Updated: Oct 10, 2020
How did we get here?
I was in love with Athens. Ever since I took Old World History in the 5th grade I was enchanted with the white columns, politics, mythology, thinkers, and sophistication of this ancient place. My eyes would get misty when I browsed Pinterest saving photo after photo knowing I was finally going to see this for real. After our dreamy stay in Naxos, we figured we had this Greek thing figured out by now. There would be historic sites, souvlaki, Alpha beer, and more culture than we could absorb in a lifetime. Right? Right.
Yet here we were after a morning of being overcharged for the Agora, hustled, and running interference with our children and the city's feral cat population we found ourselves staring down a menu of 5 different margaritas in honor of Cinco de Mayo ...in Athens, Greece.
Feelings of defeat and embarrassment overcame me as the children ate macaroni and cheese off of a plate in the shape of an electric guitar. Athens was supposed to be the coolest experience ever and yet I found myself wanting to yell sentiments of betrayal (not unlike Bob Dylan's fans when he went electric) at myself and at this messy, chaotic city.
(And yes, the irony that I brought up Dylan going electric while we had lunch at a Hard Rock cafe is not lost on me.)
The funny thing is we aren't strangers to crazy cities. Between the two of us we have lived in Los Angeles, navigated Barbès- Rochechouart at night, kept our wits about us on the streets of Beijing, Tijuana, Tangier, and New York... but something about Athens chewed us up, and spit us out and we conceded defeat in the lamest way possible. The whole thing came as a total surprise.
We went back to our AirBnB and took stock of our food stores to see if we could just hole up for the next few days until our flight back to England.
Fortunately (yes, I do mean fortunately, stay with me), we did not have enough food to last us and we would have to tread the turds and marble curbs of Athens yet again... at least as far as the grocery store. From that realization we gradually came to terms with the idea of giving Athens another shot. After some Googling "When is the least crowded time to visit the Acropolis" and a late night Facebook messenger therapy session with my best friend, we slowly began to form a solid game plan as to how to survive and make the most of our time in Athens.
Here is what we learned:
The public transportation around the city seemed manageable enough, but after mapping out transfers and timetables we decided it was easier to walk. The truth is we were adding 10 minutes to our day which seemed worth it to avoid hustling on and off mass transit.
Not a whole lot of people actually stay in Athens. Many of the tourists are cruise ship passengers who pour in to and out of the city during business hours crowding... well... everything. Street hustlers, of course, plan accordingly. Read: Visit all historical sites either early in the morning or in the evening.
Armed with this information our game plan was simple: Get a reasonably early start and see all the not-so-popular Athenian sites on our wish list. Have a leisurely late lunch and slowly make our way to the Acropolis around sunset, when the crowds were back on board their ships gorging on the all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet.
Since this was the last leg of our trip we planned to exclusively walk through various noteworthy historical sites- no guides, no audio-tours, no museums. This was a get-through-it-with-the-over-tired-kids situation here. We would rely on Google and my classical education for any enrichment beyond what the signs said.
What to see:
(Be prepared to pay to enter any site of historical significance, but kids are free. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.)
We actually stumbled upon this one making our way to the Temple of Zeus the Olympian. We rounded a corner and saw the flags flying and Scott and I looked at each other and said "Is that it? The Olympics and all that?" While we could get into the finer points of the difference between the ancient Panathenaic and Olympic games, I think we can all appreciate the world's only stadium built entirely out of marble and the modern Olympic history that this place represents. Admission is reasonably priced and we mostly had the place to ourselves. We geeked out hard running around the track, standing on the podium, walking the catacombs, and perusing the small museum with all the old Olympic swag.
Temple of Zeus the Olympian
A ruined temple for its namesake. A breathtaking site in the center of the city. We found this place to be sparsely populated. We were free to walk around the ornate columns and marvel at it's grandeur without being annoyed by a selfish tourist.
Located just outside of the Temple of Zeus, this structure is worth checking out simply on the grounds that it is a low commitment structure viewing (you just walk by, it is on a major street corner) and that Emperor Hadrian just didn't know how to quit. Dude was PRODUCTIVE.
Full disclosure we visited this on our first, ill-fated day. We still say it is worthwhile. You can wander around the ancient ruined marketplace and temples. Crowds were minimal as pretty much everyone goes to visit The Agora's cool older sister, The Acropolis.
The big one. The iconic structures that define Athens. The sacred hill of temple after temple dedicated to the Greek gods of yore. It is breathtaking. We only visited the Acropolis and didn't have time to see the Northern and Southern slopes. We waited until 5pm to visit and we would have stayed later if we weren't facing a walk back to Exarcheia in the dark. No thanks. The soft sunset glow off the white temple pillars were like something out of a fairy tale. Honestly, the lack crowds aside, I would recommend seeing the Acropolis in the evening for the lighting alone. Even though we missed the Asklepion (boo-hiss) there were still plenty of gorgeous temples to behold.
The Theater of Herodes Atticus
Probably the one place we got to see for "free" in Athens. We would have otherwise missed it except for the fact that Scott really wanted to see where Yanni performed when he recorded "Yanni Live at the Acropolis" in 1993. Thankfully this is a stone's throw from the Acropolis and Yanni or no, it is a pretty cool structure.
Other noteworthy notes:
You will see people hawking and wearing these cool gold laurel crowns around town. Think of them as the Athenian version of Mickey Ears. We thought they were pretty cool, but also pretty cheap looking. When we exited the Agora we found ourselves walking along rows of street vendors selling their Greek kitsch... except for one stand just to the right of the exit. This lady made the most beautiful bronze laurel crowns by hand. You could feel and smell the quality and difference between the ones brought in from China and the real deal. Charlie rocked the heck out of it and we returned on our way back to the AirBnB and bought three more both in the name of souvenirs and supporting artisans.
Exarcheia is gross. Don't believe anyone who tells you that "this is where you can see an anarchist poet in its natural habitat". Nope. Nope. Also, the anarchist poet poops on the sidewalk... which is probably one of the strongest arguments for gentrification if you ask me.
Run, don't walk, from any person who approaches you on the street trying to "give" you a bracelet.
Carry a good amount of cash with you (in a safe place). Vendors will tell you their credit card systems are "down" for no reason other than cash is better for them, personally. It's best to avoid any awkward discussions about honesty and just play along.
The local beer ranks as follows, and in honor of the place that gave birth to the Olympics I will give them a medal standing:
Bronze: Fix Hellas
Silver: Mythos (I call it The Unicorn Beer)
Gold: Alpha (The best. And I don't even like lagers and I would drink this over a stout any old day.)
There isn't much to recommend in the way of restaurants at least not from the few days we spent in the city. Several bakeries had overpriced baklava and we daily did battle with our nespresso maker. Perhaps we were just hitting the city on an off day. Who knows. The shopkeeper at the organic grocery store was nice to us. Lunch on that second day was overpriced lamb and fried eggplant. Eventually we did find our rhythm and we were able to go with the flow of the city instead of feeling like we were drowning in it. Even still, I can say with absolute certainty that the best meal we had was at the Hard Rock Cafe. You can revoke my savvy traveler card if you want to.