Updated: Mar 9, 2020
Visiting Greece emerged from a very stressful period in our lives. It was not exactly a spontaneous trip, but definitely not one planned well in advance. Our stress levels were at their peak and we so desperately needed something else to focus on and look forward to. Logically, looking at our budget and the trips we were planning for the future, we probably shouldn’t have splurged on such an elaborate vacation just six short months after our luxurious trip to the Maldives, but we needed it. And it was worth it.
More than a year prior, I had stumbled upon a luxury tour operator that offered custom vacation packages to the Greek Islands. At the time, the quote for the 10 day trip seemed outrageous, but after the splurge for Galapagos and especially the Maldives, it now seemed much more obtainable. Wanting more control and needing a project to immerse myself into, we opted to organize the island-hopping ourselves and omit the third party. In the end, we created an itinerary that landed us in Mykonos, Delos, Naxos, Santorini, (and a few days in London on the way home), but it all started in Athens.
The flight path to Athens had us stopping in Reykjavik, London and Munich, but it was an uber comfortable business class route that had us sipping champagne from flat-bed reclining seats all the way. Until we missed our connecting flight that is. A few phone calls, credit card charges and an airport power outage later, we found ourselves on a direct flight from London to Athens. (That sorted tale will be explained in detail in another post).
TIP: When possible, pre-book an airport pick-up. Arranging in advance allows you to research options, prices and reviews, rather than having to quickly choose from the cabs available when you arrive. This also creates a paper trail for those who are super cautious in a foreign country. No need to be suspicious, but always good to be safe and plan ahead.
We had arranged for a pick-up through Welcome Pick-Ups a local company. They assigned a person to us before the trip began, and provided us with her details, including her name, photo and contact number on WhatsApp. When we missed our connection in London, I contacted her with the new details, and she confirmed she would be waiting. And she was. She gave as a quick night time tour of Athens, filled with interesting facts about the city, as she drove us to our hotel. (We were also gifted a map and lovely Greece tote bag).
While in Athens, we stayed at the Athens Gate Hotel, which boasts a perfectly central location, and one of the best views in the city. The room was tasteful and exactly what we wanted. The shining star, hands down, was the view from the balcony; we had an unobstructed view of the huge Temple of Olympian Zeus – one of the largest temples in the ancient world. It was breathtaking. The Athens Gate Rooftop Restaurant, with its outdoor terrace and ceiling to floor glass windows had an impressive view of the Acropolis and Parthenon. It is currently voted the fourth best view in the world on TripAdvisor. We took nothing to chance and contacted the restaurant in advance, reserving a specific outdoor table for both nights of our stay.
When we arrived for dinner on both nights, the staff re-confirmed that we indeed wanted to sit outdoors, as it was October and (in their opinion) cold. It was cool enough to wrap your shoulders in a shawl or thin sweater, but not cold by our standards. Luckily for us, we were in the minority and had the terrace almost completely to ourselves both nights.
Athens is a very walkable city, it fact, like many European cities, it is best explored on foot. After a delicious buffet breakfast at The Athens Gate, we set off to just across the street and stopped to visit The Temple of Olympian Zeus and purchase our combo ticket, which allowed us entry into a wide variety of ancient sites around Athens. Words cannot truly convey the size of the pillars of the Temple of Zeus. From a distance, the marble looks ancient and fragile, but up close the massive pillars are thick and solid, piercing a full 57 feet into the sky. Impressive is an understatement.
TIP: If you plan on visiting the Acropolis, purchase a combo ticket from one of the other ancient sites included in the package in the day/s before you visit the Acropolis. This allows you to avoid the long lines at the Acropolis ticket office on the day of the visit, as the combo ticket is valid at all participating sites for the next consecutive 5 days. For additional information and tips on Athens, click here.
From the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch, we walked towards the Panathenaic Stadium. Entirely built of marble, this massive structure was played host to the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Tourists took turns standing on the podium, imagining their Olympic dreams have come true. We purchased coffee and cookies from the kiosk outside of the stadium and sat in awe. Slowly walking in our newly purchased comfort shoes (Sketchers) we headed towards the Archaeological Site of Lykeion. The site exposes excavations of an ancient palaestra (gymnasium), revealing areas where athletes trained in wrestling and boxing. It is fascinating to walk the grounds of such ancient remains. Along the way, we passed the Hellenic Parliament, where we witnessed the changing of the guard ceremony. The cleverly dressed guards, with their large spear guns and heavy pompom clogs, moved with angry precision; both impressive and terrifying.
