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Visiting Athens: A Trip of a Lifetime in the City of Mythical and Modern Giants

Updated: Mar 12

The plan to visit Greece emerged from a very stressful period in our lives.

It was not exactly a spontaneous trip, but definitely not one well planned out in advance. Thanks for work, our stress levels were at an all-time high and we so desperately needed something else, something good to focus on and look forward to. Logically, looking at our budget and the trips we had planned for the future, we probably shouldn’t have splurged on such an extravagant trip of a lifetime just six short months after our luxurious trip to the Maldives, but we needed it. And it was so worth it.



Flag perched atop the Acropolis, Athens, Greece
Flag perched atop the Acropolis, Athens, Greece

A year prior, we had stumbled upon a luxury tour operator that offered custom vacation packages to visit Greece, combining hotels, transportation, excursions and island hopping, all for an over inflated price. The quoted cost for a 10 day trip to visit Greece seemed outrageous, but after what we had recently splurged for our trip of a lifetime to the Galapagos Island (and especially our luxurious stay in the Maldives), the cost seemed more palatable.


Wanting more control and flexibility than the tour operator was willing to give (and desperately needing a project to immerse ourselves into), we decided to research and organize the island-hopping adventure ourselves. After weeks of research, we created an epic trip of a lifetime itinerary in Greece that has us landing in Mykonos, Delos, Naxos, Santorini, (and a few days in London on the way home so we could visit Stonehenge), but it all started with visiting Athens.


 

TIP: If you're looking for cheap flight options to Europe (or anywhere for that matter) look for longer flight paths with long connections. This is the basis behind what we call a Stopover Vacation, and not only does it often provide you an opportunity to explore a city on route, it often comes with significant discounts. Be weary, though, of the short layover, always opt for longer stops to account for delays.

 

Sign post in the National Gardens, Athens, Greece
Sign post in the National Gardens, Athens, Greece

The flight path to visiting Athens (leaving Toronto on Iceland Air), had us stopping in Reykjavik, London and Munich for a short layover each, but it was a super comfortable business class route that had us sipping champagne from our flat-bed reclining seats the entire way. It was wonderful. Until we missed our connecting flight that is.


An unexpected delay in London had us missing our connecting flight to Athens. A few panicked phone calls, credit card charges and an airport power outage later, we found ourselves on a direct flight from London to Athens on a completely different airline. Believe it or not, it ended up being lucky for us that all this happened, as the original flight may have left London on time, but was delayed in Munich and ended up arriving in Athens after we did.


Read all the sorted details of our ordeal here: Connecting Flights: A Comedy of Errors.



 

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.

 


View of the Temple of Olympian Zeus from the Athens Gate Hotel, Athens, Greece
View of the Temple of Olympian Zeus from the Athens Gate Hotel, Athens, Greece


We had arranged for a pick-up through Welcome Pick-Ups, a local company. They assigned a person to us before the trip even began, and provided us with her details, including her name, photo and contact number on WhatsApp. When we missed our connection in London, we contacted her with the new details, and she confirmed she would be waiting. And she was. Having arrived in the wee hours of the morning in Athens, it was comforting knowing we had someone waiting to ensure we made it to our hotel safely. 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 an Athens city map and lovely Greece tote bag.



View from Athens Gate Hotel Room

While visiting 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 simple, tastefully decorated and exactly what we wanted.


The best feature of The Athens Gate Hotel (for us) 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. We took nothing to chance and contacted the restaurant in advance, reserving a specific outdoor table for both nights of our stay.




Fun Fact: When we arrived for dinner on both nights, the staff re-confirmed that we indeed did want to sit outdoors, as it was October and (in their opinion) too cold to dine al fresco. It was cool enough to wrap your shoulders in a shawl or thin sweater, but not cold at all by our standards. Luckily for us, we were in the minority and had the terrace almost completely to ourselves both nights. The wait staff, on the other hand, wrapped up before stepping outside, and stood shivering when taking our orders.


If you're looking for accommodations while visiting Athens and aren't sure which area and/or type would best suit your needs, read: Where to Stay When in Athens: A Guide to Finding the Perfect Accommodation in Athens, Greece. You can also use the interactive map above.



Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens, Greece
Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens, Greece


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, including the Temple.


One day walking itinerary for Athens

We had planned out our own one day walking itinerary to capture as many of the sites around the city as possible.


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. A must when visiting Athens.


