Athens is great: almost year-round sunshine, close to the Mediterranean Sea, safe, brimming with ancient history and museums full of artefacts, the food is excellent, and many people speak English. But this means it is extremely popular, and do not let the recent Greek economy crisis years fool you: tourism is what works well in Greece, and in the summer, the path up to the Acropolis is closer to a stampede than an intense dialogue with ancient history. So, here are my tips for that relaxed Athens experience, including good restaurants, culture, as well as a bit of shopping and sun tanning… and no, it doesn’t involve a cost-intensive private tour.
Go in low season: February to May or October to November
Generally, Athens is a popular destination for many Europeans, many of whom visit during summer school holidays. Athens is also becoming incredibly popular as a Mediterranean Cruise destination, and as cruise ships get bigger and bigger, so do the crowds making the run on the Acropolis and the Plaka (and this is often the only two places they have time for on their tight cruise schedule). Also, the climate is milder in spring and autumn, making walking around and seeing the ancient sites, many of whom are outdoors and with little shade, more pleasant. Bear in mind Easter and the preceding Holy Week are important religious festivals, and Easter Week can get busy but will give you the opportunity to partake in the Holy Week rituals.
Stay in an area with little tourism
Almost by chance, we stayed in Koukaki immediately to the South of the Acropolis on our last trip. It is very central, relatively quiet, very safe, and hotels and restaurants are very well priced. It has a Metro Station (Syggrou-Fix) and direct buses to the Acropolis Museum, the National Archaeologic Museum and Syntagma Square. We stayed at the Marble House Hotel for approximately 40 EURO per room per night, had a comfortable quiet room, a bus stop for the National Archaeological Museum nearly at the doorstep and all services (post office, hairdresser, pharmacy, restaurants less than five minutes walk away), and tram and Metro were less than 10min walk. It is a really safe area, and I would not hesitate to stay there again. The nearby areas of Makriyanni and Phix are also residential and even closer to the city centre.
Thissio and Kerameikos are close to the centre, but less busy than Plaka and Syntagma.
Exarcheia is another area that pops up in forums every now and then as either ” extremely arty and happening” or “the place where the riots are”. It has great street art and interesting bars, and if I were travelling on my own, I would make a beeline for this, but being with a first-time visitor to Greece this time, I gave it a miss. Next time, I promise!
If you want something more popular, maybe a few more bars, Monastiraki has many hotels, and is extremely convenient, and many visitors stay there. Most large hotels are near Syntagma, an area considered okay but it is quite noisy, polluted and crowded… but great for transport and shopping, not so much for restaurants and bars. A lot of larger hotels are also near Omonia Square, but some Athenian friends have warned us abut safety issues after dark.
Give the Acropolis a Miss. Seriously!
The Ancient Agora is larger, easier to get to, cheaper, crowd-free. You can admire one of the best preserved Greek Temples, the Hephaisteon, as well as visit the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos. Okay, the stoa, rebuilt in the 1950’s, looks almost a bit too perfect a reconstruction, but if you want an idea of how a brand-new building looked back in antiquity, this is the one to visit. It houses the Museum of the Ancient Agora which is included in the entry fee of 8 EURO (autumn 2017) for the agora. From the agora, you get some rather nice views of the Acropolis above, and there are many (if somewhat touristy) cafes and restaurants alongside the agora for a rest afterwards. One street back is an interesting area with many antique and junk shops, so this area, along with easy access via Monastiraki Metro, is a great area to visit. Other noteworthy ancient ruin sites are the area of Kerameikos, which houses a cemetery and funerary statues, and the Roman Agora with Hadrians Library, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
If you must see the Acropolis, go early
But if only the Acropolis will do, then go early. Very early. The Acropolis is undoubtedly an impressive site due to its hillside position and housing the Parthenon, Erechtheion and the Temple of Athene Nike temple ruins as well as the amphitheatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The Acropolis opens at 8am. There is well-signposted access from Metro Station “Acropolis” which will take you past the Acropolis Museum and is absolutely heaving in the daytime, even when we were there in late autumn. “Monstiraki” Metro is the less crowded option which will take you through the Ancient Agora and will take longer to walk up, and I think the path is steeper but its the less crowded option. Entry costs 20 EURO, and about six days a year its free to visit! I strongly suggest to buy a combination ticket for 30 EURO (autumn 2017) which gives you free entry to the other noteworthy ancient sites of Athens within a five-day period. Best to turn up at the entrance before 8am with a ticket, otherwise you may queue twice, for the ticket, then for entry. Part of the reason it gets so crowded is that multiple cruise ships will dock in Piraeus at any time and guess what their most popular tour is? I doubt they would arrive much before 10 am, though, so going early not only gives you a bit of respite from the crowds, its somewhat cooler, too.
It’s an uphill walk to the Acropolis, and you’ll be sharing it with many others. Bear in mind it has only two access routes, and this isn’t one of them.
Give smaller Museums a chance
The National Archaeological Museum is amazing, but it is also very popular. While the Acropolis (an the Acropolis Museum sometimes) are the big hit with the day trippers, the museum gets many visitors… okay, I admit it, after visiting once in the Nineties to admire a part of the treasures, I did not visit it this time. It is huge and you may well spend the best part of the day there. It is cheap to visit (5 EURO in winter, 10 EURO in Summer) and is open daily, with restricted hours in winter. I strongly recommend you try to visit, but for shorter museum trips there are some great museums to explore in Athens.
We went to the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Kolonaki. It is mostly house in an underground exhibition space, and has a nice and clear exhibition on the development of the Byzantine Empire. The real star of this museum is its wonderful collection of icons, from Byzantine area to contemporary. The colours and detail are mindblowing – if you are in any way into art and medieval art in particular this is a great museum.
