Travel to the Golden ruins of Athens

When you ask people who travelled to Athens, you receive different reactions.

It was awesome to hike through the ancient ruins. The tiny juice bars serving Orange juices keeps your hike in the sun energised. I could stay there for 4 days”


Agora was just some leftover stones in rubbles. I liked the hilltop of Acropolis and flea market. I could not see the whole figurines in Caryatid porch though- there were too many people at the hilltop”


“Other than the nightlife, I didn’t like anything! There is hardly any solid ancient structure left for tourists to see. The beaches of Athens is not meant for vacationing. It was my waste of time in Athens.

Before visiting Athens, we realised that each blogger had different opinions on Athens. A friend suggested spending a day in Athens; another asked to skip it. A historian’s blog said you need seven days to explore Athens! Famous travel nomads suggested three days. Are you too confused like this?

Here is your complete guide to clear your confusion – whether Athens is your cup of tea.

Index

Why Travel to Athens?

aerial view of compact athens with hills in the surrounding

The way ancient Athens merged with modern development is insane.

It feels strange to see a Metro train run between the 2500-year-old ruins! Watching these marble structures change their colour to glowing honey at sunset gives you goosebumps and takes you to aged Greek heaven. The Acropolis surrounded by skyscrapers at the foothill feels how ancient the stone you are standing on is.

The Agoras (ancient market places) are where people met others lay as proof of the birthplace of democracy. The trendy bars and cafes nearby the ancient ruins show how “the meeting place of people” has evolved with time.

The times have changed; the city grew in its way from the olden time. The only constant is the Aegean Sea in the background.

It reminded me of my first history class as an architecture student! It took me back to my college days. A lousy alone column standing in the middle of rubbles reminded me of my sketch plates done during my history class. For Ashrith, it was the stories of Zeus, Spartans, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Pandoras and Hercules in the actual locations. The architecture, history and mythological stories with a hipped vibe are what make Athens interesting.

Who will like Athens?

History enthusiasts, Greek mythology lovers and Inquisitive people – you are in for a treat in Athens. PICTURE ABOVE – ZEUS TEMPLE

Whether you know about Greece’s history or not, witnessing it in a prominent place where it all began is very interesting. You need not be an archaeologist or an architect to appreciate Athens ruins. If you can re-imagine the streets of Agora where Plato and Aristotle walked once, you will be thrilled to walk on the paths they walked. If you are curious about how Greeks and Romans are different, you will love Athens. The complicated calculations behind the perfect architecture, general physics, Greek gods and goddess stories, walking trails by the ancient ruins, and details of rulers from almost every part of the world tried to have held on Athens. If you are keen on any one of the above, you will fall in love with Athens.

Athens is full of science, facts and fiction.

The real story of a Greek soldier who ran 42km from the village of Marathon to Athens to deliver a message about Athenians’ victory over Persian and how this became a standard distance of modern-day Marathon excites you when you hear it from a historian guide.

Athens is located by the seaside. But in the pic here, it looks like a mountainous town!

 If you feel this holiday is getting too serious with history, philosophy and maths, you can always take breaks in pretty cafes with fabulous views from the hilltop. Apart from history, the marble structures glow as if someone dropped a focus light on them during sunset. Too tired after walking in the day?- the nightclub and its beer are there to relax you.

Who may not like Athens?

Felis Catus, the pretty poser in front of Mighty Parthenon at Athens

The word associated with Athens is “ruins”. So if you are looking for one beautiful structure in full shapes like Buckingham palace or Mysore palace, you will be disappointed. These ruins are not the best backdrop for pretty pictures.

Athens was glorious centuries ago, but now just another Mediterranean city. Though there is a sea, the beaches are not famous. It is neither turquoise in colour nor wavy to attract tourists. The irony is that most package tours take tourists to Athens because it is convenient. Most tourists won’t be aware of history. Not everyone is interested in walking by the broken Doric columns.

