When researching Athens online, you’ll no doubt find a few bloggers saying it’s ‘not their favorite’ or ‘not what they expected’. What gives?
After visiting Athens twice (about ten years apart), I can see why Athens can elicit so many strong opinions. The city obviously has many appealing aspects, but perhaps also a few less appealing ones, so not every visitor may end up being equally enthralled by the Greek capital.
To be clear, I happen to really like Athens — and I think it’s easily worth staying at least 2 or 3 days in Athens. But I must admit that I liked the city much more the second time around, without the baggage of sky-high expectations that I had on my first visit.
If you visit Athens without any pre-set ideas, I believe you can better see what makes it unique — and enjoy it twice as much.
Let me explain what I mean.
Plan your stay in Athens
What’s Athens like?
When you think of Athens you surely think of Ancient Greece.
You think of it being the Birthplace of Democracy.
And you’ll no doubt imagine scenes of classical splendor and, I don’t know, people in white tunics being fed grapes.
That is not what contemporary Athens is.
I first visited Athens back in 2011, when Greece was still in the throes of its financial crisis. Instead of some glorious ancient city, I was surprised to find a sprawling concrete jungle covered in graffiti.
Athens almost felt like one big suburb, dominated by monotone mid-rise buildings constructed mostly in the 1960s and 70s. Its historical center was but a small island in a sea of sprawl.
“Where are the guys in white tunics?!?,” I yelled at random passer-bys. I was confused and disappointed.
I should mention that what really made Athens feel drearier at the time were the protests in the squares and the many homeless people in the streets. The Greek financial crisis wasn’t just some abstract balance-sheet issue; you could really see its effects in the city. It’s good to keep in mind that when you ask travelers their opinion of Athens — and if they went many years ago — they may still be basing it on this period.
Admittedly, my visit was brief as I quickly headed to the Cyclades Islands, though ever since Athens was kind of stamped in my mind as ‘not nice’. In 2020, I revisited Athens and — guess what? — I loved it!
Maybe the city had changed over the past ten years… and I imagine it has. I think my own perceptions were also simply different. This time, I could really love Athens for what it is.
Why Athens is actually great
I learned that when it comes to Athens, first impressions aren’t everything. If you’re not completely charmed when arriving from the airport right away, try to give it some time. At least, I can say that Athens really grew on me after just a short while.
Although the times of financial crisis are luckily over, Athens is still a sprawling modern city, which may not conform to the idealized images of ‘ancient Greece’. Still, if you get past this reality, you can discover the more charming side of Athens.
Although it’s a large modern city, Athens does have a wonderful small historical core. As a tourist you’re likely to stay in or near the area of Plaka, which is simply delightful, thanks to its friendly cafes and tavernas, cobbled steps, and shaded squares. Hugging the slopes of the Acropolis and largely free of motorized traffic, it has an almost Greek-island vibe.
Not to mention, the sunset views from the city’s hilltops are incredible. Look at Athens from this zoomed-out perspective and you will see it in a whole different (glowing orange) light. You can get some phenomenal sunset views from Mount Lycabettus, or just find yourself a rooftop bar with a view towards the Acropolis.
So what about the ancient Greek history?
The star attraction of Athens is, of course, the Acropolis. This must-visit site does not disappoint. I do highly recommend getting an audio tour or a tour with a knowledgeable guide to get the most out of it, as this will make the ancient ruins truly come alive.
Athens’ spectacular history museums will definitely transport you to that classical era you’ve heard so much about. If you’re a history buff, you’ll love this about Athens for sure.
Beyond the touristy center, you can also appreciate Athens from a point of general curiosity. On the one hand, you can see Athens has been through a lot, including a financial crisis and a refugee crisis. Yet the word is also getting out about its flourishing art community, which reminds some people of the early days of Berlin. (Though not every local is fond of this comparison, perhaps fearing future gentrification.)
As you explore Athens, you may notice a lot of graffiti on the street. In some parts of the world, this could indicate a ‘bad neighborhood’, but in Athens you’ll just see a lot of it regardless of whether you’re in a bad or good area. More interesting than the random tags is some of the amazing street art you can find livening up the walls of some derelict buildings, which makes random exploration all the more rewarding.
As cliche as this phrase is, Athens truly is a city of contrasts. If you head just a few blocks north from peachy Plaka, don’t be too alarmed to see some riot police on their cigarette break. The area of Exarcheia, near the National Archaeological Museum, is a bit of an anarchist bulwark — in fact, it has been so since long before the financial crisis. There has basically always been some police on duty around it. Don’t mind them too much.
This is also what makes Athens interesting: it’s an exciting mix of elements. That’s true even if you do stick to the tourist-friendly and more photogenic areas. With a bit of time, you’ll see Athens has a warmth and character that may be easy to miss at first glance.
Getting the most out of Athens
Unlike some other European capitals, I think Athens doesn’t have quite an endless list of things to see or do. I do believe you need at least two days to see the highlights (for more, see this 2-day Athens itinerary).
A few tips for Athens:
1. Stay in Plaka, Monastiraki, or Koukaki
These areas are more tourist-oriented and they are so for good reason, as they have more charm than other neighborhoods.
For the best experience, it’s worth staying close to where the action is. At first, I tried saving money by booking a budget hotel further into the city, but this was not so convenient and actually cost more money to get to- and from. I later stayed in an apartment in Plaka and it was wonderful to be based right beneath the Acropolis and have everything at walking distance.
2. If you can, visit Athens in the shoulder season
July and August get very busy (and hot!) so it’s nicer to be in Athens before or after these months. With fewer crowds, it’s easier to explore and enjoy the atmosphere.
I’ve been in Athens in August and, among other things, the restaurants in Plaka can get overcrowded and the waiters too pushy in trying to get you in. During calmer times of the year, the experience will be very different.
3. Be aware of the heat
You should know that it can be searingly hot sometimes in summer, with an average high temperature of 33.7°C (92.7°F). In July or August, consider doing most of your outdoor activities in the morning or late afternoon. Around midday, hit up some of the air-conditioned museums.
4. Dive into the history
Athens gets easily twice as interesting once you know more about its history. Before my trip, I read Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece, an accessible but in-depth book on ancient Greek history. This helped me appreciate the museums and the Parthenon all that much more. It also makes it much easier to follow along when you’re on a guided tour.
5. Use apps to hail rides
Finally, be sure to use Uber or the local version called Beat to hail rides. Only licensed taxis are allowed in Greece, so rather than hailing local drivers these apps just hail you a licensed taxi. The apps are still very useful though as they ensure you won’t be overcharged for any journeys. The moment I stopped using Beat, the drivers began to charge twice as much!
Even though Athens might not always match the glorified images we may have of it in our imaginations, if you give the city a chance, you might just end up being one of the highlights of your trip to Greece.