To visit the Athens picture gallery - click HERE
We visited in June 2005.
Although we have been visiting Greece regularly since 1994, we have never stayed in Athens. Excursions from the islands didn’t appeal due to the prospect of a long journey, sightseeing in the middle of the day and limited time in the city.
As we had to go via Athens on our trip to the island of Naxos, we decided to stopover for a few days.
In view of the many times we had been to Greece it seemed that a visit to the capital of this wonderful country was long overdue.
Thanks to Olympic airlines losing a plane and having to borrow a decidedly tatty and very second hand Boeing 747 from Aerolineas Argentinas, we arrived at the new El Venizelos International airport 4 hours late.
The new airport is spacious, clean and served by excellent transport links into the city. We were very pleased to be greeted at arrivals by Costas our taxi driver in spite of being very late. As we sped along the new motorway he realised that he needed to correct some of his paperwork. In the true tradition of Greek improvisation, he decided that the steering wheel would make an excellent substitute for a desk. He made good use of all 3 lanes of the highway and we gently swerved our way downtown, while he updated his documentation. Fortunately he didn’t have one arm out of the window, a coffee or worry beads in his hand. But, he did manage to make a mobile phone call at the same time.
It was only on reaching central Athens did we meet any traffic congestion. Before the preparations for the 2004 Olympics, Athens had a reputation for excessive traffic congestion, pollution and noise. Now Athens has excellent public transport and we did not experience any smog or pollution while we were there.
We didn’t arrive at our hotel (the Hotel Adrian) until 11 pm. After a quick turnaround we stepped out into the Plaka to find a taverna. In less than 5 minutes we were sat at a table at the 5 Brothers taverna, under a fig tree with a view to the Tower of Winds and the illuminated Acropolis beyond.
We felt as if we were in the Chora of one of the islands rather than in the middle of a city. It all felt very familiar and was a very relaxing end to a long day travelling. It wasn’t the ‘city experience’ we were expecting.
Just a quick note about our accommodation, the hotel is located on Adrianou, in the heart of the Plaka district.
For a small budget hotel it was excellent. Reasonable sized rooms, air conditioning (an absolute must in Athens) and double-glazing.
From the roof top terrace, where breakfast is served, there are magnificent views to the Acropolis. The superior rooms on the third floor also have this view. Our room looked out over the streets of the Plaka.
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We found maps of the city are readily available, free of charge. You can pick one up at the airport or your hotel.
Athens is an enjoyable place to stroll and feels safe. At every turn it seems you stumble across another antiquity.
Plaka district (the old town)
We were surprised at how peaceful the Plaka was early in the morning, in contrast to the islands, where the day starts very early every day in spite of the excesses of the previous night. Wherever we went within the Plaka we found the people very friendly and helpful.
A somewhat surprising and kitsch addition to the tourist facilities is a motorised train. This circuits the Plaka for those that want to see the area with minimal effort.
The old clashes with the new and once you leave the area of the Plaka you become much more aware that you are in the middle of a very large city. Be prepared for the onslaught of full on Athens city life. As with every city there are rough edges, street beggars etc and those for whom one too many ouzo was a long time ago.
We had intended to arrive early, but because we spent so much time taking in the view from the rooftop terrace at breakfast and meandering through the streets of the Plaka, we did not reach Dionyssiou Aeropagitou, a grand pedestrianised avenue leading to the main Acropolis entrance until 08:30. As we expected to have beaten the coach excursions, we were surprised at how many other people had got there before us.
Bags and rucksacks are not allowed into the site. These must be left (free of charge) at the nearby cloakroom. We were only carrying water – you don’t need to carry too much as you can top up your bottles at the fountain just outside the museum.
No matter how many photographs you may have seen of the Parthenon these don’t prepare you for the sight of it standing on the huge mass of rock that is the Acropolis. This is truly memorable.
The new Acropolis ticket which costs 12 € allows entry to the following sites:-
This is good value. The tickets are valid for one week.
There is a steep climb up towards the Propylaea, the grand entrance to the site. The Propylaea is currently surrounded by scaffolding so it is quite easy to pass through this area without really appreciating its true magnificence. Some of the scaffolding has been there so long that if it was not holding up the Parthenon it might be considered a work of antiquity in its own right !!
