Flying from France to Greece was very easy, and I enjoyed a pleasant first-ever flight with Aegean Air. As we flew along the coastline it was easy to catch sight of freighters and cruise ships criss-crossing like toy boats with white tails along the coastline and between islands, and reignited my anticipation for island-hopping later in my trip. As we got closer to Athens our view out the window included orchards and farms as well as bright white villages and hilltops. The trip wasn’t very long but included a meal: a sandwich, cookies, and beverage (alcoholic drinks included). I gave the landing a 10/10 as well. 🙂
I took the train into central Athens, which was quite straightforward with a 10€ ticket and a 45 min ride, albeit very warm and surprisingly humid. A hand fan that I purchased in Paris turned out to be indispensable in Athens, where we hit 32-34 degrees every day with 60% humidity. Summer is HOT in Greece, my friends… (And long, for that matter, seeing how we were into September at this point…) I had booked a hostel that was central to a lot of the famous sites, and I figured being a solo tourist surrounded by other tourists would be fun and helpful. When the train was a few stops past the airport, the sound of an accordion began, and I expected to see another busking musician travelling through the cars similar to Paris, but was surprised to see a 8-9 year old girl playing it as she wandered by, stopping occasionally to collect a tip from a stranger.
I arrived at my hostel and checked in. I was on floor 3 (which is four floors up in Europe as they consider the main floor ‘0’), so I was excited to see a tiny elevator to take me there. It was a cozy fit with my stuffed 40L pack on my back, and I was even more grateful to get out of it swiftly.
After a cool shower and change of clothes, I headed up for happy hour on the rooftop patio of the building. A party was already starting when I got up there, and within moments I was chatting with people from Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New York, Poland, and a 20-person university group from the Netherlands. Good old hostels.
I had a great conversation with an actor and stand up comic from New York named Mitchell who ended up having a similar travel plan to me so we decided to meet up later that week on the island of Ios! The university group was wild and had brought their own Bluetooth speaker, so although there was music playing in the little bar speaker from the hotel, it was drowned out by a great mix of dance and pop music that occasionally the group would belt along to. I was also amazed at the perfect view of the lit-up Acropolis contrasting the dark night sky, and decided to get up early the next day and make that my first order of business.
Armed with earplugs and an eye mask, I slept soundly that night, barely noticed a thing when my one roommate got back from partying between 2am and 4am, nor the other two who got up at 6am to head to the airport).
The hostel was in an exceptional location. It was in the area just south of the area of Plaka: one of Athen’s top neighbourhoods full of picturesque streets, shops, restaurants with rooftop patios, and is central to walk to many of the major sights like the Acropolis, Zeus’ Temple, Kolonaki Square, and the National Gardens.
I purchased a hop on/off bus tour ticket to get around easily to some of the sights, as well as some self-guided walking tours where you download recordings you can listen to as you walk through the various areas, with admission included.
It was recommended to me by a local to go to the Acropolis museum prior to walking up the hill, and I am so glad I did. It has an absolutely incredible collection of ancient sculptures and history, and it was easy to spend a couple of hours there.
One unexpected but definitely memorable moment was while looking at an incredible collection of artefacts on the first floor in the centre of the building I saw a young boy giggling and pointing to the ceiling two floors up and trying to get him mum to look up too. When she and I followed the point of his finger, we realized that the floor is glass and you could see up the skirts and dresses of everyone admiring the art on the third floor in the central area. How did no designer/architect/museum staff catch this?
I decided to walk across the road for my free entrance to the Acropolis and Pantheon. It took much less time than I thought it would to get to the top of the hill, although if you ever need a break there are loads of tour groups with guides explaining some cool piece of information or another while everyone tries to share the shade of the trees that line the pathway, and you can find a shady spot and listen in for a bit before carrying on.
A highlight for me was definitely seeing the Theatre Dionysus and The Odeon of Herodes Atticus Theatre at the base of the Acropolis. The Odeon was closed as they were setting up for a concert the following evening. I was sad I couldn’t venture inside, but it looked spectacular, nonetheless.
Arriving at the top almost felt too easy, and was a strange juxtaposition of the gravitasse of how ancient the stones we stood on were, and how incredibly deep the history was.
There is scaffolding on some part of almost every ruin in Athens as they reconstruct and restore these incredible structures, and I had already learned that the famous Caryatides; the ‘maiden-shaped’ columns from the Ancient Agora had been replaced with replicas on the Acropolis and the originals now lived in the safety of the Acropolis Museum down the hill to protect them from further wear and tear. You could get close enough to touch them, although a security guard stood close by to keep you from doing so, along with making sure you did not take photos.
The paved stones on the hill of the acropolis are polished to a full shine from the millions of tourists that walk across them every year, and it was easy to slip if you didn’t have good footwear or didn’t watch your step.
