Our trip to Greece began in the birthplace of democracy, the cradle of Western civilization, and the capital of the country – Athens. The first thing we noticed about the country as we left the airport was the landscape. This part of Greece is rocky, but the grey color of the rock is punctuated by plenty of shrubs and trees, including the really unique spindly ones that we later learned were cypresses. The airport is at least a half hour drive (depending on traffic) from the main part of the city, and we quickly felt justified in spending the €38 for him to drive us to our hotel. His weaving pattern through the streets was peppered with many quick starts and stops, and we traveled amidst the honking of horns and the soon-to-be familiar gesture of upset pedestrians and other drivers. The gesture has a similar connotation to “flipping the bird” in the US, but instead you hold your palm open to the offending person, fingers splayed, as you would if indicating the number 5 in the US. I recommend you avoid that while in Greece!
We passed a few sights as we went along, like the Panathenaic Stadium (dating to 330BC and rebuilt over the years–it’s the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble, and was used in the 2004 Greece-hosted Olympic Games). We also saw the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Parthenon perched atop the Acropolis–both sites we would later visit.
Eventually we were deposited safely at our hotel, and we took a moment to rest and let my mom know we’d made it. Our hotel room was small, but we were very well-located–just a block from the Acropolis Museum and a bit further to the Acropolis itself.
We stayed at three hotels in Athens, and despite the small room this one was probably my favorite. The main advantage was being so close to the Acropolis Museum and the pedestrian street in front of it, which was full of shops and restaurants. The breakfast buffet was very good, and I was surprised at how well the complimentary olive oil shampoo & hygiene products worked! The staff was very friendly when we had questions. Most of the hotels are in the Plaka or Monastiraki neighborhoods, which have much more nightlife and tourists, but we appreciated being in a bit quieter part of town. We also were able to walk to all of the ruins we wanted to see, and the hotel was $10-15 a night cheaper than a comparable ones in the other neighborhoods. Anyway, if you’re planning a trip to Greece I recommend it. It’s called Philippos Hotel. (And no, I’m not being paid for this recommendation – unfortunately!) 😉
After our rest, we headed over to the aforementioned pedestrian street near the Acropolis Museum, where we stopped at a cafe. I had a cheesecake-flavored milkshake and Ryan had his first (of many) Greek coffee. When we finished, we got ourselves a better view of the Parthenon and then entered the Acropolis Museum.
The Museum is new–it first opened to the public in 2009. It’s a very sleek, modern building, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that it had one a series of awards for its design. It houses over 4000 artifacts, primarily pottery and sculpture, that have been excavated from the Acropolis.
One of the coolest things about it, and inevitably the first thing you’ll notice as you make your way to the museum, is that it was built on top of a part of the excavation site, so there are parts of the glass floor where you can see down into what’s left of the ancient city below.
Inside the museum, you’ll find scores of gorgeous sculptures. Some of my favorites were the extremely detailed horses, the Caryatids (replicas of which are on the Erechtheion on top of the Acropolis), and the sculptures which still have traces of pigment. Some of these had been replicated, and then repainted close to the original colors. When we see all of that white marble, it’s hard to remember sometimes that all of it was painted to be brilliant and lifelike!
The very top floor of the Acropolis Museum is laid out like the Parthenon, and it contains sculptures (and replicas of sculptures–thanks, British Museum) from that famous monument itself. These are placed as they would have been on the Parthenon, and it really makes you appreciate the amount of craftsmanship put into each frieze and life-size sculpture. We watched a video on the Parthenon there as well, and I remember that it pointed out that the sculptures look perfect all the way around, even though they went on the front and back faces of the temple–because they were made for the gods they had to be the best! The walls of this top floor are glass on all sides, and that evening we could enjoy a great view of the illuminated Parthenon, as we admired the sculptures that used to adorn it.
A few tips on visiting the Acropolis Museum: the cost is €5 per person. I really enjoyed seeing it at night, with the views of the Acropolis, and it did seem less busy then than when we saw it later during the daytime. Of all of the museums in Athens, it is open by far the latest (until 8 or 10pm depending on the day), so it really wouldn’t make sense to visit in the morning anyway! It’s rather unclear in which areas of the museum photography is allowed, so I guess if in doubt ask one of the many museum attendants who are all around, or check out this note on the website. There are two gift shops in the museum – one has replica sculptures and other such gifts, and it’s located on the first floor; you don’t need a ticket to enter that one. The other is higher up, near the restaurant, and focuses more on books. I bought a really nice guide to the museum for €15, and they had many really well-priced editions of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and similar books, so I definitely recommend stopping there before you leave.