NB (December 2023): Greece announced that for the first time in 5 years, the ticket prices for the archeological sites will be revised and the combo ticket eliminated, beginning April 1, 2025. Archeological sites will be slotted into 5 different categories, with the ticket prices for each ranging from $5-20 Euros, the Acropolis remaining in its own category, with a ticket price of $30 Euros.

 


Hadrian's Library, Athens, Greece
Hadrian's Library, Athens, Greece


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.


UNIQUE TRAVEL EXPERIENCE: If you truly want to feel like an Olympian, you can opt for a group workout and race in the Panathenaic Stadium, where in a small group, you not only get the chance to work out in the ancient stadium, but race around the track as former Olympians did.

Slowly walking in our newly purchased comfort shoes, we headed towards the Archaeological Site of Lykeion (also known as Aristotle's Lyceum). The site exposes excavations of an ancient palestra (gymnasium), revealing areas where athletes trained in wrestling and boxing. It is fascinating to walk the grounds of such ancient remains. Many of these sites were not initially known to us, but thanks to the combo ticket, we were provided a list of included sites within the city limits and made an effort to learn about them before visiting Athens.




Changing of the Guard Ceremony, Hellenic Parliament, Athens, Greece
Changing of the Guard Ceremony, Hellenic Parliament, Athens, Greece


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 Holy Church of the Virgin Mary Pantanassa,  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 of Athens. 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 The Plaka district, we ended the day with a walk through the Zappeion and the National Gardens and admire it’s fountains. Sore and exhausted, but blissfully happy, we stumbled back to our hotel to shower and prep for dinner.



The Ancient Agora of Athens, Athens, Greece
The Ancient Agora of Athens, Athens, Greece


Next morning, bright and early, we headed to the side entrance of the Acropolis (away from the crowds and tour buses). Research indicated that though both entrances and climbs could be challenging, starting away from the parking lots was the best option.


 

NB (September 2023): Greece has implemented a limit on the number of visitors to the Acropolis, capped at 20,000 per day. Beginning September 4, 2023, visitors must select an available hourly timeslot from the official site. Be prepared to adjust if your desired timeslot is fully booked. Once booked, visitors are granted 15m prior and 15m after to enter.

 

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.



The Parthenon atop Acropolis Hill, Athens, Greece
The Parthenon atop Acropolis Hill, Athens, Greece


We spent a lot of time on Acropolis Hill, walking across every possible area, not wanting to miss out on a different view or angle. The Parthenon, even covered in scaffolding, is an absolute gorgeous piece of architecture. The Erechtheion is equally impressive, especially the phenomenal Porch of the Maidens (or, the ladies, as I called them).


Climbing the Acropolis Guide

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 Acropolis 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 visually less impressive, but of great historical importance, considered the world’s first theatre. There is much to see on Acropolis Hill beyond the Parthenon. To known more, read: Climbing the Acropolis of Athens: A Complete Travelogue and Guide.


 

NB (December 2023): Greece announced that they will be offering 2-hour absolutely private guided tours of Acropolis Hill, beginning on April 1, 2024. Each small group will be a max of 4 people and will be offered souvenirs. The tour will be offered during the summer months at sunrise (7-9am) or sunset (8-10pm), with a maximum of 5 groups.

 


Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens, Greece
Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens, Greece


LUXURY TRAVEL TIP: After a long day of walking and exploring, why not pamper yourself to a traditional Greek Massage? This is a one-hour treatment using traditional techniques and ingredients, where guests can choose from a Cretan Massage, an Ancient Greek Massage or the Queen (Cleopatra) Massage.

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, especially in Athens, thanks to the Acropolis Museum). 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. Tasting the local cuisine is a must while visiting Athens, don't miss out!





 

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 visiting Athens off the theoretical bucket list, but it remains a destination we need to return to and fully explore all over again.

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2 Comments


D Marino
D Marino
Jun 29, 2019

E-transfer sent! If you don't get it, let me know, I'll contact Sketchers. Seriously, Athens was amazing. I'd go back in a heartbeat.

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Ugh, this post makes me want to go back to Athens so badly! I was only there four days and three days I was quarantined with food poisoning in a hotel that 50 young models were also staying at. Needless to say, your trip sounds much better and I am extremely jealous, as usual! An what a great view from your hotel room. Greece has some of the best food and cats in the world. Ugh. Can you etransfer me $3000 so I can go right now?


(Also, I also recently got some Sketchers for walking...)

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