Three days in and around Athens

One of the best things about Athens is the metro is SO CHEAP! Perhaps my opinion is skewed from becoming accustomed to the exorbitant prices of public transport in the UK, but €1.40 per journey sounds almost too good to be true. Well done, Greece.

The public transport network in Athens in excellent, amongst the buses, trains and metro, there are few places in the city that it won’t take you, however, if you want to explore the city’s surroundings, then you are better off hiring a car.

Greek driving reminds me of East African driving, so I’ve written a few tips for anyone brave enough to try:
1. Everyone else has right of way.
2. If you are in an accident, you will get shouted at even if it isn’t your fault. Shout back, even if it is your fault.
3. One way signs are more guidelines than law.
4. When parking, it is okay to nudge the surrounding cars.
5. If your manoeuvre holds people up and creates a string of traffic, that’s okay, you take your time.

I’ve been to Athens many times over the years and have spent some days in the city and some days around it. I’ll start with recommendations for the city and then go on to my favourite things around the city.

Syntagma Square
Syntagma Square is one of the tree main squares in Athens. This one lies in the political district, so here you will be amongst any rioting and protesting that might happen. Greece recently cut all pensions by up to 30% and are making further cuts, so you may well see more of these demonstrations than you might expect.

Next to the metro station is Hard Rock Cafe, which is an American chain with restaurants all over the world, mostly known for their interior decor with guitars and vinyl records signed by their composers/artists. This one is no exception to the trend and has a range of seasonal events and offers! Check out their website for the current and upcoming discounts.

On the square is Hotel Grand Bretagne, ironically named ‘Great Britain’ in French. Go figure. This is a wonderfully posh restaurant with a stunning view of the Acropolis, which is lit up at night.

Around the square are fancy shops selling designer clothes, watches, jewellery and ridiculous shoes for ridiculous people made from ridiculous material like crocodile scrotum or something equally over the top.

If you venture a little further away from the square, you will find more affordable shops like H&M and Sephora. Amongst the midst of shops for regular people, is the single greatest recommendation I can make: have a gyro at Meatropolis. Aside from the witty pun in its name, if you haven’t had a gyro, it will change your life. It’s a typically Greek wrap of deliciousness so you will find restaurants doing gyros all over the place, but Meatropolis is the best one I have found in Athens. Sorry vegetarians and vegans – a gyro is seasoned kebab meat (a choice of chicken, lamb, or pork) slathered in tzatziki, salad, and chips, rolled in a fresh pitta bread. It is divine.

Acropolis Walk
From Syntagma, you can walk to the Acropolis, which is a must if you haven’t seen it in real life. On a sunny day, it will glisten in the sunshine giving you an idea of what it looked like when it was first built. You can spend plenty of time exploring these ruins and admiring the impressive ancient architecture, climbing the hill to eventually reach the temple of Zeus and a great view of the city. Students and seniors get a discount on the €20 entrance fee. Warning: if you climb on the ruins, you will probably get shouted at.

Surrounding the ruins is the Acropolis walk, which is completely pedestrianised with its cobbled surface circuiting the Acropolis site.
This is an excellent place to buy your souvenirs and tourist tat, but make sure you haggle the street vendors down. On Sundays, it is delightfully busy with street performers to accompany the tourist stalls. Church finishes at about 9.30am, from when the entertainers flock to the walk to nab themselves a performing spot. It is a lovely atmosphere, and leaves you to take your time to stroll around and soak it in. Cash is a must if you want to buy anything/support the buskers.

Filopappou Hill is adjacent to the Acropolis for a good view of the city with the iconic Acropolis in your frame.

You can easily find it from the walkway, and there is a kiosk selling tickets. Filopappou itself is free, but if you want access to the archaeological site on the hill, you will need to pay a small entrance fee here.

When walking up, stray from the paths and you might get a glimpse of some of the wildlife on the hill!
There are other viewing platforms in Athens, for example, Strefi Hill or Lycabettus Hill, each offering a fabulous view of the city.

Plaka
Next to the Acropolis is Plaka, Athens’ oldest restaurant area. Ouzo is a grim drink and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it is the Greek spirit so you may wish to give it a go here in Plaka. Locals mix it with water to savour the taste rather than shotting it to limit the unpleasantness.
I have eaten in Plaka a number of times, and honestly, I’d rather have a gyro, but I appreciate it is one of the “things to do” in Athens. Don’t expect high quality here, but ths street art is worth a look!

Surrounding the restaurants are various shops, some selling impressive artworks which are free to enter if you don’t want to pay for a gallery. I particularly liked Das ot art, a shop which allows you to choose a ceramic dish and paint it with your own design, before they glaze it for you so that it is ready for use! Opposite here is a yoghurt shop, which sounds incredibly dull, but is more like a gelato shop that you might find in Italy only selling yoghurt-based produce such as ice cream, smoothies and sundaes. Even if you don’t fancy it, it’s worth a look to appreciate the imagination behind some of the concoctions.

