Update: This was originally posted in 2014, after experiencing Athens when it was reportedly at it’s worst (if you believe everything you read!). The views below refers to Athens as it was when I visited during the financial crisis in late 2013. As of July 2015, Athens is going through particularly uncertain times. If you have concerns for your travel to Athens, contact your country’s department of foreign affairs / refer to travel warnings issued by your government. This article is not intended as advice for travel in 2015.
Hearing about the riots in Athens on the news almost every day leading up to our France-Italy-Greece trip had us wondering what we’d find when we got to Athens. Would it be safe? The GFC had hit Greece the hardest and the media spewed negative reports about the state of the city, the riots and the unhappiness there. I was a little worried about what we’d find.
We had one night in Athens either side of our cruise through the Greek Islands. My first impression of Athens was fairly lukewarm – it seemed dirty, chaotic, a little dangerous and very rundown. I’m so glad that we returned after the Greek Islands, because it was then that I saw how beautiful Athens really was. Looking back through my photos now, it is one of the most beautiful and unique cities I visited.
The Inconvenient Truth
Athens is not a perfect city. Many of the complaints you’ll read online are based on the truth, but often they’re heavily biased by a negative perspective. The negative aspects I’m sharing below may be frustrating, but don’t stop reading there! Afterwards, I’ll share the reasons Athens is one of my favourite European cities.
Hot & Crowded?
I’ve read blogs complaining about the heat (welcome to the Mediterranean), the crowds at the Acropolis and the scaffolding around parts of the Acropolis as part of major repair and maintenance work. I won’t lie, the crowds ARE annoying. But, I’m also part of it! The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Colosseum and countless other attractions are the same. I think seeing the Acropolis was still worth it! It is a stunning site.
Scaffolding – yes, it’s ugly and it ruins the illusion a little, but it’s also necessary. I think people forget that if they didn’t do this work, the site would either waste away and it would be lost forever or it would be closed for renovations, which I’m sure would incite a whole new level of grumbling. I’m not sure what work is currently underway in Athens, but they go to great pains to make sure most of the historical sites are still accessible. You’ll still see incredible history and beauty when you visit.
Down, but not out!
I’ve read other blog articles griping about Athens because of it’s worn down streets (fair call) and slight safety concerns at night in Monastiraki Square (fair call) but many have let these concerns taint their view of the entire city. It makes the heat or the haze or the queues for the Acropolis seem worse, when really, these alone are minor inconveniences that generally wouldn’t ruin a place for a person.
The first night, we stayed in a hotel which was nice enough, but our view from our window was a foreboding study in dilapidation. This definitely biased the way I saw the city at first, probably because the neighbourhood I stayed in was a little worse for wear.
On our first night, our guide took us on a detour around our block rather than using the direct street between our hotel and the main road that we’d used earlier that day. It wasn’t safe at night, and was a hotspot for shady characters, she warned us. Big, stray dogs roamed the streets, pissing on the sidewalk and occasionally on racks of clothes outside of shops as they walked down narrow, crowded shopping streets. Not looking good, right?
Flat Broke? Broken?
Every second shop was boarded up and the streets were eerily quiet outside of the main part of town. Graffiti covered everything. As our local guide sadly told us the next morning “We wish we could show you the parts of Athens that are graffiti-free, but it is almost everywhere.”
All of this graffiti, however, goes hand in hand with lots of beautiful street art.
Athens is poor. Unlike the Greek Islands, which have a zero percent unemployment rate, Athens is noticeably struggling.
It may be struggling, but it is a city full of resilient, warm people. The more time I spent there, the faster my opinion changed. We walked to a pleasant restaurant strip, full of locals and fairy lights. The buzzing atmosphere and finger-licking-delicious food lifted everyone’s spirits. Everyone seemed happy. The Parthenon watched over the city, glowing on top of a hill.
Things were looking up for Athens.
The wonderful truth
I did not expect Athens to be home to the prettiest bar I have ever visited. The entry to Six Dogs is not obvious, you walk down a flight of illuminated stairs to come out in an enormous terraced courtyard. Enormous trees dotted the space, with fairy lights strung between them and candles on every table as the only sources of light. We ordered drinks at the bar and then climbed the steps to find a pocket where we could sit. Hammocks strung between the trees made the perfect seats and from the top corner of the courtyard we had a beautiful view. It was busy, it was lively, but it was relaxed.
On our final night, we ate a lively Greek restaurant, checked out a rooftop bar and ended the evening watching fire breather at a hookah cafe. I wish I remembered the name of the restaurant or the street it was on, but it was on a steep street covered in a central set of stairs surrounded by dozens of restaurants, all full to the brim. Everywhere was lively, colourful, laid-back and totally unpretentious – just the way I like my nightlife.
Fabulous Flea Market
When we returned to Athens, we spent the day exploring the flea market which was full of beautiful treasures, paintings, local alcohol, jewellery, clothes, antiques and your typical warehouse-style tourist traps full of caps and snow globes. Avoiding the latter, it was a great place to shop. I bought a beautiful silver ring and a gold owl necklace for less than 10 Euro each – It’s the jewellery that I get the most compliments on back home.
My other favourite shop was a painter’s workshop & store, underneath the flea market. Accessible by a doorway & staircase at street level, we wandered downstairs to find a cavernous room full of his beautiful paintings. This is how I spent my last 20 euro! If I’d had more money, I would have bought three (like my friend did!)
Athens rivals Florence as my favourite European city to shop in – in a totally different way.
Proudly preserved history
Some might complain about the maintenance works, but I really appreciate how well the city preserves it’s historical treasures. Despite Greece’s economic woes, the Acropolis is still receiving meticulous care so that generations to come can enjoy it.
The New Athens Museum is the best history museum I have ever visited. I wasn’t even in the mood for museums when I visited, yet minutes after entering the first exhibit I was totally enthralled. It’s gorgeous, modern, airy space that does a spectacular job of showcasing Greek history.
Pretty & perky neighbourhoods
Not all of Athens is covered in graffiti and boarded up windows. The elegant buildings and wide, tree-lined boulevards in certain neighbourhoods near the flea market reminded me of Paris but with more energy pouring out into every square.
There is no substitute for eating authentic Greek food in Greece. Everything we ate, from dolmades to baklava to huge, 30 cent ham & cheese pastries, was absolutely delicious. Even better, I’d never seen most of the dishes I ordered, back home in Greek restaurants in Australia.
Creativity around every corner
We found more graffiti, but we found even more works of street art. The endless streets crammed with obscure specialty shops meant that there was a surprise around every corner – like the specialty board game shop where I found a beautiful handmade chess set to take home for my Dad, made with white stone and jade pieces.
Easy, clean & safe transport
Transport is easy, with a brand new metro system that is easy to use and felt perfectly safe (and cleaner than any other train station I have ever seen!) Unlike Paris and Rome, it wasn’t a madhouse down there, everything was very peaceful.
Cheap & Cheerful
Athens, not surprisingly, is much cheaper than other popular European destinations – in fact, we watched prices drop from France, to Italy, to Greece. We paid 2 euro for 600mL water bottles in Paris and were paying 50c for 2 L bottles in Athens. On the last day, we found a bakery where I bought this huge, delicious, ham and cheese pastry for only 30 cents. Athens is perfect for budget travellers!
Despite the city’s economic troubles & widespread unemployment, the Athenians that I met were genuine, warm and friendly.
I’m so glad I could take a second look at Athens and I’d jump at the chance to go back. It’s friendly, it’s chaotic, it’s full of surprises, stunning historical sites and warm, resilient people.