At the end of March 2022, I decided to take advantage of shoulder season pricing and nice spring weather and headed to Athens, Greece for a weekend. It was my first time in both Athens and Greece. Athens has long been on my travel list since I was a child, largely due to a phase of obsession with all things Ancient Greece. As such I had longed to visit the Parthenon / Acropolis.
Athens did not disappoint. They key sites and downtown area are compact, easy to navigate and doable in a short amount of time. It is easy to get around, and in shoulder seasons, it is cheap. Further, I had read mixed sentiments about Athens online, many saying they did not like it, that it was dirty, crowded and not fun. I was there before peak summer, so it was crowded but not terribly so, weather was perfect and not stiflingly hot, and I did not find the streets to be dirty or in poor conditions at all.
The Acropolis is without a doubt worth visiting, even with the crowds.
Finally, do yourself a favor a do a food tour. Greek food is famous around the world, but there are true Greek foods that are harder to find outside of Greece, and you can discover Greek food is more than just Gyro and Greek Salads.
Arriving and Getting Around
Athens International Airport is well serviced by a variety of carriers from variety of destinations. In the peak summer months U.S. Carriers operate multiple nonstop flights, Emirates also operates a flight from Athens to Newark. It is also connected to major European gateways, from full service to low cost carriers. It is also a hub for Mediterranean cruise ships, most of which start or end in Pireas, the port city of Athens.
From the airport you can take a taxi, arrange a transfer, or take the metro. The metro is the easiest and cheapest way and quite honestly take about the same time as car if not shorter depending on traffic and the day. Metro from the airport to Syntagma station takes about 30 minutes, and around 6 euros, if I recall correctly. This puts you right at a major connecting station as well as the edges of Plaka and downtown where most hotels, restaurants, bars and sites are.
Once you are in the city, its mostly walkable to all the major sites. If not, you can take the subway. Within the main Athens area, I dont think its necessary to take a cab or Uber. You can also take the hop on hop off tour buses as a solid alternative.
Where to Stay
This can be a tough one because there are so many options in Athens. I would say there are not many top end luxury hotels in Athens proper. One popular luxury property is Four Seasons but that is by the sea and not all that close to the action. There are so many boutique hotels in the city, ranging in prices, amenities, views and styles. I would recommend going for one of these options. If not, there are a ton of AirBnB options as well, most get booked up in advance during the summer months.
I had wanted to stay at InnAthens, but it booked up by the time I arrived. So I went with New Hotel, just across the street, and a Smith Hotel, with a Smith perk from tickets to the Acropolis Museum (that allowed me to skip the line). New Hotel is a nice option, mid-range price. My room had a slight view of the Acropolis. It is an easy 5 minute walk from Syntagma station and 10 minute walk to the Acropolis Southside ticket booth and entrance. While close and central, it is not in the heart of the hustle and bustle so it is relatively quiet at night. The modern rooms had surprisingly lots of small functional details in the quirky design. Interesting storage, lots of hooks and racks in the bathroom. weird double showers that face each other though. Service was also surprisingly top notch, rivals that of many 5 star luxury resorts. Proactive, anticipate needs, and everyone from housekeeping to front of house says hello and welcome anytime you walk by. The restaurant breakfast staff, while great, were a little less efficient/ proactive. Breakfast was not included.
By the time I arrived and settled down, it was around 10:30AM. But I had to see the Acropolis. When I arrived at the site at around 10:45 AM, it was peak time, long lines to get ticket. But after stupidly standing in line for around 15-20 minutes, I realized you can purchase online and skip the line. Definitely do this. If you are planning a trip, purchase them well in advance and get an entry for first thing they open to avoid any crowds. If not, you can buy tickets online for the day of for immediate entry as well. Definitely do this as it will save you a ton of time and stress.