After we were done at the museum, we went back to the street where we’d had coffee and found a restaurant called Yard. We sat inside so we could admire their candelabras, hanging Edison bulbs, and other cute decor (and because it was a bit chilly, being after dark). Ryan had the gyro meat platter and I had chicken souvlaki–both were very good. I also had a white wine that the waiter recommended, and Ryan tried a Fix Dark beer. For dessert we split a pear poached in moscato and seasoned with saffron, which was good but a bit less flavorful than we’d expected. Finally, full and very jetlagged, we returned to the hotel and slept!
Our second day in Athens was the Big Day–the day we’d check out why everyone loves the Acropolis so much! We started it off with the delicious breakfast buffet at the hotel. There was homemade bread, meat and cheese, dried apricots and plums, delicious pastries (mmm… portokalopita), some kind of blended juice that had to contain peaches, and a great hot chocolate/coffee machine. They even had milk and cereal if the rest wasn’t enough! 😉
After eating our fill we set off for the Acropolis. We walked along a pathway through a park that was very peaceful, and eventually made it to the bottom of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a large theatre that’s sort of at the base of the Acropolis. We continued up the marble steps so we could buy our tickets to the ruins, and then we got a view of the Odeon from the top. It is really well preserved–the steps/seats looked almost new, as did the checkerboard pattern on the floor at the bottom. In fact, it’s still used for events in Greece today!
Next we followed signs toward the Acropolis, and entered through the Propylaea, after we’d first admired the well-preserved Temple of Athena Nike to the right. The Propylaea has large Doric columns that sort of match the Parthenon’s. Two of the pillars on the way through had the familiar Ionic scrolls which looked newer, and I wondered when those were added.
Once through the Propylaea, you can see the west side of the Parthenon (which had a large scaffold on it) and the Erechtheion. Maybe most excitingly, you can see the Caryatids on an offshoot of the Erichtheion. It was cool to see them where they came from after seeing the originals close up at the museum the night before.
I was also glad we’d gone earlier in the day, because we were able to get pictures of the Parthenon (or us and the Parthenon) without other tourists in them. By the time we left, the place had been basically flooded with people.
While trading photo-taking duties with an older couple from Florida, we got to talking to them a bit, which was really interesting. They’re on something like a 42-night cruise to awesome places like Morocco, Italy, and (of course) Greece! They recommend cruises once we get old because they’re really easy if you have the time to take them (i.e. when you’re retired), and said theirs was about $100/night, which is very good for including food, lodging, and entertainment. The woman also said that she’d been to Athens in the 80’s and that back then you could actually walk around inside the Parthenon, which sounds amazing and I think would have given a better idea of scale.
After admiring the Parthenon and taking some photos of Athens from along the walls of the Acropolis, we checked out the Erechtheion, which was a temple for some of the lesser gods (whereas the Parthenon was built for Athena, patron goddess of the city). It had columns on two adjacent sides and the Caryatids on a third side–I was surprised at how asymmetrical it was compared to other temples we’d seen.
We left through the Propylaea and decided to walk along the North Slope of the Acropolis. Compared to the top, there’s relatively little to see, but it was a pretty walk with great views of Athens and almost no other tourists along the way. We saw what was left of a few temples and fountains, explored the sacred caves of Pan, Zeus & Apollo, checked out the ruins of Dionysus’ Theatre, and even met a turtle along the path! After seeing all of this, we finally got around the East and South slopes to reach the Odeon of Herodes Atticus again.
We were somewhat tired and thirsty by this point, so we bought drinks (beer for Ryan, frozen lemonade for me) and started down toward our hotel again. Unfortunately some of the marble steps down are very slippery and I fell, twisting my ankle and spilling most of my lemonade. 🙁 The ankle didn’t help much with the rest of the day, but we still walked a lot–my pedometer when I checked it this evening said 21,000 steps!
We made our way back to the hotel, stopping at the Acropolis Museum gift shop and a shop to get some drinks along the way. We rested and rehydrated at our hotel for a while (Ryan watching his new favorite, BBC News) before setting off again, this time for Olympieion, or the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. We passed Hadrian’s Arch as we reached the entrance to the archaeological site.
In some ways the temple (or what’s left of it) is more impressive than the Parthenon. It was the largest temple built, so the 16 pillars that are left are much larger than those of the Parthenon. The columns are Corinthian instead of Doric too, so they’re more detailed and prettier. I really enjoyed seeing it… one of the 16 columns has fallen, which is also interesting because it gives you an idea of how many individual pieces of stone go into each one.
