As the home of ancient democracy, the modern Olympics, and the ruins of Classical Greek civilizations the city of Athens is an obvious tourist draw for tourists passing through Southern Europe.
With the ongoing economic crisis in Greece and images in popular media of riots running through the streets of the city, though, potential travelers may be hesitant to venture to this historied city to explore for themselves.
This look, from a trip in March and April of 2013, gives an up-to-date account of the Athens you can expect.
On the Streets
The heart of the tourist area, especially around Plaka and the Acropolis, shines with marble temples and triumphal arches and lots of green space to escape for a moment the urban sprawl. A quick visit to any of the city center’s high points, though, will make it obvious that Athens is much more than this. Neighborhoods further from the city center have perhaps fewer sites but are the places to go for local food or party options. Some of these, particularly backstreets around the Psiri district, have a bit of a gritty and run-down feel but on many nights will see enough foot traffic that safety is rarely a serious concern. Pireaus (Athens’ port area) gets a somewhat bad rap from travelers and locals alike, and is probably one district to avoid wandering late at night.
Many of these neighborhoods are quite walkable and home to a lot of beautiful graffiti, but if you’re in a hurry the Athens Metro system is extensive and easy to use.
Greek food is renown worldwide for being both healthy and delicious. It also feels very similar at times to Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisines, though given some of the history between these areas it may not be wise to discuss this with your Greek hosts!
The ubiquitous street food in Athens is souvlaki, grilled meat wrap up in a pita along with a bit of tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber, and spices) and French fries. Prices range from €1.5 – 4, depending largely on how far you are from the Acropolis and other major tourist sites.
Sticking just to souvlaki, though, would be to do yourself a poor turn in a city with such delicious food. Booze joints offer a wide variety of meze plates to accompany local drinks like ouzo or raki (or beer, for less serious drinkers!), while traditional taverna restaurants serve a daily rotation of traditional dishes with prominent inclusion of eggplant, oregano, and (of course) olives.
Athenians tend to eat pretty late compared to much of Europe, often skipping breakfast in favor of an afternoon lunch (around 2p) and a long late dinner that often will not start until 10 or 11 pm. Local restaurants will of course be less crowded before these times, but for atmosphere these late-night dinners are hard to beat.
Particularly recommended for the perfect trifecta (of taste, atmosphere, and price) by the author is Klimataria, just outside of the Monastiraki/Psiri areas. Try to visit late on weekend nights for traditional music from the restaurant’s small stage.
Though Greece is still Europe, the impact of the economic recession can equal pretty good deals for tourists in Athens. Accommodation costs right in the city center start around $20/ night for a hostel dorm, though beds for half that can be had further afield.
The real savings come in with food, with street food for a couple of euro and proper full meals with table wine or beer possible at under fifteen Euro. Partying in Athens isn’t quite as good of a deal, with beers under 8 Euro hard to find in the popular Giza district. Occasionally great live music helps soften the blow, though.
Along with the economic downturn there seems to be a bit of tension between the Greek and immigrant populations. Embassy notices report incidences of harassment of non-white tourists, though I never heard any anecdotal evidence of this during my stay.
Another local institution is George the Bar Scammer, who reportedly invites tourists to the Hollywood Pub for a drink and hugely inflated bill. Avoid or enjoy as you find yourself inclined.
There are tons of obvious (and crowded) tourist sites in Athens, most notably the Acropolis (12 Euro) and New Acropolis Museum (5 Euro). Conveniently, the Acropolis Ticket also gives entrance to a number of other historic sites across Athens like the Temple of Olympion Zeus and various Agoras. Beyond these, the city is flush with museums. Most highly recommended are the Byzantine (4 Euro), National Archeological (7 Euro), and Benaki (6 Euro).
A bit less visited is Lycabettus Hill, Athens’s highest point, which offers great views of the city and Acropolis from the top. At sunrise, golden light illumes the eastern face of the Parthenon to great effect.
The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion is a popular daytrip from Athens (and possible using public transport), as are the islands of the Saronic Gulf (Aegina, Hydra, and Poros; amongst others).