Athens was a whirlwind of heat, history, and protesters. It all began with a happy reunion in the arrivals terminal between my mom and I, having said goodbye six weeks before. We were not, however, joined by my mother’s luggage, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise since the country-wide taxi strike forced us to reach our hotel by arduous journey of bus, subway, and foot. “At least the strike is saving us some cash!” sang my always-looking-at-the-bright-side Mom. Having spent the night sleeping in a London’s airport rather than pay for a cab (the subways in London shut down at midnight! Am I the only one shocked by this?!), and looking forward to being whisked to the hotel by car I was not as amused by this deviation from my luxury vacation plan.
Soon we arrived in our lovely hotel, The Athens Gate, and any hint of a bad mood was forgotten. I had agonized over what hotel we should stay in for our two nights in Athens, drooling over trendy design hotels and rooftop pools, but in the end my Mom’s sensibly convinced me that for such a short stay location was king. And with a ten minute walk to the Acropolis and the Temple of Zeus out our window- we couldn’t have asked for much better lest we stayed in the Parthenon itself.
Even better than the view from the window? The view from the rooftop restaurant!
Despite our anxiousness to get out and start exploring, I took an hour to catch up on blogging first. Just look at that dedication! (Be impressed, guys, okay? I really thrive on praise.)
After jumping around the hotel room for a bit with excitement and disbelief that our endless planning (we are both detail oriented travel planners that spend hours poring over Tripadvisor reviews) was finally coming to fruition, we braved the heat to enjoy our first afternoon in Athens.
First stop, the City Sightseeing Tour, of course! I swear, these guys should be paying me now as this was my fourth trip of the summer. There are two lines on the Athens tour, the Red Line that covers the highlights of the city (including the Acropolis, The National Gardens, the New Acropolis Museum, etc) and the Blue Line that goes to the pier town of Pireaus. For a few Euro extra we purchased the Blue Line add-on but in retrospect I don’t recommend it. It’s basically for ferrying people to and from the cruise ships and the tour is quite boring. I could go ahead and blame the jetlag but I won’t- we both fell asleep. Just do the Red Line.
We didn’t do any hopping on and off but rather used the tour as a way to get our bearings around the city and get an overview while not exerting too much energy- did I mention that my Mom had just got off a twelve hour flight and I spent the previous night on the floor of Heathrow?
The tour also gave us a good vantage point to observe some of the protests and strikes going on around the city (little did we know how prominently these would feature in our time in Greece…) Anyone who can read Greek want to shed a little light on what these say?
Exhausted from travel, we decided to call it an early night and save our energy for the next day. We ended the first day of our adventure with a drink on the roof of our hotel, soaking in the amazing views again. I marveled at what it would be like to live in a city like this, with a piece of ancient civilization visible from every corner, a reminder of what an important place in history your ancestors had. As amazing as New York City may be, we don’t exactly get to look around and see culminations of architectural and artistic genius from 400BC. (Giant rats, on the other hand? Yes, we do see those).
As our only full day in Athens, we had to make these hours count. Our first stop was to the Greece is For Lovers store, which we found tragically closed for business. Even so, I recommend a peek at their website for some MOMA design store-esque greek humor. Next we headed to the fairly new (circa 2009) Acropolis Museum in order to learn a bit about what we would see later that afternoon.
The Museum is built over and around an archeological site, and the architects made clever use of this location with cut outs and glass floors sprinkled across the museum. It was just another reminder that Athens is a city breathing with history.
From floor to ceiling, this was the most well designed museum I have ever step foot in. I don’t know if museum design-ing is an official career, but if so, this should be held up as the gold standard. My only complaint was the pesky no photo rule that kept me shooting blind with my camera hidden in my purse.
The top floor of the museum (where the no photo rule was too strictly enforced for a sneaky shot) is in the same modern style of the museum but is laid out as a replica of the size and shape of the Parthenon and features excavated marble friezes in their original respective locations. This clever layout gives you a feel for what it would be like to walk amongst the massive columns of the Acropolis while admiring the friezes that once adorned it.
