ATHENS, GREECE: Observations and top tips for visitors
See Part 1: The hotel video and review of where I stayed: click here
I can never really make up my mind if I love, loath or am indifferent about Athens. But what I do know is that in recent years, every time that I have visited the city since the run up to the 2004 Olympics and beyond, that my impression of and feeling for the city has grown.
It seems to me that the Olympics gave the people of Athens massive energy, enthusiasm and momentum to update, invigorate and improve almost every element of this huge and sprawling city. It is a drive that seems to have kept going and is still transforming Athens.
The first time I visited Athens must have been around about 1986 or so. My impressions on that trip were not at all positive.
Before going I had, like most people I am sure, a perception of Athens and Greece as a place that was rich with a tremendous and romantic history. A history that was seeped in mythology, with exotic legends and tales of Gods, battles between “good” and “evil” and passionate love affairs. I was familiar, of course, with the image of the famous Acropolis and the Parthenon with its massive columns – but realised that was about the only image of Athens I was familiar with. I had no idea what the city itself looked like. But with its long history I imagined it to be a bit like Paris, full of grand buildings reflecting a glorious past.
So my first trip was somewhat of a rude shock to my system! I landed quite literally with a bump. The airport at that time was very old and quite tatty. It also seemed to be a bit of a shamble and quite disorganized. The trip into town seemed to be on small roads through tightly compacted buildings versus the large motorways and avenues I had expected. I also found that the city was sprawling and large, with row after row of uninspiring beige building blocks. There was an also unbelievable amount of traffic and air that was polluted as result. I thought, at first, that this was perhaps just the route that my can had taken to where I was staying at the Hilton Athens. But soon found by staring out the high rise hotel room that this was a fairly true representation of Athens at that time.
Over 5 million people, a staggering 40% of the Greek population, now live in the city. And, if you explore the history of Athens during the late 1960s, into the 1970s and early 80s you read about just how out of control the city did get. This was a time of massive growth for the city as people poured into it looking for work and the economy as growing. Due to poor town planning growth came at the price of order and structure, and many old buildings were torn down to be replaced with the more utilitarian office and accommodation blocks.
This is why I think that the Olympics were such a positive influence on Athens. They gave the city an impetus and focus to reinvent the city.
Greece was, of course, the founders of the Olympics games and the people of Greece felt cheated and were very unhappy when they lost out to Sydney the right to stage the Millennium Olympics Games in 2000. There was a belief among some in the Olympic Movement that Athens was not able to stage the games due to its infrastructure. But I suspect that this was actually a good move for Athens as the people were so enraged that they were determined to prove that not only could they stage amazing games in 2004, but they would do it in a modernized and appealing city.
The people of Athens had a challenge to rally around, and they were determined to prove that Athens was a First Class City.
In usual Greek style though, they did it in a way that stressed out the outside world watching who were convinced that it would never been done in time – forgetting that the Greeks usually get things done but in their own time. They did literally finish on time and even weeks before the Olympics some observers were predicting chaos.
The Greek way is a more leisurely approach to life and to getting things done. The weather, no doubt, plays a large part as it is glorious weather usually, although it does get almost unbearably hot in mid summer. This is why, no doubt, the whole place pretty much closes down and everyone leaves Athens for the islands and the seaside. So if you visit, remember that mid-summer is when the city is pretty closed up.
Athens has put in place as a result of the Olympics many major infrastructure changes which makes it a better city for a visitor. The new airport is slick, modern and very pleasant to travel through. There is now an inexpensive metro system that runs from the airport into town and also on the further suburbs near the sea. There are new modern highways and every single hotel, of all classes, has been refurbished or extended.
Even the 5 star Hilton was transformed into a funky new modern hotel with sushi restaurants and hip spa. The city had new walkways for tourists and all the traditional sights have been connected in a kind of “archaeological area” and are easier to walk between without fighting through the heavy traffic. Most of the museums too have been updated, renovated and extended and the tourist services seem better, more efficient and up-to-date.
Athens has always had a vibrant night life and this remains as buzzy as ever. The people of Athens are very sociable and like to take time to enjoy being with friends. Even on a weekday it is easy to find yourself out until 1am or 2am as the evening will only start earliest around 9pm. Even if you want a quick meal you will find it hard to do that in less than 2 hours as to the Greeks this is time to relax, chat and enjoy yourself. On this trip, for example, a colleague and I who had just flown in on a Sunday late afternoon went to eat around 6.30pm and found all the tables still full with the lunch time crowd who were just starting to finish off their coffees.
