We were a little bit nervous about going to Greece, seeing as how the only Greek B and I know is "Beta Theta Pi" and "Phi Beta Chi," respectively. Somehow I figured fraternity and sorority designations weren't going to help us navigate a city. We needn't have worried. Everything in Greece is in Greek...and English. We had an easier time getting around Greece than we do getting around France sometimes (no joke!). If that's a concern of yours about visiting Greece, well, it shouldn't be.
Sadly, neither of us was a big fan of Athens. We had differing opinions about every other stop on our Eurotour, but this was the one stop we agreed upon: we are in absolutely zero hurry to rush back here. It was cool to see the Parthenon and Acropolis Hill, but after that we were pretty much done. But it's the kind of thing you have to do and see at least once. Also, the Greek food was not what we were expecting. We only had stuffed grape leaves and spanikopita once in Athens, and neither was of the quality we were expecting - we've had better at Greenville's annual Greek Festival.
If you're going to Athens and it's all Greek to you, keep reading to learn what to do and where to eat in the cradle of civilization.
Where to Stay
1 // Acropolis Select Hotel // If you're looking for a good location, you won't find much better than this. It's only a 10-minute walk to the Acropolis Hill, Plaka, and general Athens merriment. We never once took the subway. The staff was incredibly friendly and helpful, offering suggestions for restaurants, things to see, and the best time to go up on the Acropolis Hill (hint: not 2:00 p.m.). There's someone on duty 24 hours a day, which was lucky because thanks to the airport strike in Athens we didn't arrive at the hotel until 3:00 in the morning. They arranged for a cab both from and to the airport for us for a set fee, so we didn't have to worry about getting ripped off by some cabbie. And after we checked into our RyanAir flights, they happily printed our boarding passes for us. The staff could not have been nicer or more accommodating, which was such a relief given our weird arrival/departure times from the hotel.
The rooms seem like they've been renovated recently, but the bathrooms definitely have not, and they're due for an update. However, it definitely worked for our purposes. Nothing too fancy, but a good, safe, convenient place to stay, and that's mostly all we ask. Again, if you're honeymooning, maybe consider somewhere else. If you're out to see the sights, this place is great.
What to Do
1 // Acropolis Hill and Parthenon // This is really the big, famous, must-see attraction in Athens. It was a little disappointing because the Parthenon was undergoing renovations so there was a lot of construction equipment and scaffolding ruining my photos, but I suppose if I was several thousand years old I'd need a face lift, too. From the top, you get a 360-degree view of the city of Athens, which is huge. I had no idea it covered that much area. There were buildings and houses as far as the eye could see.
The ruins up and down the hillside were also fascinating. It still boggles my mind that these buildings that were built so long ago are still standing, even in some part. Even if they're crumbling. Because what are the odds that anything mankind has built recently will last 2,000+ years? Exactly. Now is the point at which I could make some kind of social commentary about how ours is a throwaway society and nothing we do these days is built for longevity, but I'll spare you that rant. Just go see some ruins. They've been around as long as, if not longer than, Christ. I promise, they'll inspire you.
2 // Tour the Plaka // I'm a sucker for quaint neighborhoods, so the Plaka (the old historical neighborhood of Athens) was delightful. It's crowded with shops and restaurants/bars, although there are some residential areas as well. I think my favorite part of the Plaka is the way greenery is incorporated so seamlessly and delightfully into the construction. There are hanging plants and trees everywhere, and I really love it. Be careful if you decide to eat here: it's a very touristy area, which means high prices and low quality. I'd recommend just grabbing a drink here and enjoying the atmosphere, and go get dinner elsewhere. But don't miss this adorable neighborhood.
4 // The Ancient Agora // Entry to this one came with our ticket to the Parthenon and Acropolis Hill - you actually purchase one ticket that has tearaway strips for several locations of ruins in Athens. As this was very near where we ate lunch on our second day in Athens, we decided to stop in for a visit. It was actually pretty cool. I liked the Temple of Hephaestos -it seemed (to me, anyway) better preserved than the Parthenon. Of course, my favorite part of all of this was the sweetheart stray pups that were all around, usually passed out under trees. If I could've adopted about 75 Greek doggies, I would've.
Where to Eat
1 // For authentic Greek food // This restaurant happened to be #1 on TripAdvisor and just a couple of blocks from our hotel. As my beloved Mimi used to say, "Even planning can't beat dumb luck." And we did get lucky. In fact, we wound up eating here twice: once for lunch and once for dinner. When we came for lunch, B had moussaka which he raved about, and I had divine stuffed zucchini topped with bechamel sauce (When I asked B what the odds were that I could make it at home, he said, "Sure. Just get a dowel rod and give a zucchini a colonoscopy." He's a funny one, my husband).
Anyway. There was no spanikopita or stuffed grape leaves on this menu. This was real Greek food. When we came back for dinner, we split a whole grilled bream (divine), a Greek salad (divine), and homemade tzatziki sauce (HOT. DAMN.). That tzatziki sauce is what brought us back the second time. Hands down, best I've ever eaten in my life. SO fresh and bright, with big chunks of cucumbers and a generous amount of dill (which I love). This restaurant is not a glossy tourist trap - it's pretty basic. But I promise, it's more than worth it. Don't forget the tzatziki.
2 // For modern Greek food // After exploring the Parthenon and Acropolis Hill our first night, we were in search of food, but not too much since we were still full from lunch. TripAdvisor pointed us toward Makalo, a quirky little place that serves modern Greek food. The "menu" is actually a picture album with the menu items in both Greek and English stuffed into the photo slots. We both got salads. B's was a couscous salad with apple, feta, carrots, sunflower seeds and I'm not even sure what else. Mine was a salad with romaine, arugula, mint, tomatoes, cucumbers, and fried haloumi cheese. Both salads were good, but B and I both liked his more. We loved the funky atmosphere and the wonderful fresh salads - a great place to visit if your digestive system is getting tired of heavier fare.
Tips and Tricks
1 // The Athens airport is incredibly nice. It's the antithesis of the Rome airports. It's well air-conditioned, there is tons of seating (we never once had to sit on the floor), and the food and shopping options are plentiful. We spent about seven hours there en route from Santorini to London, and it was freakishly pleasant. There was free wi-fi, and I read an entire book while I was there. We began by getting yummy cappuccinos and mini croissant sandwiches, and ended with a sausage and mushroom stromboli and Reece's Pieces. There was a ton of shopping; I had to restrain myself from buying everything in the Korres store. I always had a chair, and a comfortable one at that. Rome, please take note. This is what an airport should be like.
2 // Bring change. Not just cash, mind you: change. Everything from pennies up to a 2-euro coin. Because of the economy, many businesses in Greece are unable to produce enough up-front capital to have change to give to clients. It's not such a big deal if, say, your meal is 9.80 and you pay with a 10. But if your meal is 15 euros and you pay with a 20, they may not be able to give you 5 euros back. We saved up change for several weeks before our trip and carried it around with us in a coin purse.
Anyway. That's all she wrote, folks, from the Olympic City. Stay tuned, because the best pictures from the trip are up next...Santorini!
E & B