Athens really divides peoples. I’ve found that people love it or hate it, but if you visit Athens with an open mind and a few tips up your sleeve, it’s hard not to fall in love. Before I went to Athens I was a little nervous of what I’d find. In fact, my first impression of the city left me a ‘little underwhelmed. Luckily, when I returned nearly a week later, I was staying in a safer part of town closer to the action, and saw the city with fresh eyes.
I fell in love with it.
Yes, the Acropolis is hot and crowded in summer (shocker) and yes, graffiti is everywhere, but that doesn’t change the fact that Athens is an awesome city and now is a great time to go. Prices are low, it’s probably less crowded than it would be if business was booming and the people are some of the best you’ll meet. The GFC may have got this city down, but it’s certainly not out.
1. Visit Athens for cheap, delicious Greek food
You can’t argue with that. Greek is one of my favourite cuisines so I was in hog heaven in Athens. Dolmades, honey puffs and baklava all made it onto my plate as well as a number of Greek dishes I’d never heard of before – each more delicious and cheaper than the last. My last meal before I went to the airport cost me thirty cents and I couldn’t finish it, it was huge! I found it in a bakery and I’m not sure exactly what it was, but it did involve the holy trinity of puff pastry, ham and cheese.
Sadly, many restaurant owners spend the day walking blocks away from their restaurant to try and entice people to stop by later for dinner. They’re polite, but you can sense the desperation for business. I’m sure this isn’t how they thought they’d be spending their more advanced years, working harder to keep the business open. Give the restaurants a go – the food is very affordable, it’s delicious and the service is very warm and friendly.
2. What makes Athens amazing, is still amazing.
If you’re in Athens to experience Greek culture, history and food then you’re still in the right place. The Acropolis is always going to be incredible, especially as the Greek government prioritises restoring the buildings at the site. Some people complain about the scaffolding – it doesn’t cover more than half of any temple and even if it wasn’t undergoing restorations, you still wouldn’t be allowed to walk through them anyway. Old buildings were under restorations all over Europe, so Athens is really no different in this way.
It’s still very hot and very busy up there, as you’d expect for a site of such importance in a hot country, so just make sure you wear comfortable, flat walking shoes, bring a hat and sunglasses and a water bottle. You can get a 2 litre bottle of water for 50 cents in Athens.
3. Visit Athens for the New Acropolis Museum
If you visit one museum during your entire European holiday, make it the New Acropolis Museum. The recently opened museum is beautiful and spacious and not at all stuffy. The history that this place holds is incredible and it makes a great visit either before or after you visit the Acropolis. I went afterwards, which was good because I was familiar with the site and could better understand where recovered fragments in the museum would have gone.
My guided tour the Acropolis was terrible, but the New Acropolis Museum brings Greek history to life. Definitely check it out!
TIP: If you are a student, no matter where you’re from, you can use your student card for cheaper entry!
4. Visit Athens for great boutique & antiques shopping
First of all, the Monastiraki Flea Markets are a great place to go for some serious shopping. Sure, about a third of the shops sell mass-produced crap made in China, but there is plenty of treasure among the trash. I found an artist’s workshop where I bought my second painting of the trip (the first from the Artist Markets in Paris), a pretty painting of Santorini. That was actually how I spent my last euros (lucky my last meal was thirty cents), I would have bought armfuls of his work if I had the money or room in my suitcase!
There are lots of jewellery shops, of varying prices and quality, so I bought a beautiful gold owl necklace (the symbol of Athena and one of my favourite animals) and a pretty silver ring. Both pieces get more compliments than the rest of my jewellery combined, and the necklace was only 10 euro! I also found a beautiful green glass mosaic lantern, from a specialty lantern shop run by a lovely elderly Greek couple. On the weekends it turns into a flea market, there is some pretty cool stuff to be found if you’ve got a good eye.
These shops are more reflective of Athens shopping in general – specialty shops are everywhere and there is one for just about everything. It’s most fun when you are just wandering around and you stumble upon something cool, like the specialty game shop which had hundreds of variations of chessboards and other traditional board games made from different woods, metal, precious stones and marbles.I bought my dad a beautiful chess set, unfortunately, some of the pieces chipped in transit but it still looks really nice – most of Athens is a little crumbly around the edges, so I think it reflects its city of origin nicely.
5. The brand new metro makes public transport clean & easy.
I was a little apprehensive about entering the metro in Athens, knowing that the city was struggling and having seen the filthy metro system in Rome. The Athens metro system is brand new, so it was really clean, modern and easy to use. It wasn’t very busy either! Getting around Athens is very easy with the use of the metro, much easier than getting around Rome and the whole system is cleaner than any other metro I’ve seen. The air con makes a nice break from the heat of the day in Athens too.
6. The people in Athens are wonderful.
Greeks surely have to be some of the most hospitable people you’ll ever meet. They are warm, friendly and very optimistic despite the sadness that attempts to drown the city. Sure, lots of shops are boarded up and the situation is far from recovery, but the people are still wonderful. They also need tourists now more than ever to keep they restaurants and specialty shops open. I genuinely liked everyone I encountered, even the cab driver which sped us to the airport at over 180km/hour. Whether or not they were faking their friendliness for my tourist dollars, I don’t know, but you can’t argue with friendly, happy locals.
Greek boys are also the top of my list because I didn’t hear from any of them. Unlike the French, Italian and Turkish men we encountered on our trip, who could be charming one minute and a sleaze the next, Greek men (and women) were respectful and friendly. By the end of our trip through Italy I was sick of being harassed in bars and nightclubs, especially when polite and increasingly firm & blunt rejections were falling on deaf ears. Being literally followed home by complete strangers on the street in France was creepy and infuriating. The catcalling in Turkey was humiliating. I loved visiting all of these countries and met plenty of genuinely friendly and cool locals, but by the end of my trip I was deeply appreciative of a culture that has more respect for women (or at least, female travellers, as was my experience). Ten points to Greece.
Athenians are proud of their city yet are very aware of the way the world sees them now – as a city in ruins. A notice at the bathrooms at the Acropolis apologised that it wasn’t as nice as they would like it to be, as the Parthenon restorations were eating up most of their budget. I thought the bathrooms were fine, but was touched by the way they were so aware of and concerned by how people would find their experience in Athens. It wasn’t that I was glad they apologised, but I thought it was sweet they thought about their guests enough to want to apologise for any potential inconvenience. It is a little sad the way these people who clearly love their city so much feel they have to apologise for it to strangers. These sorts of comments were common, as people apologised for shops being closed or graffiti on the streets. Athens is still stunning and when you’re there the locals make you feel like a guest in their home rather than an intrusive tourist.