When we first decided to go to Athens, we hadn’t booked to go to Rome. Bear with me here! The appeal of Athens was the ancient history and the architecture. It would be somewhere quite different to other destinations we’ve visited.
Then we went to Rome for my 40th birthday and soaked up all the ancient history when we visited the Vatican Museums and St Peters Basilica.
We witnessed amazing architecture at the Roman Forum and the Colosseum.
And, all of a sudden, we were worried that Athens might be a little bit samey. Call me a heathen, if you like, but you can have too much of a good thing. Temple fatigue is a thing, as we found out on our trip to Penang in Malaysia. You stop appreciating the beauty and detail if you see too many too quickly. We didn’t want to not appreciate Athens.
We needn’t have worried. Athens is a great destination in its own right and there was plenty to fill our 2.5 days there.
After the initial not so good first impression, we woke up on the Sunday morning raring to explore.
Changing of the Guards at Syntagma Square
Syntagma Square is home to the Hellenic Parliament building, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb is s guarded by two Evzone soldiers, and a changing of the guard ceremony happens every hour. Each Sunday morning at 11am there is also a much larger changing of the guards ceremony and procession. The road is closed and crowds gather to watch the spectacle.
Every step made by the Evzone guards is monitored by a military official who walks alongside them (you can see him below, in the blue beret). At first we thought he was there to keep the crowds back, but then we noticed him looking at the height and angle of their steps.
It’s worth getting there slightly early to grab a good spot, or do as I did and wheedle your way opportunistically through throngs of people. Seriously though, if you want to see the actual Changing of the Guard on the square rather than just the procession, get your shit together and don’t arrive at 10.55am like we did.
Hop On Hop Off bus tour
I’ve said it before, many times, if I’m on a city break and there’s a bus tour then I’m all over it. Such a good way to see the highlights of a city and choose when and where you want to spend more time. Most cities will have different bus operators vying for business. Where possible we usually go for the red City Sightseeing buses because we’ve used them on multiple occasions and always been happy. They’re reasonably priced and the commentary (available through provided earphones in multiple languages) is always good too. Athens was no exception; we paid 25 euros for a ticket which included one day free (48 hours from time of purchase) and both the city and beach routes. The city route covers the obvious tourist attractions, while the beach route takes you out to the Athenian Riviera for sea views and sandy stops. We chose to stay on for a full loop of the bus tour, to get our bearings, then hopped on and off later for places we wanted to revisit.
Plaka district and Roman Agora
Athens is split up into multiple different districts, which have their own characteristics. We were staying steps away from the Plaka and Monistiraki districts. Plaka is renowned for being picturesque with lots of restaurants and shops to browse. After completing the City sightseeing bus tour, which we started and ended in Syntagma Square, we wandered through Plaka. Here we stopped for pictures of the Agora, not bothering to go inside, with a view to heading back to Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of the Zeus which we’d seen on the bus tour.
We didn’t realise at the time that the Agora was included in the Rome Pass we later bought. That said, the pictures were pretty good from outside.
Then we had a Plaka pit stop for wine and ice cream (me) and beer and cheese pie (husband), before heading off on the next part of our sightseeing adventure.
Arch of Hadrian
One of the things I find crazy about cities like Rome and Athens is the history that just pops up in the middle of the city. Hadrian’s Arch is right by a busy junction of a main road, and it’s just there. There is no cost to view the attraction.
200 metres walk away is the entrance to the Temple of Zeus. This costs 6 euros (well worth it) or is part of the 30 euro city pass which is valid for 5 days and 7 attractions. Bearing in mind that entrance to the Acropolis is 20 euros, you only need to do 3 sites (including Acropolis) to make this worthwhile.
Temple of Zeus
This place blew me away. Maybe because it was my first time up and personal with Greek columns and ruins. Maybe because it was there I realised that columns are built in sections because we saw one that had fallen and disintegrated into its original pieces (who knew?) Maybe because I’m an excitable sausage who wants to see everything in the world. But it was fab. You know something is good when you take so many photos of the same thing. Here are a few.
Because of the aforementioned excitable sausageness, and FOMO, I suggested we walk the “short distance” from the Temple of Zeus round to the Panathenaic Stadium. We’d passed it earlier in the day, on the open top bus tour, so I knew it wasn’t very far. Everything feels longer in 30 degree searing heat though! The Stadium hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and is the only stadium in the world made of marble. Honestly though, it was a bit underwhelming. We didn’t bother to go in (it wasn’t included in our city pass and didn’t seem worthy of shelling out extra cash for). But at least I can say I’ve seen it!
