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Athens: The birthplace of democracy, theater and Western civilization. A wonderland of ruins with stories and tales to tell.
Wandering the streets of Athens is a dream come true. It’s a wonderland of some sorts that brings a historic thrill and modern excitement to any visitor. Myself included. The energy of the city is like no other. History greets you at nearly every corner, with he Acropolis beaming at a distant from almost everywhere in the city. But, Athens isn’t just white marble and crumbling columns. It’s a modern metropolis with nearly 4 million inhabitants. If Athens were a person, she would have a copy of Plato’s Republic in one hand and a beer or Ouzito (the Greek answer to mojito) in another.
From the narrow, cobblestoned streets of hilly Kolonaki to the hip counterculture nightlife of Exarhia and the singular sight of the changing of the guard in central Syntagma Square to the glistening seaside. Athens offers so much.
Athens is also the gateway to the sun-drenched Cyclades, defined by white and blue stuck buildings, notorious nightlife, and fabulous beaches. Mix some hangovers with all your history by heading to Mykonos, iOS and Milos. Then check out Santorini’s world-famous sunsets. They are all just a short ferry ride away. Even with all those thousands of years of history Greece remains dynamic, and there’s always something new to discover in this ancient land.
During the writing of this post, Greece was going through an economic crisis. Dining out and simply just living was a perfect example of a country who’s politicians are running the country to the ground. But do not be mistaken. The countries financial state is not a perfect example of that of its people. This town offered no glimpse of a struggling country, but one rather that is working together to thrive and preserve its natural wonders and culture.
We were graciously welcomed and shown around by a local, who’s hospitality was warm, a warmness that is expected from family. He introduced us to many places enjoyed by true Athenians. The recommendations provided in this guide are based on his and other local folks.
Places to eat
Save yourself some money by avoiding the generally over-priced poorest packed restaurants in much of the touristy places. Greek food is almost always cheap, generously portioned and stuffed with something cheesy or sugary. It is virtually impossible to go wrong. Most of my meals consisted of cucumber-tomato salad, fresh eggs, figs, a side of tzatziki, Greek yoghurt, some sort of grilled meat and copious amounts of Greek Coffee.
For some of the best, authentic Greek food, head to Bairaktaris taverna in Monastiraki Square. This family restaurant has been serving up delicious meals since the 19th century. Try the gyros, souvlaki, and moussaka. Thanasis tavern is in old downtown Athens neighborhood of Plaka. It is known for its kebabs on pita with grilled tomato and onions.
Dinner in the Sky Greece for an unforgettable (and adrenaline filled) dining experience as you are harnessed to your seat sky high. Karamanlidika a solid experience. The neighborhood is deceiving. Sample several small dishes of various cured in-house meats and sausages from their inventory. Reservations are highly suggested. Meliartos for one of the best breakfasts in town. The portioner generous. Try the vegetarian food and juice with ginger
Going north in Kifissia there is the small but great tasting tavern Biftekakia & Souvlakia. Order the Pork Gyro and yoghurt with Rose petals. It’s delicious! If fish is more your thing, head north to Lavrio port and taste great food in the local taverns in the port.
The local coffee – be it traditional Greek coffee, plain filtered coffee or espresso freddo – is stronger, of better quality and cheaper than that served by places like Starbucks. Terra Carpo for a freddo cappuccino coffee (iced espresso with a frothy milk top.) Reasonably priced, the homemade cereal bars make a great quick bite to eat and keep you moving all day with wholesome ingredients. Cafe Taf pours single-origins to die for, perfectly poured lattes and cappuccinos, lively atmosphere. Zahari & Alati and Off White Coffee Bar are two other great options for an iced coffee or Greek Coffee. Buy some nuts, seeds, and dried fruit from one of the many street cart vendors for about a 1 euro or so.
Dishes To Try in Athens
Steeped in history and lapped by the Mediterranean sea, Greece is home to some of the finest ingredients in the world. Sample them in a traditional Greek dish along with a glass of ouzo. Moussaka. Variations on moussaka are found throughout the Mediterranean. The iconic Greek baked dish is based on layering: sautéed eggplant, minced meat fried pureed tomato, onion, garlic and spices like cinnamon and allspice, a bit of potato, and then a final fluffy topping of cheese and béchamel sauce.
Grilled Octopus. Along harbors, octopus hung out to dry like washing is one of the iconic images of Greece. Grilled or marinated, it makes a fine meze, or as an entree stew it in wine sauce and serve it with pasta.
Souvlaki is still Greece’s favourite fast food, both the gyros and skewered meat versions wrapped in pitta bread, with tomato, onion and lashings of tzatziki. At the taverna, local free-range lamb and pork dominate, though goat is still a favorite.
Things to see
There is no shortage of things to see and do in Athens. Your first stop should undoubtedly be the Acropolis. Arrive early. The gates open at 8 am. Arriving at this time you’ll avoid the crowds, which being to arrive in the bus loads around 9:30 am. You’ll also have a cooler morning to wander and explore. Only the ruins remain today of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The column that has fallen and can still be seen on pieces was brought down during a thunderstorm about a century ago. Visit the Panathenaic Stadium (Panathinaiko Stadio) the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games held in 1896. Temple of Hephaestus, Odeum of Herodes Atticus (Odeion / Irodion), and Tempio di Athena Nike are other ancient sights worth checking out.
Check out the Parliament building and the newly-restored Grande Bretagne Hotel. Also, catch the changing of the guards in front of the Parliament every hour on the hour.
Because of its antiquity and influence, Athens is full of museums and galleries. The Acropolis Museum is a must see. It’s right next to the Acropolis. One side of the building covers breathtaking views of the Acropolis. The National Archaeological Museum offers astonishing treasures of Greek antiquity.
Wander Plaka, Monastiraki and Thissio. These charming historic districts at the foot of the Acropolis, with restored 19th-century neoclassical homes, pedestrianized streets, shops and restaurants, and picturesque ruins from the city’s Roman era. In old Plaka, the historic street of Adrianou Street is a walk through hundreds of gift shops and which will bring you back to the great old days of Athens.
Hit the beach and take a stroll or jog along Pireos Street, the main road that runs along the coast. Explore Kolonaki, which is an upscale residential area northeast of Syntagma with many cafes, boutiques and galleries. Escape from the scorching Athens sun with a relaxing stroll through The Nation Garden. Explore Monastiraki’s outdoor markets to soak up some local flavor and stock up on food.
Something off the beaten path? Check out the Greek Gastronomy Museum. Dreamt up by four twentysomethings and run by volunteers, the first museum of Greek cuisine is housed in a 150-year-old townhouse just behind the central food market. The admission price includes a half-hour cooking lesson. There’s a lovely courtyard cafe, and the restaurant does good-value tasting menus that showcase regional Greek dishes.
Roughly 43 miles south-southeast of Athens, at the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula in Greece is Cape Sounion is home to the site of ruins of an ancient Greek temple of Poseidon. It’s worth making the drive for. It’s not overly run by tourist, and the sights are incredible. After that hit the nearby beaches and enjoy fresh seafood.
Athens lived up to all of my expectations and more. Once leaving Athens, we set sail to Milos. Another amazing place, and more stories to share soon…
I'm an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200), offering guidance to high achievers in aligning their lifestyle with well-being through daily wellness and self-care routines, promoting balance and harmony. Join me at Wellness Bum for tips on living well, and consider subscribing to my newsletter or booking a coaching session.