Many travellers who walk here are for ticking off Athens from the checklist.

The acoustic details of Athens theatre may be silly for a person who wants to see something as fancy as Burj Khalifa. Yes, Athens nightlife is excellent, but if you have already gone to the party towns like Amsterdam, Berlin, Las Vegas, Tel Aviv and Bangkok, you may find Athens nightlife on the dull end.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus: A Second-Century Theater. Greeks still hold live performances here in Summertime during Epidaurus Festival.

How many days to spend in Athens

By now, you already must have got an idea if you are in the category “I love Athens” or “I don’t love Athens.”

Ideal Athens Itinerary

Suppose you are a history buff and prefer to experience Athens than see it – Keep two days to see the city’s highlights. Start your day with a guided walking tour. Later, You can hike to Lycabettus mountain through the archaeological ruins trail and visit museums and Acropolis for sunset in the evening. You can even take a break at the cafes in Plaka. The next day hit, Monastiraki Flea Market; check out Syntagma Square, Roman Agora, museums and check out nightlife scenes. If you plan to go for day trips from Athens to places like Delphi and Epidaurus, add a day more – So two to three days is good to see the highlights of ancient Greece and Modern-day Athens.

If Athens is your first city in Greece, this is just a stopover between your next destination, and you are in the category of “I don’t like history+ruins” stay overnight and see Athens for one day. In that, you can visit Acropolis, ancient Agoras, Zeus temples and the first Olympic stadiums.

What is the best month to travel in Athens, Greece?

March to May or September to November is the best time to visit Athens. The sunshine is guaranteed, the crowd is lesser, airfares and hotels are cheaper, and the weather is better. However, the noons can get very harsh in the summers. The uphill walks around the archaeological site may worsen to the point of sunstroke. So keep the hiking for mornings from 6 to 10 and 4 pm to 7 pm.

Is public transport in Athens Good?

Metro, public buses and Uber taxis connect every part of Athens. The international airport is located 28km away from the city Centre – Syntagma square. You can choose any one of the below modes to get to the city from Athens Airport.

What area of Athens is best to stay in?

The most convenient and sought neighbourhood is Plaka and Syntagma because they are closer to Acropolis when you are on a short trip. With three ports, a railway station and an airport – you also have to consider where you are headed next. If you have to catch a ferry early in the morning, choose the area near the port. Don’t select immediate neighbourhoods of ports and railway stations. Petty crimes like stealing and snatching are more in those areas than in the rest.

PLAKA – ONE OF THE OLDEST NEIGHBOURHOODS IN ATHENS WITH ACROPOLIS WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE

Plaka –We stayed for a night here at our BnB Hosted by Marc Edvall- Parthenonos 24.  

Syntagma – Closer to Acropolis but not within walking distance. All The buses from the airport stop at this square. The area is filled with global food chains like Mc Donalds and Pizza hut. This is the right choice if you want to stay in modern Athens and not too far from Plaka.

Koridallos –  One of the closest neighbourhoods to the port Piraeus. We stayed on the night we came back from Meteora as we had to catch the ferry the next day early morning. The apartment was spacious, and the host Argiris was friendly.

Psiri – For night owls and party people

Monastiraki – Another area closer to Acropolis and the flea market. The laid back area seemed to be a bit posher than Plaka, with more streetside cafes and shops. 

Why do we say a day in Athens isn’t enough

Other than the history books and a few Hollywood movies, we didn’t know much about Athens. We didn’t know what to expect from one of the world’s oldest cities. The previous evening when we arrived, we could feel the city wasn’t as sophisticated as the other Central European cities. So with an open mind and no expectations, we started our day by walking to Mt. Lycabettus on a cloudy morning.

The neighbourhood was waking up slowly, but tourists had begun flowing to Plaka. Cafes were expensive, so we grabbed bread from a grocery store and a fresh cup of orange juice. The traveller’s opinions aren’t deniable, we realise after walking for 10 minutes. There was no wow factor in none of the side alleys. Many buildings looked ill-maintained.

