Athens—a cradle of western civilization, the birthplace of drama and democracy—is one of those places that resonate with historic importance. But as you take in the glow of antiquity (perched atop a plateau, the stately, elegant Acropolis is visible from most places in the city), Athens’ present-day energy will sweep you up and ask you to eat, drink, dance, sing, talk, and be merry. Local culture is friendly, energetic, and in the face of the country’s ongoing crisis, often enterprising and community-based. Explore and enjoy the city’s many facets.
Athens is always inspiring, but it’s very hot in high summer, a time when locals who can decamp to the islands every weekend and for most of August. The best times for city visits are thus April to mid-June and again between early September and November, when days are more bearable, nights are still balmy, and the tourist rush isn’t crushing. In the spring blossoms pop open throughout the city and locals fill the outdoor tavernas with new energy; in the fall a lovely light bathes the city’s whitewashed buildings and glistens on the sea.
A cab from the airport to the city center runs about 35 euros during the day and 50 at night; a commuter train (Metro Line 3) also run to Syntagma Station every half-hour for around 10 euros. Once in Athens, the subway is sparkling and efficient, if not particularly wide-reaching (the subway was built for the Athens Olympics in 2004, but archeology precludes a dense network). Buses are plentiful if erratic, and be warned that the city’s few trams are painfully slow. Cabs are inexpensive, but be aware that many cabbies don’t speak great English (locals recommend the TaxiBeat app). Have your destinations in writing to show your driver in a pinch.
No one should visit Athens without ascending the Acropolis. The complex sits atop a plateau in the center of the city, dotted with far more archeological attractions than just the Parthenon. Take at least half a day to explore the area and drink in the view (depending on season, it can also be very hot, so drink plenty of water, too). On the way down, stroll through the labyrinthine streets of the Plaka. The Monastiraki flea market offers a buzzing look into Greek culture; the National Archeology Museum gives a broad look into Greek culture. It’s not sexy or posh, but one hub of the Greek capital is undeniably the Piraeus Port: Watching the huge ferries and ships arrive, load, and depart is strangely meditative and transcendental.
Greek cuisine is easy to underestimate—but once you’ve eaten it, hard to forget. Ingredients are simple (a Greek salad is, after all, just tomatoes, cubed cukes, feta and olive oil) but it’s the quality, and salt-of-the-earth flavor that surprise and satisfy the tastebuds. Baked dishes are hearty, with lamb the meat of choice. Fish and seafood are utterly sublime, as would be expected considering the omnipresent sea. Herbs and spices are often homegrown, and try local iterations of ouzo and raki to cleanse your palate between courses. Remember, Greeks usually eat communally. End your meal with a dessert dripping with local honey, like baklava, to ensure sweet dreams.
Cultural history is inescapable in Athens, and we’re talking about classical history going back millennia. At the same time, the city absolutely vibrates with contemporary culture as well, including live music, the visual and performing arts, design and fashion, all produced and heartily consumed by young Greeks alongside an increasing faction of expats settling here. Framing it all is both a strong bohemian, DIY art scene as well as evidence of wealthy patronage—recently built world-class cultural centers carry names like Onassis and Niarchos.
As chaotic as Athens can be, the Greek capital is a wonderful place to discover with children. Take older offspring to see the city’s endless classical treasures (before arriving, it’s a good idea read about Greek mythology to set up anticipation and understanding); smaller ones always enjoy a day at the city’s beaches, a break in the National Gardens, or an outing to the zoo. And because Greeks are a family-oriented people, kids are generally welcome in restaurants and tavernas, sometimes way past bedtime.
Traveling in yellow cabs hailed from the street can be harrowing. Locals use the Taxi Beat app instead, and its drivers are more likely to speak English. And the best place to grab water, snacks, newspapers, tobacco, or even cheese sandwiches is the ubiquitous Greek kiosk. These small hut-like stands are found all over on street corners. They’ve been an Athenian urban tradition for more than a century; and usually stay in the families operating them for decades.
Kimberly Bradley is an American writer living in Berlin and Vienna, but her love affair with Greece in general and Athens in particular dates to the early 1990s. Read her writings on travel and culture at kimberly-bradley.com.