While it’s still fresh in my mind, here are a few impressions that might help you plan your visit to Greece. We stayed for six weeks: a month in Athens, and a week plus in the Peloponnese. We didn’t visit the islands, but for some great information about Greek islands I recommend posts by https://thegenxtravels.com/ by Lori. Her descriptions of Crete, Santorini, and other Greek islands will help you plan your trip, or possibly extend it…
Athens is full of orange trees. In late March and early April, the trees begin to bloom and the air is scented with orange blossoms for at least two weeks. It’s lovely to walk down the street and breathe in the spring air. March may be the best time of year to visit Athens. The weather is cool and the crowds are not bad. It was perfect for us.
For swimming, snorkeling, and boating, however, later in the year will be better. We saw a few people in the water on Aegina and in Loutraki, but I didn’t even consider going for a swim, even if it was the Aegean. I’d recommend May or September for warm water and at least somewhat diminished crowds, but the Greek coast and islands are always popular. The islands are the most famous destinations, but the beaches and towns of the Peloponnese, Loutraki, Nafplio, Kalamata, Pylos, as well as other smaller communities like Tolo, would be lovely vacation spots on the water.
Lots to do in Athens
Athens is a world capital. People have been living here for thousands of years. Since tourism is a big part of the modern economy, you’ll find ruins revealed under your feet all over the city. Sometimes these are labeled, like the area at the Acropolis Museum. Other times, you’ll find a small rectangle of mosaic beneath thick plexiglas in the middle of the sidewalk. Stop and look at some of these, just for fun.
Stay in Athens longer than you think you need to. The big museums have treasures, but so do the small museums, and they are often quiet, with only a few other visitors. Try the museum at Kerameikos, for instance. You also need time to walk to the top of Filopappous Hill, take the aerial tramway to the top of Lycabettus Hill, and visit the cafe at the Benaki Islamic Museum (see The Benaki Museums).
We had a wonderful Airbnb for the first month, and stayed at AD Luxury Rooms and Suites for the final three nights. The hotel was comfortable and quiet, yet only a few steps from the Acropolis metro stop. The rooftop dining area has a spectacular view of the Parthenon, and the included breakfast offers expresso, cappucinos, etc. (On our tour, most hotels only offered brewed coffee from a machine.) The staff is helpful and pleasant. One downside though, the lobby and halls are highly scented. Don’t ask me why. I was grateful that the inside of our room was not.
Food and Drink
Greek food is delicious, and with a bit of help from Trip Advisor you can avoid endless meals of grilled meat and Greek salad and eat more adventurously, even in the tourist heart of Athens. We ate the steamed greens that are often on the menu, and in egg/lemon sauce they were a favorite. For restaurants, we liked Mani Mani (Manh Manh), Liondi, and Arcadia, right in the Acropolis area. If there is a down side to Greek restaurants, it is the generous portions. We often left behind more than we ate. There seemed to be no way to get a smaller portion size. We didn’t get started on drinking Greek wine. The house wines were just ok. We drank some ouzo and were often given a bit of mastic liqueur from Chios at the end of a meal (“a digestive!”). Ya mas! (Salut!)
Transportation and Communication
The taxi app, FreeNow, was very useful. We never waited long for a cab, either in the heart of the city or further out. I only used it in Athens, though it may work in the other large cities of Greece. The fare is required to be the same as other cabs, though we saved money by using the app near the Acropolis (see the end of this post). We found the convenience to be worth using the app.
We rode the Athens Metro. Tickets are easy to purchase at machines at the entrance to each stop. We purchased two round trip tickets at a time for just over 4 E. You scan your ticket going into the station and when you come out. (Try not to lose your ticket before you scan out at the end of your ride.) Tickets are good for 90 minutes of onward travel. That means you can get from Athens to Piraeus and change for the tram down the coast for the price of a single ride. There are excellent deals for month-long tickets, and tickets for students and older people if you are willing to take the time to set them up. You can get nearly unlimited rides for about 20 E per person per month; web pages have the details.
We each used a SIM card for Greece from the local Vodafone store for calls. You need to have an unlocked phone. I believe most phones come unlocked now. There are now eSIM cards you can use that will eliminate the whole trip to the store. BUT, if you go into a phone store and purchase a SIM card, the sales person will install it and make sure it works. You can try calling them, and getting access to your data before leaving the store, so you know it all works.
I got a data eSIM for Jonathan from our US carrier (USMobile) before we left and it never worked at all. In the US, eSIMs are new. Jonathan’s new Samsung S22 has the capacity to use them. My Samsung Galaxy S10 does not.