It is an easy hike up to the top to the Parthenon. They now have paved roads, which you can argue for or against, but it did make the gradual hike up easier, and it also made dodging people easier too. It was near impossible to get a shot or view of any of the structures without crowds, I cannot imagine what it is like to visit in August at peak noon summer heat with the swarms of tourists and cruise ship passengers, must be complete gridlock and 0 flexibility to meander, probably why some people do not like Athens. The Parthenon was all I had hoped it would be, even with the scaffolding and construction crane. It is something to behold and the columns are truly spectacular. But I actually ended up loving the next door Erechtheum a lot more. Not only for the 6 Caryatids porch(the original ones housed in the Acropolis museum), But the structure felt more intact and well preserved and you could get a lot closer to it to appreciate the architecture and engineering.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus Theater with Filopappou Hill in the background
The Erechtheum with the famous 6 Caryatids porch
Most guides will tell you to go up by hike or cable car to Lycabettus Hill for a view of the Acropolis in full. However, one blog, NomadicMatt, recommended doing the short and relatively easy hike up Filopapo Hill on the Southwest side of the Acropolis for a stunning view. It did not disappoint, and few tourists came up this hill for the view.
I then decided to use my ticket included in my hotel stay to visit the Acropolis Museum. I also recommend you purchase tickets in advance to avoid the lines. You can also opt to buy additional entry into the archeological dig/ruins underneath the museum. The museum is a modern architectural beauty. It houses many original artifacts and pieces from the Acropolis as well as detailing the history and construction/design of the Parthenon. It is not a big museum nor is it terribly extensive, but its informative and very cool place to visit.
You can also see the 4 of the the original Caryatids here, there is one in the British Museum, the other destroyed.
After my 3 hour tour of the Acropolis and the museum it was time to head to meet my guide and start my culinary walking adventure with Culinary Backstreets.
Culinary Backstreets “Culinary Secrets of Downtown Athens” Tour
Whenever I am in a city that has a Culinary Backstreets walking tour, I will try and book. To date, they have never failed me and always have the perfect balance of showing you local foods that tourists dont find, but also showing you places that are touristy and famous for a reason, and blending it all together with culture, history and context, whilst seeing parts of the city normal guidebooks may not take you to. The Culinary Secrets of Downtown Athens tour is USD$135, and lasts around 5-6 hours and includes a lot of food and a lot of walking. It is absolutely worth it.
My guide for the afternoon was Constantine, quite a character and super nice, knowledgeable and proud Athenian. No question is dumb, too political or controversial for him, he will gladly offer the facts as well as his own opinions, so dont be shy and ask!
We started at the Monastiraki Square by the Historic Byzantine Church
One of the last original Ottoman structures in Athens
Koulouri, Greek bagel, different than the Turkish simit in that the sesame seeds arent toasted
Greek Ice Cream at Kokkion, buffalo milk base, and it utilizes this musky earthy plant which gives a distinct flavor and thick texture. The secret ingredient is the gum of Mastic Tree and salep, orchid root.
Varvakios Central Municipal Market
After touring the market from the meats section to the seafood section, it was time for a snack in a Hole in the wall tavern tucked between the meat and seafood sections, not on Google Maps, owned by 3rd generation, serving traditional Greek mezze. Here we sampled a typical late afternoon Greek mezze lifestyle, wherein you come, have a plate or 2 of mezze paired with alcohol.
Pouring Tsipouro, a Greek liquor, Greek brandy basically. Made from distilled pomace, the leftovers of the grapes after they have been juiced. It was surprisingly light and smooth on the taste, no burns.
Lamb kofte, secret family recipe. So good, full of flavor (even Constantine has yet to guess all the correct ingredients), cheese, sausage, pickled peppers, and olives
Loukoumades Ktistakis, a sweets shop. We stopped here for Lokma, greek donut, it is so light but rich at the same time, but not sweet at all surprisingly. They fry the dough the night before and refry it before serving, the overnight cooling allows it to be dense yet light at the same time. The final touch is to glaze it with syrup and cinnamon.
Downtown Athens has a lot of arcades, , 0 tourists come here, also most places not on google maps. We came here for some Greek Coffee at another not on Google maps coffee shop. But I can tell you its across the street from Loukoumades Ktistakis.
