Two countries later, I cannot stop thinking about Athens. We were told, “3 days are all you need,” and when I had suggested Greece as a vacation spot a year earlier, my Company had strongly refused. Yet after a short few days, as we woke after an evening out with new friends from across the Globe (Zambia, to be exact) and having drunk ouzo deeply into a night that turned into morning, we weren’t ready to leave.
We could spend another month, and we would not be ready to leave.
After our taxi driver helped us remove our luggage when we arrived in Athens and said, “Hey, look up,” to show us the Acropolis standing tall against the city backdrop, I could not help but feel my stomach flutter into my throat. No big deal. Just thousands of years of history in the skyline of a city that reminded me, eerily, of San Francisco when I had first moved there years earlier.
Here it was, here it is still. Step outside your hotel room and suddenly there’s the monuments – the blood, sweat, and ingenious engineering – of years past whose legacy is still alive today, surrounding you, staring at you and asking, “Have you lived up to this legacy, today, and tomorrow, will your work, your mark on today, still stand?”
And for the Athenian culture? I was greeted by the beautiful, subtle display of hospitality with a dry sense of, “We’re getting by”. Even our taxi driver from the airport, a finance graduate from university with two jobs in addition to driving, called his wife to get the name of a friend’s hotel at Anti-Paros for us in case we wanted to go (normally it would have been booked by now). His sarcastic jokes, yet kind gestures to go a bit farther to make us love Greece left a deep mark on us.
The city was awake from early morning until past midnight, an air of drive and survival parallel to my hot summer memories of Beijing during its peak economic expansion. Every step outside into the busy neighborhood of Monastiraki, filled us with life and hustle at the market, greetings from shopkeepers and restaurant owners who sell a hard bargain to get you in. Even the words from the walls of graffiti seemed to jump out and say, “We are here, we are alive, and we’re determined to make it to tomorrow.”
It is hard to look at Athens without feeling deeply connected to something far older, far more collective, living today as it once had with its deep reaching beauty and resilience. Layer upon layer of stories, the old living with the young, the new and the ancient, made me feel like I was some alien anthropologist from the far future, looking back on the blip of civilization of western humanity.
It it even harder not to philosophize about whether we really have made progress when tested against thousands or millions of years, whether we were truly more evolved than the ancients whose places of worship, homes and art still influence us today. But just as I began to despair, my mind drifting to the chaos around us in our modern world, I would look up and see the view of the Parthenon standing against the modern city and think: “What an engineering feat of beauty, sacrifice and will. If we had accomplished this then, we can accomplish this – and more – now, as we stand on history of knowing we can and with a desire to reach something far higher than the skies.”
We were in Athens June 8-10, then June 16-18. We like slow travel and prefer to fully experience each site versus going to a lot of sites during one trip. We also mostly believe in food and outdoor activity tourism so you’ll see a bias here.
The Parthenon. You can’t go to Athens without experiencing this, and block off a day to truly go and spend time there. We spent hours walking around, standing on top of the hill, and looking at the view of the ocean and ports in the distance. I felt like I was transported back to ancient times, surveying the seas for boats nearing harbor. We read every description, noting that every piece of architecture was something far older than anything we had touched since our 2013 trip to China. Even at the end, we found it difficult and weirdly emotional to leave. I said to my Company as he practically sat down on a rock, staring at the Temple of Athena, “Hey, I think it’s time to leave. Shall we say goodbye to democracy?”
- Not for vegetarians, but we loved going to the Athens Central Market. Given how fresh and delicious the food was, we wanted to check out the supply chain. Let’s just say, every part of the animal is used and we saw it all.
- Running the Acropolis. Don’t listen to the naysayers, it’s very easy to get runs in around Athens and in fact, is my preferred way of sightseeing. Get all the sights plus exercise in just 3-4 short, hot miles, and you can make it 6-8 miles easily. Make sure to go early morning before the crowds and heat.
- Areopagus hill at night to see the Parthenon and all of Athens light up. The view doesn’t get better than this. It’s where the teenagers go too, it seems, to hang out and drink BYOB because it is free, and they are smart (more later on this). Just be careful as the rocks are very slippery.
