3 Days in Athens
There are some places in the world you can't help but fall in love with.
Athens is a popular city to explore any month of the year as it is the historical centre of Europe and as such has been popular with visitors since the 19th century, when the first tourists – wealthy young Europeans – made the ‘Grand Tour of Europe’ with Athens and its archaeological sites as the greatest highlight.
Today, whilst its wealth and rich legacy of archaeological treasures are an enduring attraction to the 21 million visitors who visit the city each year, Athens and its surrounding area offers so much more including great restaurants, beaches, numerous cultural events and plenty to excite those who enjoy serious retail therapy! Athens is ranked one of the top three cities in Europe along with Rome and Jerusalem. It is definitely where east meets west in this colourful sprawling and bustling city with appalling traffic queues that is lively, cosmopolitan and friendly – visiting Athens definitely leaves a lasting and memorable impression and the need to return and enjoy all it has to offer, time after time...
Athens can be enjoyed in a long weekend or mid-week break, enjoyed for longer at a more leisurely pace or used as a vibrant stopping point before boarding one of the many boats and hydrofoils at Piraeus - bound for one of the beautiful and tranquil Greek Islands.
Like a bag of sweets, Athens is the perfect city for dipping into – discovering and enjoying different things each day and it is certainly well worth while to check out one of the websites on the city to find out if your visit coincides with a particular exhibition or music concert.
Even if you are planning a short three day visit to Athens, the fist day in the city is one to immerse yourself totally in the city’s archaeology! You don’t have to delve too deeply, but just wander along the city’s new three kilometre pedestrian zone – the longest in Europe – which links together all the major archaeological sites. Just let their splendour and majesty wash over you. All the places of interest can be found in a small area bordered by Omonia Square to the north, Monastiraki to the west, Syntagma to the east and the Plaka District to the south.
Grab yourself a city map (all road signs are in Greek and English), a pair of flat, comfortable shoes, a bottle of water, your camera and you are ready to begin... you just need to buy a ticket for the sites – one ticket does all so no excuse for escaping total immersion!
There’s no need to worry about lunch either – the Greeks truly love their food and whilst in the UK and other European countries, burgers and Hot Dogs are the normal ‘fast foods’ in Greece, there are a variety of specialities that can be bought from street vendors! Koulouri is a tasty sesame bread ring that is perfect for eating ‘on the move’ whilst tyropitta (cheese pie) and spinash pie are both equally delicious. The most popular local snack is souvlaki – delicious cubes of pork cooked over charcoal and popped into sliced warm pitta bread with plenty of salad and a spoonful of Tsatziki (yoghurt dip with cucumber) or a good sprinkling of fresh lemon juice and which tastes absolutely great at any time of the day and is perfect for people on the move!
The perfect starting place has to be Hadrian’s Arch (AD 131) the symbolic entrance to the city and from there walk along Dionysou Aeropaghitou on the south side of the Acropolis, passing the Theatre of Dionysus where all the Ancient Greek dramas were first performed. There are numerous archaeological treasures along the way, including the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (AD161) which today is used for the Athens Festival. It is hard not to be distracted by other less popular monuments such as the ruins of the Asklepion (450BC) but the priority is to visit the greatest treasure of all before the Acropolis gets too busy.
The Parthenon is one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World and one of the most photographed sites, recognised by millions the world over. There is something so special about climbing the sacred ancient steps of the Acropolis and just standing and gazing out over Athens before exploring this magnificent temple.
Close to the Acropolis is its museum which in sharp contrast, is housed in a contemporarily styled building made of steel and glass and containing more than 4,000 priceless artefacts that have been discovered in the vicinity of the Acropolis and which tell the story of this sacred hill and its importance as the most important religious centre in ancient Athens.
Talking museums, another ‘must’ for the day is a wander around the National Archaeological Museum, hailed as one of the world’s greatest museums and filled with ancient Greek sculpture, pottery, jewellery and countless other treasures including the world’s oldest computer – 2,000 years old and found in a shipwreck off the island of Antikythera. If you love museums there are many others to see including the Byzantine Museum, War Museum, Benaki Museum and the Numismatic Museum which is full of coins!
The pedestrian pathway takes visitors past Areios Pagos, (oldest law courts in the world) and to Philopappou Hill, with its small cobbled streets and Roman monument. There is the Ancient Agora too - once the commercial and political centre of the ancient city and from there it is a short stroll along Ermou Street to Kerameikos - the largest and most impressive cemetery of the ancient city.
By now the day will be ending and it is time to think of dinner... and a truly Athenian meal...if you don’t mind the walk and the chance to watch daytime turn to dusk, enjoy the walk to Psiri which is situated just a stone’s throw from Monastiraki Square. Psiri has numerous cafes, restaurants and ouzeris – including a number with roof terraces offering great views over the rooftops towards the floodlit Parthenon. This area does get rather hectic at weekends, but during the week is the perfect place to relax and enjoy delicious meat cooked over charcoal– and why not ‘souvlaki’? Enjoy with a glass of ouzo served chilled and on ice and enjoy the traditional sound of rembetika!
