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After our layovers in Istanbul and Cairo, we booked two nights in Athens, Greece. When I pictured Athens, I conjured up visions of Hercules, Achilles, and other heroes from antiquity. I thought of massive temples, white columns, and of course, the home of the Olympic games. What I did not consider was the modern side of the city. During our brief stay, we explored historical landmarks, but we also had the chance to visit some lively, modern areas.
1. Take a Taxi to the City
Athens airport, like many international airports, is a bit outside the city. To get into Athens, you will likely need to take a cab. We learned that there are two different, flat-fee prices for a ride into the city, depending on the time. During the day (5am-midnight), the fee is 35 euros, but at night (midnight-5am), the price rises significantly to 50 euros. These prices are set, so don’t expect much/any flexibility. The cab ride should take about 40 minutes. Public transit options are also available, but they seemed a bit cumbersome in our opinion.
2. Find a Centrally-Located Hotel
When you’re looking for accomodations in Athens, search for a hotel near the city center. Fortunately, the most famous sites are pretty clustered together, and the whole area is very walkable. We found AthensWas, an excellent Design Hotels property (affiliated with Starwood), so we could redeem SPG points for two nights. The nightly point cost was 10,000 points for our stay (now 16,000 points). With a cash price of $250, that’s a solid redemption value of 2.5 cents per point.
The hotel itself is a very small, boutique property. Our room was nice, with a king bed and a small balcony. The view wasn’t anything special, with an alleyway behind the hotel. On the top floor of the building, you can find a fine-dining restaurant, serving modern Greek cuisine, with beautiful views of the Acropolis. If you want to sit outside, you should probably make reservations in advance.
3. Check Out the Plaka
During our ride from the Airport to our hotel, our driver, John, told us that we absolutely had to check out an area called the Plaka. Since we hadn’t made any specific plans for our first night, we decided to follow his advice. I’m so glad we did!
The Plaka is a difficult place to accurately describe. I can tell you about the smooth, white-marble walkways; or the area lined with all sorts of shops; or the dozens of open-air cafes; or the constant views of the Acropolis, luminated in the distance. What I struggle to accurately convey, is the feel of the Plaka.
As we walked through the bustling streets on a random Wednesday evening, we were inundated with delicious smells from baked goods and all variety of international foods. Live music poured through the laneways, giving a little extra pep to our steps. The whole area just felt alive and energetic. There really is something special about strolling through the Plaka at night!
4. Have Dinner at Kuzina
Also recommend by John, Kuzina is a modern Greek restaurant in the heart of the Plaka. We had hoped to grab a table on their rooftop terrace, but they were fully booked. We snagged one of the last tables inside – popular place!
Their menu features award-winning entrees and a selection of local beer and wine. Brooke got the roasted pork with sweet potato puree, and I chose the seasonal pasta. Her meal was definitely our favorite, but it seems difficult to go wrong at Kuzina!
5. Buy a Combo Pass for the Historical Sites
You have the option to pay entrance fees at each of the historical sites around Athens or to purchase a combo pass. If you plan to visit three or more historic sites, you will save money with the combo pass. We bought our pass at the base of the Acropolis for 30 euros. An added benefit is that you only have to stand in line once.
6. Climb Up the Acropolis
The Acropolis, or “high city” is visible from most of the city of Athens. It sits high upon a hill, overlooking the surrounding areas. This site is home to many noteworthy cultural and hisorical events. You can enter from a number of different gates, and you should be ready for a climb. If you visit in the summer, be sure to bring extra water, as the temperature gets up into the 90’s, and the sun can be relentless. Also, be careful on the steps. They have been worn so smooth over time that they’re extremely slippery. We watched quite a few people slip and fall.
Once you reach the top, take your time exploring the various buildings and temples, including the Parthenon and the Theatre of Dionysus. Also, walk to the outer wall and gaze over the city and out to the sea. The view from way up high is remarkable!
7. Visit the Temple of Zeus
The Temple of Zeus was built over a 600 year period, beginning in the 6th century BC. At the height of its glory, it included 104 columns. The only remains of his once-mighty structure are a few columns and the foundation. As you walk around, you can imagine the grandeur of the original temple. One of the columns fell in the 1800’s and you can see how it was built from stacked marble discs.
8. Swing by Olympic Stadium
Athens may be most well-known for being the home of the original Olympic games. Just down the road from the Temple of Zeus, you can find a recreation of the first Olympic stadium. We were frustrated to learn that entrance to the stadium is not included in the historical site combo pass. It doesn’t make much sense, and charging more felt like a “cash grab,” so we chose to look in from the plaza outside. I don’t feel like we missed much by not going inside. The only activities we saw were the opportunity to take a picture on a medal podium and to walk around the track.
9. Walk Through the National Garden
After leaving Olympic Stadium, we walked back toward the heart of the city. On the way, we found a large park with walking trails, lots of vegetation, and a turtle pond. It was nice to be surrounded by nature in the big city.
10. Watch the Changing of the Guard
Every hour, on the hour, the guards change their post at the tomb of the unknown soldier, in front of the Parliament building. You should make time to watch the ceremonial presentation. The whole process takes about 10 minutes and features high-step marching, ceremonial uniforms, and gun twirling. Get there early for a good view.
11. Eat Lots of Gelato
Gelato is definitely one of my favorite treats! It doesn’t matter what the temperature is outside, I can always go for a double-scoop gelato cone. Athens has a lot of places to get top-notch gelato, especially around the Plaka area. This is a great way to take a break after a long day of exploring the sites.
Other than the obvious historical sites, we were not sure what to expect when we arrived in Athens. The Plaka area is very impressive, especially for a nice evening stroll. Be sure to wear your comfortable walking shoes, because you will cover a lot of ground between the Plaka, the Acropolis, the Temple of Zeus, and Olympic Stadium. We hope you enjoy your visit to this hisoric city.