The down side of getting a new SIM is that you have a different number. Having a local phone number was helpful for a few things in Athens, but not for staying in touch with home. We used WhatsApp very successfully for that. You should get the app and get the people you want to be in touch with to set it up, too, before you leave the US. I was able to get to my existing contacts on WhatsApp without difficulty with my Greek SIM installed. Why go to all this trouble? Our Greek phone service cost 12 euros a month per person. US phone service in Europe usually runs $10/day/pp.
Our first Sunday in Athens, we went to watch the changing of the guard at the Parliament in Syntagma square. It’s a real military pageant, complete with a band. For us, though, the best view was not with the crowd in the square, but around the corner on Leoforas Vasilissis Sofias street. Traffic is stopped and the entire parade, squads of soldiers brightly dressed the traditional Greek uniforms, parades down the block going away from the square at the end of the event. The crowd is thinner and you can easily see all the marchers.
After that, we spent time in the slow lane. Athens doesn’t have many parks for a city its size, but the National Gardens has winding paths, pools of turtles, koi, and ducks. We enjoyed our stroll there. Several of the large archaeological sites are park-like, including Kerameikos, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the Agora.
We also visited Athens First Cemetery, but it is not a green cemetery, it is wall to wall monuments. I wanted to see the grave of Heinrich Schliemann, the first person to read Homer’s Iliad, and then excavate to see if he could prove it was a historic account rather than poetry alone. His archaeological technique left a lot to be desired, but he showed that Troy was a real place. A philhellene (lover of all things Greek) to the core, his monument is built like a Greek temple, complete with a frieze of heroic scenes around three sides. On the fourth side, the relief sculptures show his excavations and the carrying-off of treasures, with he and his wife presiding. The man had a healthy ego, but he did leave most of his treasures to Greece.
A few issues with Athens
As a result of its long history, huge sprawling size, and population, Athens has all the big city issues. There is lots of graffiti, sidewalks are often narrow, restaurants have shills out in front trying to steer you in. There are beggars, people who sleep in the street, and pickpockets. Greece may be the home of Arcadia, but it’s not Arcadian all the time. You get used to most of the urban issues, as you would anywhere.
For example, everyone has to put all their trash in streetside dumpsters, and that seems to include construction debris, discarded furniture, appliances, and restaurant garbage. Two of the three dumpsters on our block were set on fire during the demonstrations following the terrible train accident, and people piled trash in the place where they had been until they were replaced about a week later. We are convinced that trash collectors are the hardest working people in Athens. The dumpsters may also be a recycling location. One day we saw a stack of 10 lb weights, a training rope, and a speedbag all piled neatly beside a dumpster. There are places to recycle glass bottles and cardboard, but not other materials.
Though the proportion of the population that smokes is only 10% higher than in the US, we noticed a lot of cigarettes and smoke. Restaurants allow smoking in any outdoor seating, even if it is walled in with plexiglas or tented. That can be uncomfortable for non-smokers.
Athens has too many cats. People put out food and water for feral cats, and they are everywhere. There’s a tradition of allowing cats to roam the Acropolis that doesn’t appeal to me. Someone said they kill rats and eat cockroaches, but they also eat millions of songbirds. I am an indoor-cat only person.
When you hear birdsong, it’s usually finches or canaries hanging outdoors in cages. There are invasive monk parakeets, and ring neck parrots, house sparrows, pigeons, and a few blackbirds, but that’s pretty much it.
Last but not least, stay safe. Keep your eyes open and beware of anyone who starts a conversation with you on the Metro. We began to cringe when someone opened a conversation “Hello! Where are you from?” because it was the opening line of the pickpocket group that got Jonathan’s wallet from a zipped front pocket (!) while they distracted us both. There were three of them, acting like they were not together, a gray haired man, a tall young man, and a woman dressed to go to work. It’s a shame to be unfriendly, but don’t talk to people on the Metro. Stand with your back to a wall, or sit with your backpack in your arms. If you need help, stand in line at the ticket window, don’t let kind passers-by assist you, as they may help themselves to your wallet in the process. We didn’t lose as much as we might have, and learned our lesson. Nothing else was stolen during our trip.
Athens is worth visiting, though like every city it has its ups and downs. If you take a bit of time to look carefully, you will see wonderful things. When Heinrich Schliemann brushed the last bit of dirt off the golden mask from Mycenae (below), he said, “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon!” It may not have been true, but is a wonderful thought. You can see that same face, but only in Athens.
2 thoughts on “About Athens”
I’m glad you enjoyed it!
This was excellent. Thank you for the tips
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