I enjoyed Athens much more than I thought I would. My husband is the history buff, so I figured Athens would be his city, while the photogenic island of Santorini would be mine. Little did I know that I’d fall in love with the first stop on our Greece and Turkey vacation just as much as Anthony did.
There were four highlights that made the city so enchanting: our Airbnb, a six-hour walking tour, an intimate dinner with a Greek family, and lunch at one of the best restaurants of my life.
Our Airbnb was located in Psyrri, a gritty but gentrified neighborhood known for its trendy restaurants and nightlife (basically Athens’ version of Manhattan’s Lower East Side). Our apartment spanned the entire top floor of the building and had a large balcony that offered an unobstructed view of the Acropolis. It was so heavenly to fall asleep and wake up to the Parthenon every day. In many ways, Athens felt like a mini Rome, with its significant contributions to Western culture, stunning ruins scattered throughout town, and dilapidated buildings covered in artistic graffiti — except for one major difference: you can see the Acropolis from almost anywhere in Athens (whereas in Rome, you have to be right by the actual site to see it). There’s something incredibly romantic about that.
Anthony booked us a six-hour walking tour with Athens Walking Tours. On our first morning, we met our wonderfully nerdy tour guide named Aristotle (yes, seriously!) at Syntagma station, a metro station that contains some historic ruins discovered while the city was building the station. Aristotle was fantastic, which is no surprise since becoming a tour guide is quite competitive in Athens — you need a degree in history, archaeology, or philosophy, and apparently need to be able to walk for six hours straight. We walked over to the Royal Palace, which is the location of both the House of Parliament and the hourly changing of the guards, who are Greece’s most dedicated soldiers and wear funny shoes that weigh six pounds each. After passing through the relaxing National Gardens, we made our way to the Temple of Zeus, a colossal temple dedicated to the ruler of Olympian gods. It’s a beautiful temple, but since Athens is the city of Athena, Zeus’ temple was built at ground level while Athena’s glorious temple is up high on the Acropolis. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Temple of Zeus was quarried for its marble to supply projects elsewhere in the city. Only sixteen of the original 104 marble Corinthian columns remain today, but it’s still quite a sight.
After the Temple of Zeus, we hiked up to the Acropolis, which means “highest point of the city” and is easily the most iconic site in Athens. This flat, rocky outcrop is where you can find the Parthenon, Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike. The view gets better as you climb higher and higher, past the Theater of Dionysus and Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and up the marble steps to the very top. Apparently a contest between Poseidon and Athena determined whom the city should be named after; if Poseidon had won, Athens would most likely have been called Poseidonia instead.
My favorite structure on the Acropolis is Erechtheion, famous for its porch consisting of six draped maidens (caryatids) as supporting columns. The caryatids are not just beautiful but functional; each maiden has a bulky braid and thick neck to give enough support to hold up the ceiling. During the Byzantine period, the building was transformed into a church; under Frankish rule it became a palace; and under the Ottoman empire it became the residence of a Turkish commander’s harem. This recycling of buildings is a testament to Erechtheion’s magnificence — I’m sure if it were less impressive, other empires would have either left it abandoned or destroyed it completely.
In the 19th century, a Scottish diplomat named Lord Elgin stole portions of the Acropolis (including one of the caryatids) to decorate his Scottish mansion. These marble artifacts were later sold to the British Museum, where they remain to this day. The other caryatids were moved to the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. Hopefully some day, the UK finally will return the last caryatid to its rightful city. #bringbackourmarbles!
