Considered the birthplace of Western civilization, Athens is the capital of Greece, and with its 3500 years of history, one of the oldest cities in Europe.
Classical Athens brought us the Arts, the Academy, democracy and philosophy. Nowadays, it’s a huge metropolis where over 3 million people live and 4 to 5 millions travel to each year.
For many pictures of what expects you in the city of Athens, check out this post: Photo Gallery – Athens Impressions
Without further ado, here’s your practical guide to Athens :
WHEN TO GO
In the Fall or Spring for the best weather.
Winter can be rainy but doesn’t get very cold and is the best time to go for your wallet.
The summer months would be the worst due to the combination of overwhelming heat, high prices & hordes of tourists.
Tip : We travelled in March and it was perfect. No crowds, reduced winter prices, mild temperatures & a lot of sun !
HOW LONG TO STAY
Allow at least 3 days to comfortably visit the city and more if you want to visit lots of museums and all the archaeology sites. There are several day tours leaving from Athens aswell. If you plan to visit the Piraeus and cruise to the islands or head to Meteora, a whole week won’t be too much.
If your time in Athens is limited, check out this post : 1 day in Athens
Coming soon : 3 days in Athens
The official language is of course, Greek.
Despite the different alphabet, everything is written in Latin alphabet (ours) as well, from signs at the airport to menus and even street names.
In the tourism industry, English and French are widely spoken.
Unlike the younger generations, older people will sometimes be hard to understand when they speak English.
They really appreciate if you know a few words in Greek and will probably teach you if you don’t.
When you go to Greece, the people’s reputation is one of warmth, friendliness & welcoming qualities.
This might not apply to Athens completely. We had different types of encounters. Some people were absolutely lovely, others were a little bit grumpy, most were in between. It’s a big city.
There are hustlers outside restaurants & shops in touristy areas. They can be a little too much. If you don’t mind people reading you the whole menu or showing you everything they have in store when you asked for opening hours, you won’t even notice.
Athens gets the undeserved reputation of being a dangerous city. It’s just one of those places people feel the need to «warn you about» before you leave. However, this isn’t true and Athens actually has a lower crime index than cities like Rome, Dublin or Paris. Just to put you at ease.
Due to the financial crisis and austerity measures, protests outside the Parliament may occur, but there is no reason why they should affect you if you stay away.
Neighbourhoods you might want to avoid at night include Omonia and northwest of the City.
Psiri and Gazi may seem like bad neighbourhoods, and have you walk through dodgy streets with graffiti on the walls, but they’re not actually dangerous. For the last decade, they have been renovated and redeveloped, and plenty of restaurants, cool bars and clubs have opened in those areas that have become the cool and hip nightlife hubs of the city.
In our personal experience, we walked around Athens every night and no one even approached us.
Always watch out for your personal belongings (especially on the metro), there are pickpockets everywhere in the world.
We spent an average of 50 euros per day, per person, in March.
This included a budget hotel room in the old historical center, transportation, attraction tickets, 3 meals a day (one meal at a restaurant & street food), and a couple of drinks at night.
You can spend a little less on food by only eating street food or cook yourself but not much less on accommodation by staying at a hostel. In fact, a good hostel will be more expensive than a budget private room. If you are travelling solo, hostels are still your best choice.
From the airport –
24 hour buses
Express bus X95, to Syntagma square.
Express bus x96, to the Piraeus.
Adults : 6 euros. 3 euros for seniors, children under 18 & students.
The ride should take a little over an hour to Syntagma square.
A taxi ride will cost 38 euros.
Metro Line 3, every 30 min to several stops in the center. They go every 10-15 min from the center to the airport. Takes 40 min to the center. Adults : 10 euros. Children, students & seniors : 5 euros. Runs from 6.30 am to 11.30 pm.
TIP: There was a strike when we arrived so metros were not going and the Express bus took over 2h to get to the center. This isn’t usual though. We got on the bus at around 6 pm, there was a european meeting, a demonstration & a strike all happening at the same time.
However, if metros are running, that’s the best option in my opinion. They’re faster, way cheaper than the taxi, & you will be on time for your flight.
In the city –
The historical city-center is small enough to be fully walkable. Since there are sights everywhere, it makes the walking not only enjoyable, but the most efficient option aswell. The Acropolis position makes it easy to always know where you are.
To go a little further or a little faster, there are 3 metro lines that will take you everywhere in the city and beyond. Metro line 3 takes you all the way to the airport. Metro line 1 takes you to the Piraeus.
The underground system is very easy to understand and use. Tickets are 1,40 euros & only 60 cents for children, seniors & students.
There are also many buses & trams that we didn’t use.
For detailed information, go to http://www.athenstransport.com/english/
General Tip : Strikes and demonstrations can disrupt public transport (it happened twice in a week that we were there). They’re usually announced in advance so make sure to get the info, especially if you have a flight to catch the next day.
THINGS TO SEE & DO
There is so much to see & do in Athens that this section deserves its own post.
coming soon – Athens things to see & do
Related post – Gallery : Athens Impressions
Where to shop –
The two areas to shop for souvenirs & typical greek products in the center are the Flea Market in Monastiraki, and Adrianou street, in the Plaka. Although tourist shops can be found everywhere in the Plaka.