The other good news is that Athens seems to be much less polluted, although traffic still seems to be pretty bad. Pollution used to be a major problem for the city. There are a rumoured 15000 taxis and huge car ownership and there are always zillions of young people weaving crazily through the traffic jams, although people seem to take traffic jams as a matter of course and seem to get much less stressed out about it than in other countries. However, while pollution seems to be better you cannot say the same for smoking as people still seem to smoke a lot, and restaurants and bars are very smoky.
The taxi trip in Athens from the airport is always for me an ordeal, and I pray for traffic jams a lot of the time. When there is open road the taxi drivers do seem to take you on more of a white knuckle style ride chopping and changing lanes at speed, driving on each others bumpers and driving at speed while talking and doing text message on the phone. I do find that part fairly stressful and so if not travelling with anyone will call up people on my mobile and chat to distract myself.
Here are my tips for people visting Athens:
1. BEST TIME TO VISIT
• If you are going as a tourist, the most comfortable time of the year weather wise is late spring and at the end of summer. The days are warm and bright but do not have the high temperatures and stifling heat of summer. In August around 60% of Athens residents leave the city to go on holiday to get out of the heat of the city.
• Winter can be fairly pleasant in Athens, especially in January, though it is a bit less predictable. February is a good month as this is the Carnival season arranged by the Municipality. It ends on what they call “Clean Monday” which is the beginning of Lent so check your calendars to work out when that is for each year.
• You will find a large difference in the cost of accommodation “out of season” (i.e. not in summer) which is another benefit of visiting at these times. Hotels can be as much as 30% to 50% cheaper.
2. DON’T PLAN TO STAY TOO LONG
• Athens is not really, in my view, a final destination place for tourists. It is an interesting place to stop by on your way somewhere – such as the dazzlingly stunning Greek Islands for some sun and relaxation. Or perhaps even as part of a trip to visit other ancient world cities like Rome and Florence in Italy or Istanbul in Turkey.
• While the historical sights are very interesting and worth seeing, there is not a lot to keep you occupied and engaged for many days. Days that you could better use on the islands or sight seeing elsewhere.
• It is though worth planning a trip to Athens on your way to the islands as so many people will take direct or charter flights to one of the islands and miss out on the chance to see the history. This is especially important when you consider that Greece is actually fairly far away from Western European countries like the UK, France, Spain and Germany for example, and if you are making the trip it seems a real missed opportunity not to go to Athens. It will take around 4 hours for example to fly from London which many people find surprising, forgetting just how far south Greece actually is.
• The 3 largest and most popular tourist islands near to Greece are Crete, Rhodes and Corfu. Crete is the biggest of the Greek islands and is between Libya and the Aegean seas which make it the most southern part of Europe! It has a lot of great beaches but also a lot of archaeological sites and museums so can be a good balance of lying about and culture. Rhodes is the 4th largest of Greece; it has a lot of medieval churches. Corfu has a lot of history and is the most northerly island with a very rich and complex history from years of different invaders I assume. However, many people prefer the smaller and more party islands like Mykonos which are all closer together and can be reached by ferries and boats.
3. DO A ROUND ATHENS TOUR
1. The tourist office in Athens seems to only open in the morning and up to 2,30pm, but the one at the airport has much longer hours and so it is worth stopping by there before you leave the airport and get the latest brochures and things that are on.
2. However, no matter how long you are staying in the city, I recommend as I often do for people visiting a city for the first time that you do one of the “round-the-city” style tours. There are 2 very good options in Athens: one by bus and the other is a walking tour.
3. The bus of course covers more of the city and is more flexible. The best is the “Athens Sightseeing Public Bus Line”, whose slogan is “Hop on the No. 400 and discover Athens”. The ticket can only be bought on the bus and costs 5 Euros (about US$5) and is valid for 24 hours on the 400 bus as well as other public transport and so is a great deal. In season the bus runs in 30 minute cycles from 9am, and out of season it runs each hour. There are 20 stops which covers all the areas you would want to see. Some of the stops included are: NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM, KLAFTHMONOS SQUARE, SYNTAGMA, BENAKI MUSEUM, NATIONAL GALLERY (ETHNIKI PINAKOTHIKI), PANATHINAIKON STADIUM, AKROPOLI, OLYMPIC ZEUS TEMPLE (NAOS OLYMPIOY DIOS), GREEK PARLIAMENT (VOULI TON ELLINON) and UNIVERSITY (PANEPISTIMIO). You can find out more at http://www.oasa.gr
4. If you are an energetic type and want a more escorted tour than you could try the walking tour. You can find out more at http://www.athenswalkingtours.gr These tours have been run fro over 20 years and start at 9.15 each morning and last about 3 hours. You have to book the day before. There are 4 tours you can choose from with the 1st two the best to get a good overview and hear the history.
