Athens, Greece, doesn’t it just sound exotic? Greece was a country that I didn’t realize I had dreamt about until I got there and realized the picture in my head didn’t quite match up to the environment surrounding me. This was a good lesson to learn, the preconceptions of the places we travel may not always hold true, and other times, they may hold true but not for your current panorama. My imaginings fell short for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I was imagining somewhere much more island feeling like Santorini or Naples, not a major city like Dublin, on the coast. My fault. Second of all, I seemed to have forgotten that I wasn’t staying by the Acropolis and Greece is having some major economic and political issues. Therefore, what money they are putting into tourism is going be kept right around major attractions. Again, my fault. Once I adjusted my perspective, I started to see the charm and allure that pulls visitors to Athens.
It may have taken me a bit, but I have come to love Athens. I would love to return and see more of Greece someday. I think the history of this country is stunning. I arrived in the evening from Barcelona and again played the run around to find my hostel. The hardest part of Greece really isn’t communicating because most people know English, it is finding information yourself. Every single thing is in Greek and forget any hope of pretending to figure words out because (just a friendly reminder) Greek has an entirely different alphabet. I was able to find the right bus from the airport to the city center, only about 6 euros ($6.50) and took about an hour. It was when I got off the bus,the problems began. I had one screenshot on my phone of the map of the hostel, but the street signs were in Greek and my map was in English. Thankfully, I found a nice man to help show me the road to walk down. After a few wrong turns in the sweltering humidity, I was so relieved to find my hostel.
If you are ever traveling to Athens, I highly recommend Athen’s Choice Hotel. I am going to be honest with you, it is in a part of town that feels a little sketchy, but isn’t at all. It has been recently renovated and has private rooms as well as hostel-style dorm rooms with bunk beds. Every room has its own bathroom and a balcony. (That was my favorite part). They are incredibly clean, and a great buffet breakfast is included. The metro is only two blocks away and the rooms are really inexpensive. It was one of the best places I have stayed, hands down.
I found my hostel at about 7pm and after settling in, I went out to find a market for a cheap dinner. I stumbled on a little bakery on the corner and through broken English, walked out with some Greek cookies and a pastry filled with feta cheese. All for just under 2 euros, I was in heaven. I spent the rest of the evening enjoying the hostel, having a drink at the bar in the lobby and enjoying the balcony to get some work done.
The next day was absolutely full and started early. I was at breakfast the second it opened and after stuffing myself on Greek salad, I was off. I did a hop-on hop-off bus again in Greece and here’s why. After doing a bit of research, my hostel was on a main square but a good distance from any attraction. Therefore I was going to need to metro quite a bit, a day’s pass was 10 euros, so 20 euros for the two days I was there. However, I knew the hop-on hop-off buses sometimes did a buy one day, get one free so I thought I would look into it. I ended up getting a two-day deal for only 13 euros, saving me 7 euros. By using the bus I not only gained transportation, but a guide through the city and access for various tours and discounts. Another added bonus, the bus had wifi and air-conditioning, which in 90+ degree, humid heat, you will melt without it. This is a great tool to use, it requires some research but a bit of time can save you money on the road.
I was on the first bus out that morning and stayed on until the Acropolis stop. Since this is the main attraction of the city, I highly recommend making it your first stop. It was packed when I arrived at 9:30am. The other option is to go during the heat of the day, which is the slowest time. (Make sure to wear sunscreen and drink lots of water, the sun is strong in Greece. Let’s just say, I know from experience how easy you can fry.) Also, be sure to bring student IDs, it will save you about 50% off admission price. Another recommendation when it comes to tickets, look into the full day pass. It will get you into 7 different sites (not the Acropolis Museum) during the day. Even if you only go to the Acropolis and the Temple of Zeus, it is worth it. With the student discount and the full day pass only cost me 15 euros (~$17.50).
I knew the Acropolis (the site of the Parthenon and the Temple for Athena, I know news to me too) was going to be incredible, but I cannot even explain to the degree it is. When you first walk in, you are thinking “wow this is pretty cool” but when you stand and look up at it, it’s a moment I will never forget. Its absolutely phenomenal. Not only did ancient Greeks load all the stone up this mountain thousands of years ago, but then they built this massive temple. A temple that they are now restoring and trying to support, but they have to use cranes to do it. I was sitting, just looking at the Parthenon thinking, if they have to use cranes to lay the new stone, how the heck did they build this two thousand years ago. When visiting the Acropolis, take the time to sit and marvel. They are afraid that the supports they are trying to restore may not hold and the Parthenon will one day crumble away, so drink in these moments, not everyone will get to see this wonder.
After spending a couple hours at the Acropolis and the Theater of Dionysus (also an amazing ruin), I recommend walking down through the Plaka district. Plaka is full of great shops and restaurants. I was a bit turned around when I was there, otherwise I would have stopped here for lunch. I took off on the bus, but this time taking the Piraeus Line (not the main Athens line) to the port town. The whole loop took about an hour, so I took a ride around listening to the audio guide and cooling off in the breeze on the open top bus. This was a great breather. The sun had taken a lot out of me in the first three hours of the morning, so it was nice to still be touring but sitting in a cool place.
