The birthplace of democracy
Another trip to Greece, just after 2 weeks that we’ve been to Thessaloniki. On this occasion, returning to Athens, city we’ve already been once precisely 4 years ago and on the very same dates! That’s a coincidence indeed. Back then we were 4 friends, this time again, another 4 different friends, but with the same intention, visiting the city all over again as if for the first time, as honestly is was great back then to have in the front of you the remains of capital of the once ancient civilization, birthplace of the democracy.
My impressions of the city have not changed in those four years, nor the city has changed to improve this over the time. This is translated in a rather ugly city everywhere around the proper sights. Of course exceptions apply, as are the ancient remains, some nice squares and streets in the old town and parks, but other than that, there is nothing else in between, only white and tasteless buildings, copy and paste everything looks the same everywhere. At least in the case of Athens it all looks in better shape that the otherwise depressing Thessaloniki.
Amazing to see is that a country where recession is so deep, at first look appears to affect no one, but instead, you will be asked to pay “exorbitant” prices for a coffee, like 4 Euros!. Let’s say it this way, the more expensive the place is, the more people coming there specially among the young. Their mentality is simple. Sitting at an expensive place trying to show off, so other people can see and think they can afford it. Well, I always hated such nonsense mentality and does not matter if I can afford a “show off ” place, I prefer to enjoy at more down to earth cafes and restaurants which you can find through the city and specially around Monasteriaki Square.
It was great to return after those four years, as it is indeed, a great city to visit, and revisit when possible. With so much spread through this large city, there is always something new waiting to be seen, plus gave me the chance to finally make a proper travel guide here in my blog as the older one was too simple and very resumed on the what to see and do section. Nevertheless, when thinking in how long time is enough for a good visit, a weekend is too short. 3 days will be already be a good starting point, giving you enough time for visiting everything and the major museums; yet if time is your constraint, I believe there is not even need for me to tell you to concentrate in the Acropolis, Plaka and Monasteriaki areas, the rest can come in second place.
In terms of food, you can find incredible places at very competitive prices. A must have is Souvlaki, this is grilled meat (pork or chicken generally) vegetables (tomato and onion slices) and tzatziki all in pita bread. The best places to have it are both in Monastiraki, adjacent to each other and just off the main square in front of the Metro station entrance. They are Savvas at Mitropoleas 86-88 and O Thanasis at Mitropoleos 69.
In general regarded as a safe city, there are some non touristy areas that are best avoided. There is nothing to see in them anyway. The most notorious one is Metaxourgeio square. But notice many big hotels are located around this area and you are likely to be around this area without even realising.
For more information about Athens check the Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Greece’s currency is the Euro. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Athens
- City Center-Historic Triangle Delimited between Kerameicos, Omonoia and Syntagma squares, and the Panepistimiou, Pireos and Ermou streets.
-Panepistimiou Street The main thoroughfare in Athens, linking Syntagma and Omonoia squares. Its name translates as University Street. Many sights, historical buildings and museums align the street. In order, from north to south:
-Omonoia Square Marks the northernmost part of the old town. The largest transit hub in Athens.
-Bagkeion and Megas Alexandros Hotels The most beautiful and recognisable buildings in the square, located side by on Athinas street.
-Kotzia Square Just a block south of Omonoia is the most beautiful 19th century neoclassical square in Athens.
-City Hall With busts of famous Athenians such as Pericles and Solon.
-Acharnian Road A section of this ancient road has been uncovered and on display at one of the square’s corner.
-Arsakeion School Prestigious high school on a late 19th century building.
-National Library Designed by Danish architect Theophil Hansen as one of his Trilogy buildings with construction started in 1888.
-University of Athens With the main Ceremony Hall designed by Danish architect Theophil Hansen in the 19th century, it is the middle one of the Trilogy of buildings.
-Athens Academy Is the highest research establishment in the country, housed in another key landmark buildings in the city. Designed by Danish architect Theophil Hansen in 1859 in neoclassical style, completes his Trilogy of buildings.
-Bank of Greece Established in 1927 and housed in this 1938 building.
-Saint Dionysius Catholic Cathedral Built in 1853 is the main Roman Catholic Church of Athens and seat of Roman Catholic Archbishop.
-Museum of Numismatic Housed in the former mansion of the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann from 1880, hosts one of the greatest collections of ancient and modern coins in the world.
-Attika Department Store One of the largest within the city centre. Across the road opposite the Numismatic Museum.
-Syntagma Square Is the main square and heart of the city, site of the Hellenic Parliament.
-Parliament Building Built between 1836 and 1843 as the Royal Palace, housing the parliament since 1934. The changing of the guards are every hour on the hour, with the main parade at 11.00am every day.
-Grande Bretagne Hotel Opposite the Parliament building, one of the top hotels.
-Ermou Street This pedestrian street passes through the very heart of the city, perpendicular from Syntagma and across the most historical sites. As it crosses three different districts, check below for the sights on each of them rather than under Ermou Street.
