My line of work takes me to all sorts of new places and, most of the time, I take advantage of this and spend some more days in that location. This is how I got to visit Athens for a week-end and enjoy every second of it. Now, you already know how I fell in love with Greece, back in summer, when I visited Thasos Island. Imagine, if you can, that I love Greece more, now, after having visited its capital city, Athens.
Athens is a blend of culture, modern age and beautiful people. I was simply enchanted to walk the streets of Athens and having to stop at every step, because there was always something to see, always a street vendor that wanted to show me their merchandise or an ancient building that “demanded” to be admired.
When in Athens, various things came to my mind, as to what I wanted to write in this article. Now that I am in front of my computer, I am literally at a loss for words, because Athens left so many impressions on me that I find it hard to determine what is worth sharing with you. I guess you’ll just have to bear with me and read through a bunch of things that I have enjoyed and experienced during my trip.
I arrived in Athens on a Thursday evening, with the last plane to reach it from Bucharest and I was a little concerned on how I would manage to get by so late in the night. Never mind my worries; I immediately realized that Athenians are a bunch of friendly people, willing to help you out at any time. From the customs’ officer to the taxi driver that took me to my apartment, I laughed, told stories and discovered how you can easily get by with a little bit of English and a lot of sign language 🙂
Be prepared to use your hands a lot during your trip to Athens – not only if the person you’re talking to does not speak English. Athenians are passionate people; they wave a lot with their hand when they talk, to emphasize more what they are saying 😀 . This is something I loved, since I have the habit of doing it a lot, also!
Booking my apartment, I wanted it to be close to the city center or at least a walking distance. Not knowing much about Athens’ neighborhoods, I chose a small, comfy one-bedroom apartment – Chrisolora Apartment. Although not exactly within walking distance from the city center, it was still a perfect location for me. The funny thing that I discovered when the taxi driver took me to the apartment was that it was located in the neighborhood of Exarcheia. At first, I did not exactly understand why the taxi driver was so shocked to hear that I wanted to go there, but I was quickly explained why.
Historically, Exarcheia is known as a home of Greek anarchists, where various manifestations take place, which most often end up with clashes between the rioters and the police.
Nowadays, apart from this status, it also has the status of the perfect hang-out spot for young people who want to enjoy a care-free night out on the city. Why? Because the police is not allowed within the neighborhood of Exarcheia. Yeap, you heard it correctly, police cannot enter the neighborhood, unless absolutely necessary. This is why, at the edges of the neighborhood you can find clusters of policemen, in full riot gear, patrolling.
The funny thing that I mentioned earlier was that, the street my apartment was on, was at the edge of this neighborhood, therefore, I have never felt more safe than I felt in Athens, with all those policemen patrolling around :)) .
First off, let’s talk about history and ancient stuff 😀 Athens is one of the world’s oldest cities. Its history spawns over 3000 years – if this does not impress you, I don’t know what will.
Back in the day, Athens had it all – it was a sea-port, which meant that it had direct maritime connections with the world and was a powerful economic and trade center; it was a cultural center for arts, learning and philosophy and it was a political epicenter, known also the “cradle of Western civilization” and the birthplace of modern democracy.
Even today, Athens still keeps its power over several aspects – it is the largest passenger port in Europe and the second largest in the world and it is the center of financial, economic, political, cultural and maritime life in Greece.
After settling in, I made my plan, to visit as many sights as I could see in Athens – unfortunately, the plan was kind of overthrown, because Athens cannot be seen in a hurry. Athens needs to be enjoyed, savored.
I ended up visiting some of the most important ancient sights and just enjoying the streets, the food and the people of Athens. Just as a heads up – wear comfortable shoes in Athens; your feet will thank me later 🙂
In my conquest to see the “ancient sights”, my first stop needed to be the Acropolis of Athens. The Acropolis is the citadel located on a rocky outcrop above the city, home to several buildings of great historical and architectural significance.
One of these buildings, widely recognized and also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the Parthenon. Dedicated to the goddess Athena, whom the Athenians consider their patron, the temple was built as a replacement for a previous temple that had been destroyed during the Persian invasion in 480 BC. The current building was designed by the artist Phidias and it is he who decided also on the sculptural decorations that now constitute one of the most exquisite architectural sights in the world.
Unfortunately for me, the Parthenon was under renovation when I visited the Acropolis, so I only got to see a portion of it. It impressed me nevertheless. I was particularly amazed by the detailed display that you can see at the top of the columns, in the spaces that the architects call friezes (not trying to be a smarty-pants, I actually looked this up online, as I had no idea how they were called 🙂
Another building that caught my eye, again, due to the incredibly detailed architectural components, was the Erechtheion. Also built by Phidias, the temple was dedicated to both goddess Athena and god Poseidon. One of the aspects that make this building unforgettable is the Porch of the Caryatids – also known as the “Porch of the Maidens”, the columns on this side of the temple have been replaced with the figures of six draped female figures.
The figures are so imposing and well sculpted that at one point, these were replaced on-site with replicas and the originals were moved to the Acropolis museum, where they are exhibited in such a manner that they can be seen from every angle.
As patron of the city, Athena had many temples dedicated in her honor. One of these is the Temple of Athena Nike, one I especially enjoy, since it captures, again, the detailed work that I got accustomed to see in the architecture of the ancient buildings which are part of the Acropolis of Athens.
