It was around 2 or 3 months ago when we first found out we’d be able to take a longer trip in mid-April. The band arranges it so that they can freely use vacation during the week of the school spring break, since so many people in the band have kids. Because we had a longer chunk of time for traveling, we knew this would be the chance for a bigger, more exciting trip. We looked into various options and I found some super cool places that I added to my list for the future ($130 round trip to Morocco??) but, in the end, Athens was the most feasible. It was cheap (both the airfare and the Airbnb), easy (3 hour direct flight), and exotic. Because it was so different from anyplace either of us has ever been I was getting really excited as I planned all the details of our trip.
We had three full days in Athens. Greece is, of course, known for both its ancient history and its beautiful coastal areas. There are a lot of options for day (or multi-day) trips to other places in Greece, but there was just too much we wanted to see and do in Athens so we chose to spend all of our time there. Fortunately, the airfare is cheap enough that it shouldn’t be a problem to find our way back to Greece again to see the rest of the country (and this trip confirmed that we definitely want to spend more time in Greece!).
We decided to start Day One out right by going to the biggest of the big attractions: the Acropolis. First, though, we had breakfast at a cafe at the foot of the Acropolis hill…and I tried my first real Greek yogurt at Makriyianni 3 (unsurprisingly, it was delicious).
You can get a combined ticket that gets you into all the sites on the Acropolis hill, as well as about half a dozen other ancient sites. We got the pass since we wanted to see and do as much as possible. Even though the main attraction (the Parthenon) is at the top of the Acropolis there is quite a lot to see from the second you walk through the gates at the bottom of the Acropolis slope.
There are two ancient theaters along the path upward. First is the Theater of Dionysus, the first stone theater ever built (in the 4th century BC). What remains of it is in pretty rough shape, but it was impressive nonetheless. In the front row are carved stone thrones, and the low wall at the back of the “stage” area is covered with stone carvings.
A lot of what you see around the city is just portions of what were once grand buildings. At first glance these columns look like an unimpressive gateway, but we learned that they are actually the remains of a very long building that was lined with numerous identical columns:
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus was even more impressive that the first theater. You could just imagine the events that used to go on there (and still do). It was built in 161 AD and had a wood roof at the time (although I must admit that I think it looks pretty cool as an open air amphitheater). This theater is still used seasonally, and it hosts a music festival every summer. This was the one downside of traveling outside of prime tourist season – missing the seasonal events. But, the relative lack of crowds and the tolerable temperature still made this a good time of year to visit.
**EDIT: When we were hanging out with our teachers in May I found out that the BSO played here at some point!
These sites were all part of winding our way up the hill, and after the second theater the climb got steeper…we were almost there! In addition to being a fairly steep climb, the steps/pathways were almost entirely slippery, old, uneven marble. My six years of climbing the slippery, old, uneven marble stairs at NEC prepared me well for that moment!
At the top of the last portion of steps was the entry way to the Acropolis (the Propylaea – built in the 5th century BC), which was very impressive itself.
According to information we read at the Acropolis Museum on a later day, while the Turkish army held the Acropolis they used this entry area as a gunpowder magazine and a lightning strike blew part of it up in 1645. Such pointless stupidity and carelessness destroying the glory of an ancient civilization.
Once you enter through this grand gateway you are at the top of the Acropolis (woo!). There are two structures up there: the Parthenon and the Erechtheion.
The Parthenon (built in the 5th century BC and dedicated to the goddess Athena) is currently under restoration (we tried to get the best pictures we could while avoiding the giant crane that’s right smack in the middle of the structure). The original restoration done in the 1800s, while well intentioned, was a bit shoddy by today’s standards, so they are fixing some of these issues for the durability and longevity of the Parthenon. You will also note that there’s a lot missing up at the top, in that triangular area. This is because most of the remaining fancy, carved bits are next door in the Acropolis Museum – also for longevity. Unfortunately, those remains are far from complete. Large portions of the gorgeous carved figures were destroyed when the Christians rolled into town, solely because they depicted Greek gods. Such a horrible shame.