a. Tour 1: An exciting trip through history (which focuses on the Acropolis);
b. Tour 2: The Best of Athens (which focuses on a mix of modern and old and is designed to give you an overall feel for the city)
c. Tour 3: Culture & Pleasure (also gives you a feel but you go up one of the hills to get a big panoramic view of the city and sea)
d. Tour 4: The Greek Bazaar (a slant on shopping areas)
e. Tour 5: The Museum Tour which not surprisingly goes to museums in this case Museum of Cycladic Art & Benaki Museum (which is a museum of Greek art history)
5. SEE FIVE MAIN TOURIST AREAS
a. There are 5 main areas that are must see places in my view in Athens. They are all in the same part of the city and so relatively easy to get to see them, and as part of preparations for the Olympics some of them were linked with more pedestrian friendly roads.
b. Acropolis Area:
i. The 1st of these is the famous Acropolis, which costs about 12 euros to enter (about US$12). This was the sort of “holy rock” where some significant buildings were built and so in addition to a great view of the city you see some stunning buildings. There is the Propylaea which is the entrance and made of marble. Then, of course, you can see the huge and impressive Parthenon which is the largest on the Acropolis with its huge columns and carved friezes. There is a new museum which shows finds from the Acropolis dating back to 6BC. The fee allows you to also visit the stunning Theatre of Dionysus which is the most ancient theatre in Greece. If you want you can also head down and visit the Ancient Agora which is an amazing site which used to be the political, financial & religious centre of Athens
c. Hadrian’s Arch Area:
i. Near to the Acropolis is Hadrian’s Arch which is a very impressive Roman monument built in about AD 131 in marble to honour the Roman Emperor Adrian and was the border between the “old” and “new” parts of Athens at the time it was built. Just beyond the arch is the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. This is yet another impressive building dedicated to Zeus, father of the Gods. This is the biggest temple in the country and well worth seeing.
d. Panathinaikon Stadium Area:
i. Maybe one of the best known places in Athens among sports fans, and will remind people of the sort of stadiums in films showing chariot races in Rome. This was originally built in the 4th century BC. It has been restored twice and can hold an amazing 70000 spectators. In 1896 the first modern Olympics were held in this remarkable stadium and so a really significant place to visit.
e. National Garden Area:
i. The walk through the plush gardens with ponds can take you past the Presidential House (which used to be the palace when Greece had a royal family) but more importantly to the Parliament building at the top of the Garden. This is called a neo-classical building in all the guidebooks, whatever that means, and was built between 1834 and 1838 as the palace of the first kings. It is a huge building with big columns and a large statue and fountain outside and is worth talking a look at. In front of the building is the Monument of the Unknown Soldier with two guards called “Evzones” or Presidential Guards. These are the ones dressed in those very strange uniforms that look like cross between a gym slip and tutu. Quite strange outfits but very distinctive and worth watching the changing of the guard every hour.
f. Syntagma Square Area: Syntagma means constitution and the square is one of the best known places in the city. This is one of the centres of Athens where not only because it is a major metro station but also is near the Parliament buildings and the Panepistimiou Street runs off it. The square is a free wireless hotspot and so good for catching up, more at http://www.athenswifi.gr . Panepistimiou Street is one of the central roads of Athens and has some stunning buildings on it as well as the National library and many of the museums are off it such as the Museum of the City of Athens, Numismatic Museum
6. VISIT A MUSEUM
a. I think that Athens must be one of the cities with the most museums as there seems to be loads of them covering a huge variety of topics. In the tours I mentioned some of the art museums but probably one of the best museums to capture the history of the city is to visit the National Archaeological Museum which was originally built in 1866. This is the one to visit of you only go to one museum and takes you through Greek history with some amazing prehistoric exhibits and also great sculptures
Places to stay, based on hotels I have stayed at. Look at each if these for my reviews, videos and photos:
Grecotel Cape Sounio