Welcome to Athens! Athens is a city of amazing history. At one time, it was the artistic and cultural Mecca of the ancient world — home to the ancient, yet familiar, philosophers and the birthplace of everything Americans recognize as government and society. From a distance, it is easy to visualize Athens and the many surrounding sites and think “vacation,” but Athens is also the largest city in Greece and home to over 4 million people.
The best time to visit Athens is on the cusp of the high tourist season, April and October. If you must come during high-tourist season (mid-May through the end of September) you can expect higher hotel and food prices, as well as an endless sea of people. It is still worth it though.
Touring Athens: Tips for Seeing Ruins
Here in Greece, each day begins a bit overcast, but by 11 a.m. you are considering gelato. By 3 p.m., you are certain you could fry an egg on the sidewalk. One of my biggest tips for tourists is to hike the Acropolis early in the morning. The Acropolis gates open at 8 a.m. for this very reason, so do your best to get there for the opening. My second tip is to use public transportation to get around the city. You can use apps like Oasa to figure out what time and which bus to use, and the metro system is a clean option. The metro offers a five-day pass, which is much more affordable than a 24-hour pass.
Each ruin site sells a 30-Euro ticket that gives you entrance into the main ruin attractions within the city (Acropolis, Zeus’ Temple, the Ancient Agora, the Roman Agora, and Hadrian’s Library). This is a great value if you are interested in seeing all of these things as the Acropolis alone is a 20-Euro entrance fee.
What to See: Athens and Ruins
Prioritizing your sightseeing is a must, and where things can get tricky. Athens is not the place for the lazy leisure traveler. You will need to be on the move constantly if you want to see even a small portion of your list. This is where you should start:
See the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. Go early, accomplish the Acropolis first, and then spend the hot afternoon going through the huge museum. While in central Athens, you could also swing by the Ancient Agora and Zeus’ Temple. Both of these sites are incredibly beautiful, peaceful, and full of cultural history.
The National Museum of Archaeology is a must see. The collection of archaeological finds is absolutely incredible and reveals a great deal about the culture and history of the Greek people.
If you are adventurous, I recommend renting a car and taking a day tour of the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. You can see the Delphi and the battle site of Thermopylae on the same day.
If you are a history lover or a huge fan of Gerard Butler, then Thermopylae is a must. Bring your bathing suit to take a quick dip in the incredibly hot, yet strong-smelling hot springs (a must-do if you enjoy off the beaten path sightseeing). You may also get to see some Syrian refugee housing.
Southern Mainland and the Peloponnese
Sounio Bay and the Temple of Poseidon — Personally, I think the Temple of Poseidon is one of the more impressive Greek ruins and a wonderful place to catch a Mediterranean sunset. The same day, you could go to the Beach of Marathon and its adjoining museum. You will learn about the battle and the history of the 26.2-mile race. This area is not as popular among tourists.
If time allows, rent a car and take a few days to tour the Peloponnese. Add Mycenae, Nafplio, the Palace of Nestor, the Castle Methoni, and Olympus to your agenda. Like most cities, once you are out of Athens, driving is very easy. Some of the greatest archaeological finds of the ancient world are just a half-day’s drive away from Athens and way less crowded.
On your last night in Athens, you should treat yourself to dinner on the rooftop terrace of the Saint George Hotel. The Saint George terrace won Best Terrace Rooftop in Europe last year, and for good reason. Be sure to make reservations in advance to enjoy the sun setting over the city.
My Life in Ruins: Athens, Greece
For those of you that have seen the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I am here to tell you that everything about Greece is exactly like the film, My Life in Ruins. The Greek culture is a bit difficult to adjust to; their sense of time is very fluid and unhurried. But the richness of the culture more than makes up for it. Take the time to walk through a street market; get up early and get coffee so you can see the real locals of Athens. Say “Yasus” and “Kalimera” to everyone, and you will never feel alone here. Eat the food, drink the coffee, and talk to the taxi driver. Enjoy your stay and let the Greek lifestyle influence your time, diet, and priorities.
Photo Credits: Lydia Bradbury