I don’t know why, but this building, in comparison to the others, reminded me of all those stories of Greek mythology that my mother made me read when I was a teenager. Although at that point in time, I did not realize how important it was to learn history, I was disappointed now that I could not remember more about goddess Athena, who was so important to the Athenian people, throughout history.
As I mentioned, the entire Acropolis is an open air museum, where you can get lost in admiration, trying to take in the weight of history that you can feel all around you. I will not share any more of what I visited here, since I really urge you to visit it yourselves and make your own impressions. I am actually really curious whether you will feel the need to read a little bit of Greek mythology, once you are finished with the walking around part :D.
The next stop of my journey was the Ancient Agora of Classical Athens. Historically speaking, an agora was a public space, where people could gather, discuss and debate. Throughout history, various buildings, such as temples and later churches, altars or stoas, were added to the initial agora.
You can see, nowadays, relics of some of those buildings – some of them were well preserved, such as the Temple of Hephaestus (the patron god of metal working, craftsmanship and fire), while only parts of others were excavated. It is a beautiful site to walk around, trying to imagine how it looked like in ancient times, buzzing with people.
After having visited the Roman Agora of Athens, Hadrian’s library and Aristotle’s Lyceum, the final stop on my tour was at Hadrian’s Gate and the Temple of the Olympian Zeus.
Built to celebrate the adventus (arrival) of the Roman Emperor Hadrian to Athens, the gate was constructed under the form of an arch and it remained a symbol of Athens, throughout the years. Hadrian was a benefactor of Athens and he is believed also to have completed the work on the Temple of Zeus, a site located just south of the arch.
Unfortunately, although designed to become one of the largest temples in Greece, throughout the history and the various invasions Athens withstood, the temple has been left in ruin and, nowadays, only a few of the original 104 columns are still standing.
If you want to visit more of the archaeological sites in Athens, which I encourage you to do, you should choose the special ticket package, which is 30 EUR and which you can find at any of the ticket counters of the sites (I found all the info I needed here – Ministry of Culture Greece).
Architecture in modern Athens has kept its ancient influences and most of the buildings that you can see, while walking the street of Athens, are built in the Doric, Ionic or Corinthian orders, like a tribute brought to the rich historical, cultural and architectural heritage of Greece.
One of the things that impressed me the most while I was visiting Athens was the way in which old and new came together, in the perfect balance between the need to appreciate history and the need to create a contemporary culture. One of the most iconic buildings in Greece, the Old Royal Palace, which houses the Hellenic Parliament is a good example of this balance. Facing the Syntagma Square, the palace is situated in the heart of Athens and it is a symbol of Athens and its inhabitants.
Colorful street art captures also the meaning of Athens. From its ancient times, Athens has been a beacon for arts. Many artists have found inspiration in Athens and were encouraged to develop themselves. In modern Athens, you can see street art everywhere and there does not seem to be any censorship. Some of these art works send very powerful messages and have a specific significance in the life of Athenians. Again, I was surprised of how well these two worlds interact with one another, on one hand the world in which rules and norms are taking seriously and on the other the world in which you can freely express yourself through art, whether this is by traditional means, such as painting or architecture or via the more contemporary equivalent, street art.
Moreover, you can find that, in Athens, even metro stations are decorated with various ancient artifacts or various art pieces, designed to enrich the experience of the travelers.
If you are in Athens on a Sunday, you cannot miss the ceremony of the change of the guards, in front of the Hellenic Parliament. Although the ceremony takes place every hour of the day, on Sundays, at 11.00 AM (Greek time), an elaborate ceremony takes place and many Greek families come to enjoy it, as it is a highlight of the children’s day. It is more special, since, on Sundays, the guards dress in traditional costumes and a military marching band accompanies the ceremony. The unit that guards the Monument of the Unknown Soldier is known for the Greek people as symbols of bravery and courage due to their role throughout history. They are known as the Evzones or the Tsoliades. (I have taken all my information regarding this ceremony from here – Traditions in Athens).
One of the other things that make Athens so appealing is the people. Whether you were born and raised in Athens or you are just a visitor, you feel Athenian from the moment you step foot in this city. Somehow, the energy of the city takes you over and you simply need to go with the flow and adapt to the life style that the Athenians have.
This is a life style in which you communicate a lot, you enjoy spending time with friends and family and just enjoy life. You have so many things to do in Athens that you might feel that the day is not enough.
One of the things that I enjoyed while in Athens was perusing through some of the markets that the Athenians have – flower market on a street in Exarcheia, flea market or antiquities market in Monastiraki neighborhood or even the Fish and Meat Market.
If you want to enjoy a drink, you can always go to Plaka neighborhood, known for its wide selection of restaurants and bars. I was so enticed with Greek cuisine that I have created my own food guide of Greece, in which I included also dishes I ate in Athens.
After the ceremony, you can walk to the National Gardens of Athens, an amazing public park, which you can visit at all times of day, throughout the year. Located in the heart of Athens is the green oasis that you need to relax after visiting the archaeological sites, where you can enjoy a cup of coffee or tea at one of the chic small cafés or just cover from the sun, under one of the old trees.
Getting back to my meeting and being stuck for some days in a conference room in Athens, my only comfort was the view of Athens, which I snapped while climbing the hill toward the Acropolis. The memories of my short stay in Athens will remain vivid for a long time to come.