We’re all well aware of the historical achievements of the great Athenian Empire and its 5000 year history. In between founding democracy and building near impossible structures that’ll make you wonder if the Greek Gods did in some form intervene in their creation, they’ve also understandably had a few… ups and downs. The country’s current economic disaster is the latest unfortunate misstep of a once thriving nation, but while traveling through recently I was astounded by a city that has managed to reinvent itself as a contemporary hot spot whilst dealing with extreme austerity. Sure, you needn’t look far for signs that Athens is struggling – turn a corner of a trendy street and you’ll wonder if you went on an an acid trip and ended up in Compton – but throughout the hardship, this is a city of hope. Athenians are a determined and united people, and I couldn’t help but be captured by their incredible spirit, and as a traveler, a genuine sense of hospitality that I’d begun to believe no longer existed in the modern world.
I’ll admit that Athens wasn’t at the top of my list when I imagined my list of Greek destinations. Take me to the white Cycladic architecture of Santorini, or the Ionian island of Corfu (and umm.. beaches), but the solitary pull of Athens was its historical magnitude. That said, I discovered more than I bargained for when I took my partner (a massive Greek and Roman history geek) as a present for his birthday. I found we both got exactly what we wanted from our little adventure – from bucket list landmarks to a surprisingly developed vegetarian and third-wave coffee movement. But most of all, we fell in love with the people of Athens, who consistently went above and beyond to make us feel at home in their still great city.
This post is for those, who, like me – enjoy sightseeing but need a little break to refuel from time to time (with coffee, food and a large splash of authentic local culture). First though – some tips to get your history tank full.
It covers ALL the major archeological attractions – Acropolis, Ancient Agora, Hadrian’s Library (no, sadly you can’t rent books there anymore) and more. It’ll set you back €30, which I would consider a fair price considering all the selfie opportunities that await you. Seriously though – leave the selfie stick at home. No need to pay in advance either – they accept cash or card in any of the aforementioned sites.
Rent a car
My partner and I decided to visit the ancient (I know, everything is ancient) city of Mycenae, around 1.5 hours outside of Athens. There is so much to see within Athens itself, but the major sites are conveniently located within walking distance of one another, so it’s really easy to cover them all in 2 days. If you have a longer stay – I’d definitely recommend a road trip. Car rental is cheap – but beware of toll point on the freeways. I believe it cost an additional €12, so just make sure you bring coins and cash.
Mycenae is incredible; I happened to be suffering from a stomach bug on the day we went, so I had to frequently stop, hunch over and attempt to muffle my screams – but I’m still glad we went!
History: Check! But where should you base yourself to enjoy all the highlights?
Stay in Monasteriki for the cool vibe
Monasteriki, Psirri, Kolonaki are all around walking distance from the Acropolis. We stayed in Monasteriki – and we didn’t regret it. The energy here is infectious – from the busy little streets with trendy cafes, restaurants and bars all with their own personal style and atmosphere, you won’t get bored easily round these parts.
Experience third wave coffee in style
I was so pleasantly surprised that coffee art had hit Athens. There aren’t so many to speak of as yet, but the places that do exist are 100% worth the visit.
First, and most impressive on the list was Tailor Made.
They don’t really serve food (only a few sweet treats) but the coffee is worth the visit. No milk alternatives (although I couldn’t find any cafes serving them) but the filter coffee varieties are exquisite. I bought a filter coffee (150g for €6) and it’s bloody amazing. We came here twice during our stay, and I would’ve happily gone every day for the rest of my happy new life in Athens.
Then we have Cafe Taf. Again, no food is served but next door is a cute little traditional pie store, so go on – grab yourself a pie. I had a pretty delicious filter coffee, and my boyfriend was quite taken with his flat white (damn you, regular milk drinkers and your privilege!)
Skip the diet and eat all the food
As a generally health-conscious person, I do have a rule that keeps me sane. When traveling – eat all the food. Obviously I’m a vegetarian wherever I go, but if the regional dish happens to be fat baked in more fat with a side of oil – I’m in. There’s usually a reason these local favourites become world famous, so I’m of the ‘eat as an experience’ mindset on this one. That said – the famous Greek salad was my go-to on this trip. It was light (ish), nutritious and always tasty. And it made me feel like I was eating my greens.
I didn’t have any issues being vegetarian here- although vegans might have some tough choices. Cheese and yogurt appeared on most of my plates, but the customer service here is so above average that you could probably ask them to trace the origins of each ingredient and they’d be ok with it. We generally ate around Monasteriki because there was no shortage of options. Top tip – one of the most touristy looking restaurants called Efcharis was actually really worth a visit.
If you’re specifically looking for vegetarian food – try Avocado. It’s a couple of euro’s more pricey than most (around €12-€15 eur for a main) but the food is spectacular. Oh and check out Felafellas (near Tailor Made cafe) for a deliciously sinful and cheap as chips felafel sandwich.
Drinks? Yes please (or nai parakalò)!
- For a quiet cocktail before the big party: The Blue Parrot (Ble Papagalos) is excellent and a haven around a few of those dodgy looking streets I mentioned earlier. The contrast is staggering.
- When you’re ready to turn it up a notch – head to Six Dogs. The garden seating out the back is much more interesting that what’s going on inside. Get there before 9pm on a weekend though to grab yourself a seat.
- Craft beer fan? Athens has that, too. Head over to Athens Beer (because who has time to think of a more creative name?). It’s also conveniently located on the street shared by Avocado!
So that’s that – 4 days in Athens, a few extra kilos and an unexpected addition to my ‘will return’ list. With an unmistakable magic that flows effortlessly through the streets, a spirit of generosity and altruism, and all that rich history – Athens is truly a city for everyone.