The other building, the Erechtheion (also built in the 5th century BC and dedicated to the gods Athena and Poseidon), is more modest looking compared to the enormous Parthenon, but no less stunning. Each side of the structure looks different, having not only the usual giant stone columns but also the Porch of the Caryatids (the part with the carved ladies in place of columns). You could really see a lot of detail work on all of this – so many tiny decorative carvings along the doorways and walls. It’s incredible thinking about how much work and detail was put into all of these structures, and with such primitive, laborious methods. Yet, we still admire this handiwork and view it as a golden standard and replicate many aspects of it to decorate our homes (2,500 years later)!
As you’re heading back down the Acropolis hill you pass by a giant rock called Areopagus Hill. In the 5th century BC it was the location of a murder tribunal, essentially a court for the worst cases.
We were getting pretty hungry after all that climbing, so we made our way toward lunch, but along the way we stopped by one of the other sites on our pass, Hadrian’s Library (built in 132 AD to hold a library of papyrus scrolls). It was a smallish site right in the middle of the touristy section of the city at the back of the Acropolis hill. There were remains of multiple structures, including a basilica. You could even still see bits of the intricate, mosaic tiled floors in some places.
For lunch we went to Thanasis Kebab, a place known for its kebabs and souvlaki. It didn’t disappoint. Randolph had souvlaki pita and I had a Greek salad. Greek salads are different (and much better) in Greece. You basically get a pile of fresh, chopped veggies (bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes) topped with whole olives, a giant hunk of feta (which tastes much better there) and a drizzle of Greek olive oil – no lettuce in this salad.
We walked around a bit more, exploring some of the touristy areas of the city. And we stopped by what quickly became my favorite cafe in Athens – Tailor Made (we made more trips there other days, too, for an afternoon pick-me-up). Tailor Made has all the makings of a high end hipstery coffee shop in the US, but without any of the pretention or outrageous prices (every coffee/espresso drink there cost 1.80€!). It was easy to see why there were always tons of young people hanging out at the outdoor tables.
By this point, we were getting quite exhausted and weren’t sure we could keep walking around until dinner, so we called it a day on the sight-seeing and went back to the apartment for a pre-dinner nap.
For dinner we went to Oineas for more good Greek food. They served the classics, but with a bit of added flair. I think my favorite dish of the evening (recommended by our waitress) was the feta cheese that was baked in a thin pastry shell and topped with lavender honey and black sesame seeds. We also had tzatziki with bread, mousaka, and vegetable risotto. At the end our waiter and waitress brought us some pieces of honey soaked cake (native to her home island) and some shots of a (sort of strange) Greek liqueur called Mastika.
One other thing we had noticed about Athens by this point was that there are a ton of cats and dogs wandering around the city. And, strangely, I’m not sure that they were all strays. Plenty of the dogs had collars, and we frequently saw cats and dogs at shops we went into. My best guess is that either people just let their pets wander freely during the day or that they are former pets that were abandoned due to the economic crisis. Either way, they seemed pretty chill and well-fed. The shops and restaurants had no problem with them being around and seemed to be familiar with the usual neighborhood cats and dogs. This little guy scared me when we sat down at an outside table for dinner – he had been napping on my chair and jumped down when I pulled it out (which made me jump!). He then proceeded to hang out near the table, ready to reclaim his chair when we left.
We ended the night with some tasty passion fruit gelato at DaVinci on our walk back to the apartment and then collapsed into bed and fell asleep almost immediately.
We had a quick breakfast at a cafe and we both tried different versions of a common Athenian street food – Koulouri Thessalonikis. They are rings covered in sesame seeds that look like a skinny bagel. They are nothing like bagels, though. Instead of being bready and chewy, they are a super dense, flaky, crispy pastry. And they are quite good. Even though we bought ours in a cafe, they are commonly sold at street stands like this one:
The first sightseeing stop of the day was the Panathenaic Stadium, home of the first modern Olympics. The stadium was reconstructed/rebuilt in the 1800s on the site of an identical ancient stadium that had originally been built in 325 BC. It is made entirely of marble! I can’t say I would want to sit on those hard seats to watch a sporting event under the hot Greek sun, but it is no doubt a beautiful, imposing stadium.
The tunnel under the stadium (the one that the athletes would enter through) now leads to a room that has a display of past Olympic torches. It was pretty cool to see those up close, especially this one from the historic Berlin Olympics in 1936.