From the Parliament, we headed to the Church of Panagia Kapnikarea, one of the oldest churches in Athens. It’s small structure does not diminish its architectural beauty. After a quick stop for lunch in a local restaurant, we waddled along to the next site, filled to the brim with salad, souvlaki and spanakopita. We were unable to enter the ruins of Hadrian’s Library, the Ancient Agora or the Roman Agora, but we walked around the ruin sites, snapping photos of the beautiful structures and the many cats who lounged upon the marble. After a quick walk through the Plaka area, we ended the day with a walk through the National Gardens and a visit to the Zappeion and it’s fountains. Sore and exhausted, but blissfully happy, we stumbled back to our hotel to shower and prep for dinner.
Next morning, bright and early, we headed to the side entrance of the Acropolis (away from the tour buses). Research indicated that though both entrances and climbs could be challenging, starting away from the parking lots was the best option. Slow and steady, we made our way up the winding path to the marble steps near the top. It was not easy, but it was not overly difficult. The key is always to take your time and move at your own pace. As we approached the steps and started to climb, we were asked to stand aside and make room for the guards. It happened that at that moment, the Presidential Guards were leaving the Acropolis, in their determined and structure routine, after having raised the flag. Once they passed, we walked through the columns and Acropolis Hill opened itself up to us. It was utterly beautiful.
We spent a lot of time at the top, walking across every possible area, not wanting to miss a different view or angle. The Parthenon, even covered in scaffolding, is a gorgeous piece of architecture. The Erechtheion is equally impressive, especially the phenomenal Porch of the Maidens (or, the ladies, as I called them). While taking in the monuments and outstanding views from the Acropolis, we in fact experienced each area at least twice. The skies were partially cloudy that morning, and from time to time, the clouds would part, sometimes partially, sometimes fully, and the brilliant sun would shine on the marbled structures. When fully exposed to the sunshine, it would be an understatement to say that they glowed.
Leaving the hill, we then walked back down through winding paths to the north and south slopes to visit the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the Theatre of Dionysus. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a beautiful theatre, sometimes still used for events (like the 2012 performance of Carl Orffs Carmina Burana). The Theatre of Dionysus is less impressive visually, but historically considered the world’s first theatre.
After lapping up the outdoor history, we headed indoors for some more via the new Acropolis Museum. Underneath the museum, partially exposed to visitors as they enter, is an excavation site from the early Byzantine era. Inside, the museum is spacious and considerate, each artifact provided the respect it deserves. The museum gift shop lured us in with it’s beautiful gifts and we left carrying heavy bags of souvenirs. (I don’t think we have ever spent as much money on gifts for ourselves as we did in Greece). For lunch, we decided to find a restaurant closer to the hotel. After freshening up, we walked to a row of nearby restaurants with outdoor seating and enjoyed a delighted and full meal al fresco.
TIP: if you’d like to try some of the seafood delicacies that Greece has to offer, like grilled octopus, you’re more likely to have fresh fish in Athens than you are on the islands. The islands are limited to what they are able to fish, so most seafood is imported and frozen. On the recommendation of a Canadian-Greek friend who travels back to Greece annually, I ordered grilled octopus while in Athens and it was divine.
After lunch, I ventured out on my own in search of Socrates’ Prison and the Pnyx, one of the earliest sites where Greeks would gather and one of the most important sites in the creation of democracy. I felt more than comfortable and safe walking the streets of Athens alone. Had it not been for my fear of getting lost in the dark, I would have walked for hours into the night. I stopped in to purchase some brass art figurines on my way back to the hotel and our second delicious reservation at the Athens Gate Rooftop Restaurant.
The next day, after an early breakfast, we said goodbye to Athens and headed to the port to catch our ferry to Mykonos. It was a short visit, but a full and impressive one. We may have checked Athens off the bucket list, but it remains as a place we definitely need to return to and continue to explore.