Monasteraki Square
If you keep walking, past the old train track, you will eventually get to Monasteraki Square. The track is for the old train, for which each carriage is completely covered with graffiti.
Monasteraki Square is the second of the main three squares in Athens. You will often find locals chilling on the funky benches having a snack or catching up with friends. Have a look at the Church and the Mosque, both within metres of one another, to appreciate the Turkish influence on this area.

You will also find holes in the ground, surrounded by railings. If you have a look down, you will find a river running beneath ground level. This is what the ground level used to be!
Again, if you come here on a Sunday after church hours, you can find lots of music and dancing.

Psirri

Psirri is surrounding Monasteraki Square and a place I’m going to compare to Brixton; used to be dodgy af but hs been massively gentrified and now is filled with young people drinking and chilling at the hipster bars. Walk down Pittaki Street to see some questionable lamp shades hung out like washing, to Little Kook, a bar/restaurant that is almost always festively and excessively decorated.

Turn right towards more bars and restaurants filled with young people after work (Wednesday is a half day!).

Parnetha

A day trip to Parnetha was lovely. You can get there by public transport but easier is driving, despite the questionable traffic laws.

Head towards the mountain, stopping for Bougatsa from the Gregg’s-like store called Bougatsa Polion, next to the slightly more obvious Voi & Noi shoe shop. Both of these are worth your time – bougatsa is a delicious pastry filled with a custard-like sauce, sprinkled with cinnamon and so much sugar. My description does not do it justice, and I would recommend one between two people as they are huge but so worth the calories, especially when followed by mountain climbing. Be sure to check out Voi & Noi show shop too for the ridiculously high heels that only youths would be able to walk in, but also for the stupidly cheap branded running shoes. I bought a pair of Nike trainers for €30; excellent value.

Park up in the underground car park at the cable car, which had the fanciest cable car stations I’ve ever seen. The cable car is free and is on the city side of the mountain so offers amazing city views, and although you are just a little bit too far from the Acropolis for that to make an appearance in your skyline, you can still see the coast and the vastness of the capital. The top station is a hotel where many people enjoy tea and cake with beautiful views across Athens.

If you decide not to take the cable car, then pop your head into the station anyway because it looks like a fancy hotel with what can only be described as interesting artworks hanging from the ceiling.

You can then drive up towards the wonderful things the mountain had to offer. You still get the stunning views that you would have on the cable car but you have the added freedom to stop whenever there is a lay by to admire them.

We drove to Agia Triada (Holy Trinity), where there is a natural water source and therefore a congregation spot for the wild deer. There are often deer here, hanging out together or getting their fix of natural spring water.

Speaking of natural spring water, if you continue driving to Palio Hora (literally translates as old place), someone has fixed up a tap to pour the natural mountain spring water for your convenience. It tastes amazing – so fresh! Be sure to take plenty of empty containers so you can drive back with supplies!

From here is a gentle walking trail/running track that takes you back round to the city side of the mountain, which is about a 10km round trip. I ran it and met no other humans. The silence was serene, made even better when coupled with epic nature views!

On the way down, you can stop at the abandoned hotel, once called Xenia before it burned down. Nobody monitors this place and I didn’t even see another car, so you can be as adventurous as you like in exploring this eerie dilapidated shell of a building. I am unsure of the structural integrity of it so explore at your own risk.

Boat cruise

The idea of a cruise has always sounded super posh to me, but from Piraeus there are tourist boats that take you to the Greek islands (of which there are many). If you are short on time, then you can do a day cruise that has a 6.30am departure, but fear not, the on board bar is also open at this time. I think 6.30am is my record for earliest cocktail of the day.

The boat trip includes lunch and a stop at three islands: Poros, Hydra, and Aegina (sometimes spelt Egina).

First stop was Poros, a small island with no cars at all. It was nice to be away from the smog of Athens (that you get in any capital city these days) and to be exploring this paradisic island sloping down towards the Med. We ran up to the top of the mountain that is essentially the entire island until we met some private property guarded by dogs, who chased us back down again. Obviously we escaped unscathed, mostly giggling at our close encounter before spontaneously getting a donkey ride around the coast before jumping back on the boat for island number 2.

Hydra is the biggest of the three and also had a mountain, so naturally we climbed it, this time we were able to reach the top where a tower stands donning the Greek flag! Sean fancied a dip in the sea which was quickly regretted when he felt how cold it was!

Next stop was Aegina after our buffet lunch, included with our cruise. Most boat companies offer tours for an extra fee on Aegina, but we fancied the quad biking option more. You will need your driver’s licence in order to hire one but then can go whizzing round the coastal roads on the island.

Most boats also have a deck for you to feel the wind through your hair and enjoy the view of the land masses passing us on either side, or watch the sunset!

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