Greece. It’s a country that invariably claims a position on travel lovers’ bucket lists. It was certainly on mine. Greece’s capital city, Athens, is a magical mecca of souvlaki, baklava and ancient civilization coexisting with frantic modernity. Love it or hate it, Athens is a key stop on any visit to Greece.
My visit to Athens took place over New Years, and I had about three days to explore the city (including New Year’s Day). It was thrilling to see the remains of buildings and temples constructed by the ancient Greeks and to walk along the same pathways that legendary rulers and philosophers walked. I also enjoyed learning about Greek New Year’s traditions and celebrating with a night out. Here are a few highlights from my three days in Athens.
- The Acropolis and the Parthenon
The ancient Acropolis is the real “must see” in Athens. The Parthenon, which is the most recognizable symbol of ancient Greece, and several other important sites sit atop this hill. Before you plan your visit, be aware that all the archeological sites in Athens are open only from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. During the holiday season and amid and workers’ intermittent strikes, entrance can be even more restricted.
The visitation hours are stringent. I met two travelers from London who arrived at the gates just before 3 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and were denied entrance. They had to fly back to England early on January 2nd without having seen the Pantheon up close. A couple I met from Arkansas had to reschedule their flight when the employees unexpectedly went on strike on the day they arrived at the entrance gate. Take note of the restrictions and plan ahead as much as possible.
The Arkansas couple warned me that the Acropolis begins to get crowded with tour groups at around 8:30, so I followed their advice and arrived when the gate opened at 8 a.m. There’s a long pathway and a bit of an uphill climb to the entrance gate, but I was rewarded with great views when I finally made it to the top, and waking up early was certainly worthwhile. I had the place mostly to myself and was able to get plenty of tour-group-free photos.
It was very windy and cold at the top of the Acropolis, so I stayed long enough to peruse all the ruins properly and enjoy the views over the city, but I didn’t stay much longer than necessary.
As stunning as the Acropolis is, apart from the Parthenon (undergoing serious reconstructive work) and a couple of other ancient temples and buildings, it could easily seem like just a pile of ruins. A few signs provide some insight, but I highly recommend downloading the free Rick Steves audioguides to Athens prior to your visit. I listened to the recorded guide to the Acropolis and was able to get a better sense of what I was seeing and imagine what it must have been like when first constructed. You’ll also find an Athens audio walking tour and an audioguide for the Ancient Agora, both of which I also enjoyed.
2. Other Archeological Sites
The Acropolis ticket includes admission to six other archeological sites in Athens, and it’s valid for four days. Partly because I visited Athens in the off-season and didn’t have to deal with heat or crowds, I was able to walk to and through all of the sites on a single day between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. That was lucky, because the following day was New Year’s Day (everything was closed) and the next two days happened to be Saturday and Sunday. The nice man at the tourist information center told me that on the weekend “the workers will probably be on strike. They did it last weekend, so they’ll probably do it again this weekend.” I’m glad I started the day early!
If you aren’t sure you’ll make it to all the sites, your second priority after the Acropolis should be to see the Ancient Agora, which could be considered the Greek version of the Roman Forum. The site includes the remains of numerous buildings and monuments. The reconstructed Stoa of Attalos provides an example of what the buildings looked like in ancient times. The large structure now houses the small but interesting Museum of Ancient Agora, which is included in your admission ticket.
The Temple of Hephaestus, located on a hill inside the Ancient Agora, is a Doric temple that is in much better shape than the Parthenon. It was used as a Greek Orthodox Church until the 1800s and was well maintained because of its frequent use.
In addition to the Acropolis and the Ancient Agora, the third site that I found most impressive was the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Originally the largest temple in Greece, the structure took more than 600 years to complete. The other sites included in the Acropolis ticket are the Theater of Dionysos, the Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library and the ancient cemetery Kerameikos.
3. The Food
Greece is a country known for its amazing food, and it is possible to eat out on a budget in Athens. One great option is to get souvlaki to go from one of the eateries on “Souvlaki row,” just off of Monastiraki Square. I had got a huge, fresh and delicious souvlaki for 3 Euros, and I saw signs for them as low as 2.20 at other eateries. Grab your souvlaki and take it with you to Monastiraki Square, where you can eat it while enjoying the sunshine and watching the people pass by.