Seeing the Parthenon in real life was breathtaking. It somehow feels both like an incredibly realistic and meticulously designed movie set and at yet also like you have travelled back in time and are connected with ancestors and the millions of people that have stepped foot on this earth before you.
Sunbathing cats live their best lives in Athens
I reached the top early in the evening, and we were still at the highest heat of the day at 32 degrees. You could see people congregate in any places of shadow that they could find. The saturated blue skies and puffy white clouds were a perfect contrast to the almost golden hue to the columns and stones of the Parthenon. The hills below are covered in olive trees (also plentiful around much of Athens) before you get back to city streets, which are also beautiful.
An absolute highlight was among the hop on/off tour was a visit to the Byzantine Museum. Ever since my History of Costume class in university I had always loved the ornate art and fascinating history of the Byzantine time period. Time flew as I found myself delighted by the museum going on in a seemingly endless and wonderful spiral into the ground with more and more artifacts, collections, and pieces of artwork as you walked further in.
There were coins and oil lamps and ancient scrolls and ornate jewelry and bound books of the Catholic gospel with hand painted images, and large stone sculptures from temples and churches and articles of clothing incredibly preserved.
There was also modern art on the main floor that was exceptional as well. One particular artist who was inspired by traditional images and the kaleidoscope style that is very Byzantine, and repeating this images and patterns in both paint and digital mediums.
There was also an incredible collection of photography of Vassilis Artikos, who went to a small town in Northern Ethiopia that has eleven monolithic churches, and he photographed the people and the area and the rituals and culture behind the area and the people there. Incredibly stunning black and white photos full of contrast and stories.
Arriving at the Olympic Stadium was another jaw-dropping moment. Included in the admission is a free audio guide which I took full advantage of and listened as I walked along the dozens of rows of seats and beside the centre track and photo-op podiums. There were even a few people running a lap or two around the track, or racing each other past an improvised finish line.
You also are able to walk the tunnel that athletes entered through centuries ago which has an exciting energy of its own.
Through the tunnel is a collection of past Olympic posters and torches, including from the Calgary Olympics in 1988!
I took the Hop on/off bus along the Beach and Riviera line and enjoyed the company of a vivacious group of folks from Puerto Rico, deciding to explore a beach where they got off the bus. Although they did invite me to have lunch with them, I politely declined and went down to the shore to get a little ocean time.
The water was refreshing but still warm, and you could wade out quite far before the water got deep, with a mix of soft sand and smooth stones. Though only a 30 minute drive outside the bustling centre of Athens, it truly feels like a different part of the country altogether and inspired me to think about a future road trip along the coast of Greece.
I met another friendly group of people on the bus who were up from South Africa, and I was encouraged to visit their country as they assured me the strength of the Canadian/American dollar right now would make it worth my while, and gave me tips for many of the must-see spots; one direction I was given was to go watch horse racing in Durban!
They are generous with feta cheese in their salads here.
There were souvenirs being sold outside many attractions, like keychains of blown glass evil eyes, handmade your-name-in-Greek necklaces, and gold olive leaf headbands (which seemed to be the most popular). I also enjoyed the little markets with fresh fish, the carts of candied nuts, and I even saw one woman selling tall stacks of grape leaves and bowls of prickly pear cactus fruit.
Getting ‘lost’ as I wandered the lovely little streets just north of the Acropolis, a Greek stranger mentioned to me to continue down the road to my right and turn left onto the little pathway that would open up to a beautiful street of restaurants, and since that was just what I was looking for, I found myself only moments later at the top of the famous Plaka Street, where tables were just beginning to fill for dinner.
They don’t joke about baklava here… it’s like a second meal in portion size…
Athens sure knows how to create ambience with outdoor eating! Grapevines dangle over the tables, there are numerous rooftop patios with incredible sunset views, live music is offered nightly at many locations, and string lights and candles are used to create a warm glow as the sun sets and traditional dancers move from restaurant to restaurant performing for the tourists. And the food, oh my goodness the food!
A generous amount of complimentary ouzo also appeared after I paid my bill at a restaurant one night.
On my last evening in Athens I hiked up Mount Lycabettus to see the sunset, which apparently was what everyone else visiting Athens that day had in mind. Couples found spots along the path to take photos and cuddle, some brought picnics and a bottle of wine, while others and myself went all the way to the top and creatively found a place to claim our spot and view and capture the sun setting over the city with a panoramic view of the light-coloured buildings and dark green shrubbery-covered hills.
I had a small list of to-do’s in Athens, and I’m happy to say I checked all my ‘must-see’ boxes as well as having some bonus adventures. I met many friendly people, from tourists to locals alike. I got to have gyros, souvlaki, absolutely stupid-delicious greek salads, and my first greek yoghurt *in* Greece, at a restaurant with a wonderful view of the Acropolis as I waited for the bus to take me to the port to catch my ferry to the island of Ios!