The Panathenaic Stadium

The first stop of our hiking was the stadium where the first Olympic game was conducted. But, in a few minutes of staring at a place, you will know nothing about it. Someone who knows about it should narrate the facts. So, take a walking tour around with a good guide who narrates the facts and stories in detail.

Hiking to Mount Lycabettus

The hike of 2.5km to reach Mount Lycabettus shows you a part of Athens well. Sometimes through a yard of fallen columns and residential areas of wealthy people at times. No matter which locality you are in, you always have a view of the Acropolis on the horizon.

Mount Lycabettus shows you the aerial view of Athens sprawling to the coastline and a distant view of the Acropolis. This sight was worth the steep climb. The St. George church on the hilltop receives devotees fairly but is not as crowded as Acropolis. Lunch with view sounded like a plan until we realised the meal cost at the hilltop cafe. Fortunately, we dropped that idea of making that point-to-point visit here and settled with a scoop of ice cream for a while till it gets cloudy again.

The obvious of all tourists were our next interest. We decided to take a detour from the Google map’s direction and took our own paths through the jam-packed roads filled with yellow taxis and two-wheelers. There was always a quieter side lane corbelled and lined with cafes and cheap juice bars for budget travellers like us. Slowly drifting, we had reached Hadrian’s library late in the noon.

The Roman ruin Hadrian library isn’t impressive.

Except for those last corinthian columns standing, the building is indeed in bad shape. However, the flea market in Monastiraki was more exciting. As the sun had begun to go down, we realised it was time to head to the Acropolis.

We walked by the sides of Roman Agora and through the beautiful lane of pretty beige coloured houses and streetside cafes. Honestly, the backside of the buildings looked like artists got bored of making Grafitti and left it halfway through. With The trees for sunshades, Roman/Greek ruins popping here and there, and Victorian balcony houses, this was one of the finest streets for walking in Athens is Dioskouroun street.

Athens may not be an excellent clubbing place like Berlin, but its streetscape and cafe culture are fascinating.

Closer to the sky, we could spot the Parthenon from its foothill.

Local artists were playing instrumental music. Smaller stalls and kiosks were selling handmade metal jewels. Two-three women with infants in their arms were pondering around begging from tourists. The aura of the Acropolis was way different from what we had seen in the morning – It was neither dull nor energetic. Those corbelled winding pathways with the shade of trees took us to the ticket office. The crowd hadn’t gathered as it was still hot yet cloudy. So we could get the expensive ticket ( 22 Euros in 2018, I guess) without waiting in long lines.

The actual entrance was under restoration, so all visitors had to take a longer path beside the Odeon of Herodes Atticus ( Odeon means – Performance Area)

Theatre of Herodes Atticus

THE BACKDROP OF the theatre

Is there anyone who doesn’t appreciate music? Whatever may be the genre, music heals everyone. Ancient Greeks & Romans understood the power of music better. Greeks held terrific performances with no electronics to support and no wires to connect. A Second-Century Theater here was one of the greatest of its time, and Greeks still hold live performances here in Summertime during Epidaurus Festival – How cool is that!

The Greek Entrance – Propylaea

Walking ahead, you come across the Roman entrance to the Acropolis. But, of course, after dethroning the Greeks, Romans had to add their share of buildings to the Greek place. It was a magnificent entrance back then, but only part of its wall remains still now.
When we roamed in Athens and Istanbul’s Topkapi museum, I understood why marble is expensive – Ancient Greeks and Romans used marble for anything and everything. Starting from the entrance steps to the columns that hold its roof – Everything is built by marble ( not clad, built with marble). What we consider a luxury material now was Greek bricks!

