Ever swiped right on a picture of someone with a dog, because of the dog? …
I love it when a destination takes you by surprise.
It’s easy to go into a trip with expectations. On one hand, if those expectations are met you are satisfied. On the other, if your expectations are higher, you can come away disappointed. But sometimes, just sometimes you come away inspired and delighted by expectations that were exceeded.
I first experienced this a number of years ago on a trip to the US. I was so excited to be heading to New York for the first time that I hadn’t put any thought into what I would expect in my other destination, Chicago and whilst New York was as vibrant and diverse as I thought it would be I was so impressed by Chicago, a stunning city built on the banks of the vast expanses of Lake Michigan with a more relaxed vibe than New York and everything a traveller could wish for.
Well, just last week I had a similar experience. I was headed to Athens for a conference and being a work trip, I hadn’t put too much thought into the destination or what to expect. I went in cold and I came away a little hot under the collar, wishing my time there could have been longer.
Athens as a stand-alone destination isn’t on Australian travellers’ radars. We tend to head to Paris or Rome for an iconic city stay, but I can tell you that I enjoyed Athens more than either of those great cities.
So why did I love it so much? It was a combination of all the things that make a city a pleasure to experience. Warm and welcoming people, great food, easy to use transport, cheap costs of living, history so real you can touch it, great food…hang on did I say that already?
If you have a trip to Europe planned for 2019, consider putting Athens on your itinerary.
A successful stay in Athens is all about location. Whilst there are a number of spots that you will find to be central, my preference is around the Syntagma Square area. Why there over the more touristy Plaka area, you may ask? Well for exactly that reason. The major roads heading out from Syntagma Square, such as Ermou Street, are bustling day and night with both locals and tourists. The locals go about their everyday lives and you can feel the vibes of daily life in the city – not the sanitised tourist version. There is also a major metro station there, so you can access all parts of the city and you’re around a 15-minute walk from the main entrance to the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora and less than 10 minutes walk to Plaka. It is all very accessible.
For a mid-range hotel that has one of the best locations in Athens I highly recommend the Electra Hotel. It’s located right on the main shopping street of Ermou and has a rooftop bar overlooking the Acropolis which, when lit up at night, is one of the most stunning locations you will ever likely have a drink.
If you want to splash out then just around the corner you’ll find the Electra Metropolis. Housed in the former Ministry of Education and only recently rebuilt into a 5-star hotel, it cannot be beaten for chic styling and modern amenities. Again, the rooftop pool, bar and restaurant looks out across the Acropolis but there’s also a serious highlight on the ground floor too. Ancient city walls were excavated during the construction of the hotel and have been built into the ground floor with glass viewing panels, so you can glimpse the glory of Ancient Greece.
It’s hard to get a bad meal in Greece (although perhaps as a vegan as you may struggle with the meat dominated food culture).
For a fun outdoor dining experience head down to Apostolou Pavlou Street. It is aimed at tourists but it will give you some great people watching and some good Greek food. Order a platter so you can try out a wide range of flavours as they come with a little of everything, olives, feta, grilled chicken, kebab, dolmades, pita, tzatziki, cheesy croquettes and lots of other little treats. It is perfect for sharing in the sunshine with a cold beer or a warm coffee.
Fitting with the current rage of street food there are vendors located all over the streets of Athens. You can have a walking feast taking in food such as freshly grilled corn on the cob, incredible fresh homemade donuts (find the old chap midway down Ermou Street, unbelievable donuts) chestnuts roasted right in front of you, incredible local pastries and Souvlaki from hole in the wall shops, some of which have been there for more than a hundred years. There really are endless options.
For a high-end dining experience, spend an evening at Cookoovaya. The seasonal menu delivers all the flavours you’d expect in a city with such a food-centric culture but in the form of high-end dining. Make sure you have their version of Bougasta, a layered pastry and custard dish. I won’t spoil it but there is a surprise.
Athens is a walking city. Despite the fact that the all-white cityscape sprawls from the mountains to the ocean, the city centre feels very compact. It is also very easy to orientate yourself as the towering Acropolis topped by the Parthenon is always a central reference point so you can see where you are and where you are going.
A great loop for your first day is to head down Ermou Street until you hit Monastiraki where you can wander the cobbled lanes lined with shops selling everything from souvenirs to high-quality leather handbags and purses.
Then make your way down Apostolou Pavlou Street until you come to the gates of the Ancient Agora where four Euros in winter or eight Euros in summer will give you access to the marketplace of classical Athens as well as the Temple of Hephaestus which is the best preserved Greek temple from the classical era.
If you head out the other entrance, on the opposite side to which you entered, you can then head to the gates of the Acropolis. The walk up the slopes to the top isn’t as difficult as it looks and there are plenty of vistas to stop and take a selfie with along the way.
You can then head into the Plaka area, stop for a beer at a taverna and then head back to your base for a swim in your rooftop pool.
For a more comprehensive tour in which you can immerse yourself in the history, you must contact Andrew at Athens Off The Beaten Track. There is nothing about this city he doesn’t know and he will take you to some secret locations, such as the best spot to watch the changing of the guards where you can leave the tourists behind.
Make sure you leave time for things like the Athens Archaeological Museum as well as the various museums attached to the sites like the Acropolis Museum. They will help tie together the long history of this amazing city.
When To Go
I’m a big proponent of avoiding Europe in peak season. The European summer (July and August) is hectic and cities on the Mediterranean are hot hot hot. It doesn’t make for happy exploring.
Shoulder season, spring and autumn are always good options but with more people travelling than ever, even the shoulder seasons can be busy. With the climate in Athens mild in winter, November to February is a viable option. You may need some layers as the temps can range from cool to mild to quite comfortably warm if the sun is shining.
Another bonus is that the attractions halve their entrance fees in the offseason and your airline tickets will be as cheap as they get.
If you’re heading over from May to October then you’re also in the perfect base to explore the Greek Islands. 45 minutes from the city centre and accessible by public transport or taxi is the port of Piraeus. From here you have daily ferries (weather dependent) heading out all across the Greek islands and you can explore less touristy spots like Ios and Paros or go all out in the party island of Mykonos.
If you already have to fly at least 24 hours to get somewhere you are best advised to take as few detours as possible.
There is nothing better than flying into your destination as direct as possible. See one of the many wonderful travel agents here in Canberra to be hooked up with the best price and connections.