Last but not least is the Parthenon, the structure I’m most familiar with thanks to studying art history. This is the single most important symbol of Greek cultural heritage. The impeccable detail paid to the architecture of the Parthenon demonstrates how much the Athenians valued Athena. The temple is objectively pleasing to the eye due to the Greeks’ impressive understanding of perspective. While the temple looks like a perfect rectangle, there are actually no straight lines. The columns lean slightly inward to give the illusion of straight lines, while the four corner columns are wider since being on a corner and set against the blue sky make them appear thinner and farther apart than other columns. The Greeks take perfectionism to a whole new level. The Parthenon was eventually turned into a mosque in the early 1460s after the Ottoman conquest, and then in 1687 the Venetians caused an explosion that severely damaged it. In the 1800s, Lord Elgin (him again!) stole some of the surviving sculptures and later sold them to the British Museum.
What surprised me most on our tour was that all of these classical buildings used to be brightly painted. It’s almost comical that our image of Greek buildings are understated marble ruins, yet the Greeks covered that beautiful marble with vibrant colors.
A tour of the Acropolis is not complete without visiting the new Acropolis Museum, one of the most incredible museums I’ve ever visited. It was built to house artifacts found on the Acropolis and sits on top of ruins that are still being excavated. You can even watch the excavation happening if you peer down through the glass floor inside the museum! The building’s beautiful design evokes the mathematical and conceptual clarity of ancient Greek architecture. Throughout the museum, you can see the actual Acropolis outside, and the top floor of the museum is modeled after the Acropolis, giving visitors a rare opportunity to experience the temple’s perfect proportions. The British Museum has absolutely no excuse for not returning the Acropolis artifacts to Greece now, as the museum’s sole intention was to provide a worthy place for them.
Every time we travel, I try to organize either a cooking class or a meal with a local family, as food is the best way to experience and share cultures. Alternative Athens scheduled a meal for us at a couple’s home in the suburbs of Athens, just a 15-minute subway ride from our apartment. Lena and Kristos were a sweet couple who work in the travel industry and excitedly asked to see photos of our Hawaiian wedding. Dinner started off with red wine from the Peloponnese, and moved onto a feta salad (I had multiple servings of this!), fried potatoes, bruschetta, roasted lamb, and a tomato and feta meze. For dessert, we had an incredible rice pudding for which I asked Lena for her recipe, and some shots of homemade limoncello. The best part, as always, was our discussion, which ranged from the pros and cons of democracy (how mind-boggling to have this discussion in the birthplace of democracy!), the refugee crisis, soccer and the Olympics, and, of course, Donald Trump. Apparently some of their other guests had voted for Trump, which got Anthony and me thinking… The Americans who travel to places like Morocco are not necessarily the same as the Americans who travel to Greece. In fact, Greece — “the birthplace of Western civilization” — might unintentionally attract those who glamorize the past and fear anything that seems to threaten Western values. Lena and Kristos were very relieved when they found out we had not voted for the misogynistic orange idiot who is a disgrace to democracy.
One of the best meals of my life was our lunch at Mani Mani, a cozy restaurant with just eight tables, located in a former apartment near the Acropolis Museum. Mani Mani is named after the Mani peninsula, a mountainous region in the center of the Peloponnese. Service was intimate, and the food is making my stomach grumble as I write this. The chef takes traditional Greek ingredients and flavors and makes them new again, in a creative way that somehow doesn’t try too hard. The menu offers half-sized portions of most dishes, so we justified sharing five: Filo parcel with manouri, pastrami, almonds, red peppers, goat cheese, and tomato sauce; white taramosalata (cod fish egg purée with olive oil); hilopotes (pasta with chicken, asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini, and basil); grilled veal meatballs with smoked eggplant and spicy yogurt cream; and a thyme honey cream and walnuts. I would fly back to Athens just to eat here again, and this restaurant is the reason why I now want to go to the remote Mani peninsula. Everyone, please come to this restaurant so it survives!
I was sad to leave on our last day in Athens, so it’s fortunate that I had two other destinations to look forward to. Athens is a romantic city steeped in so much history, yet is pulsating with art, food, and passion. It’s a shame that the country is still dealing with financial hardships, but — you know what? This is a place worth saving. I’ll be back someday, Athens. Yassou, Santorini!