In marked contrast, the second day of your Athens break can be spent exploring Plaka, the oldest neighbourhood in Athens. Plaka is situated north-east of the Acropolis and is a labyrinth of streets built on the old residential quarter of Ancient Athens, with the nickname ‘neighbourhood of the Gods’ because of its close proximity to the Acropolis. Today Plaka is a fascinating mixture of old workshops where skills and traditions have changed little in generations in particular the jewellery workshops where craftsmen create stunning new and contemporarily pieces of jewellery and faithfully copy ancient pieces of jewellery. Athens is certainly the place to buy gold as it is remarkably well priced and at 22carat is the purest quality. Amongst all the standard tourist shops there are a handful of truly eclectic shops selling a wonderful array of antiques.
There are some wonderful Byzantine churches to explore too and along the way you will meet street performers including flower sellers and street musicians who will happily croon ‘ Just called to say I love you’ for a reasonable tip! It is fun to relax awhile in a street cafe and just watch the world go by over a small cup of Greek coffee or better still the nations favourite – frappé – made to your individual preference regarding strength and sweetness. Wandering around visitors often stumble over something interesting such as the Bretts distillery whilst those determined on serious retail therapy head for Adrianou Street where there are bargains to be had in footwear, ladies and children’s clothing and copy perfumes.
All the walking definitely works up an appetite. It is impossible not to find the tavernas that you will love, with delicious Greek tastes including Greek meze food.
In the summer months there are choices to be made – there is the chance to soak up the atmosphere in one of the popular ouzeris or to head to the Ciné Paris – the oldest outdoor cinema in the city which shows only English films! This really is an unusual experience with chairs set in rows on the concert tiers and a large screen in front!
Alternatively, there are scores of different bars to choose from some playing the latest European music sounds to others featuring traditional rebetika or bouzouki music. If you prefer, there are music concerts and dramatic performances to suit all tastes as well as an eclectic selection of art exhibitions and nightclubs for those wanting to dance till dawn. The choice is almost overwhelming and earns Athens the reputation for being the city that never sleeps!
On the third day, the highlight can involve an early start to climb Mount Lycabettus (886 feet / 270 metres). The walk up the hillside is relatively easy-going and takes about 30 minutes. The summit is crowned by a small white 18th century chapel dedicated to Saint George and the view from the top over Athens is amazing and certainly worth the effort! Follow the path around the summit and you will see the city from all directions – with the azure blue of the Aegean beyond. There is a great café on the summit too and the amphitheatre is the wonderful setting for numerous well known music bands who perform there in the summer months. What better place to chill and enjoy the music of the band you love? It’s well worth checking out the schedule when you first plan your trip.
Of course you can always swap your day around accordingly and if you have concert tickets, visit Mount Lycabettus in the evening and if you are a born romantic too, at twilight is definitely the best time to be there as the views as evening falls over Athens are unbelievable. The beauty of watching the sun set with your loved one is an extra special experience too. There are two restaurants on the top which of course are popular. If you prefer, there is a funicular railway up to the summit - but be warned, it is shrouded by a concrete tunnel so there is absolutely no view - what a disappointment!
The funicular railway can be caught in Aristippou Street in Kolonaki and after visiting Mount Lycabettus it is lovely to head from Aristippou into Dexameni Square and to take a walk in the surrounding streets to discover such treasures as the workshop of jewellery designer Elena Votsi (who designed the medals for the Athens Olympics) and Bespoke Athens where Vassilis (one of the top tailors in the city) can still be seen painstakingly measuring his customers for their new suits just as his father and grandfather did before him. Skoufa Street is full of trendy cafés and the perfect place to linger awhile. It is not unusual to see well known actors and politicians seated in the square enjoying a lively debate! In contrast, in the small leafy cafes, the elegant ladies of the city drink coffee and share news and local gossip for many hours!
Keep an eye on your watch though, because you must leave and head for Irodou Attikou where the Evzonas – the Presidential Guards in their famous white-pleated skirts and black shoes with huge black pompoms - guard the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The guard changes every hour, on the hour and it is fun to be part of the crowd that gathers to witness this tradition.
Close by is the beautiful National Gardens (formerly the King’s Garden) that seem a green and exotic oasis amidst all the bustle of the city and is the perfect place to relax and admire the flowers, trees and an unbelievable number of ducks!
Dinner afterwards can continue the relaxing trend; Mezedhes (Mezé for short) is a traditional meal, comprising of a selection of about 20 little dishes that are served in a set order and placed in the middle of the table for everyone to share. Mezedhes always begins with slices of freshly baked village bread accompanied by a variety of dips and progresses with fish dishes, local casseroles including Moussaka and the other Greek favourites followed by a selection of meats sizzling from the charcoal. Mezé is considered an occasion rather than a meals it can be enjoyed at a steady pace throughout the evening. The good news is that when you feel that you simply couldn’t eat another morsel, a dish of chilled seasonal fruit is served, marking the finale of this Greek-style banquet. As you reflect on the last few days in Athens over a cup of Greek Coffee, it is not unusual to fee a little sad that your holiday has drawn to an end with remarkable speed – but you console yourself.... Athens is going nowhere so you can already start planning your next visit....