Athens conjures up visions of ancient historical greatness. Thousands of years of history have left behind rich legacies studied in classrooms all around the world – Socrates, the home of the first modern Olympic games, origins of famous philosophers and scientists, and really old ancient ruins. From the “things to do” front, it seemed that there would be plenty to do – museums, ancient archaeological sites, and without a doubt, feasting on Greek food. So it was just terribly unfortunate that I found myself deeply regretting spending 3 days in the city in mid August, peak tourist season.
But I digress. If I could do it all over again, I would not spend more than 1 day here unless I was:
- An avid archaeologist
- Interested in old, abandoned, decrepit buildings
- A graffiti artist
Athens is filthy. Trash is everywhere, pigeons swarm the streets, and the city reeks of motorbike emissions mixed with choking cigarette smoke. Leave any area outside of the touristy zones and you’re met with an unrelenting display of struggle. Few buildings and walls were spared from splatters of graffiti. A haven for urban exploration, to be fair.
The city is sprawling and extensive, but areas worth exploring are concentrated to a small area. There was no point in taking public transportation – the most we had to walk was 2 miles, and that was to the National Archaeological Museum, which was located in a not so nice area of the city. In the sweltering heat of Athens, walking 2 miles felt like an eternity. Water bottles were a must, and we took great care to get chilled bottles.
Acropolis is the only worthwhile archaeological site
…unless you’re an avid archaeologist or history buff.
The archaeological sites are really the only “attractions” in the city, save a couple of touristy neighborhoods and Lycabettus Hill. We stayed in the south side of the city, so we passed by the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch on our way to Syntagma Square to exchange some euros at Kapa Change. We didn’t know it at the time, but to actually go into the sites costs money. Hadrian’s Library, for example, cost 4 euros. The lady at the booth told us we could purchase a pass package to most of the archaeological sites (including the Acropolis, but excluding the Panathenaic Stadium) for 30 euros. It would be cheaper than paying for them individually.
What we didn’t know was that the bulk of the ruins could pretty much be experienced without actually paying the entrance fee – you could view most of the interiors simply by looking at them from outside the fence.
In the end, I decided that the only one really worth visiting was the Acropolis which was 20 euros by itself. The only benefit to buying the multiple site pass at Hadrian’s Library was skipping the long line to buy the entrance ticket at the Acropolis.
Still, I felt like it wasn’t worth it. The Acropolis is the only site worth paying for; everything else is just the same thing with slight variations. We were so tired and hot that we didn’t even have the heart to go into our third archaeological site, instead opting to sit in the shade for a half hour just outside of the site. The 30 euros felt more like a donation than anything else.
Walk around any of the touristy areas in Athens and if you just happen to glance at the menu (or even just literally be passing by), someone working at the restaurant will come out and practically demand that you eat there. The conversation would be more like “Are you hungry? We have kebabs, souvlaki…” or “Please come in and sit! Here is a table for you!” or “What would you like to eat?” These guys are unapologetically in your face about it – they will usher you in, go over the menu, and ask you where you want to sit, as though you had already made up your mind about eating there. Maybe it’s just part of the Greek hospitality culture, but it was a turn-off for me. I think that some of the waiters genuinely wanted you to feel welcome – in truth, the people were mostly pretty friendly, but I couldn’t help but think they were just trying to lure naive tourists.
That being said, restaurants in touristy areas definitely tended to be more expensive, but that didn’t mean the food they served was bad – in fact, I quite enjoyed the food there. I had some seriously good gyro meat. The food was truthfully the only redeeming thing about Athens.
My friends and I really enjoyed the meat pies at Bougatsadiko Thessaloniki, which had outdoor seating and a friendly waitress.
I’m not crazy about baklava, and traditional Greek dessert is basically a bunch of variations on syrupy, flakey, greasy stuff. I did have my fair share of Greek yogurt though.
Other than the Acropolis, watching the sunset from Lycabettus Hill is the only other thing worth seeing in Athens. It’s a bit of an uphill walk to the top, but if you’re in decent physical condition, you should have no trouble. At the top is an expensive restaurant and a church where you can sit on the ledge and look out over the city. It was swarming with tourists, but the view from the top was spectacular.
Checking the weather forecast, I knew it would be hot. Every day had a low of at least 80 and a high of at least 90. The Greek summer sunshine is no joke – I acquired many tans, and the UPF 50 hat I purchased from REI the day before my flight was one of the most useful items I brought. The heat was exhausting and made walking and exploring a greater endeavor than normal. If you’re a native Floridian or someone who has no qualms about hot weather, the weather will not bother you as much.
Honestly, I feel bad about not having much good to say about Athens. The city is old and decaying and I feel sorry for the people who are struggling to keep it alive and running. They really do try to make you feel welcome, but the economic depression is heavy in the air. Mainland Greece gets overshadowed by the allure of the Greek islands, and for good reason (Santorini will be covered in a different post).
That said, there are gems.
If you’re a cat lover, you’ll find yourself enamored by the numerous strays. They probably help keep the rodent and bug population down.
Life is hard for strays, though.
Athens does have its prettier areas, but they are concentrated, and you can definitely hit most of them in a day.
All in all, if you’re flying into Athens, it’s worth a stop – just not a long one. Like I said, unless you identify with any of the 3 things I listed at the top of my post, your time will be better spent at the islands.