My hostel recommended the small, family-owned restaurant Nikitas for typical Greek food. It happened to be around the corner from the hostel, so I stopped in for lunch one day. I ordered the daily special (stuffed cabbage with lemon sauce) as well as a spicy feta cheese dip. The prices were very reasonable (about 10 Euros total), the food was delicious and the service was friendly. I had so much food that I had to take most of the bread and dip to go.
I have always been a big fan of baklava, so when I saw a fresh pan of large baklava triangles in the case at the bakery across the street from my hostel, I went for it. This was the most delicious baklava I’ve ever had…perfectly flaky and oozing with honey. This bakery was located on the corner of Sarri and Ag. Anargiron streets, but I’m sure you could find similar offerings at other bakeries throughout the city.
4. Wandering the Streets
An important part of visiting Athens (or any city, for that matter) is just wandering through the streets to get a better sense of the city. While there were few signs of life in Athens on New Year’s Day, the streets were full and busy on the other days of my visit. The pedestrian streets near Monastiraki Square are filled with vendors selling souvenirs of all kinds, and they certainly make for interesting people-watching.
The quieter streets near the northeast side of the Acropolis are also worth visiting. It was fun to explore the impossibly narrow alleyways of the small Anafiotika neighborhood, which showcases a bit of island architecture in the heart of the city.
I’m also a sucker for cool street art, so I thoroughly enjoyed taking in the vast variety of murals on display throughout the city.
5. Celebrating New Year’s Eve
I stayed at a fantastic hostel in Athens called Circus City for the equivalent of about $20/night for a bed in a 6-bed dorm room. While that price is on the high end of what I typically spend for a dorm room, this hostel was worth it. The hostel is situated near all the key sites, so public transportation is unnecessary. The common rooms are stylish, comfortable and modern, the staff is friendly and helpful, and the showers are spacious and hot. What really stands out about this hostel was that the bed was the most comfortable bed I’ve slept in since I left the U.S. eight months ago! The bed reminded me of the cozy Westin resort beds…it was really that amazing.
Another plus of staying at this hostel was that the owner kindly hosted a free New Year’s Eve gathering for guests at 9 p.m., complete with a thick slide of homemade cake and a glass of champagne. Before the toast, the owner explained that in Greece, New Year’s Eve is spent with family. The mother of the house traditionally bakes a cake and hides a coin somewhere inside. In the evening, the father of the house cuts the cake and gives every family member a piece. The person who receives the piece of cake with the coin inside will have good luck the following year and also receives a small gift.
Families ring in the New Year together. After the midnight celebration, the young people are free to go out and meet their friends at house parties, bars or clubs to continue the revelry. The bars and clubs in Athens all host special events on New Year’s Eve.
A big group of us had our own mini house party in the hostel common area with a few more bottles of champagne, then walked down the street to a crowded bar for a little dancing. I rang in 2016 with a midnight clinking of glasses with new friends from England, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, France…and California. It was a great night!
6. Climbing Mount Lycabettus
After a December 31 filled with clouds and snow flurries, New Year’s Day dawned with clear skies and beautiful sunshine. I woke up and decided that hiking Lycabettus Hill would be the perfect way to celebrate the start of 2016.
Lycabettus Hill is the highest hill in Athens at more than 900 feet above sea level. It’s about a 45 minute walk from Plaka, the old city, and it takes around 20 minutes to climb the cement stairway that curls up to the top of the hill (depending on your pace, of course). The steps make for a great workout, which was just what I needed after a night of New Year’s revelry!
The very top of the hill features a small chapel, a restaurant, and a lot of people crowding around the guardrail to capture selfies and pictures of the view. I took a few snapshots and then headed partway down the hill where I found an open bench with an amazing view of Acropolis hill and the city of Athens. It was a perfect place to sit in the sunshine, consider all the blessings of 2015 and think about my goals for the coming year.
The combination of exercise, fantastic views and relaxation really was a wonderful way to start the year, but I highly recommend a trek up Lycabettus Hill whenever you chose to visit Athens.
Happy New Year, and may your 2016 include dreams realized and goals achieved. And if it happens to be on your bucket list, maybe even a trip to Athens!