Surprisingly, though, the site closed at 2pm (it was Saturday). As we left the guard was letting tourists in for free–but they could only stay five minutes. We decided to head toward the Ancient Agora (where the Temple of Hephaestus is), hoping its hours were better.
We got a bit distracted along the way, though, walking through a street of the Plaka neighborhood which was full of shops and restaurants. I saw one I’d read good reviews of online called The Loom. They have rugs from all over the world, and Theo, the salesman, greeted us with glasses of white wine from his family’s winery. He then showed us a variety of Grecian rugs. One thing that was interesting was how Grecian designs are tied to mythology–like the Shield of Athena in the middle of some of the designs and the meanings of the colors. Ryan (of course) liked a green rug, and I thought it was cool too–if you looked at it from one side it was a darker green than from the other. Theo said that green was a good color for your eyes if you look at screens all day, and said you won’t find green Turkish or Persian rugs because it’s the color of the Prophet Mohammed and so Muslims don’t like to walk on it.
In the end, we bought three rugs–a small, lighter-colored one with the Shield of Athena for the entryway, the previously mentioned green runner for the upstairs hallway, and a deep blue one for the dining room. We also got a light blue blanket with a Greek key design that was made in Greece. All of this was for a reasonable price, and shipped to our house free! The rugs we bought aren’t handwoven or very thick, but they are beautiful and of good quality–and Theo says they’re very durable and easy to clean with just vinegar and water. It was a great experience and I’m excited to see the rugs when the come in a few weeks! [Edit: the rugs took closer to three weeks to arrive than the two weeks Theo told us, but they came and are beautiful–we’re very happy with them, and they’re a great reminder of our trip to Greece!]
At a nearby store, some rings caught my eye in the shop window and I bought an emerald one (with silver and 14K gold) for my collection. Eventually, we made it to the Ancient Agora, passing the Roman Agora/Forum along the way. The Ancient Agora, however, had closed at 3pm. We could see the Temple of Hephaestus through the fence and decided we’d visit tomorrow morning. I’d thought that the main disadvantage of going to Greece in November would be the weather, but it’s been absolutely gorgeous! The reduced hours for many attractions seem to be the real disadvantage… We have planned tomorrow out so we can be sure to optimize our last full day in Athens.
We had dinner al fresco at a cafe (thanks to the under-awning heaters everyone seems to have), enjoying the sunset and laughing at the kids trying to get euros out of people with their little rose scam. We dined on delicious homemade bread, fresh Greek salad, moussaka, and gyro meat. I wasn’t too hungry–I think because of the time zone change, but the food was good.
We walked back to our hotel along Dionysus Areopagitou, enjoying the views of the Acropolis and checking out vendors’ wares and street performers along the way. It was a nice end to a nice, full day in Athens.
As planned, we headed straight for the Ancient Agora after breakfast, following Dionysus Areopagitou back the way we’d come the night before. In the daylight we were able to more-clearly see some of the archaeological ruins around–a glimpse of a tiled floor here, a few stones in what used to be a wall there. We could also see much more of the graffiti. Athens is full of it, but none of it is very inspired–we only saw a few that I would call “street art” instead of graffiti. This wasn’t one of them…
The site of the Ancient Agora was very impressive, and much larger than I expected. In fact, I would put it on your list right after the Acropolis if you want to visit some of the best ruins! Previous to visiting, I’d thought that the Ancient Agora’s main feature was the Temple of Hephaestus, one of the best-preserved ancient Greek temples. While this is certainly one of the best features of the site, there’s a lot more to see as well! Visiting in the morning was also a very good choice, as there were only a few other visitors, and we got to have the temple all to ourselves when we went up to see it!
As I said, though, the Temple of Hephaestus was just the beginning. The Ancient Agora had so many more amazing sites–sculptures of gods (and one I particularly liked of Hadrian), funerary steles, the prison where Socrates was poisoned, a marble wall made by the Romans from destroyed temples… There’s a cool church that was built around 1000AD as well–you really just have to visit to see it all!
Finally, the other must-see spot at the Ancient Agora is the Stoa of Attalos. It’s a very long building with two floors and lots of pillars that has been restored so well that at first I didn’t think it was ancient at all. All along the first floor are sculptures, and there’s a nice little museum that gives a brief view of pottery, sculpture, and some bronze artifacts throughout the history of the place. One of the most interesting things I remembered seeing were the ostraka–little shards of pottery with people’s names on them. These were essentially votes to kick someone out of the city, and if someone got enough of them in a year (I believe the number was 3000), they were out! This is where our term “ostracism” comes from.
