In defence of Athens – a diamond in the rough

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.

The Acropolis is an ancient city built on a hill that overlooks Athens. (Acropolis means ‘high city’ in Greek.) It houses one of the world’s most iconic buildings: the Parthenon. (Credit: ccarlstad - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Acropolis_from_Philopappos_Hill.jpg)
The Acropolis is an ancient city built on a hill that overlooks Athens. (Acropolis means ‘high city’ in Greek.) It houses one of the world’s most iconic buildings: the Parthenon.

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.

Street art of goddess Athena in Athens (Pic: www.grooveisintheheart.co.za)
A different take on Athena, the goddess of wisdom and protector of Athens.

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.

Monastiraki square in Athens with the Parthenon visible on Acropolis hill in the background. It is a great place for people watching and treasure hunting at the local flea market. (Credit: www.grooveisintheheart.co.za)
Monastiraki square in Athens with the Parthenon visible on Acropolis hill in the background. It is a great place for people watching and treasure hunting at the local flea market.

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.

Scaffolding at the Acropolis. (Credit: grooveisintheheart.co.za)
Scaffolding at the Acropolis.

Regarding safety

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

The National Gardens in Athens
Escape from the heat in Athens’ National Gardens.

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.

A very welcome water fountain in Athens. (Credit: www.grooveisintheheart.co.za)
A very welcome water fountain in Athens.

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.)

An Ahens stray cat relaxing at the foot of the Acropolis. (Credit: www.grooveisintheheart.co.za)
A stray cat relaxing at the foot of the Acropolis.

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.)

Read more about Athens and Greece

6 thoughts on “In defence of Athens – a diamond in the rough

  • March 14, 2017 at 2:26 pm
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    I never felt unsafe when in Athens too. I do find the scaffolding in Acropolis an eyesore, but there are many gems like Kerameikos and Ancient Agora which provides good alternatives. And I enjoy walking along the streets of Psirri where the hippie stuff and graffiti arts come alive. There’s indeed lots to experience in Athens – so I agree with you!
    Andrew Darwitan recently posted…Graffiti in Athens: Street Art or Trash?My Profile

    Reply
    • March 15, 2017 at 9:42 am
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      Ah, that’s good to hear! Yes… the scaffolding in Acropolis bothered me too, but I guess there’s nothing we can do about it and the renovation work is important. So cool that you wrote a blog about the graffiti in Athens 🙂 Will check it out a bit later! Thanks for the visit.

      Reply
  • March 11, 2016 at 9:13 am
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    Oi! You left out the cats! Ilse “made” us buy the most freakin expensive catfood available and made us sit on deserted side streets so that we can feed the stray cats of Athens. They were happy and Ilse was happy. OK, I was also happy. It did make you stop and watch Athens move rather than being on the move all the time.

    Reply
    • March 12, 2016 at 2:57 pm
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      Oh yes, the cats, you are so right! I wish I could have seen that – the two of you sitting in a deserted street with cat food. “Here, kitty, kitty!” I added a photo of an Athens cat especially for you. I must say, I was also very happy every time I came across one 🙂

      Reply
  • March 6, 2016 at 8:40 pm
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    …it would be a privilege for anyone to be your companion-traveler, even if it’s a notebook in your pocket to such an exclusive right.

    Reply
    • March 8, 2016 at 1:34 pm
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      Wow! Thanks Beate. It would be such a delight to travel with you – we’d see and experience so much beauty together!

      Reply

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