Back at the Acropolis interchange, I hopped off the bus to go find some lunch. I found a place on Trip Adviser, a family restaurant in the Acropolis Museum area known for its gyros (pronounced eur-os). If I hadn’t found it through Trip Adviser I never would have ventured in on my own. It looked too much like a tourist place, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be getting the real thing. However, I sat down ordered a local beer and a chicken gyro in a pita and enjoyed the people watching. When ordering a gyro in Greece, make sure to ask for it in a pita, otherwise you w
ill be served a platter (like a salad set up) with all the fixings and a pita on the side. The waiter helped me with this fun fact. It was delicious. The tzatziki sauce was so much better than I have ever had, I guess the way it should be. If you love gyros, go to Greece right now and have one. It’s worth it.
While at lunch I also had a traditional Greek dessert of their version of donuts. I couldn’t pronounce them or spell them to be honest, but I saw a picture and needed them. Oh my word, it was a pile of fluffy round donuts balls served warm. They were sitting in a pool of honey and sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar. They were so sweet, I couldn’t finish them all, but I was a very happy girl when I left.
After lunch, I hopped back on the bus and out to Monasiraki Market. This flea market is in the shadow of the Acropolis and near one of the oldest synagogues in Greece. It is alleys of small shops selling everything from cosmetics to clothes to toys. If you are looking for a great souvenir, spend some time roaming the streets in this market. Very near this market is the antique and furniture markets, equally as large. Further toward Omonia Square, you will find the fish and meat markets. You will most likely smell them first, but they are definitely a sight to be had.
The rest of my afternoon, I spent finishing the bus loop before going back to my hostel, a very tired, and sunburnt girl. Since I had gone out to lunch, I wanted an inexpensive dinner. The night before, I had found a shop of dried fruit and nuts and decided that would make a great light dinner. I got some dried pineapple and papaya because I love those, something I thought was mango, and a dried fruit mixture. The pineapple and papaya were wonderful, but when I bit into what I thought was a mango, I was pleasantly surprised. I am not sure what it was, but it was yummy. The mixture was hit and miss. There were some that I loved, like the coconut, but others that I bit into thinking it was a kiwi, for example, only to find out it was a dried pepper. Bleh! But for only about 6 euros, I walked away with a substantial dinner and good snacks for the next day.
I had about half of the next day to continue exploring before flying to Budapest and it was an adventure to say the least. I started the day planning on visiting the original Olympic stadium, then seeing the changing of the guards at Parliament and finally one more great lunch. I only did one of those things. I got on the bus in the morning intending to ride it to the Olympic stadium (about an hour ride), but at the stop right before, we were notified that the French President was attending Parliament so the roads to the stadium were blocked off. I thought,” ok be flexible” and continued on the bus. I figured I would change plans and head out to the port in Pireaus and have lunch by the sea. Well when we got to the stop before changing buses, there was a demonstration happening and our path was blocked. So I settled on lunch in the Plaka district.
Lunch was wonderful. I ate at a restaurant in the heart of Plaka and outdoors seating and tons of people watching. I had lamb souvlaki, basically a shishkebab of lamb and veggies served with fries and rice. The meat was so good, I had to slow myself down to enjoy it. Then I splurged and had baklava for dessert, knowing full well how large the dessert portions are in Greece. It was one of the best sweets I have ever tasted. So dense and flavorful, but light and sweet at the same time. I was so happy with my last meal in Greece.
After lunch I completed, what I believe was my third lap of the bus route for the day, hopping off to pick my bag up from the hostel and back on to ride it to the main square. I had originally planned on walking the 15 minutes to the main square, but the demonstration was happening there. After driving by it, there was a smell of sulfur and no one really knew what the demonstration was for, so I thought it better to stay on the safe side and ride the hop-on hop-off bus to the airport bus. I took the bus back to the airport, wound around the bizarre rat race that is Athens airport and finally made it to my flight to Budapest. Word to the wise, for Athens Airport go all the way to your gate and then stop for food. You get your boarding pass checked, then walk through some shops to your section of gates, then go through security, then get to your gate. You have your boarding pass scanned to enter the seating area and then scanned one more time before boarding. It was the weirdest experience and yet, my passport wasn’t checked once.
Athens is a city that is difficult to wrap your mind around. The dates that these monuments were created are astounding to even try fathom that something that old still standing. The Temple of Zeus was built around the 5th century BC, as was the Acropolis. I think these are the oldest things I have ever seen. I was completely floored by every ruin I saw and in an odd way humbled by their grandeur. When you are traveling as long and quickly as I am, it is easy to find yourself becoming desensitized to the wonder of it all. However, every now and again you stand at the base of the Parthenon’s columns that are the width of the Giant Sequoias, and stand, mouth gaping at the wonder of history.
-The Very Hungry Traveler