My reasons for loving Athens

I arrived in Athens after 26 hours of flying and immediately hopped into an unmarked cab with a stranger. As we sped through the city, completely void of life, he attempted to make small talk with me. I could barely garble out any words; my head was made of stone. I was constantly suspicious of his every action. We turned onto a shady alleyway and my heart hammered in my chest.

Instead, he stopped to find directions (since mine were stupid) and then helped me lug all my gear to the Athenstyle hostel’s door. He patted me on the back like I was his daughter. “Enjoy Greece,” he said before leaving. As it turns out, everything I knew about Athens and its people was wrong.

View of Athens

Athens is beautiful

I awoke at 8 AM to a rooster cock-a-doodle-doing outside my hostel’s window. In the city centre. The view from my balcony was a welcomed sight: a broken and downfallen Acropolis atop the hill, almost close enough to touch.

If you read my NYC post you’ll know that I’m not very good at the whole city thing. Thus I hired a private tour with Athens Insiders for the day (and they come highly recommended by yours truly). Daphne, my guide, met me in the lobby and we started our tour on foot. But first she popped into a garage around the corner and ordered koulouria, traditional sesame and honey sweet bread. A garage that sells baked goods.

Daphne led me through Monastiraki Square, where a furniture bazaar was in full swing with antiques and retro pieces of art. Candelabras stacked next to wooden trunks. Cushioned chairs piled onto oak tables. A designer’s dream.

untitled-4

She then took me to Pnyx Hill, a green space where much of Athens’ political activity used to take place. From here we climbed a short stone path embedded with ancient pottery for the best view of the Acropolis, and not any sort of tourist congestion whatsoever.

The Acropolis

Athens is gritty

I’ve heard a few complaints about the graffiti and the pollution in Athens. It’s true that the sidewalks in some areas are littered with trash, but for the most part I found the city clean and comfortable.

As for the graffiti, I’m not usually a fan. In this case, though, it fit.

Exarchia

It’s a political capsule of passionate people and ancient history. I was surprised to learn that Athens is a relatively YOUNG city – before the civil war, Athens was but a tiny fledgling of a town. The population exploded when people came fleeing the war. It’s a chaotic mess of streets and people. Relish it.

My absolute favourite area of the city is Exarchia, the anarchist district. It’s filled with coffee shops and young people, particularly students. Even the bookshops are covered in graffiti. If you ever get a chance, visit Nosotros – a free social space used by artists and musicians for live shows, readings, and simply just as a judgment-free place to hang out.

Downtown Athens

Athens is delicious

Athens was my first real introduction to Greek food, particularly meze (small plates, like appetizers). Daphne and I first stopped in the Plaka – a “poor” but pretty neighbourhood with traditional Greek homes and stone stairways – for Greek coffee. (Or Turkish, whatever you like to call it. But maybe don’t ask for a Turkish coffee in Greece.) Apparently I take mine double medium sweet, kinda like ordering a medium-double-double at Tim’s.

Then we stopped for lunch at Dexameni in Kolonaki, the trendy affluent area of the city. We sat outside in the sun, the glorious sun! There are fewer things better in life than enjoying a cold beer outside in the SUN. We ordered grilled calamari with olive oil and lemon, and lentils with sun-dried tomatoes, feta, and herbs. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so happy.

Meze

Later in the evening, Anthia, another guide, took me to Yperokeanio, a tiny restaurant you’d miss if you didn’t know where to look for it. It’s inside a narrow alley, and is empty during the day. The menu was handwritten on a piece of paper. I tried the alcoholic tsipouro for the first time (and likely the last), and we ordered plates of salted fish, grilled cheese, and salad.

Daphne later invited me to dinner with some of her friends at a place called Kafenio. The food was superb but I loved the atmosphere the most. I was sitting with a handful of very welcoming Greeks (and one Austrian), in front of a wood-burning fireplace emanating the familiar smoky scent of wood throughout the restaurant. By the time I left, I had a handful of phone numbers and some new friends.

There’s a noticeable absence of good Greek beers, though (although a 2-litre bottle of white wine from the minimart only costs 2.50EUR, so I can’t complain too much). Mythos is a reasonable option, as is FIX. But the only small craft brew I’ve been able to come across is Volkan, brewed in Santorini. Their dark brew is one of the best I’ve ever had. Apparently there’s a Donkey beer here somewhere too, but restaurants won’t keep it in supply until the tourist season starts because it’s too expensive. Oh, Greece.

My Advice

Forget what you know about Athens. I’m pretty certain my experience was made better by the fact that I visited during the off-season, in February.

The guards at Parliament

If you can do it, visit in the off-season. It was still warm and lovely, but without the stifling 40 degree temperatures. The Acropolis is never crowded because there’s no one around. Most people use Athens as a gateway to the Islands, but skipping it entirely would be criminal. It was also SUPER easy to meet Greeks, and their hospitality is wonderful.

If you’re looking for a great hostel to stay in, I highly recommend Athenstyle.

Finally, if you want some insider experiences, definitely give Athens Insiders a chance. The guides all became my friends – in fact, I’ll be spending some time WWOOFing at Daphne’s parents’ farm in Lesvos next month.

