Previously I had only visited Athens back in the summer of 2001 when I had visited to see England play in a world cup qualifier but actually hadn’t had the chance to explore so it was great to return as a guest of Discover Greece and really see what the Greek capital had to offer. I have to be honest, Athens wasn’t somewhere that was high on my travel list although I’d heard it offered a superb collection of ancient ruins and some fine cuisine.
I’ve always been a huge Rome fan, even spending many years there teaching English but I’m now starting to feel that Rome has become very expensive and harder and harder to find a bargain. During the weekend trip I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the two capitals – both are blessed with balmy temperatures, friendly locals who seem to have a real zest for life, excellent food, a thriving cafe culture and spectacular ancient ruins. The main differences though are that the locals in Athens seem to be pleased and honoured you chose to visit their city (instead of trying to rip you off!) and it’s much, much cheaper! I absolutely loved the vibrant city and can’t wait to return, here’s why I think you should visit Athens…
It’s not short on culture
Athens seems to be packed to the rafters with ancient ruins – every time any building work takes place around the city something new gets discovered. Whilst the government wants to keep developing the capital for economic benefits, there are also agreements in place to ensure that the city’s heritage is preserved. A fantastic example of this is the High street clothes store Zara where you’ll find some excavated ancient ruins proudly encased in glass at the back of the shop! Other must see sights include the mighty Acropolis, the Ancient Agora, Herodus Atticus Theatre, Hadrian’s Arch, Hadrian’s Library, the Partheon and the Temple of Zeus. They are all easy to access with the city and well connected with footpaths. I would recommend buying the excellent value four-day ticket that will allow you to get to see all of these for just €12!
The excellent cuisine
I made the mistake of thinking Greek food wasn’t anything special after only having had it in England but after my first taste of real Greek food I discovered how wrong I was! Greek cuisine includes lots of meat or fish, olive oil, herbs, cheese and plenty of tasty fresh vegetables. In Greece you usually kick off your dinner with meze dishes, but not over-ordering is definitely a challenge! I would recommend trying the classic dishes ‘Moussaka’ and ‘Souvlaki’ during your stay with the latter being a great option for a cheap snack at lunchtime. Also make the most of the capital’s fun cafe culture – there’s definitely no shortage of places to stop off and have a coffee (some with very trendy decor), although be warned – the traditional Greek coffee is very strong!
It’s fun after dark
There is no doubt that capital’s locals really enjoy their nightlife and drinks and entrance fees are very reasonable. If you want loud music and dancing with a younger crowd, then the best place to head to is Gazi Square but if you are more interested in busy bars with great music then Psyri is the place to go. Things start late here though – you are unlikely to find many Greeks out and about until after they’ve had their dinner – which is normally at around 9-10pm in the evening.
Central Market is a foodie heaven
For a slice of real local life head to Athen’s Central Market (which we discovered on our Alternative Athens walking tour). I personally loved this place and it offers a very raw, realistic experience for food lovers. It’s a huge indoor market where you can buy fresh fish, meat, fruit and vegetables (although the meat section is probably not for the squeamish!). Located nearby are a good handful of highly regarded spice shops, so you can buy fresh ingredients for your whole meal.
The beach is a tram ride away
Many travellers visit Athens for a few days and then leave to go island hopping, well an alternative to this is the beautiful Athenian Rivera which is just a tram ride from the city centre. A great Athens beach resort is Glyfada which has various luxury beach fronted hotels as well as lots of places to shop and eat. For those looking to swim then I would recommend the Kavouri-Vouliagmeni area. The sunsets are also pretty spectacular as we found out!
It’s easy to get around
Athens made some really big changes to prepare itself for the 2004 Olympic Games so now the Greek capital is the proud owner of a newly revamped metro and tram system (which allows you to travel around the city at ease). If that’s not enough, many of the metro stations have free art exhibitions and mini museums of artefacts which have been discovered around the city. For example the impressive Syntagma Station, which is Constitution Square Station, has many interesting historical items which were found during the excavation.
I hope you enjoy Athens as much as I did!
All words and images by Scott Balaam, I was a guest of Discover Greece on our Athens weekend break but all our opinions are my own. Also thanks to AEGEAN, AthensWas and Alternative Athens. Aegean flies between London and Athens three times a day year-round.