Tips for future travelers:
- To travel to any of the Greek islands, you’ll most likely fly into Athens and take a ferry from Piraeus, the largest passenger port in Europe. We took Blue Star Ferries from Piraeus to Santorini. Before our trip, I purchased two Business Class tickets online and picked them up right before we boarded the ferry at Piraeus. Business Class gives you more space and better views than the cheaper tickets. Board the ferry early to claim the best tables (facing forward and up front) in the Business Class lounge. We tried the chicken burgers at the cafe onboard, which were surprisingly good, but you should bring snacks in case the line is too long when you get hungry. The entire journey from Piraeus to Santorini is eight hours, which includes stops on two other islands. There’s a faster way to get there, but if you’re prone to seasickness like Anthony, you should take Blue Star Ferries.
- For one of the best views of Athens, hike up Areopagus (Mars Hill), right next to the Acropolis. It is believed that Ares (the Greek god of war) was tried here for killing Poseidon’s son, who allegedly raped Ares’ daughter. Ares was tried by a jury of Athenians, marking the first occurrence of a trial by jury. Make sure to wear sneakers or hiking boots, as the hill is made of marble and is very slippery.
- The metro is easy to ride. Just purchase a one-way ticket at the vending machines. Not all machines take paper money, so it’s safer to have coins. Validate your ticket before you go downstairs to the platform, and make sure you’re going the right direction by looking at the metro line map. While the outside of the trains are often covered with graffiti, the insides are clean and efficient.
- We loved Athens Walking Tours! Athens has an overwhelming amount of history, so going with an organized, entertaining guide makes it more manageable. Wear your walking shoes!
- In case you’re wondering, Greek coffee is the same as Turkish coffee. “We just renamed it since we don’t like the Turks,” explained our Athenian hosts. In fact, a lot of Greek things were actually influenced by the Turks and just bitterly renamed. (Blame the Greco-Turkish War.) If history doesn’t fascinate you now, it will after going to Athens.
- Book a meal with local hosts through Alternative Athens. The company is very organized and paired us with a lovely couple.
- The best things I ate in Athens: salad (Those of you who know me know that I hate salads, so the fact that I had multiple servings of salads all over Greece should really impress you), Greek yogurt (thicker and tastier than other yogurts), honey, and feta (so different from the dry feta you find in the U.S.!).
- Don’t visit Athens in the summer. I’ve heard so many horror stories of disgustingly hot and crowded Athenian summers. Spring was the perfect time to come, as tourist season hasn’t yet started, and the weather is perfect for walking tours.
- New Yorkers, tell people you’re from New York and they will excitedly ask you about Astoria. I’m still not sure why every Greek person we met knows about the Greek neighborhood in Queens.
- We stayed in Psyrri, which I think is the best neighborhood to stay in Athens. It was walkable distance to everything, and we only caught the train twice — once to the suburbs and once to Pireaus. Psyrri isn’t obnoxiously touristy like Plaka, and it has lots of great restaurants and street art. Plus, it has a fantastic view of the Acropolis. (If you’d like to know specifically which Airbnb we stayed in, feel free to message me!)
- If you have enough time, the National Archaeological Musuem is worth the trek. It’s located in the infamous neighborhood of Exarchia, perhaps most known for anarchists and police brutality. As with all stereotypes, Exarchia is so much more than that, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to walk through it. Sure, there are a lot more police on street corners, but this is real Athens. Not every Athenian can afford to live in trendy Psyrri or cliché Monastiraki. You’re not a true globetrotter unless you get out of the “safe” areas in your guide books. Not to mention, the museum has some cool artifacts.
- If there’s any word you should learn for a trip to Greece, it’s “Eυχαριστώ” (pronounced ef-kar-i-STO) for “thank you”. Anytime we said Eυχαριστώ to our waiters, they were absolutely touched and enthusiastically responded, “Παρακαλώ” for “you’re welcome.”