We’d decided to do the Acropolis on the second day, getting there early to avoid the heat and the crowds. You can walk up to it, but it’s on a hill and again it was scorching hot, so we used our hop on hop off bus ticket to go as far as we could. There was still a steep incline to the entrance, and the marble tiles were quite slippy underfoot.
I always thought the Acropolis was the temple on the hill. It wasn’t until we started researching that I realised the Acropolis is the hill itself; the area. The main large temple is the Parthenon. There is also the Temple of Athena and Erechthion on the same site, once you’ve passed through the grand columned entrance.
Because of its elevated position you can see the Acropolis from many areas of the city. Here it is seen from the Temple of Zeus.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
This stone stepped theatre is built into the side of the Acropolis hill. It has been renovated in recent years and you can see modern lighting rigs and speakers as it’s used for concerts, but it’s still very impressive. You can’t walk into the attraction, it can only be seen from a viewing platform, but there is no cost and it’s well worth a stop. As with most of the ancient ruins we saw, the real amazement comes when you remember just how old they are, and how they were constructed without modern tools or machinery.
The Parthenon, Temple of Athena and Erechthion
The first thing I noticed as I walked towards the Parthenon was the proliferation of scaffolding. You don’t see that on tour operator pictures! There is an ongoing, lengthy and expensive restoration project going on to save the integrity of the building. Some of the columns are weak and damaged. Previous restoration work in the mid 20th century, actually made the situation worse. Parts of the area, therefore, are quite the building site, with loud and noisy drills and work people, plus temporary project office buildings dotted around. And the site was crawling with visitors – I can’t imagine how busy it must be in high season. It was this part of our trip that contributed in some way to my previous rant about tourists. Such an amazing piece of architecture and history, yet for some people just a backdrop for their own photoshoot. Infuriating.
Also on the site are the Temple of Athena and the Erecthieon, both dating back to around 400 B.C. and of course the views across the city are pretty great too!
Hop on hop off bus tour – beach route
As I mentioned earlier in the post, the red Citysightseeing bus operates two tours – the city one which we’d done on Sunday, and the beach one which cost just an extra 5 euros. For a change of pace we took the beach tour on Monday afternoon. There wasn’t lots to see, it’s more useful if you actually want to get off at one of the multiple beaches, but with the route only running every hour we decided to just do a loop for some sea air and sea views, before heading back to the city for a late lunch.
Ancient Agora and The Temple of Hephaestus
Not to be confused with the earlier mentioned Roman Agora, which was built later, the Ancient Agora is a vast area which would have been a central point within Ancient Greece. Municipal buildings, commercial and residential dwellings would have sat alongside each other. There are excavated drainage channels, statues and pots.
The most impressive structure inside the Agora is the Temple of Hephaestus; which remains largely as built. It’s incredibly well-preserved because it was in use from the 7th century until 1894, although building started in the mid 400 BC years. Again such craftsmanship and accuracy for the time is hard to fathom, and today it sits in the middle of a more modern Athens which has grown around it. Amazing.
Also in the Agora is the Church of the Holy Apostles, which can be dated back to the 10th century.
Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens
On our last morning, before heading off to the airport, I went into the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens, which was right opposite our hotel. Although it looks quite new, construction started in 1842 and finished in 1862 (which is new, by Ancient Greek standards!) While the outside is fairly minimal in sleek white marble, inside is quite opulent, with beautiful painted domes.
So why isn’t Athens pretty?
I said this in the title of this post, and feel it deserves more explanation. There are parts of Athens that are picturesque, and certainly lots to see. But overall, as a city, it’s not beautiful. The effects of the financial problems can be seen in many areas of the city, with shops closed down and shutters vandalised. The contrast was clear looking out from our hotel – directly in front was the Acropolis, to the right was the Metropolitan Cathedral, but the left was a building which, at one point, would have been beautiful, but now looks burnt out, abandoned, and covered in parts in safety netting.
By saying Athens isn’t pretty I’m not detracting from it in anyway. It’s a wonderful place to visit and I would recommend it. Just don’t expect the pretty architecture of Prague, or the refined elegance of Nice, for example. But if you like ancient history, ancient ruins and good food, then it’s definitely up your street!
Have you ever been to Athens? Would you like to? Let me know in the comments!