Our next stop was Temple of Olympian Zeus, another site on our pass. This was one of my favorites. It wasn’t at all crowded, but the columns were just as grand as those of the Parthenon. It was located in the middle of a grassy park next to the National Gardens and it felt isolated from the noise and tourism of the city. There was something about the peacefulness of this site that made it feel a little more special.
For lunch…more souvlaki! Kostas was right next door to Tailor Made (the coffee place) When we were at Tailor Made the day before, Randolph saw this little whole in the wall place (literally) with a line out the door and he had to look it up. Turns out it’s quite highly rated and is a local favorite, so we added it to our list of food places. And we, obviously, grabbed some coffee next door, too, while we were there.
Once we were fed and caffeinated, we started the trek across the city toward Mount Lycabettus. Along the way we stopped at Stani for some highly-rated Greek yogurt, topped with honey and walnuts. All I can say is that there is nothing like it elsewhere in the world.
Mount Lycabettus would be tiring to climb even in the best of cases, and by this point we were tired and our feet were killing us, so it became a slow (somewhat torturous) climb. I was having some San Antonio flashbacks seeing all the cacti and agave growing along the slopes. The view from the top was worth the climb, though. You could see out over the entire city and all the way over to the Mediterranean.
Despite managing to power through the uphill climb, we opted to take the train car going down. Once you reach the bottom of the rail you’re still going downhill on foot for a while via stairs that cut through the neighborhood. This was a very nice neighborhood and not at all touristy feeling. It kind of reminded me of being in Italy. The streets were even lined with orange trees (so classy)! When traveling, we usually play the game of “Where would we want to live in this city if we lived here?” In Athens, this neighborhood was it, hands down.
We were tired and still had some time to kill before dinner but didn’t have the energy to walk back to the apartment for a nap, so we relaxed in the shade for a while and had the Greek version of bubble tea at Bubble Tale (Surprise! It’s not tapioca – it’s bubbles of juice!).
Our dinner that night was hands-down our favorite meal of the trip. Randolph had found Karamanlidika through some of his extensive food research. It was definitely off the beaten path and not touristy. In order to find your way to it you either had to be a local or have done some very thorough restaurant research. I think the best I can describe what kind of restaurant it is is by saying that it’s the Greek version of a NY delicatessen and restaurant. The owner seated us and brought us a small sampling of their sliced pastrami and some cheese (off to a good start!). Everything on the menu sounded so good that we asked her for her recommendations, which I think she loved. We started with their version of a Greek salad, then smoked salmon and a Greek sausage platter. We were still hungry so we also had a rice and vegetable dish topped with smoked cheese. She then brought us what is referred to as “spoon sweets.” It’s usually candied carrot slices and, in this case, they were served on top of yogurt. I know it sounds very strange, but it tastes good.
On our way out the door the owner gave both of us a big hug and kiss! It’s like we have a Greek grandma now!
Because we were headed back to the Acropolis area to go to the Acropolis Museum, we returned to the same cafe as the first day for breakfast.
The Acropolis Museum is fairly small, but pretty fascinating, anyway. It’s a sleek, modern building and it’s very striking within its neighborhood because of that. Before you enter the museum there are a couple viewing areas where you can look to the ground below, several meters underneath the surface you’re standing on. The museum is built on top of an archaeological dig – the remains of an ancient village. They’ve put this village on full display, even choosing to use glass floors within the museum so that you can see the entire archaeological site, which is deceptively large. Information at the museum said that you will eventually be able to walk through the ancient village, which I can only assume will be very incredible. The bummer about the Acropolis Museum is that they have a very strict “no photography” policy – there were many guards stationed around the museum who were actively enforcing this. As I mentioned above, you can view here the decorative pieces of the Parthenon that they put in the museum for safety and longevity. They also display many artifacts (both decorative and functional) that have been found during archaeological excavations of the Acropolis area. It’s pretty amazing to see up close the things that were made in the 400s and 500s BC. It’s so easy to think of anything in the BC times as being super primitive and uninformed, but the artwork is amazingly detailed and realistic and the tools/implements are surprisingly advanced. The detail on the gold coins they used, the subtlety of carving on marble statues, even the early bronzework – it really blows your mind what they accomplished (not to mention their science, literature, education, etc). It’s hard to really put the enormity of the accomplishments of the ancient Greeks into perspective until you’re there seeing it.