  • February 28 2014

    I’m so glad you like Athens! I really like the place and I get all offended when people speak poorly of it. I’ve stayed at Athenstyle may times and the view from the balcony is worth a million bucks :)

    • March 05 2014

      Hahaha, I’m so glad you agree! LOVED that hostel. Just wrote a post about it. Definitely trying to get back there before I leave Greece.

      • March 06 2014
        Sofia Lizzio

        Come back soon!

  • February 28 2014

    I’ve always wanted to go to Greece, but honestly don’t know much about it…this post made me more intrigued.

  • February 28 2014
    Heather

    I spent three weeks in Greece and really liked Athens. I went in September so it was still warm but a little less crowded. I loved eating outside, though the food was so good I would have eaten it anywhere :-)

  • February 28 2014
    Laura

    It sounds amazing! Ever since high school I have dreamed of going to Athens!

  • February 28 2014
    Trusted Traveller

    I am glad you had a good experience in Athens. So many people so how wonderful it is but I unfortunately had a bad experience as I was there at the height of the recent riots. I did however really enjoy the hospitiality, food and the Acropolis. I will have to go back one day.

    • March 05 2014

      Ah! Wow. That’s quite a time to be there. Did you document the experience?

      • March 05 2014
        Trusted Traveller

        No unfortunately. I wasn’t writing back then but maybe I should write about it now.

  • March 01 2014
    Stefania @TheItalianBackpacker

    A completely different aspect of Athens. I will have to visit it again with the locals!

  • March 02 2014

    Okay, really have the bug to travel to Athens now! I haven’t always heard positive reviews of the city, so thank you for sharing your perspective.

  • March 03 2014

    Love the photo with the lamps across the street. I’ve never visited however I have had friends go to Athens and they were disappointed by the pollution – looks like you had clear skies while you were there!

    • March 05 2014

      I think it’s important to understand the situation Greece has been going through for awhile. There is a bit of pollution, sadly, but there’s just so many other hardships the Greeks are enduring at the moment. But yeah, I really lucked out with the weather!

      • March 06 2014

        Understandable and totally agree. To put my friend’s visit into perspective – they did roll in on a cruise boat (thus adding to the pollution) and most likely did not get a good sense of area during their brief visit.

  • March 04 2014
    creativenomad

    This article was really interesting and soooo different from my eperince of Greece… I wish I had of had yours. I stayed in the “downtown” area and never once felt safe. Everything was shady. I was super disapointed by this because I had such great expectations of Athens. I wanted the expereicne you had! (being a jealous child) I would certainly give the tour a chance if I went back.

    • March 05 2014

      Aw! That’s so sad. Why did you feel it was so shady? I found the city intimidating at first and glad I had a guide to introduce me to the area. I found it was hard to get by with English in some places.

    • March 06 2014
      Sofia Lizzio

      It depends a lot also on where “downtown”…!

  • March 22 2014
    Tristan

    That picture of the Acropolis is simply perfect! Looking at the pictures, Athens is quite different to my expectations!

  • March 29 2014
    Sally

    So glad you loved Athens. I spent years going back and forth there and every time I arrived from overseas, I felt a great relief, like a homecoming. You have to look past the grime or embrace the graffiti, as the case may be. I survived Mumbai because the streets reminded me of one great Sunday gypsy market in Monastraki. If you need any other great Greek adventures, try going inland to Ioanninna. It’s a university town, castle, Escher-style ruins, pea green lake with an island stuffed with old churches and fantastic history. Great cave at nearby Perama. I was there over ten years back. Not much English spoken at the time, but that made it even better. Good luck with your travels. Love the blog! Keep writing!

    • March 31 2014

      Ooh, love this comment! THanks so much, Sally! I’m exploring Lesvos at the moment…similarly gritty, not a lot of tourism here, gorgeous mountain towns. THere’s an incredible amount to Greece beyond the islands.

  • October 09 2014

    Very interesting indeed. I went to Athens back in 2003 (before the Economic slump, before the Olympics) and in off-season (March). It snowed… what?!?! And did not charm me in any way. I agree about the food. Gooooooood food. But other than that… I was very disappointed by Athens. I did not feel safe (that could have been because I was 15) and was very sad at the state of preservation of historic sites (no Rome that’s for sure). But, I am always ready to be proven wrong and am currently planning a second trip this coming June. Here’s hoping that I love it the second time around!

    • October 13 2014

      It SNOWED?! Whoa haha. I hope you do give it another shot! I highly recommend getting a local guide as well. The Athens tourism board has a This is Athens! program to set you up with a free guide.

  • February 20 2017

    I agree. Athens is really gritty. All those graffiti, for better or worse, is a vehicle of expression. For a city which gave birth to modern democracy, it is a fascinating observation.
    Andrew Darwitan recently posted…Greece Day 9: 24 Hours in Athens… What to See & Do

    • February 27 2017
      Candice

      I’m always drawn to cities with a ton of graffiti exactly for that reason!

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

FREE CANDIE FOR ALL!
SUBSCRIBE TO RECEIVE POSTS DIRECTLY TO YOUR INBOX