When we were done at the Stoa of Attalos (and ready to avoid the crowds starting to come in the gateway to the Ancient Agora), we decided to set off for our next stop–the Monastiraki flea market. On the way we stopped for a quick snack (lemonade for me, gelato for Ryan) and then popped in to see Hadrian’s Library. There wasn’t too much to see here–the main things were some pillars from the original library, a bit of mosaic from the floor left with a pattern of heart-shaped leaves, and pillars and an arch leftover from a church that was on the site much later. We had paid for the €30 ticket to gain entrance to all of the ruins though, so it was nice to make use of it and stop in and see what remains of a nearly 2000-year-old Roman library!
Just around the back of Hadrian’s Library was Monastiraki Square, our destination for the flea market I’d read so much about. However, I was to be rather disappointed–besides a few booths selling postcards, souvenir shot glasses and the like, there wasn’t anything that could be called a flea market. The market was supposed to be busiest on Sundays, which was when we were there, but maybe it isn’t held in the winter. Either that or we, arriving around 10 or 11am, were too early for the market. We consoled ourselves by walking down a side street full of shops, but didn’t find anything we wanted to buy besides a sort of sugar-covered donut from a woman with a cart. So all in all, it wasn’t a total loss. 😉
We journeyed on, wanting to visit a couple of museums before the day was out. At this point Ryan got to partake in his first-ever subway ride! It was a short one, just from the Monastiraki station to Syntagma Square. We did not stay long at the square then, however, as we walked on to the Benaki Museum. The scale on our map from the hotel may have been wrong, because at first we had a bit of trouble finding the right block. Once we’d found it, though, we were able to enjoy the pleasures of Athens’ finest art museum.
The first floor of the Benaki consisted of pottery and sculpture, which were in fact so similar to the ones we’d recently seen at the Stoa of Attalos that we decided to start at the top floor of the museum instead and go backwards through the museum. Instead of starting with the ancient world, then, we started with the Revolution of the early 1800s, in which the Greeks freed themselves of Ottoman rule. On the third floor then were things like intricately-etched firearms and swords, paintings of war heroes, and traditional outfits from the time. It was really interesting and a bit of a breath of fresh air after all of the sculpture and pottery we’d been seeing.
The second floor of the Benaki, as we worked our way down, had artifacts from Greece’s Byzantine period. Two things stand out very quickly–how religious the Byzantines were, and how much Byzantine Greeks loved gold! Many of the artifacts were gold or gilded, like a gorgeous altar made to look like the ark of the covenant–it featured delicately carved wood covered over in gold. This floor also had clothing from its period, some whole wood-paneled and stained glass-adorned rooms, religious icons, and traditional Greek instruments, like the bouzouki.
Finally, we descended to the first floor, which houses typical ancient Greek artifacts, like pottery, marble sculptures of deities, and a few small bronze pieces. These, however, were not nearly as impressive as those that can be found at the Acropolis Museum, the next museum we would visit (the National Archaeological Museum), or even at the Stoa of Attalos that morning. The Benaki was also the most expensive museum we visited, at €9 a ticket. I wouldn’t say it isn’t worth that–just make sure you’re interested in artifacts from the Byzantine or Revolution periods if you want to go, because that’s where the Benaki Museum really shines.
Once done at the museum, we returned to Syntagma Square and explored it a bit further. This square is quite busy, from my experience the handful of times we saw it while in Athens, at all times of day. On one end of the square sits the Parliament Building, in front of which stand the Greek soldiers that guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and perform the Changing of the Guard ceremony (I believe every hour). The square also has several bronze sculptures, fountains along both sides of it, street performers trying to make a Euro or two, and, when we were there, decorations for Christmas.
We had stopped in the square to sit at the fountain and people-watch while having some juice when we noticed a military band starting to perform traditional music to a crowd. We went over to check it out and then could see a group of dancers in traditional Greek dress who began to perform with the band. We had no idea anything like that would be going on, and it was really cool to experience! Check out the video below to see what we saw:
When the performance concluded, we decided to journey on to our next museum of the day, so we reentered Syntagma station and took the subway to the Victoria station. This involved a transfer at the Omonia station, during which we had our excitement for the day.
