Visiting Greece emerged from a very stressful period in our lives. It was not exactly a spontaneous trip, but definitely one not planned well in advance. Wanting more control and needing a project, we opted to organize the island-hopping ourselves. In the end, we created a rough itinerary that landed us in Mykonos, Delos, Naxos, Santorini, but it all started in Athens.
Athens is a very walkable city, it fact, like many European cities, it is best explored on foot.
We used Google Maps to plot the locations in the city that we were particularly interested in, creating our own free Athens walking tour, but if you prefer to avoid the time and much effort of building your own walking itinerary, you can opt to be guided by a local for a minimal cost. There are a multitude of walking tour options available, including specific themes, like following in the footsteps of artists at sunset.
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.
From the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch, we walked a mere 10 minutes to 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 comfortable shoes, we headed towards the Archaeological Site of Lykeion, but got a little lost. We should have arrived in under 10 minutes, but were a little turned around in the nearby park and ended up at the Hellenic Parliament after 20 minutes, 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. Backtracking from there, we arrived at 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.
From Lykeion, we walked down the familiar street, passed the Parliament. Then we casually walked for another 10 minutes, heading 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 or the Roman Agora, but we walked around the ruin sites of the Ancient Agora, snapping photos of the beautiful structures and the many cats who lounged upon the marble. Site to site was approximately 10 minutes direct, but there is plenty to visit along the way. Had we known before we booked, we could have opted for a guided tour of the Modern Agora.
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. The Plaka area is beautiful but can be very confusing if you don't know where to turn. It is filled with narrow streets that venture up steep hills and an obscene number of steps. It would be best to save the exploration of the Plaka for the beginning of the itinerary, or opt for a local guide who can escort you through the maze. Either way, it is definitely worth the visit.
If, like us, you prefer privacy to large group tours, but don't want to research, opt for private excursions with local guides around Athens. Locals would undoubtedly provide information and places to visit that are not easily discovered by tourists. Sore and exhausted, but blissfully happy, we stumbled back to our hotel. The next day, after our visit to the Acropolis, I went off alone in search of Socrates’ Prison. A brisk 15 minute walk from our hotel (or The Temple of Zeus), it is buried inside a park and in an oddly peaceful location. Just a few minutes further down the same path, I reached 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. Athens is filled with tourist spots, ancient sites and not-so-secret places to visit. Whether you choose to plan your own itinerary, opt for a guided walking tour of Athens or just wander and enjoy the rhythm of the city, just go. Visit Athens for one day, or ten; either way you will be left amazed.