We are unashamed ancient history nerds (geeky sisters) and my favourite subject at school was Latin. After taking a brief trip to Athens more than 15 years ago I’ve wanted to return, so I recently booked a four-day stay in this wonderful city with two very special ladies to mark our birthdays. I was pleased to see the historical highlights I remembered were still there, but this time I also saw a new side to the city. With my half-Greek bestie leading the way as our tour guide, I discovered the parts of Athens the locals get to enjoy. Here are some of the highlights, some of which might not be in your guidebook but should definitely be on your itinerary.
Also known as the ‘Athenian Riviera’ or ‘Hellenic Hamptons’, Glyfada is around a 30-minute tram ride out of the city and a complete contrast to the rugged capital. This coastal town has boutique shops, chic restaurants and an infamous nightlife, but the main attraction for us was the incredible sunset. On our first night in Athens we headed to the terrace of Balux Cafe and watched the sun setting over the beautiful bay. With a cocktail in hand, the three of us toasted to our 30s and a fun trip ahead.
You don’t have to walk far in Athens before you stumble upon an ancient monument. The most famous spots include: the Acropolis, Parthenon, Agora, Hadrian’s Gate, Theatre of Dionysus, Panathenaic Stadium and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. These sights are absolutely worth a visit and we bought a city pass which covered the main attractions for around €30 and lasts a few days. My personal favourite was probably the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, at the foot of the Acropolis, which reminded me of the fascinating Roman amphitheatres dotted around southern France. But outside of these landmarks, you’ll find plenty of other artefacts dating back thousands of years. In fact, they’re everywhere! The locals seem so accustomed to the history that it wasn’t unusual to spot an ancient marble pillar just lying in the street or being used as a bench or kids’ climbing frame! My advice would be to wear some comfy shoes and take a walk around Athens with your camera in hand, it doesn’t take long to find a historic photo-opp.
National Gardens, Athens
Athens is bustling and can be slightly overwhelming at times, so we enjoyed some time out with a peaceful stroll in the National Gardens. It was peak season for orange blossom during our holiday, so this lovely scent filled the air as we explored the gardens. We stumbled across some nice surprises like Corinthian columns, ancient mosaics and even a small zoo. If you exit the gardens at Syntagma Square, be sure to walk by the Parliament building and try to catch the hourly changing of the guards. Their flamboyant handover must surely have inspired the Ministry of Silly Walks!
In the daytimes, we spent hours sampling frappes in the cafes which line the Athenian streets and pretty squares. After many (many) tasting sessions, we decided the best was probably to be found at the Telaro cafe close to our apartment. Telaro also served delicious breakfasts, and I loved the tomato and oregano scrambled egg on sourdough. Possibly the best non-frappe coffee in Athens can be found at Tailor Made, a micro-roastery which had a mouthwatering menu of every type of coffee imaginable. We were kept well entertained while enjoying our coffees at Tailor Made, as a Greek advert was being filmed in the square right in front of us.
The most famous hill in Athens is obviously the Acropolis, but there is another hill which is desperate to be climbed. Mount Lycabettus, or Lykavittos, is said to have been created by Athena, when she dropped a limestone rock from the skies en route to creating the Acropolis. One of the best things about this mountain compared to its better known sister is that you can see the stunning views of the Acropolis from above, glowing amid the entire Athenian skyline. From this vantage point you can truly appreciate just how many incredible ancient monuments are all over the city. It’s also a great opportunity to see the more modern architecture and to spot the new rooftop bars that Athens is fast becoming known for. To get to the top of Mount Lycabettus we took the the funicular from Kolonaki, which costs about €7 per person, but it is possible to walk the steep incline.
Perched atop Mount Lycabettus is Orizontes restaurant, which is the best way to enjoy the stunning views in style. We requested a window seat and booked the table just before sunset, to see the cityscape in a variety of beautiful light. The food was excellent, we were served a delicious appetiser of creamy soup, then I enjoyed a fillet of croaker with new potatoes and vegetables and a buttery sauce. After a chocolate souffle for dessert, we waddled to the very top of Mount Lycabettus where the small Chapel of St George church perches on the hill, and enjoyed the glorious view of Athens at night time.
With a strong student presence and a constant stream of tourists, there are more than enough bars to keep you busy on your trip, as well as plenty of restaurants and souvlaki stalls. If you want the classic Greek taverna experience there are lots of options in the streets around Monastiraki. For something more authentic you might like to wander into the neighbourhoods of Psyri and Plaka. Here, we found bustling bars bars with live music and plenty of Ouzo (definitely try it with bitter lemon or limonata if you don’t fancy it neat). There is also an emerging scene for roof bars on some of the city’s taller buildings. The most famous is perhaps the Galaxy Bar on top of the Hilton, but there are many more. We tried to visit the Bios rooftop which was unfortunately closed, although the indoor bar on the ground floor was still worth a visit.
Where we stayed
We stayed in an AirBnb close to the Monastiraki metro stop, in a huge apartment owned by artists and furnished with their own artwork. The spacious studio was in a perfect location within walking distance to the Central Market and plenty of bars and restaurants. The cost was around £55 per night for the whole apartment, which could easily sleep 6-8 guests.