Temple of Athena Nike

When you step on the marble steps and pass through the vestibules, imagine yourself as an ancient Greek citizen wearing Chiton and an Olive leaves headband, with some offerings for the Goddess Athena. Don’t forget to look on your right side – An old, small yet cute temple of Athena Nike.

Parthenon

Walking through the vestibule between giant marble Doric and Ionic columns, the view reveals the most important and talked-about building – Parthenon. Thousands of years ago, this building was the home of a 38′ tall gold cladded Athena statue, now a building with less than 50% of its original structure left! At first glance, it isn’t going to make tourists folks happy. Most of the visitors may not be aware of the reason why the UNESCO symbol resembles this ruin.

As an architect and a history teacher, I knew the extensive mathematical calculations Greeks adapted and the extremes of details they did to this building with Optical corrections. These terminologies may seem too technical, but watch the below videos; you will know why Parthenon is celebrated and appears on every coverage of Greece travel websites.

Then, it was the symbol of Athens’s grandeur built to glorify the victory of Athenians over Persians. But now, mere background for tourists selfies who want to submit a piece of evidence on social media to show the world they went to Greece. I say this rudely because people consider this a “Pile of old Stone” without understanding it.

The inner part of this Athena temple is almost non-existing now. The pediment of the roof was painted green and red colour and studded with precious gemstones. It is almost impossible to get Parthenon to its ancient glory, but the work is in progress and will remain under restoration for a lot more time.

Suppose you wonder why the building is in such pathetic condition even after several restoration attempts; watch this video below.

From Persians to Barbarians, Turks to British in the 1800s, almost the entire world has contributed to its destruction! I am surprised to see this many remains here! Each broken stone, each fallen sculpture, has a sad story behind them. For us, the tourists, it is a wrecked background for photos.

Erechtheion

Though Parthenon is an architectural wonder, my favourite remains Erechtheion – Women carrying the load since 5th Century BC. The temple is unusual from typical Symmetrical Greek temples. This was named after a demi-god to house an old wooden Athena statue. The most impressive parts of the temples are the Porch of Caryatids – Women figurines used as columns. You can’t get very close to the porch, but you can make out the different hairstyles of the women here. The folds in their draping are so detailed that you can’t stop admiring it through the hands that held wine pots once are missing now.

Caryatid porch – Lady figurines as loadbearing columns

Many curious tourists get disappointed because we aren’t allowed to touch anything here! Thank god we aren’t allowed to touch. Else, that little remains you see now would have turned into dust. Have you heard of our Hampi Musical Pillars? A similar thing would have happened here too. A few of the lady figures from here are already taken away by Turks and British. We tourists would have broken either an arm or the headdress while hugging the ladies for a photo.

If it is too much history and architecture for you, the gold flake and honey colour sunset never fail to impress you.

The marble buildings here glow at dusk because of the iron content in their Pentelic marble. The hilltop may be crowded, but not many like staying back for this sunset! There is no cafe at the hilltop to sip coffee, no glam structure to pose pretty/handsome. The regular crowd leaves immediately after clicking the selfies. Unless you wait for the crowd to disperse after the sunset, there remains a small crowd of tourist who appreciates the real beauty of Acropolis until the watch guard chases them out.

Travel to Athens they said- You get bored they said – They were wrong

That strong load of history and more than 6km of hiking needed an elaborated rest for the foot with some cheaper food. Flee markets are always filled with that hippie-gipsy vibe. Those are the best place to meet locals as well as other tourists. You may buy or may not buy; isn’t it entertaining to see people haggling? We sat by the parapets at Monastiraki with fresh cups of orange juices. In a way, I was content because my dream of seeing what I studied as an architecture student was right there glowing. But also, we were whined.

Monastiraki Square

History buffs and Greek mythology freaks like us can’t have enough of Athens in one day.

What is your thought on Athens as a traveller? Let us know in the comment section below.

Published by Sahana Kulur

Traveller | Blogger | Architecture and history

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