendly staff, and reasonably priced. While nothing necessarily stands out about this hotel, we found it to be comfortable and enjoyable.
*Grecotel Pallas Athena Hotel: A lovely boutique hotel that’s centrally located with a chic design. Breakfast was fabulous and the staff was attentive and very helpful. A great find and good value.
WHAT WE MISSED
While we won’t be rushing back to Athens anytime soon, we would love to return to Greece someday to visit some of the islands that we missed including Milos, Rhodes, and Mykonos. With that said, we may just find ourselves in Athens in the future. If we do, here’s where me may venture to next time around…
Friends raved about the Open Air Cinema next to the Acropolis where they enjoyed an American film amid stunning views.
We didn’t go to the famed Archaeological Museum of Athens because we got really lucky with weather during our stay in Athens and didn’t want to spend a minute of our time indoors. But other friends of ours went and said the museum was terrific.
You never know where your travels may take you…we may just be seeing you again, Athens.
To read more about our ancient travels: