When I first started to read up on Athens as a tourist destination, I quickly discovered how many people regard this vibrant city as only a pitstop en route to the Greek islands – they do a quick tour of the Acropolis, grab dinner in the Plaka neighbourhood and catch the next ferry or flight to their chosen island.
I find this a real pity, as Athens has so much to offer. While a visit to the Acropolis was definitely the highlight of my Athens stay, it should not be rushed, and there is so much else that’s also worth exploring.
Tourists complain in online travel forums that the city is ugly, hot and crowded. Some also claim that they felt unsafe in certain areas at night. There are even tourists complaining about the scaffolding on the Acropolis that “ruined” their visit.
Well, here’s what I think: Athens is one of the world’s oldest cities (it has been inhabited continuously for at over 5 000 years) and you can expect to find architecture that spans many different styles over the millennia – from the incredible Greek and Roman ruins to the beautiful Byzantine churches, striking neoclassical buildings of the 18th and 19th century and, yes, the rows of ugly 20th century apartment buildings with their hideous protruding aircon boxes.
Acropolis restoration project
The “unsightly” scaffolding on the Acropolis is part of an ambitious restoration project that was started in 1975 and is now finally nearing completion. The aim of this 40-year-long project is to reverse the decay of centuries of wear and tear, pollution, destruction stemming from military use, and misguided past restorations so that our descendants will also enjoy the privilege of seeing the birthplace of Western Civilisation one day.
I visited Athens as a solo female traveller and never felt unsafe! My accommodation was a budget room near Omonia Square which, according to travel forums, is a “dangerous area with a high crime rate”. Admittedly it was not the most charming area, but no-one ever bothered me and I was close enough to the city centre. Omonia is a working-class neighbourhood with interesting markets and cheap shops (perfect for a budget traveller like myself). There’s a metro and bus stop nearby, and I could walk to the historic centre in about 15 minutes.
Beat the heat
Let’s talk about the heat. Of course it’s hot! It’s a Mediterranean country. And this is why you should do your homework before travelling. If you can’t handle the heat (and the crowds of people in peak season), you should not travel in summer. You can’t blame the city for that!
I opted to travel in mid-September, during the shoulder season. Travelling outside of the peak season not only means fewer people, it also means better deals on accommodation and flights.
It was still incredibly hot, but I planned my days wisely by spending the hottest hours in museums, markets and galleries, and the mornings and late afternoons outdoors. Just put on a hat and sunscreen, and drink lots of water. It’s good to know that the tap water in Greece is safe to drink – so refill your water bottle a few times during the day.
Greek national election
I was lucky to be in Athens during the national elections. It was very exciting – there were a few final public campaigns and protests, all done peacefully. I had the opportunity to chat to many Greeks and loved how proud they were of their heritage and how cheerful they remained, despite the economic crisis and chaos caused by “idiotic politicians who run the country”. (A sentiment not much different from that in my own beloved, but troubled, country.)
Athens is a wise old Dame with many wonderful stories to tell. I sat at her feet for only a few days and absorbed as much as I could, but there’s still so much more to see. I have promised myself, and Athena, that I will return one day.
(Pic of Acropolis Hill, as seen from Philopappos Hill, taken by ccarlstead. All other pics by Birgit@Groove Is In The Heart.)