Other museums that are well worth a try are the Benaki Museum (Greek Culture and Islamic Art), and the Goulandris Museum of Kykladic Art, very close tot he Byzantine Museum in Kolonaki. Also, near the Acropolis you will find the Museum of Folk Art and the Art Museum of Jewellery Ilias Lalaounis. I am definitely going to visit the latter on my next trip to Athens, as I don’t htink viewing the jewellery in the Lalounis shop window counts!
Archaeological Museums are plenty, usually attached to the actual sites like Acropolis (well, very popular!), Kerameikos and the Agora (Stoa of Attalos).
Eat local food in the residential neighbourhoods
The Greek food is wonderful, and we never had a bad meal in Greece. This is probably that we managed to avoid really popular tourist areas like Plaka or Monastiraki. Even in Monastiraki, there are good places to eat, but they can be more difficult to sniff out. We had quite a nice meal at O Thanasis 100m from Monastiraki Metro, and ate at various gyros stalls in Monstiraki. However, most residential areas have a cluster of restaurants somewhere that are better value – a lot of Athens streets are organised in a grid, and every so often you find a broader pedestrian street with lots of cafes, bakeries and restaurants. In Koukaki, Koukaki Square and Georgious Olympiou are such areas, and nearby, in Phix, Drakou Street is similar. Just walk along and pick out what looks appealing to you.
Leave the city for a day and swim in the Mediterranean Sea
If you have little time, take the Tram from Fix (next to Syggrou-Fix Metro) all the way to Glyfada – the tram goes along the sea front, just get off where you wish to swim. But for a real Med day without a cityscape nothing beats taking the 25min Metro Ride to Piraeus and hop on a Flying Dolphin to Aegina or Angistri- within another half-hour, you are in a rustic Greek harbour and swim in beautiful clear water with very few others. It is theoretically possible to visits other islands for the day, such as Hydra and Spetses, which also have frequent Flying Dolphin connections, but it takes twice as long to get there and for a sun-soaked day of fun you cannot beat Aegina, where the nearest beach is five minutes walk from the ferry port.
Walk a lot and take frequent coffee breaks
There is nothing wrong with public transport in Athens. In fact, it is excellent, and cheap (less than 20 EURO for a week pass), but a lot of the really efficient transport (Metro) runs underground, and tourism is really concentrated around the Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum, Syntagma Square, and Ermou Street to Monastiraki. Outside these areas, there is very little tourism going on, and prices fall accordingly. Pretty much everywhere you find small coffee shops and kebab stalls for a rest, as well as interesting shops – you may not find a world-famous archaeological site, but you may come across some interesting street art, excellent shopping and friendly people.
A lot of coffee shops operate standard machinery and offer the usual cappucchino, esperesso and filter coffee, but try the small cups of Greek coffee boiled with sugar in a small pot and then served with the grounds in a small, thick-walled cup, bit like an espresso.
Visit Anafiotika- it’s part of the Plaka, but well off the trodden path
The Plaka is wonderful: old, full of cute coloured houses in higgledy-piggledy lanes. But every other house is converted into either an international snack bar or a souvenir shop, and the crowds shuttling between Syntagma Square and the Acropolis were overwhelming even in October! But steep inclines are the independent travellers friend, and as you walk uphill, you will come across a quarter of the city that looks like an open-air museum: More squat houses, often in the white Cycladic style, gardens, and almost no people. Welcome to Anafiotika! This tiny quarter was built in the 19th Century to resemble an Aegean village and populated by workers, many coming from the small Cycladic island of Anafi. Sadly, part of is was destroyed between the 1950’s and 1970’s during further excavation work, and most properties have been expropriated by the Greek government, but at least no further demolition has taken place. You get there easily from the Acropolis Metro Station, follow one of the main pedestrian streets and keep the Acropolis to your left, then walk uphill and veer right, taking the path hugging the Acropolis. You will come out by the Tower of the Winds and Ermou Street, in time for a coffee break! There are a few restaurants on the lower slopes of the Acropolis, very pretty looking ones with great views, but they all appeared very pricey.
How to get to Athens from the airport: Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport (ATH) is around 30km from the centre and has excellent public transport links – Metro M3, and Bus X95 go directly to the city centre, X96 goes to Piraeus. X97 goes to Ellinikos Metro in the South and X93 to Kifisou Avenue and the Intercity Bus Station.
Where to stay: Even in low season, the popular accommodations get booked up quickly. For the ease of sightseeing you cannot beat Monastiraki as a good and safe area to stay. Koukaki is very close to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum yet is not touristy at all. Kolonaki is central, close to some museums and the Lykavitos Hill, and a very well-heeled area with fewer tourists. I have heard the area around Omonia Square, traditionally a business district with lots of hotels, has some safety concerns.
Things to See: See above. If you want to brave the Acropolis, consider getting a combination ticket at one of the minor sites to avoid standing in a ticket queue. The National Archaeologic Museum and the new Acropolis Museum are among the most famous museums, but consider lesser known museums such as the Benaki (Greek Culture and Islamic Art), Byzantine and Christian Museum (has a fabulously presented large collection of icon and Byzantine Art), Museum of Greek Folk Art or the Museum of Kykladic Art.
Where to eat: Avoid the Plaka… other than that, even in Monastiraki’s main streets you find pretty decent restaurants, often simple grill places or Middle Eastern Restaurants. If you are in the middle of town and want a good meal in a hurry, O Thanasis is not a bad option of a flurry of touristy restaurants.
Enjoy crowd-free Athens! Thank you for reading! Have you been to Athens, and have you successfully managed to escape the crowds and queues? I’d love to hear your tips on making a trip to Athens even more relaxing yet rewarding.