The Parthenon was now directly in front of us standing majestically against a deep clear blue sky. The setting is simply stunning and from anywhere on the Acropolis there are spectacular views all around. You have to mind your step while looking up at the sights as the stones of the pathways have been polished to a mirror finish by the millions of footsteps – they can be very slippery.
At the eastern end of the Parthenon, the Museum was a welcome air-conditioned break from the heat. Many of the statues and freezes are extremely well preserved. Inside you can take photographs but you must not use flash.
At the far end of the Acropolis is a raised stone area where the Greek flag is flown. From here there are more fantastic views of the city.
Walking back along the northern side of the Parthenon the next stop was at the Erechtheion the main focus being the Caryatids. Each of the columns is in the shape of a woman, their hair has been cleverly bunched on top of their heads in order that the columns provided sufficient support. The columns you see are reproductions; 4 of the originals are on display in the museum.
Opposite the entrance to the site is a small hill named Areopagus. Here you can get a good view back to the Parthenon. If the rocks on the Acropolis were slippery, the rocks here are treacherous
The sheer number of people visiting the site was the only thing that perhaps lessened our enjoyment. The crowds can only really be avoided by coming early or late in the year.
Theatre of Dionysos
After walking back down Dionyssiou Aeropagitou a separate entrance below the southern slope of the Acropolis leads you to the Theatre of Dionysos, once able to seat 17,000.
Monument of Thrasyllos
These are two large Corinthian columns, which can be seen high above the Theatre of Dionysos just below the fortified walls of the Acropolis.
Theatre of Herodes Atticus
From the Theatre of Dionysos paths run along the lower slopes of the Acropolis passing above the Stoa of Eumenes and leading to the Theatre of Herodes Atticus. Unfortunately, we were only able to view from the side and above as the arena was being prepared for a concert that evening.
This is located just outside the Plaka. Once we had managed to dodge the cars and bikes of Syngrou Avenue we were back in the relative piece of another part of historic Athens. The position of the arch marks the boundary between the ancient city and the new Athens of Hadrian.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
The entrance is on Vas. Olgas. The temple, which is the largest in Greece, is surrounded by wide-open space and was strangely quiet when we were there. The sheer size of the site was impressive. There are good views to the Parthenon, which dominates the western skyline.
We were only able to view the stadium from the concourse area but it was still impressive. It was amusing to watch coaches arrive – people would get of, photographs were taken and within 5 minutes they were off again.
Yet another surprise. The gardens are quite extensive. Some areas look neglected but it is still a very pleasant way to stroll through the centre of the city towards the area around Syntagma Square. Amongst the greenery are several ponds, which are inhabited by a surprisingly large number of ducks. Although during the day this area felt very safe, I understand that it is not a place to walk after dark.
We left the National Gardens via a gate on to Vas. Sofias, another very busy thoroughfare. Motorbikes and scooters weave their way to the front at the traffic lights and as they turn green it resembles the start of a grand prix. The area to the north is known as Kolonaki and is probably the most fashionable district of the city. There are plenty of designer label shops and smart café bars. With all my Euros intact it was onwards and upwards, past the main shops and into a more residential area.
As we headed towards Lycavittos the route became increasingly steep, even to the point where some of the pavements turn into steps. Exhausted, we eventually reached the station for the funicular railway.
This can be climbed on foot but after walking up from Kolonaki we happily paid the 4.50€ for a return ticket on the funicular railway. When we were there it departed every 30 minutes.
Once at the top there are spectacular views. You can clearly see how the city buildings extend across every square metre of land only stopping when they reach the sea to the south or to the mountains that surround the region on all other sides.
The population of Greece is about 10.6 million, 4 million of which live in and around Athens. From this viewpoint you can see where most Athenians live. The Plaka area can clearly be distinguished with its red tiled roofs amid the white of modern Athens.
There are a couple of café bars and restaurants. Their unique location means that they can charge high prices – a couple of frappes cost just under 10€. I should imagine that if you wanted to really treat yourself this would be a fantastic venue for an evening meal with the added bonus of being able to view a floodlit Acropolis.
