Do a quick search on Athens and the first thing you’ll see at the very top of the list, perched like the magnificent fortress itself on its rocky hilltop, is the Acropolis. It’s a one-of-a-kind archaeological treasure, deserving of all that prestige, and you should absolutely go and see it when you visit the ancient city for the first time. But too many people make Athens a stopover on the way to the one of the stunning 200-plus Greek Islands without giving it much thought. They squeeze in a visit to the Acropolis then hop back on a plane or ferry. But we’re going to let you in on a secret–Athens has so much more to offer than just ruins.
A majority of Greece’s population resides in its capital city of Athens. Large cities often have similar characteristics: a diverse culinary scene, bustling commerce, rich arts and culture, and an active nightlife. But Athens is unique in how the old and the new exist side-by-side. With structures dating thousands of years old standing erect at the heart of the city, a complicated history, and a recent crippling financial crisis, Athens simultaneously conveys vulnerability and resilience. There is modernization, but also a resistance to it. It’s a city with many layers, and anyone who devotes some time and effort to discovering it will be well rewarded. Here are five things to do in Athens besides a visit to the Acropolis:
Visit the National Archeological Museum
Athens is home to several amazing museums, but if you have time to visit only one, make it the National Archaeological Museum. It’s the largest archaeological museum in Greece and is highly regarded as one of the foremost in the world. If you’re interested in ancient Greek art, you will find the best of it here. The building was erected in 1866 and holds treasures from the Prehistory to Late Antiquity periods.
Among the many treasures is the Gold Mask of Agememnon from around 1550 BC. King Agememnon was rumored to be behind the burning of the city of Troy (spoiler alert: it’s disproven here). The statuette of Athena–after whom the city is named–is the most famous replica of the 40-foot original that once stood in the Parthenon. Gazing upon it, you’ll find yourself immediately transported to 438 BC when it stood proudly in the center of the Greek world. Follow along the chronological displays to see how the Greek artists perfected their craft, and all the different cultures they influenced.
Eat some authentic Greek Yogurt
So, the first thing you need to know is this: yogurt in Greece is good. Really, really, really good. Unlike anything you’ve had anywhere else. (And please don’t mention FAGE; it’s tasty, but still different than how yogurt tastes in Greece.) And if you’re going to do something, we say: why not do it right? Enter Stani (roughly translating to Sheepfold in English), Athens’ last traditional dairy bar serving patrons since 1931. They’ve got everything from table services to takeaway options. In the time it took us to devour our yogurt with honey, cinnamon and walnuts, we saw several locals drop by to pick up tubs of yogurt or boxes of freshly fried dough puffs called loukoumades. Thank goodness our temporary residence in Athens had a sizable refrigerator so we were able to do the same. Our mornings were sublime!
Thank you @turnipseedtravel for the recommendation!
See the Changing of the Guard at Syntagma Square
Syntagma Square, or Constitution Square, is where the Greek Parliament building stands. The impressive structure, which dates back to 1842, was once the residence of Greece’s first King Otto and Queen Amalia. It’s considered the center of the city, and is still where many protests and rallies take place. In front of the Parliament stands the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a war memorial which is guarded by the evzones, or members of the presidential guard. Dressed in a kilt-like garment and wearing traditional shoes ornamented with pompoms, evzones are a sight to behold.
There is a changing of the guard every hour on the hour. Witnessing the carefully choreographed movements that take place is well worth the visit. But if you’re fortunate enough to be in Athens on a Sunday morning, then you should make your way to Syntagma Square at 11:00 am for the official ceremonial march when the guards are accompanied by a marching band as they make their way to the tomb.
Pro Tip: Arrive at least 30 minutes early to secure a good spot and plan your transportation there carefully as many roads around the city center are closed as the procession approaches. You can reach the Syntagma Square station using metro lines 2 (red) and 3 (blue) as well as tram lines 4 and 5. Secure your belongings as you brave the crowds and dress for the weather.
Visit Pittaki Street in Psyrri
“Identify darkness in the society and find ways to help illuminate it.”
― Sunday Adelaja
Pittaki Street is an alleyway in Psyrri that is the embodiment of this quote. Psyrri was once considered a grim, “underground” industrial district (with all that that implies), and Pittaki Street was once its dodgiest alley. Prior to 2012, its reputation was that of being an after hours bánio where vagrants, late night revelers, and creatures of the night relieved themselves. So, what happened to make this a destination?
Well, they say it takes a village–or more precisely, it takes a non-profit, a creative studio, and the local community–to raise a dim alley out of the shadows and into the light. With the donation of nearly two hundred lamps, lanterns, and chandeliers and the sweat equity of volunteers applying fresh coats of cheerful pastel paint, Pittaki Street was transformed. Nowadays, the alley is regularly home to events and a thriving array of boutiques, all the while filled with visitors posing for pictures. Go there. Be one of them.
Get a Pair of Bespoke Sandals at Melissinos
So, let’s step back–both literally and figuratively–into history here, shall we? Melissinos, a multi-generational family business, has been a world renowned shoemaker since the 1920’s, passing down from a Grandfather (George) to a son (poet and playwright, Stavros) to a Grandson (painter and playwright, Pantelis). The original shop was located at the foot (pun intended) of the Acropolis for more than 50 years before it moved to its current location on Agias Theklas. Pantelis studied at New York’s Parsons School of Design before taking over, and you’ll generally find him at the shop on hand to chat and consult with his customers.
Melissinos crafts bespoke sandals that will fit you like a glove, and with proper care, will last you for years to come. The friendly staff quickly make adjustments on site with a quick fitting and have myriad styles to choose from. Famous clients have included The Beatles, Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis, Barbara Streisand, Anthony Quinn, Gary Cooper, Sofia Loren, and even Sex and the City star, Sarah Jessica Parker. And all for a reasonable price. Pop in for your pair, your feet will thank us!
Shop at the Monastiraki Antique Flea Market on Sunday
During the week, the Monastiraki Flea Market is just an amalgamation of shops where you might find anything from out-of-print books to touristy souvenirs. But on Sunday morning, little stalls with antiques and unique finds pop up as early as 7 am, which is, of course, when the locals go. You can find anything from jewelry to housewares to furniture, and you could easily find yourself lost in the most satisfying of treasure hunts. Note that most vendors speak limited English, so if you have questions that extend beyond “How much?”, you might need to have Google Translate handy. And haggle: you might get a few euro knocked off the price of that special trinket.
And so there you have it, and we’re just scratching the surface of Athens and what it has to offer. You’ll notice that we credited several travel enthusiasts in this post. Prior to the trip we reached out to our Twitter community for suggestions and were blown away by the amazing replies. We received a variety of recommendations, from reading material to bars and restaurants. We couldn’t get to them all, but if you’re planning a trip to Athens we encourage you to check out all the thoughtful responses here:
Our trip to #Greece is finally in sight! We’re excited to see the Acropolis but small moments matter too 😊❤
— Mad Hatters NYC (@MadHattersNYC) April 24, 2018
If you’ve been to Athens, we’d love to hear about your experience! If you or someone you know has an upcoming trip, we hope this is a helpful resource. Thank you for reading, or as they say in Greece, epharisto!
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