The train that pulled up was quite crowded, and Ryan and I were not well situated to get on it, so I was going to say we should just wait for the next in a few minutes when a young Greek guy wearing sunglasses made room for us and encouraged us to jump on before the doors shut. The whole car was packed with people shoulder to shoulder, and I was quite glad we only had to stay on it until the next stop. That’s what I was thinking anyway, when I felt the guy’s hand wriggle around by my hip. I turned a little and he said “Sorry.” Then I put my hand on my crossbody purse and realized he’d started to zip it open. I zipped it closed and put my hand over it for the rest of the (short) train ride.
When we got off I told Ryan what had happened and he said the guy had awkwardly put two fingers in Ryan’s front pocket as well! Luckily all Ryan carried there was some pens, so we didn’t have anything stolen. It was no wonder that the guy had been so “helpful” with getting us on the train then! That was the closest I’ve come to being pickpocketed–I’m glad the guy wasn’t sneakier at it or I might have lost my camera!
Anyway, when we got out the part of town we were in was definitely less tourist-friendly than where we’d been previously. It was a bit dirtier and louder, and we even saw some protest posters from President Obama’s recent visit–it was design of him with a big red circle with a cross through it!
Luckily our destination, the National Archaeological Museum, was just a few blocks away. The building itself is rather impressive, and sports four life-size sculptures at the top. As soon as we stepped in I knew we were in for a really great museum experience.
As the national museum for archaeological finds, it was full of artifacts from all over Greece. There were Cycladic figures and wall frescos from the islands, Mycenean gold artifacts, ancient sculpture, mosaics, and pottery, and even some ancient bronze sculptures. These are rarer than the marble ones, as bronze was more popular with looters over the years. There was also a special exhibit going on called “Odysseys” that featured artifacts connected with seafaring journeys. Downstairs is a lovely courtyard and the museum shop, which has beautiful life-size replicas of some of the museum’s artifacts (for no small fee). This museum is a little off the beaten path in Athens, not being close to the Acropolis, Plaka neighborhood, or Syntagma Square, but it really is worth the trip. I would even venture to say that if you are only going to visit one museum while in Greece, you should make it this one. (Just be wary of pickpockets!)
Once we’d had our fill of culture at the museum, we headed back to our hotel–this time in a cab. We weren’t (too) afraid of being pickpocketed again, but we were very tired of walking for the day and decided to just take the easy route upon being offered a reasonable price by a taxi driver. We did learn from him that the Athens Marathon was going on that day–which explained some people we’d seen out running the 5K that was tied to the event a few days before. He also suggested an afternoon trip to Cape Sounio to see the temple of Poseidon, saying he could do that with lunch for €140. Since we were leaving for Meteora the next day we could not, but the picture he showed was so pretty that we thought we might go if we had extra time with our rental car.
Back at the hotel, we tried some of the ouzo we had bought earlier. It tasted just as much like black licorice-flavored liquor as you would expect, and we decided that there was no need to bring any home with us. 🙂 We decided to make a good effort to stay up until 10pm that night, to finally get our jetlagged bodies in sync with the local time. This proved to be a challenge, but we did make it.
We started by walking to a gyro place that Ryan had seen a couple of blocks from our hotel. The place was called Smile restaurant, and was about as TripAdvisor-touristy as you could get, but the atmosphere was kind of fun. The gyros were very cheap and decent, though the meat was a little dry. We ordered loukoumades too (basically Greek donut holes in honey) but they were really bad. They had a bitter flavor that I vaguely remembered, but didn’t quite recognize until we’d told the waiter and learned what had happened. The cook was still in training and he’d accidentally used too much baking soda (something I’d done once with cornbread), making the loukoumades very dense and bitter instead of airy and sweet. They quickly remedied the situation and brought us new loukoumades that were delicious (and didn’t charge us for either).
When we were done, we hadn’t quite met our 10pm goal, so we decided to have a drink. We went to Gods Restaurant, which is on the pedestrian street next to the Acropolis Museum. The waiter there had been trying to get us to eat there every time we walked by, making several joking comments about having his friends “leave us alone” if we went and other such things that made him sound like a member of the mob! We finally stepped in then and had some drinks, kind of wishing we’d eaten there too. It’s a family restaurant and they even have a video playing of the father of the family cooking dishes that looked amazing. I settled for a pina colada though, and Ryan had what they called an “Old School”. Both drinks were quite large and quite good. Our server encouraged us to go clubbing, to stay up all night and “be wild” since we’re young, but we told him that we might not even make it to 10pm. 😉
We did make it, though we fell asleep shortly after. It was just as well, since there were a lot more adventures to be had as we set off for Meteora the next day!