I have, or shall I say ‘had’, this belief that one should always opt for new destinations and experiences when travelling and not return to the same place if at all possible. I am afraid that this theory of mine has gone for a ball of chalk after visiting Athens earlier this month. I had seen Athens a few years ago and must admit that although I had enjoyed my visit, I wasn’t terribly excited to see it again as it was ‘just another big city’ in my opinion and ancient ruins only become more ancient. The Ponant, Le Lyrial cruise I was on was ending off in Athens so I added a few days on the end of my stay and boy am I glad I did… Athens deserved another chance!
The Greek islands are spectacular, picturesque and a ‘must’ when visiting Greece but many of the less commercialised islands and beaches are easily accessible while based in Athens, yet these spots are mostly overlooked when focusing on the usual islands of Santorini, Mykonos and Crete. As the capital, Athens will give you a real sense of being in Greece and will offer you anything from breathtaking beaches and nightlife to captivating history and a cultural experience bar none. Here are six reasons to spend more time in Athens.
Whether it be with a private transfer, taxis, metro or tram service, Athens offers its visitors many options to get around with ease. Other options are visiting shoreline spots by boat or taking the city on by renting an electric bicycle. The local tram service is the way to go if you are based in the city and want to get to one of the beaches a mere 10-15 minute ride away. If you decide to remain in the city on a particular day, a combination of the metro and walking works very well and is also very safe.
The key when visiting historic sites and attractions is to ensure you have a registered guide. ‘Guides’ who aren’t registered will simply be a waste and you may end up with incorrect information which would be a great pity… there are plenty of Greek myths to take in and you certainly don’t need any more. The Acropolis with its Parthenon is visited by most who get the chance to see Athens but I would also suggest doing this with a guide as the queue for tickets gets very long and had I not been with a guide who had pre-arranged our visit, I would have waited in the queue for a good 2-3 hours. There are quite a few sites, like the Dionysos theatre, Mars Hill and Ancient Agora, which surround the Acropolis but with all the restoration and preservation over the past few years, the new Acropolis museum is something which cannot be missed. Even if you only see the Acropolis from a distance, it is worth visiting the museum as many pieces and artefacts are housed here… this is one of the most interesting museums I have ever had the privilege of spending time in.
Athens’ vibrant nightlife comprises of everything from quaint seaside restaurants and rooftop spots with views of the illuminated Acropolis to bustling bars with live music and trendy nightclubs. The Plaka, the neighbourhood of the Olympic gods, is as Greek as it gets and besides visiting this area of narrow streets, shops and coffee shops during the day, it is also where locals come together at night too so you get to join in and have fun the ‘Greek way’. Athenians are passionate about their Greek culture and this is clear in the way they embrace visitors to their city by introducing them to Greek traditions, cuisine, religion and language. Although most Greeks speak English, you will want to rattle off a few words in Greek from time to time as the locals appreciate a ‘yassas’ (hello) or ‘efharisto’ (thank you) in Greek… and it sounds so exotic too!
Greek cuisine is suited to anyone and everyone with the wide use of vegetables, meat and grains. Although Greek menus lean towards a Mediterranean style, there are many uniquely Greek dishes you will want to try when in Athens, these include dolmades (grapevine leaves stuffed with rice, vegetables and sometimes meat), tzatziki (yoghurt with cucumber and garlic), gyros (roast pork served with tzatziki and garnishes on pita bread) and let’s not forget the divine olives and feta which also form part of the well known traditional Greek salad. You needn’t even look at the dessert menu… go straight for baklava (phyllo pastry layers filled and topped with nuts and honey) or my personal favourite, kataifi (angel hair type pastry rolled with nuts and sweet syrup). The opinion from locals regarding ‘retsina’, a local white wine, is mixed and there are those who love it and those who warn you not to even try it, so I tried it and am glad I am one of those who love it. It has a unique flavour in that pine resin was used more than 2000 years ago to keep the air out of bottles which were permeable back then. The resin flavour was infused in the wine through this practice and even after impermeable glass bottles were invented, the flavour was still enjoyed by many and this is why retsina is still manufactured to this day.
There is so much to see when taking a daytrip out of Athens. Here are a few options
Nafplio is approximately a 2 hour drive from Athens via the Corinth Canal bridge (bungee jumping opportunity here if you are able to handle the height). This Peloponnese seaside town gives you a little of taste of Venice through the style of the houses and its fortresses. Nafplio is absolutely beautiful and worth a slow stroll through the town’s narrow streets and harbour view cafes… I didn’t want to leave this beautiful gem.
Mycenae & Epidaurus. Mycenae was the main centre of the Mycenaean world which existed between the 16th and 12th centuries BC. The Mycenaean acropolis was the most appropriate site to house the royal house of Atreidae and along with this, the Lions Gate, grave circles and other ruins are open for viewing. A short distance from the Acropolis, you will find the Tomb of Agamemnon which is spectacular with its 120 ton lintel stone above its doorway and beehive shaped structure you can walk beneath. This structure has lasted from Mycenaean Greece. Epidaurus is known as a healing centre where ill people went for the god of healing, Asclepius, to help them regain their health and a small but ‘must see’ museum is open to visitors at the site. The ancient theatre of Epidaurus was designed in the 4th century and is still used today to seat up to 14 000 spectators for classical shows. It is known for its extraordinary acoustics and the limestone structure is truly spectacular so when visiting, it is certainly worth checking whether a show is on.
• Hydra is the perfect getaway and it is really difficult to believe that this unspoilt island is so close to Athens. There are no cars on Hydra so if you opt for a taxi, it will be a ride on a donkey. Serenity is the name of the game in Hydra and besides a relaxing visit to the various museums, galleries and gift shops, you will just want to enjoy the peaceful lifestyle of Hydra. I visited the Historical Archives Museum of Hydra and the Lazaros Koundouriotis Historial Mansion which is a branch of the National Historical Museum… both are extremely interesting and well presented
– by Luana Visagie