After we left the museum, we still had two more sites on our pass that we wanted to see (there were an additional two that we skipped: one was closed for construction and the other was too far out of the way). First, we went to the Ancient Agora – another one of my favorite sites. An agora is a central square/gathering place so, basically, this was the center of happenings as far back as the 6th century BC. We had seen this site on the fist day when we were looking down from Areopagus Hill (the giant rock) and had seen how big it was.
There was quite a lot to it but my favorite part was the Temple of Apollo, overlooking the rest of the agora from up on a small hill. Although it is less intricately decorated than other temples, there’s something indescribably gorgeous about standing there and looking through the columns at the beautiful blue sky and distant landscape.
There is also a small museum (housing artifacts of the site) in a building that is a 1950s reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos. Although it is a modern reconstruction, it is still impressive and beautiful.
Next, we walked over to Kerameikos, another ancient site. We honestly didn’t spend a ton of time there. It was one of the less exciting sites, but it was on the pass and nearby, so we were determined to make at least a quick trip through it. They, too, had a small museum, so we cruised through that and walked through the closest outdoor part, then left. We were so thirsty and bought some water from a vending machine by the gate. I hadn’t realized how dehydrated I was until I drank the water and suddenly I was sweating and feeling cooler. Lesson learned for our next trip to a hot place: drink more water and bring lots of Shot Bloks for electrolytes.
We were very ready for lunch by then, so we walked over to Ariston Bakery. They are known for their savory pies (meat pies, spinach & feta pies, etc). It was a quick but delicious lunch.
There were still a couple things left on my “to do” list for the trip, including trying the loukoumades at Krinos. Loukoumades are Greek donuts topped with honey, cinnamon, and walnuts, although I would say they’re more like fried dough than what we call donuts. We ordered them with Greek coffee (similar in strength to espresso, but made with the finely ground coffee still in the cup). I liked the donuts, but disliked the coffee. It was very grainy and I didn’t love the taste of it, either.
I had seen recommendations to check out the Central Market (a food market used by private individuals and restaurants, alike) so we walked over there. It was mainly a meat and fish market and, frankly, it was kind of disturbing and very smelly. It was a quick visit. There were supposed to be a lot of spice shops along the street outside the market, but we only saw three – maybe there are more during tourist season?
At this point, we had checked everything off our itinterary and since we had some free time before dinner, we headed back over to the touristy area to make our souvenir purchases. We had already done some preliminary souvenir searching on other days to get a feel for what we liked, and we went back to a shop we liked to make our purchases. We wound up with a bust of the Greek god Hygeia (goddess of health) and a replica of an urn from 450 BC. They have made good additions to the collection on display on our living room shelf.
For our last dinner we went to another place that Randolph had researched, Manas Kouzina Kouzina. It was a nice sit-down restaurant, but you order your food at the counter. It’s kind of a nice concept, since you get to see what everything looks like before you pick. It is all local specialties made from local ingredients, and all food is made fresh every 30-60 minutes. They had lots of great looking dishes and all of their beers were also Greek. Randolph had pulled pork (the meat was from the island of Naxos) with a potato dish and Volkan, a black wheat beer that is filtered through volcanic rock (it was very good!). I had stuffed calamari (I didn’t like it much, but Randolph did), two grain salads (very good) and a Greek white beer. Incidentally, this restaurant is also right in the same square as Tailor Made, the local-favorite souvlaki place, and the bubble tea place – clearly we liked that area!
We went back to the apartment and passed out, then woke up pretty early to get to the airport. We were so exhausted. As we were waiting for our flight I began asking myself why in the world I had also scheduled a trip to the Netherlands, leaving the following day. I told Randolph that I felt so “travel greedy” but he said that’s a good thing. We have to take advantage while we can!
**EDIT: I knew we’d done an insane amount of walking in our three days in Athens, but I didn’t know how much til I discovered that the health app on my phone is always tracking. Day One: 14.43 miles, Day Two: 14.53 miles, Day Three: 11.66 miles. No wonder we were so exhausted!
Post on Haarlem and the tulips coming very soon!