For international brands, Ermou street is the main shopping avenue.
Still in downtown Athens, Athinas street is the place to go if you’re looking for cheap kitchenware, clothing and luggage shops. This is also where you’ll find the Central Market (essentially food, but also leather and other items).
Outside the center, The Mall Athens gathers countless stores, restaurants & a movie theater. Take metro line 1 and get off at Neratziotissa.
What to buy –
Printed T-Shirts, copper statues of the gods, ceramics, leather bags & shoes, paintings, and the usual magnets & postcards. Also, if you like military print clothing, it’s everywhere for some reason.
For girls, those Greek summer dresses are beautiful, but they’re usually high-priced (25-40 euros) for poor quality (one sized, one see-through layer of fabric, not the best sewing job).
You will come across pretty golden leaf headbands. Those come in a variety of prices (from 3 to 25 euros), depending on the material they’re made of. The ones priced around 20-25 euros are hard and heavy, sometimes with a stone at the base. Those you can get for 3 euros will literally break if you hold them too tight.
And of course, you can’t leave Greece without bringing back some olives, olive oil, Ouzo or honey with you.
Tips for the flea market & street shops –
- The Greeks don’t like to negotiate their prices. You can try and bargain a little, but don’t expect prices to drop just like that. Most of the time, you’re better off looking for a cheaper shop (which you will find).
- They can be aggressive when it comes to selling, and grumpy when you don’t want to buy. Just don’t let anyone push you into buying something that doesn’t fit or is too expensive for you.
- Prices are a little cheaper in the winter.
- They usually give you a 5 euro discount if you pay cash.
- Cheap T-shirts can be found towards the end of Monastiraki’s flea market, when you reach Aiolou street. I don’t know the name, but it’s an all T-Shirts shop. They start at 6 euros (cheaper than on the flea market itself).
- Cheap leaf headbands (5-6 euros) can be found at the end (or beginning) of the flea market, before reaching the cathedral.
What to eat & drink –
Raw products :
Olives, olive oil, honey, yogurt, feta cheese.
You’ll find that one or more of these ingredients are used for the preparation of every meal.
Typical dishes to try :
The traditional Moussaka which consists in layers of sautéed eggplant slices in tomato sauce, minced meat & Béchamel sauce on top.
Then you have the Gyro(s), meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie spread on warm pita bread with a yogurt sauce, and that usually comes with fries and salad or grilled vegetables. The Souvlaki is a takeaway wrap version of this. The Spanakopita is a delicious spinach pie. The Koulouri is a sesame bread ring that a lot of Athenians have for breakfast or as a snack on the go.
Other dishes to try include Tzatziki (cucumber yogurt dip), Saganaki (grilled cheese wth lemon or honey), fried zucchini or zucchini croquettes, Dolmades (rice stuffed vine leaves), stuffed peppers (Dolma family), Octopus & Squid, and of course, the «Greek salad» made with fresh tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese, olives, onions and olive oil.
There’s actually a lot more to Greek cuisine, these are just some of the more traditional dishes. Now you understand why you need to stay a few more days than initially planned …
The Greeks have a serious sweet tooth. They literally put honey on everything, and a lot of it too.
A favourite for breakfast or dessert is the Greek yogurt, thick creamy yogurt generously drizzled with honey and walnuts.
Popular traditional pastries include the Baklava (pastry layers & nuts with honey), Kataïfi (angel hair with honey) and Galaktoboureko (milk pie). Samali & Revani are syrupy semolina cakes.
Another Greek specialty are the Loukoumades, deep-fried dough balls covered in honey syrup and topped with cinnamon.
Greek coffee, which is similar to Turkish coffee, is thick and foamy.
Ouzo is a real symbol of Greece. The anise-flavoured alcoholic drink is widely consumed as an aperitif … and a digestif. This means that, although Ouzo is technically an aperitif (served before a meal to enhance your appetite), they also drink it after a meal (as a digestive aid). A lot of places in Athens will serve complimentary Ouzo after a meal. Raki is similar in taste, only stronger, as a proper digestif should be. For the record, I personally much prefered Ouzo.
Being a vegetarian in Athens –
Being a vegetarian wasn’t as complicated as I expected. Restaurants usually have at least a couple vegetarian options on the menu. Street food is even better with plenty to choose from. Souvlaki shops either have a vegetarian version on offer, or will make one for you on demand.
Where to eat –
Coming soon : Athens cheap eats, A sweet tooth in Athens
WHERE TO STAY
The best areas to stay in Athens are, in my opinion, Plaka and Monastiraki. Plaka, being the old historical Athens, is prettier, and Monastiraki, being in the middle of the nightlife scene, is cooler. But both are side by side, very central and within walking distance of all the main attractions.
Coming soon : Phaedra hotel
NIGHTLIFE & EVENTS
The most important event that annually takes place in Athens from mid June to mid September is the Athens Festival. The festival includes all sorts of cultural, musical, theatrical and artistic events. They usually take place on the slopes of the Acropolis, at the Odeon, and on Lycabettus hill. Ancient theater, opera, ballet, traditional and modern music performances are to be expected.
Athens is a city that never sleeps and has such great nightlife that it deserves its own post.
Coming soon : Athens nightlife