Tower of Winds and the Roman Agora
The Tower of Winds is an octagonal monument. Each side is decorated with representations of the eight winds. The monument was multi-purpose and acted as a sundial, water clock and weather vane – very clever. Once past the Tower of Winds is the Roman Agora, which shares the same site.
Agora means market in Greek. In ancient times this was the hub of the city. The site is quite extensive and the ruins scattered. This is where the real business of Athens was conducted.
Stoa of Attalos
The building that can be seen now was rebuilt in the 1950s. Think of it as the ancient Greeks equivalent of a shopping centre. It now houses a museum containing relics that were found during the excavations of the ancient Agora.
Perched on a hill overlloking the ancient Agora, this is a well preserved temple offering very good views out over the entire site and up towards the Parthenon.
We had a very pleasant evening stroll to Syntagma square, home of the Parliament building. Once we had left the Plaka it was possible to avoid downtown traffic as many streets have been pedestrianised. As with most places in Greece, motorbikes and scooters seem to be exempt from the traffic laws. So if you are really unlucky you can still get run down !
In front of the Parliament building is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This is guarded by the Evzones, an elite group of soldiers with their unique and famous uniform which includes a kilt and pom pom clogs. There are two guards on duty at all times. The changing of the guard ceremony takes place every hour.
For the duration of their duty I assume that they must continue to count time as they stand guard because every so often they perform a synchronised routine. Very impressive. They seem to cope with having their pictures taken admirably well. Slamming their rifle to the ground seems to scare off the smaller children!
At the southern end of the square is Ermou, another pedestrianised street and the heart of the main shopping area.
The square is also home to a new Metro station. Even if you don’t plan to catch a train, this is worth a visit to see the exhibits that were discovered during its excavation. These are displayed in a public area all around the first level of the station.
There is an enormous choice of places to eat and drink, from the sophisticated to the simple and of course, as in any city, the prices can vary enormously
Usually in Greece we eat and drink outside, under an umbrella or the shade of a tree. In Athens we found it necessary on occasions to retreat to the comfort of the air-conditioned interior. Bliss!
Taverna Thespis in Thespidos Street
We stumbled across this taverna early afternoon on return from the Parthenon. We had an excellent meal and enjoyed the hospitality. It was very quiet. We returned the following evening, took up our usual table and settled down to one of those entertaining evenings in a taverna. Given how quiet it was the previous day it was surprising to see how quickly all 3 terraces filled up. This is obviously a very popular dining spot. It reminded us of many an island taverna experience.
Highly recommended, particularly as the owner kept giving me ouzo on the house.
Amstel Cost of Living Index
Not surprisingly, prices vary enormously. For a simple 2 course meal in a taverna with a few drinks, expect to pay about 50€. You could of course pay a lot more. However, with countless fast food outlets on almost every corner it is also possible to survive on a limited budget.
Amstel – 2.80€ in a taverna (large bottle) but 4.0€ in a bar (small bottle).
Wine from a taverna about 7.0€ for a kilo.
Barcardi – 6.0€
El Venizelos International airport
On departure from Athens we were impressed with the new airport. It is spacious and well air-conditioned. There is a good choice of food, drink and shopping outlets. The Olympic Airways check-in area was characteristically chaotic. As we had a 5 hour wait we booked the Aristotelius Onassis lounge. It cost about 30 € each but we thought that was money well spent for the comfortable seating and complimentary food and drink (including a full bar service).
With the exception of the Parthenon, all other sites that we visited were relatively quiet and it was possible to wander around in relative peace and quiet.
Athens was a revelation. We had been told that it was a hot, polluted and dirty city. We discovered a city that was clean and with a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. However, I have to concede that it was hot.
We did manage to see what we considered the main attractions in the 2 full days that we had but there are still many places we want to visit and some like the Parthenon that we would want to see again.
We don’t think we would of enjoyed Athens as much as we did if we had not been familiar with the Greek culture and way of life. Athens is Greece but 10 times the intensity.
Language is not really a problem but speaking a little Greek is always appreciated and can be good fun.
We would highly recommend a visit.
All of our travel arrangements were made using the services of Greeksun . This is a UK based family run business who provided excellent service – highly recommended.
To visit the Athens picture gallery - click HERE
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