-Kerameikos This ancient cemetery is located at the west end of Ermou Street, limits the Historic Triangle district on the west edge. Not far south east is the Ancient Agora. The nearest metro is Kerameikos.
- Plaka District-National Gardens The traditional historic centre of Athens with labyrinthine streets, neoclassical buildings and many ancient remains. It borders the boundaries of both the Greek and Roman Agora along the foothills of the Acropolis, south of Syntagma.
-Amalias Avenue The continuation of Panepistimiou Street towards the south.
-National Gardens Just south of the Parliament, and all the way east of Amalias Avenue.
-Zappeion Designed by Theophil Hansen (same architect as the Trilogy buildings), was completed in 1888 specifically for the revival of the Olympic Games in the modern world that happened in 1896. Nowadays used as a multipurpose conference and exhibition center. Located inside the National Gardens.
-Panathenaic Stadium A reconstruction for the revival of the Olympic Games in the modern world that happened in 1896 from an ancient Greek stadium. It is the only stadium in the world entirely made in marble and one of the oldest. Originally dated to 556 BC was a wooden structure, then rebuilt in marble in 329 BC and enlarged in 140 AD. Located east of the National Gardens and the Zappeion. Metro station Irini.
-Arch of Hadrian Built in 131 AD to celebrate the arrival of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It is preserved in full.
-Temple of Olympian Zeus In the same complex of the Arch of Hadrian. From the 6th century BC, of its colossal size only a few columns remain, yet still enough to give you the impression of the sheer size. Once the largest of any temples ever built by the Greek and Romans, with 104 columns, out of which, only 15 stand today.
-Choragic Monument Erected by the patron of musical performances Lysicrates to commemorate the award of first prize in 335/334 BCE to one of the performances he had sponsored at the Theatre of Dionysus. Located at the opposite end of Lisikratous Street where the Arch of Hadrian is at the other end.
- Monasteriaki District Along the pedestrian Ermou Street, west of Syntagma Square covering both the Greek and Roman Agora. A traditional flea market area.
-Panagia Church Right along Ermou Street, 11th century Byzantine church.
-Monasteriaki Square The core of the district and important sightseeing area, centrally located in between the major sights of the Agora, Acropolis and Syntagma.
-Church of the Pantanassa Is the remaining church of a large monastery that existed in the 10th century. Known back then the Great Monastery, nowadays as this is the solely remain, became the Little Monastery, translated Monasteriaki.
-Tsisdarakis Mosque Ottoman mosque built in 1759, nowadays not in used for pray but an annex of the Museum of Greek Folk Art.
-Hadrian’s Library Built by Roman Emperor Hadrian in 132 AD, subsequently reused through the centuries in which 3 churches were built, all of which remains today. The west wall with its large columns is perfectly preserved.
-Roman Agora Forum Meters south of the Hadrian’s Library. There is a shared ticket including both the Roman and Greek Agora with the Acropolis for €12 (free for students with valid ID).
-Gate of Athena Archegetis Built in the 11 BCE by donations from Julius Caesar and Augustus.
-Tower of the Winds It is an octagonal Pentelic marble clock tower featuring a combination of sundials, water clock and a wind vane. Believed to have been built in the 2 century BC, before the rest of the Agora.
-Colonnade Many columns of different height still stand today.
-East Propylon Built in the 11 BCE, it consisted of 4 Ionic columns, only its base remain today.
-Ancient Agora Is the best example preserved of any ancient Greek Agora. With many buildings of importance, I list here below the most important ones. For more information check Wikipedia.
-Panathenaic Way Is the main ancient road. A large section crosses through the Agora.
-Stoa of Attalos Originally built by King Attalos II of Pergamon who ruled between 159 BC and 138 BC. The current building was reconstructed from 1952 -1956 by American architects to serve as the Museum of the Ancient Agora. Located along the Panathenaic Way, east of the Agora.
-Odeon of Agrippa Built about 15 BCE, the large marble statues still stand at the front.
-Temple of Hephaestus The best preserved Greek temple in the city, almost complete. Located at the northwest corner of the Agora on Agoraios Kolonos Hill. Inaugurated in 415 BCE.
- Thissio District The next district west of Monasteriaki. Marked by the Pedestrian walkway of Apostolou Pavlou from Kerameikos towards the entrance of the Acropolis archeological site along the Agora.
- Acropolis This is the key sight to come to Athens. The best way to reach it is via the pedestrian street of Apostolou Pavlou from the Kerameikos Cemetery, passing through the Ancient Agora. While here I will only list the key buildings, for further information on each is better to read the descriptive articles in both wikipedia and wikitravel pages. Entrance is free with student card, or €12 in combination with the entrance to both the Ancient and Roman Agora. Nearest metro station is Acropolis.
-Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus Considered the first ever theatre in the world dating from the 4th century BC. It was used for festivals in honor of the god Dionysus. Located by the south slope of the Acropolis.
-Odeon of Herodes Atticus Built in 161 AD by Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife, Aspasia Annia Regilla. It is remarkable preserved. Located near the Theatre of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis.
-Stoa of Eumenes Built upon orders of Eumenes II of Pergamum as a walkway linking both theatres.
-Temple of Athena Nike Built in 420BC is the first Ionic temple on the Acropolis, located right by the main entrance to the Acropolis itself (the Propylaea). Recently restored under anastylosis, it is almost complete.
-Propylaea The monumental entrance gate to the Acropolis built in 432 BC.
-Parthenon The masterpiece of the ancient Greek world, the zenith of the Doric order. Completed in 438 BC was dedicated to the goddess Athena.
-Erechtheum Completed in 406 BC was dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon. Located across from the Pantheon, is the second most important construction. At one of the sides is the famous Porch of the Caryatids
-Philopappos Monument Southwest of the Acropolis and not in the same complex but in what was known Mouseion Hill before its construction, then Philopappos Hill. This monument tomb was built in honor of Philopappos who died in 116.
- Lycabettus and Kolonaki To the east of the city, you can find one of the largest hills within the city limits. Kolonaki, at the foothills of Lycabettus and literally meaning little column, derives from the 2 meter high Greek column in the middle of the square.
-Lycabettus Hill Offers the best views of the whole city 360 degrees. To get there take the blue metro line to Evangelismos. Walk all the way up on Marasli Street which starts to the right of the exit. You will come to see the Funicular entrance at Hoida Street. The return trip is 7 Euros. At the top you can also find the 19th century Chapel of Saint George.
- Daphni District Far to the northwest of the city, and only possible to reach via bus should you wish to come. Still worth for anyone seeking UNESCO sites.
-Daphni Monastery 11th century Byzantine monastery 11 km north-west of the city and built reusing the former Sanctuary of Apollo Daphnaios that had been desecrated by the Goths in 395 which parts of it can be seen in the new building, the former walls and flooring. Because of having the best preserved mosaics from the early Komnenian period (ca. 1100 DC), it is listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Eleftherios Venizelos airport is the largest and busiest in the country. From the airport, the Metro line 3 goes directly to the city centre (Syntagma and Monastiráki stations for example). It costs 10 Euros single for 1 person or 14 for a return, but only if you plan on using your return within a week’s time. If travelling in group, you can get a ticket for 2 people for 14 Euros, of for 3 people for 20 Euros. Any of the tickets from the airport allow for a period of 90 minutes since validation that you can interchange to any other metro, tram or bus.
Within the city you are likely to be using the metro often. There are 3 lines, with tickets costing 1.40 Euros for a single, valid for up to 70 min, meaning you can interchange with buses or trams within the validity time. Integrated ticket for 24 hours cost 4 Euros, or 10 Euros for a weekly ticket. You can buy any ticket at any metro station, either at the machines or at the counter.
Buses and trams cover the entire city, but the likes for you having to take one are occasional or none, unless your accommodation is located in an area not served by metro and farther from the city centre, In any case, they do work as the metro, integrated system where you can interchange between metro, tram and bus or other way within 90 minutes since validation.
When going to Lykabettus Hill, you will be using the funicular. The nearest metro station is Evangelismos and a short walk from there. A return trip is 7 Euros.
Athens is a city of huge importance in tourism, finance and business. It has the second largest passenger port in the world, largest in Europe, hence you can imagine the enormous dependence on tourism. For all this, the amount of hotels is simply countless. You have absolutely any world hotel chain and many local ones, from top luxury to modest. And what is best, the ability to find a good deal at a good hotel has been quite easy on both occasion, yet I know this is mostly because we’ve been travelling during low season. I can imagine prices during high season to be over the clouds.
As usual, a good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Royal Olympic Hotel, in 28-34 Athanasiou Diakou Street, right at the front of the Temple of Olympian Zeus and meters from the Acropolis metro station and of course, Acropolis. Location unbeatable! But property also extremely great. Not only the staff were very professional and friendly, the rooms great and very comfortable and overall well taken care; the breakfast could not be any better with the added experience of being at the top floor and overlooking both the Acropolis, the Temple of Zeus and the Lycavittus Hill in the distance. An incredible view all together for the start of the day. We will definitely not hesitate in returning to the same hotel on our next visit.
On our first visit back in March 2012 we stayed at the Athens Imperial, in 2-6 Meg Alexandrou Street. Very near Metaxourgeio metro station and therefore very convenient to get around the city either on foot or by public transport. A really nice property, 4* when we were there 4 years ago, now lifted to 5* as I can see in their homepage. The staff was very polite, friendly and caring; spacious room with very comfortable bed and great breakfast. It has both indoor pool and rooftop pool. The later one is closed during winter months, but from the rooftop you get great views over the Acropolis and the city.