Despite being the most famous of all the Greek cities, and arguably one of the most iconic cities in the world, some still believe that Athens finds itself over-looked, somewhat, as a tourist destination.
Now, don’t get it twisted — there’s definitely no logic to painting Athens, which boasts the title of the oldest capital in Europe, as some kind of unearthed gem of Greece; it isn’t.
But places like Mykonos, Santorini and Corfu have seen their market value in terms of trendiness, for want of a better word, skyrocket in recent years, largely thanks to the Instagrammable nature of their beautiful island coasts and beaches.
Athens is less known for its beauty and beaches, and far more famed for history.
However, there is definitely a lot more to Athens than ruins – although admittedly, they are a good place to start. The image of the Acropolis in Athens is one of the most recognizable in the world, and its influence and presence is a huge part of the city’s DNA. From anywhere in the city center, you can just about steal a glance at the historic landmark.
Nestled on top of its citadel – which is a core fortified area of a town – stands, of course, the Parthenon, which is the crowning jewel of the Acropolis. The sacred temple was constructed in the fifth century B.C. by Pericles, and sits alongside a number of famous, ancient buildings such as the Propylaia, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike.
It shouldn’t even need saying, but ensure you reserve a relaxed afternoon to explore the Acropolis. With cheap admission, only five euros, you enter with ease, and can enjoy a leisurely and scenic walk up the famous hills with sites, statues and picture opportunities aplenty along the way.
The Theatre of Herodes Atticus is an especially impressive pit stop on your journey to the skies, and gives you a nice halftime break to admire the colosseum-esque stage and seating. It’s still used for performances today, in fact, and what better place could there be to take in an evening of music? (Athens is also home to more theatrical stages than anywhere else in the world. And yet still, fabulously, there are street performers everywhere.)
During its lifetime the Parthenon, like Athens itself, has had its fair share of trouble. It’s been been converted, looted, used as army barracks and even bombed by the Venetians in 1687.
Its survival stands as a symbol of Greek strength and power, and is truly awe-inspiring. At the top, the views of Athens could bring a tear to the eye of the stoniest-hearted tourist (and that stone would be marble, obviously). Going to Athens and not visiting the Acropolis would be truly unforgivable.
The old Olympic stadiums are just as impressive, and worthy of a visit. The Panathenaic is the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble, and it hosted the Zappas Olympics in 1870 and 1875. Named for sponsor and businessman Evangelis Zappas, they were a precursor to and inspiration for the modern Olympics. Then, after a refurbishment, the stadium hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of those first modern Olympics in 1896.
However, as mentioned, there’s a lot more to the capital than its historic landmarks, of which you can see each and every one by bus tour if you want to be efficient.
For shoppers, the city provides endless wonder. Flea markets, picturesque lanes, high streets, all against the backdrop of the Acropolis and countless other ancient statues – it’s the good kind of hustle and bustle, with friendly locals, music and dance everywhere. They certainly know how to make an atmosphere, that’s for sure.
But history and shopping aside, much of the real beauty of Athens is the food. The food in Greece might just be the greatest food in the world. When it comes to their specialties, there isn’t a huge amount of variety, but what they do do, they do spectacularly well. Wherever you go, it seems, the standards are high in the clouds, and strictly maintained.
Greek salads are everywhere, and are consistently more delicious than any time you’ve had them before. Their tomatoes make you feel like you’re eating a tomato for the first time. Their feta makes you finally realize what all the fuss is about. Vegetables bursting with flavor, meat cooked to perfection, and the tzatziki that dreams are made of. Gyros, kebabs, fried courgettes, fried cheese and delicious hearty breads: the food might not have been as healthy as you’d expected, but when it tastes that good, it’s honestly hard to care.
There’s plenty of time to enjoy that food as well, as it has to be said, the Greeks move at their own pace. They take their sweet time, perhaps explaining why the food is so perfectly prepared, but in terms of service, an adjustment of expectations is required. And in that scorching heat, who would be rushing anyway?
Enjoy the food, take in the views, and embrace the moment. You start to feel like the Greeks, with their laid-back, carefree attitude, are really onto something.
Parts of the city might be more gritty than pretty. With lots of graffiti and run-down buildings, there’s less sheen than Mykonos, but more character too. It’s in a place like Athens you see more evidence of the issues Greece has faced in the last couple of decades, particularly financially, but it hasn’t held the place back as a tourist destination whatsoever.
So when weighing your pros and cons about whether to include Athens in a Greek trip, do it at a non-Greek pace – quickly. And make your answer a resounding “yes.”