When people first learned that we were going to be spending a week in Athens, the response was usually negative. We heard everything from “Athens is dirty!” to “you really only need two days to see all of Athens…you’ll be bored after that”. Honestly, I can’t imagine where these sentiments are coming from. After spending a glorious week in Athens, we can’t wait to go back. The city is vibrant, totally unique, the food is not to be missed, and the history? Well. Athens makes for an amazing family vacation. (Add in a Greek Island or two and you’ll have a wildly unforgettable trip.)
Here are a few Athens highlights, as well as some tips based on our experience…
Enjoy the Street Art
Athens has elevated graffiti to a whole new level. And? It’s beautiful. Especially set against the backdrop of antiquity, this modern street art provides the most intriguing contrast. There’s a grittiness to Athens that is a far cry from ‘dirty’. It gives the city a totally unique vibe.
Kick Off Your Trip With A Food Tour
This is the one thing we didn’t plan well. Our food tour with Alternative Athens was planned for the very end of our trip, and by the time our day came, we were exhausted, and hot, and all toured out. Mike and I bailed on the tour, but our extended family went. It turned out to be one of the highlights of their entire trip. Not only did they have amazing food, but they were introduced to the most interesting markets, amazing coffee shops, bars, and little unknown restaurants that we all would’ve loved going back to. Doing this early in the trip would’ve made finding restaurants much easier. This will be the first thing I schedule when we go back to Athens someday.
Plan on Walking Most of the Time
We found that getting around Athens is a little bit tricky. There was a metro system of sorts (and the stations are supposed to be gorgeous), but they weren’t always conveniently located, and the pickpocket situation is no joke. There’s no Lyft or Uber yet, which left us at the mercy of cabbies. My brother pointed out that it’s almost comforting, knowing that cabbies are cabbies no matter the race, religion or location: they’ll all try to screw you.
My point, in all of this, is that where you stay in Athens matters. Because most of the time, you’ll be walking. And while we often try to steer clear of the very touristy areas in other cities…I actually found The Plaka neighborhood both charming and very conveniently located.
Stay At The New Hotel
The New Hotel is right next to the Plaka (without being in it), has a view of the Parthenon from the roof, and is within walking distance to almost all of the ruins we could ever hope to see. (It also has a killer breakfast included in the rate.) While The New Hotel does have family rooms with more beds, we ended up there after an Airbnb mishap, so had to “make due” (haha) with two adjoining rooms.
Spend Happy Hour on a Rooftop Patio
In Athens, rooftop patios are a thing. Many boast views of the ancient acropolis (like The New Hotel’s), and they all take advantage of the ocean breeze that seems to pick up around 6 p.m. each night. It was like a living dream…curled up on a cushion, shockingly good Greek rose in one hand, everyone and everything bathed in pink light, with the city of Athens spread out below. More than once we canceled dinner reservations elsewhere because we couldn’t tear ourselves away.
Do the 1-Hour Tour at the Archeological Museum
The Archeological Museum of Athens is not to be missed. Quite simply, it has THE most mind-blowing collection of antiquities you could ever hope to see. The actual mask of Agamemnon? It’s there. The very first portable astronomical calculator, created thousands of years ago to navigate at sea? It’s there. Actual arrowheads from Leonidas’ last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae (remember the movie 300?) – THEY’RE THERE, in a glass frame, just…sittin’ on a wall. And, charmingly, the museum had Korres (one of my fav skin care companies) re-create perfume from a recipe they found on a two-thousand-year-old tablet. “Smells like roses!” says Pax.
This museum is totally worth wandering about on your own. But to really have some mind-blowing moments (and to make sure you don’t miss the truly amazing pieces), it’s well worth doing the museums’ private one-hour tour. It’s not that expensive, and it’s the perfect length for kids. If you call the museum, they’ll give you the number of the tour guide on call. We were able to book the same day (but it was during the week and we had to be a little flexible with times).
Tour The Parthenon…The Right Way
The Parthenon is an absolute pain in the butt to visit. The lines are horrifyingly long, the climb to the top is no joke (on slippery marble steps worn smooth by 3000 years of feet) there’s little-to-no-shade, people are EVERYWHERE, and there is sometimes even a line to get back down. We got lucky on the day we visited (mid-week, August), but our guide said that the line to leave can sometimes be an hour or more. Good. Grief.
That said, despite it all….The Parthenon is not to be missed. It’s absolutely mind-blowing.
We did the Mythology tour with Alternative Athens, which included the Parthenon. But our guide – and this is the genius part – had us start at the Temple of Zeus, and buy a 5 day, multi-site ticket there. We then used that ticket at all other ruins across the city – including the Acropolis, Parthenon, Ancient Angora, etc. Key point: This multi-site ticket was the very same ticket that hundreds of people were waiting in line to purchase at the bottom of the Acropolis. We walked right past them, into a shorter line for people who already had tickets, and began our climb.
Just don’t lose your ticket. And, as a bonus, if you hit the Temple of Zeus early in the morning, few people are there and you get photo ops like this:
We also discovered that there are still concerts held – in the offseason – in the amphitheater next to the Parthenon. I cannot even imagine. If you have flexibility in your travels, that would be a truly amazing experience.
Tours typically last juuuuust longer than my attention span, but the Mythology tour had an ending worth waiting for. Our guide finished our tour at the Cemetery of Keramikos, and brought out a copy of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, honoring the dead of the Peloponnesian War. She asked the kids to each read a section of this speech, ending with the youngest, little Pax.
“Such is the city for whose sake these men nobly fought and died; they could not bear the thought that she might be taken from them; and every one of us who survive should gladly toil on her behalf.”