After all that history, we needed some mindless wandering and lunch in the lovely albeit touristy Plaka area. Rather than hop in a cab (out due to the taxi strike) or fuss with the sweaty and pickpocket filled subway, we traveled by foot. What a great way to get to know a new place. Had we been zipping by via motorized vehicle, we never would have stumbled upon this Athens based branch of the State University of New York! Growing up in the shadow of SUNY Albany and having many friends that went on to attend other SUNY schools, I was tickled by this find.
Wandering into the Plaka district we passed this amazing hotel, just one of so many examples of fabulous design we saw sprinkled around Athens. If there’s one thing I love about cities, its the little patches of creativity cropping up around every corner. So many unique and artistic minds in one place are bound to come up with some things!
After lunch at a lovely outdoor tavern, I filled up on dessert a cute gelato shop, while others apparently enjoy snacking on freeze dried olives. One word: yuk.
We enjoyed getting lost on the windy streets and popping into sign-less shops, listening to conversations we couldn’t understand, and admiring the charming postcard worthy scenes unfolding on every corner.
With the heat and crowds of mid-day over, we were ready for our carefully timed visit to the Acropolis.
Before this trip I was kind of confused about the terms Acropolis (means “high city” in Greek and refers to the entire ruins complex) and Parthenon (the iconic temple which sits on the Acropolis) and what the actual significance of the site was. Going to the museum earlier in the day cleared a lot of that up for me, and I think really enhanced my visit.
Walking towards the Parthenon in the acropolis complex, we heard classical music floating through the air and followed it to the Odean of Herodes Atticus, where we found a dress rehearsal for a performance the following night. I love that a structure that dates back to 161 AD is still being used to this day!
One thing I love about travel is things that you would breeze past at home become absolutely fascinating when they are in a different place. Take this sign I became so besotted with for example. I’m guessing it probably says something like “toilets this way,” but don’t those hammered metal letters look like art when they make up those funny Greek symbols?
The corner of the Acropolis where the flag stands offers amazing views over the Plaka district and the rest of the city, and it also has a great story of Greek pride behind it.
When the Germans occupied Athens during World War II, the guard of the Greek flag was ordered to remove it and fly the Nazi flag in its place. Rather than be forced to commit such treason, he took down the Greek flag, wrapped himself in it and jumped over the ledge to his death.
There is the curse of traveling as a duo and that is that it is near impossible to get a decent photo. We handed the camera off to a few different people and this was our best result:
Um, yeah. Nice how you can see the Parthenon and all, considering that’s basically the reason people come to Athens. At least I had my artistic and photo-happy Mommy with me so I could get in front of the camera a few times with much better results.
She was such a good sport she didn’t complain once when I spent fifteen minutes in front of this temple, patiently waiting for the other lingering tourists to get out of my shot.
After such a knowledge and physical activity filled day, we were ready to take on one of our favorite activities from home, with a Greek twist: attend an outdoor movie theatre. There are dozens sprinkled around Athens but we went for the Aigli, one of the oldest and, nestled in the Zappeion Gardens, best located theatres in the city.
If you go I highly recommend dinner at the adjoining restaurant before hand. Nóstima! (Or delicious, to you non-Greek speakers).
So, what kind of indie movie were they showing at this ancient, artsy theatre? How about this one:
A silly summer blockbuster was actually the perfect thing. It really was fun watching a movie outside, watching bats fly past the screen and feeling the summer breeze blow past you. It was the perfect urban answer to the drive-in movie theatres I always loved at home at home.
We didn’t want to waste our final morning in Athens, but with only a few hours before departing for the pier we had to pick a quick activity. We chose to hike up Philopappou Hill in order to stretch our legs a bit, get an eye-level view of the Acropolis, and work on a secret photo project that will be revealed later!
High above the city, I reflected on my impressions of Athens over a too-short 48 hours. Before arrival I had been warned that Athens was dirty, dusty city with nothing to do or see apart from the Acropolis. All I can say is that is not the city that I got to know. I found a lively, modern design and ancient history filled city in a great location-both islands and mountains in easy reach! I’m already on the hunt for new Athens-native friends to go spend a summer visiting: zipping around Athens on a moped, taking in the summer nightlife on the waterfront, and hoping on ferries out to the islands. Do you fit this description? Apply at alex [at] alexinwanderland.com
Haven’t had enough? See all my Athens photos via Flickr here.