Kach and I have never been to Greece together and neither of us had ever visited the historic capital city of Athens, so when I (Jonathan) had the opportunity to fly from the USA to spend three days exploring all that this eclectic city has to offer, I jumped at the chance!
Kach and I have been traveling for a long time now and while we still enjoy visiting one or two important historic monuments in new destinations, we also like to spend plenty of time just wandering around and getting a feel for a new place. It’s almost like we’re pretending that we live there and we’re just taking a day off to relax and enjoy ourselves, soaking up some atmosphere, getting a little dose of culture and maybe a couple of drinks along the way!
Since I was in Athens on my own and I’m more than happy to spend a bit of time by myself, I decided that this would be the perfect way to get to know the real Athens and try to imagine that I was, well, not a tourist! Of course, it’s still well-worth working in some tourist destinations into your Athens itinerary too!
Since I was only going to be in Athens for several days, then flying straight back to the US, I didn’t particularly want to go to the hassle of trying to find a decent exchange rate before I left and I always try to avoid international ATM fees as much as possible. This meant that I was going to try to pay for everything using nothing but my Visa card. As it turned out, this was pretty easy to do!
Here are a few of my favourite things to do in Athens:
1. Wander the streets of Plaka, the historic center of Athens.
As I have already said one of the goals of my trip to Athens was to feel less like a tourist, you might find it strange that my first suggestion is to head straight to the main tourist center of the city. Unlike most European historic centers though, you don’t have to feel swamped by crowds of visitors all crowding around the same spot, jostling for a snapshot of yet another statue or ornate water fountain! Plaka does attract most of the city’s tourists, but it also has an unexpected tranquility about it, with its meandering little streets shaded by the old buildings on either side and endless little alleyways to escape down.
2. Hang out in street side cafes.
I’m a pretty simplistic traveler and I’m perfectly happy to just choose one the many street side cafes to sit at, order a large cappuccino with a glass of iced water and watch whatever is going on around me. It’s my little way to relax, cool down and re-energise before a bit more aimless wandering. Until it’s time for lunch that is, then I’ll do the same thing all over again!
3. Find your favourite view of the Acropolis!
I’ve said this many times over the past several years; the best views of the majority of historic buildings and monuments are from the outside of them! I’m not saying that you shouldn’t visit the Acropolis itself, but the heatwave Athens was experiencing at the time and the huge queue of sweating tourists which snaked around the hillside like an anaconda choking its prey, simply reinforced my decision. No matter where you are in Plaka, you’re no more than a short walk away from a great view of this magnificent limestone structure. After, this is the view that the original architects of Ancient Greece intended for simple peasant folk like us!
4. Fill up on Greek cuisine!
I love food! Whether a place has any kind of decent food or not has a massive impact on how I feel about it. One of the best parts of visiting Greece is that you know you’re in for some of the best food in the world before you even set off. The price of great food in Athens is almost as good as the food itself; I never spent any more than 25 Euros on a dinner in Plaka and I was eating for two every time. Well, Kach couldn’t be there, so I had to enjoy it for her! Baked eggplant with feta, souvlaki, Cretan salad, Greek meatballs in rich tomato sauce, huge olives (obviously), fresh fish, grilled prawns and even more that I can’t even remember. You wouldn’t think I was only there for three days, would you?!
5. Visit the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre
Ok, so it’s time to get out of the city centre for a few hours and see something completely different! The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre is a modern day re-affirmation of Greece as a center of art, culture, and innovation in Europe. Designed by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano, the facility houses both the National Library of Greece, the Greek National Opera and the 210,000 square meter Stavros Niarchos Park. Part of the park sits on top of the flying roof which starts from the ground and leads all the way up to a panoramic view of the Bay of Phaliron.
6. Have a sunset beer overlooking the Acropolis
Speaking of great Acropolis views, Athens has a thriving bar scene, which includes a number of great rooftop bars spread around the city. This makes for a lot of opportunities to watch the sunset project golden light across the city with the Acropolis glowing right in front on top of the hill. I made a special trip to A for Athens Bar to catch the sunset view from the roof. I even found a surprisingly good cold craft ale to go with it!
7. Lunch at the new Acropolis Museum
The new Acropolis Museum only opened to the public in 2009 and it still looks brand new! Only a short walk from the Acropolis itself, the site is thoughtfully built over part of the ruins of early Roman and Byzantine Athens, with glass floors both inside and out which look down on the carefully preserved remains. When you’re done wandering around the 4000 ancient artifacts spread out over several floors, take the elevator up to the rooftop restaurant for what was my own personal highlight of the museum – eating fantastic food with yet another incredible view of the Acropolis.
8. Beach time with the locals at Bolivar Beach Bar
Most visitors to Greece tend to plan their time in Athens around Plaka and a visit to the Acropolis, reserving the beaches for time spent on the islands. What many visitors miss out on, however, are the beaches of Athens itself! Since I planned to visit the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, it was great opportunity to try out the local transportation network by getting a tram down to the beach, then taking a two-minute walk to Bolivar Beach Bar. This fun and chilled out a beachside string of bars run along a stretch of beach and clear blue water. It’s no private desert island, but then you’re on the edge of a thriving metropolitan city, so it’s all relative and you expect a bit more hustle, bustle, and music. Being a favourite hang-out place for the locals, you’ll get to enjoy the beach atmosphere on the edge of the city in true Athenian style!
9. Go shopping for a present for someone who couldn’t enjoy the trip with you
As I said at the start, Kach and I have never been to Greece together. When I visited Crete last year, she wasn’t able to join me either, so I made a special effort to try to find her something really special in a handmade jewellery store in Chania. The necklace I bought for her was sterling silver with sparkling blue opals. On my final night in Athens, I returned to Plaka, to search for another present in one of the jewellery stores I had passed over a previous couple of days. By pure chance, or a moment of serendipity, the owner had a case inside full of beautiful silver and opal bracelets. I found one which was the perfect style to wear with the necklace I had found for her in Chania!
I had an amazing trip to Athens and enjoyed it just the way I like it! How do you like to experience a new city?
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