- We never made it to the Acropolis museum because we spent so much time at the Parthenon (and then eating), and that is one of my regrets. Next time!
Food & Drinks
Authentic Greek food is incredible. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much, and I blame my 2am diner experiences of watery Greek salads in the U.S. for this. The ingredients in authentic Greek food is so fresh with very distinct flavors. Very little seasoning is needed, unless it enhances, since the flavors of the food speak for themselves. My Company ate his body weight in yogurt, and as someone who is extremely lactose intolerant, I handled the yogurt and cheeses really well (unlike Paris, which is another story). Also, if you like meat, there’s nothing like a hot souvlaki bar with some 1-2 € grilled skewers after a debaucherous raki-filled night out.
The red wine, however, was not my favorite. I’m a red wine drinker 99/100 times and stuck to whites in Greece. The whites, though, were really interesting and reminded me of orange wine or a crisp pinot noir. No complaints here given how hot it was mid-June in Athens.
- Nikitas in Athens (Plaka area) for authentic, cheap and homemade Greek food run by a family (we literally saw the grandma cooking in the kitchen).
- Karamanlidka blew us away and was extremely affordable even with all the online hype. It was here that my Company realized with great anger he had been tricked his whole life with bland tasting vegetables and that he did, indeed, love eggplant, tomatoes and mushrooms.
- We counted how many days I’d make it without Asian food. The answer? Eight. Greek ingredients plus Chinese food with real spiciness? Best Peking duck outside of Beijing at East Pearl. How did we not figure this out earlier and eat there every day? It was a cost splurge at 47 € for 2 people (gorging ourselves on half a duck and 3 other dishes with drinks, by the way). Worth every bit and shockingly the most expensive meal we had in Athens. Good news is, if that place is packed (and it usually is), the entire block has Asian restaurant options.
- Koi Sushi, which had quality on par with fine sushi restaurants in San Francisco, California at about 1/3 to 1/2 the price. I’m still thinking about the nigiri.
- Brettos Bar for some homemade, artisanal ouzo and raki. Raki feels like the drinking version of taking a plunge in a glacial melt.
- The Jungle is a local bartender’s favorite, with some outstanding whiskey drinks (I suggest the sazerac and old fashioned) recommended to us after we drank Brettos until closing. This is what happens when you make friends from Zambia and realize you basically should have been friends for years. I would link the location, but I forgot to mark it on my phone because I was having so much fun and many beverages in. You’ll have to ask a local or do a quick search.
- We stayed at: Arion Hotel when we arrived, Piraeus Dream Hotel before we left for the islands since it was right on the harbor (and walking distance to the ferry), and finally at Alice Inn, which was a cool hipster hotel that kind of reminded me of an Airbnb. In downtown Athens, we stuck to the known tourist neighborhoods of Plaka and Monastiraki. Each place ranged from 60-70 USD/per night and included breakfast. Though next time, we’d be keen to venture out more.
- Credit Cards: Almost all the restaurants and shops we went to accepted credit cards, even the smaller ones that looked like food stalls.
- ATMS: A lot of ATMs did not work for us, but we found one, AlphaBank that did. Be careful and do NOT take out 50 € bills. One of ours was counterfeit, and the banking hours – unlike any other establishment we saw that were open from 8am to midnight – had very limited hours. We’re still carrying that counterfeit 50 € bill around, maybe as a souvenir? Now we know how the rest of the country feels about their banking system.
- Transit: We found it hard to grab a taxi on the street in Athens, and as expected, it was the expensive way to get around town. There were plenty, but most of them already had passengers. The hotel can call you one at a slightly higher fee or you can use the metro. Most taxi drivers prefer cash, though we encountered ones that were fine with credit card. Next time we go, we’re going to check out the public transit and report back. We’re big fans of using the train, bus or metro at every opportunity.
- Flower sellers: My Company, famous for his generosity and a lot of unfortunate cases where someone will ask him for money and then show him their open wound, got hoodwinked by a woman “giving away free flowers” who then chased him down for a “tip”.