Grab Dried Fruits and Nuts From a Cart
One snack that we loved was the dried fruit (and nuts) from rolling carts, found all over the city. In addition to roasted almonds, cashews, etc, some of the carts also have dried mango, papaya, or pineapple. The best part? When I reached out to take my little bag of goodies, I realized that the fruit had been warmed by the Athens sun. Never have I had such delicious dried fruit. YUM. (The kids ate it like candy, too.)
Eat At A Local’s Favorite Place
There are a ton of amazing restaurants in Athens, but our favorite was Ama Laxeiresto, a recommendation from a local. Not only did they have totally amazing food (and cats like any good, self-respecting Greek taverna)….but it was really easy on the wallet, too. They were also able to accommodate a huge group of us, which was pretty nice. We had jugs of cold rose, octopus, big slices of feta, super fresh tomatoes, and a ton of small plates that would disappear in a flash! Delicious.
Sidenote: if you like really really fancy restaurants, my friend Lindsay and her husband loved Funky Gourmet. While a place like this could easily go the direction of too-gimmicky, this one just delivered really delicious food in the craziest ways. A fun experience if you’re looking for something without the kids. They were both totally blown away.
Look For Socrates’ Ghost at the Ancient Agora
This day was for Mike. That poor man (my hubs), who asks for almost nothing and is typically content just going with the flow…he sat me down, after arriving in Athens, and was all, “Shane. Babe. I’m not sure…if I can properly express how meaningful it is to be here. But….well…..I’ve been studying philosophy my whole life, Babe, and this is it, the birthplace of philosophy.”
Oh-kaaay. I stare back at him, not quite sure where he’s going with this.
“So…I know you were talking about heading out to some of the beaches, seeing the coast and stuff but…well…I know this is probably not great, it’s probably just a bunch of ruins, but I really need to see where it all started, where Socrates and Plato worked and lived….” he trails off. His face is so serious and….are those…tears in his eyes? And then – AH – everything made sense:
This is Mike’s pilgrimage.
So off we went, in search of Socrates and Aristotle and Plato. Our first stop? Athen’s ancient agora. Mike walked down the Panathenaic Way, a quiet satisfaction on his face, as he explained to the boys who once walked that same path.
We skipped the Temple of Hephaestus (knowing we’d go there on the Mythology Tour) and instead went seeking Socrates, who was known to have hung out near the house of Simon the cobbler.
While we were prepping for the above shot (messing with ISO, etc), we fired off a quick burst of about 4 photos, all milliseconds apart. Imagine our surprise later, when we found this strange white cloud floating in one of them. Did Socrates come to say hi to one of his biggest fans? (Obviously, Mike says no – he is a man of science. But I can’t help but wonder….)
In any case, this August afternoon was hot, and could easily have been miserable, but our saving grace was the Stoa of Attalos, rebuilt in the classical style from the ground up. Not only did it provide much-needed shade, but it was really cool to see exactly what these buildings once looked like.
And in some places, the old walls still stand. Blows my mind.
For the truly die-hard (MIKE), we also cabbed over – that same day – to Aristotle’s Lyceum. It was definitely more of a hole-in-the-ground situation, but Mike was moved, nonetheless.
Have Baklava and a Shot of….Something
Whenever we ordered baklava (at lunch, at dinner), we were often asked if we wanted Ouzo with it. If we said yes, we got a shot of ouzo. If we said no….we still got a shot of some unidentified liquid. Different than Ouzo, but still a shot. Bottom line? When you order the baklava, it’s bottom’s up.
Shop For Souvenirs In The Plaka, Then Get Ice Cream
I was worried that the Plaka neighborhood would be tragically touristy, and while there is an almost overwhelming amount of tourist J&S (that’s short for junk ‘n shit, haha)…The Plaka is still an absolute joy to wander through. I can also confirm that the Plaka sells the exact same souvenirs as the Greek Islands…but for a lower cost. My top picks? “The Eye” to ward off evil (it only works if you give it as a gift), classic greek shirts for the guys, Greek crowns (so good for dress-up later), kids’ books about Alexander the Great or Leonidas (they sell them in a bunch of languages), and a little something from Greek designer Ioanna Kourbela. She has several stores in the Plaka, each one with a slightly different vibe. I wore one of her gorgeous pieces all over the Greek Islands, too.
Break Some Plates
It’s totally worth visiting the Plaka at night, too, if only to have dinner at Adriano’s. No, this won’t be the best meal in Athens (the food is just OK). Yes, it is very touristy. But the food and wine are good enough, the vibe at the outdoor tables is festive and fun, and when you have finished dinner….go inside and break some plates. Like literally they give you special porcelain plates that you literally throw down on the ground to shatter. Then you dance around, stomping on the fragments of the plates. (The waiters can teach you the steps.) The kids? MINDS. BLOWN.
I’d call in advance – if the music and plate-breaking isn’t happening that night, I’d skip it.
Watch The Bizarre Changing of The Guard
While you’re still in the general area of the Plaka…catch the changing of the guard, done every hour, on the hour. It’s similar to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, in the way the guards maintain a very stoic, unmoving demeanor, but….this one has its own unique twist. Like….you think they might be joking. Like… it’s not unsimilar to a Monty Python skit. Like…the pompoms on the shoes are only the beginning. Watch it, read about the long-standing tradition, and then try to prevent your kids from marching around like that for the rest of the trip. TRY.
Do Late Night Drinks at A Neighborhood Bar
You’ve gotta love a town where you can roll into any neighborhood bar at midnight, kids in tow, and instead of giving you side-eye, they just bring the kids an extra bowl of chips and the Greek version of Fanta.
We love you, Athens. We cannot wait to go back.
Next time, we’ll plan a day-trip to the coast, maybe one to the mountains….but I wouldn’t have missed this week in Athens for anything.