As the plane began its descent into Athens, I could see the spectacular coastline of Greece and the beautiful Aegean Sea. I was very excited to finally visit Athens – the birthplace of Western Democracy – what the guidebooks will tell you: amazing ruins, archaeology and mythological stories.
The taxi dropped me off somewhat near my hotel, as it was located in a pedestrian only zone, so I had to walk a bit. In that short walk, I saw ancient ruins behind wrought iron fences and I looked forward to exploring more. I stumbled up the front steps, checked in and continued up yet more flights of stairs to my room. My reward for all that effort was a stunning view of the Acropolis at night from the window across from my room.
The next morning I headed straight towards the Acropolis, made it as far as the Roman Agora where I stopped for a break. I needed to escape the strong morning sun for a moment despite it being November. After a quick bite of baklava, I continued on my way up the steep roads to the Acropolis. Be prepared to walk a lot in Athens, particularly uphill! The streets are a bit slippery as well, so be sure and have good treads.
What an amazing sight! The view of the Parthenon framed by a bright blue sky made the steep sweaty walk worth it. I paid the entrance fee of 12 euros (which also gives you access to five other ancient sites in Athens). I tried to get ahead of the increasing number of school tour groups also approaching the Acropolis. I recommend arriving at the Acropolis by around 9:00 a.m. I got there later in the morning and wished I had woken up earlier.
Despite the scaffolding (this was the beginning of the off season), I still enjoyed magnificent views of the Parthenon, with its marble columns glistening like gold in the sunlight. It is truly a glorious structure that gives the illusion of perfect symmetry. However, its columns are tapered ever so slightly to trick the eye into thinking they are straight. The sentiment of “how’d they do that?” definitely applies here! Looking out from the Acropolis, I could see a somewhat hazy outline of Lycabettus Hill, the highest hill in Athens. Also I admired the Theatre of Dionysus and the Ancient Agora below. The pollution in Athens is markedly decreased from what it was about 15 years ago, but you can still see some haze looming above the city.
Next stop was the Ancient Agora, the marketplace of Athens anchored by the Temple of Hephaistos at one end and the Stoa of Attalos at the other. The temple is in remarkably good shape considering its age – built between 449-444 BC. The columns are intact and a large portion of the roof is as well. It is considered by many to be one of the finest structures in Athens and should not be missed. The Stoa of Attalos is equally impressive with plenty of highly detailed busts of famous military men ready for photo ops. It also houses a fine little museum with items from life during that time period, such as an early voting machine. I also spotted a stray dog sleeping in a doorway. There are numerous stray dogs around these sites so keep an eye on your lunch!
After visiting this ancient marketplace, it made me think that I needed to see a market in today’s Athens. I headed towards Monastiraki and wandered around looking at the various stalls. I stopped to enjoy a gyro made with lamb, veggies and tzatsiki, a type of yogurt sauce. I also wandered along the winding streets of the Plaka, the perfect place for strolling and people watching. It does have a lot of souvenir shops. I bought plenty of post Olympics merchandise for my family, but it doesn’t distract from the charming atmosphere of the area.
The following day, I headed straight for one of the Western World’s greatest museums – the National Archaeological Museum. The museum is rather daunting; it produced the same feeling I had when I entered the Louvre in Paris. There is so much to see and appreciate that it is overwhelming! I did a lot of backtracking looking for particular sculptures such as that of Poseidon ready with his trident, or is it Zeus poised to throw a lightning bolt? No one is entirely sure. I found the Mycenaean Hall with the gold death mask claimed to be that of Agamemnon. The well-known bronze statue of the Jockey Boy gracefully riding his horse almost seems to come to life. If you need a break from the antiquities, there is a nice courtyard and a small cafeteria where you can regroup before tackling the next group of treasures!
Early November is a perfect time to visit; the weather is still very pleasant and all the attractions are open, with shorter operating hours. As it is the beginning of the off peak season, accommodation prices are cheaper and more rooms are available. The crowds at the main attractions of the Acropolis and the National Archaeological Museum lessen somewhat, but school groups are still prevalent at this time of the year.