Usually when I travel, I have high expectations and about 90 percent of the time, those expectations are met. With Athens, I didn’t have high expectations at all. I had heard from multiple people that it’s a dirty, crime-ridden city, but we still booked it for our Thanksgiving trip because of the history, delicious Greek food and warm weather. I went in with an open mind, and Athens well exceeded my expectations.
We arrived late Wednesday night and left Sunday morning, which left us three full days to explore the city. I’ve read that one day in Athens is enough, but I could’ve actually used more time than we had. We devoted a day to a cruise that went to three different islands, which I am writing an entire separate post about because it was that amazing. Our hotel was in the Plaka neighborhood within close walking distance to an overwhelming number of restaurants, cafes and shops. I wouldn’t have wanted to stay anywhere else in the city.
On our first day, like we usually do, we just wanted to get our lay of the land, and the Hop-on Hop-off bus was the perfect way to get around and learn. We had a terrible experience with these buses in Malta so we hadn’t done one since that trip, but I would say Athens had one of the better tours. It was warm enough that we could sit on the top deck and it went to all the sights we wanted to see. First, we took it to the Panathenaic Stadium.
Ever since I saw contestants of the Amazing Race run a lap around this Olympic track, it was on my bucket list. As a former track athlete and a runner still today, I felt like I made it to my Mecca. The site is where the ancient Olympics took place, and the track and stadium were built for the first modern Olympics in 1896. Obviously I had to run a lap around the track, and I climbed to the top of the stands for a better look at the stadium as a whole. The view of Athens and surrounding mountains from the top was also a plus.
Next, we took the tour bus to the Temple of Zeus and walked around the grounds there. It’s incredible to see some of the massive columns that are over 2,000 years old still standing—and to see the ones on the ground that had fallen over as a result of earthquakes.
In the afternoon, we took the Beaches line of the tour bus out to the coast. It never really occurred to me that Athens had beaches, but this made the city even more appealing. Of course it was too cold to swim, but in the summer, it would’ve been nice to spend an entire day at the beach.
Our second day was spent on the cruise to the islands, and our third day was our other chance to explore the city. We started it off with a food walking tour in the morning. I have always wanted to do one of these tours and because I love Greek food, I figured Athens was the perfect spot for it. We tasted everything from fried zucchini balls, to loukoumades (Greek donuts), to liquor made from the mastic tree, to homemade tzatziki. The tour ended at a cute, traditional restaurant in the Psyri neighborhood where we each got an entire souvlaki, or pita wrap, for lunch. I left the tour very full and very happy.
We saved the best for last and went to the Acropolis that afternoon. Although the Parthenon had a ton of construction going on, it was still surreal to be in such an old, iconic place, and I loved looking over the stone walls of the fortress to see 360 degree views of Athens. Then, we headed up the nearby Hill of Muses that had really nice views of the Acropolis, which was in my opinion the best view of the city.
We ended the day at the changing of the guards ceremony at the parliament building in Syntagma Square, a must in Athens that occurs every hour on the hour, so it’s easy to work into your schedule.
One thing that stood out to me about Athens was the food scene. I could tell just by looking at the restaurants’ branding and menus that they are a lot more modernized compared to the rest of Europe. I wonder if this is because tourism is such an integral part of the Greek economy. I could’ve stayed in the city for an entire week just trying all the food, and the prices were generally much more affordable than in Germany. I didn’t know it was possible for my favorite food, feta cheese, to taste any better until I had it in Greece. And of course I ate a ton of tzatziki and baklava, including some delicious baklava gelato!
Lastly, I want to talk about something very important to me: the cats! We learned at one of our restaurants that a nonprofit organization from the U.K. cares for them by feeding and sterilizing all the street cats, which I just thought is so nice and definitely helps the problem with strays. The cats were so friendly too it took everything in my power not to take one home with me.
So I never experienced the grimy, unsafe Athens that people had warned me about. That could be because we were lucky enough not to experience pickpocketing, or because we were there in the offseason which made everything seem much calmer. There were neighborhoods that seemed sketchier than others, but those were not near the tourist attractions. Aside from the unbelievable amount of graffiti, I would say Athens looked no dirtier than any other European city. As beautiful as the Greek islands are, a visit to the capital is also a worthwhile experience.