Greek coffee does not add spices and it is less thick than Turkish but still thick and same method of brewing.
Lefteris O Politis, opened since 1951, serving Souvlaki, a national favorite and in my opinion the superior cousin to Gyro.
Skewered beef/ chicken or lamb, this one was lamb and beef based, wrapped with Tzatziki sauce, shallot, tomato, onion, Spicy Paprika. Incredible. All that umami, textured, balanced, flavorful. Pure heaven.
Stani, one of the last dairy cafes left in Athens. All their dairy items are made in house, and all from the same dairy farm they have been using for generations. Here we had a feast of dairy products and greek snacks/desserts.
Spanakopita, so good, this one also has green onion in addition to spinach, which added so much flavor. Also, a glass of whipped cream with honey. But this whipped cream is not heavy, not sweet but thick and creamy nonetheless, amazing.
Bougatsa: (top left) phyllo pastry filled with Greek cream cheese, Sheep’s milk Greek Yogurt with honey and walnuts (top right)
Rizogalo, Greek rice pudding (bottom left), plus the entire spread we got
Lot of Athenian infrastructure is built on and around Ancient ruins. The city is a living breathing museum, some houses even have glass walls or floors to show the ruins
Graffiti is not illegal in Athens, and some are nice works of art
Final stop of the tour was a Greek tavern: Triantafyllo Tis Nosimias: The Rose of Taste Taverna
Steamed Greek veggies, nice and creamy. The meal was paired with White Moscato wine, surprisingly Greek Moscato is not sweet, and is quite acidic actually.
Whipped Split Pea beans
Split and grilled …I think mackerel.
Zucchini balls, very tasty
Another zucchini ball, this one filled.
Whipped white fish egg, really good, not fishy at all
And thus concluded a wonderful food tour of Athens. I learned a lot of the nuanced differences between Greek and Turkish food which at times are very similar given the history of the region. I also got to see parts of Athens I would have never seen on my own. Finally, I discovered Souvlaki and fell in love.
After the tour I went to Hteroclito Natural Wine bar, for some wine, but it was pretty packed on this Saturday eve and service was slow. I had a glass of red wine but mainly came at the recommendation of Constantine to try an Unpasturized Greek Beer from Thessaloniki.
Wanting to try more Greek wines, I headed to By The Glass wine bar, located inside InnAthens hotel. They have wines by the glass and even better, half pours. No wine flights and during peak hours no wine tastings but you can mix and match or have them recommend a few half-pours and it equates to a tasting.
I tried these 3 Greek wines, a white, a rose and a red. My favorite is the Santorini Assyrtiko white wine.
Final stop of the night was the Rooftop bar at New Hotel. Great bartender and staff here. Very welcoming and happy to introduce you to Greek liquors as well as speciality cocktails
Mastiha Greek liquor made of Mastic.
Very greek tasting cocktail with Mastika, pomegranate, bergamot. And perfect view to pair it with.
The next morning, I walked about 20 minutes to the Panathenaic Stadium, the original (rebuilt) Olympic Stadium. It is a steep entry fee, I think around 10Euros, but its cool to walk around, climb up the stands and imagine you were attending or participating in the first Olympic games in Ancient Greece. There is a small and disappointing museum underneath the stands. I think its worthwhile if you like architecture, engineering and if you are a history buff. Otherwise, no need to spend money on entering, just take picture from the font.
Afterwards, I had breakfast at New Hotel, before my pre-booked taxi (through the hotel) arrived to take me to the airport. I had sprained my ankle at the end of the Culinary Backstreets tour and decided to just splurge on the 45Euro taxi so that I didnt have to go up and down stairs too much.
Athens is worth spending a couple of nights in to visit, especially as its the main gateway to Greece, and if you’re on the way to a cruise or Greek island hopping, as most people visiting, I recommend stopping by Athens for the Acropolis, the history and the food. Do a food tour, be it with Culinary Backstreets or someone else, you wont regret it.