With my 7 week Eastern European jaunt coming to an end, I decided to finish off with a week lazing about in an Airbnb in the Greek capital of Athens. From Meteora, it’s very easy to get to Athens via train or bus, though the train is cheaper, more comfortable and just generally better because it’s a train. There’s a daily train from Kalambaka’s tiny train station at around 5.30pm in the evening, arriving around 4.5 hours later in Athens’ Larissa train station, meaning you arrive in Athens pretty late. The train was fairly empty for the first half of the journey but filled up completely after stopping in Lamia. In any case, I had booked my seat in advance using the Trainiose app. It’s very straightforward and you get a 10% discount when booking through the app – just show the confirmation to the conductor. The fare was around €14 for the journey. There are also a whole host of other discounts you can make use of – student, young person, old person, disabled etc. – so it’s good to do some research before booking.
The train arrived in Athens a little late, around 10.30pm. The train station has a corresponding metro station and the metro runs till late so getting around Athens is no problem. The public transport is really good. A €1.40 ticket gets you 90 minutes on any mode of transport around the city (except to the airport). Just don’t do what I do and forget to actually pick up your ticket from the machine and try to get through the barrier with your receipt! I was staying in the Zografou area of the city to the south-east. It’s quite student-oriented with a big university campus in this area. It’s a few stops from central Athens on the metro or about a 40 minute pleasant walk. It’s a really quiet district, often during the day there was barely any noise at all. I had a great little Airbnb apartment, a steal at €15 a night, which was situated on the top floor of an apartment block, giving me my own private, gigantic rooftop as well as a bedroom and small living area. Downstairs, in the same apartment, lived Nikos, a really friendly host who always greeted me with a smile and sometimes food too. One day he prepared me an entire lunch because, in his words, “I do nothing today”. It was a great mix of a private apartment with a local homestay.
Part of my rationale for staying so long in Athens was to chill for a while after nearly two months of moving from place to place. My flat was a great place to chill but Athens is also a buzzing city with so much to do and I had great weather for most of my time there. Obviously, it’s the ancient parts of the city which are the main draw, the iconic Acropolis standing tall above the city, standing out mainly due to the lack of high rises in the capital. Dotted all around the city are various other archaeological sites, all with various entrance fees varying from €2 – €8 (during the winter months there’s a discount). The Acropolis is €20 to get in or you can buy a worthwhile combined pass which covers most sites for €30. However, when I visited, I was lucky enough to coincide with Greece’s National Day (28th Oct) meaning all sites were free of charge. There are various other public holidays throughout the year when it’s also free to check out the dates beforehand. Obviously, free entry meant more people but, other than the Acropolis, most sites weren’t heaving. The only place I didn’t go into due to the queue was the Acropolis Museum (€5 entry usually) though I’m not too much of a museum person anyway.
The Acropolis itself can be accessed easily from its corresponding metro station. From here it’s a short walk to the entrance. I have to say, I was glad I went on a day with free entry because I wasn’t overly impressed with the site and may have felt a bit peed off about paying €20. The Acropolis looks amazing from afar, and I’ve detailed various viewpoints from which you can see it below. And it could be really special up close too but they’ve just not produced a very nice site. Of course, most of the buildings here are in ruins so there’s only so much you can do, but the paths are poorly maintained/signposted and most of it felt like a construction site. The Parthenon was being renovated so was covered in scaffolding (which I get, it’s quite old) but the whole site was swarming with pre-fabs and awful grey construction buildings right next to the incredible Greek architecture, which kind of killed the vibe. Viewing the ancient temples from afar, and seeing them set against the modern city, you avoid the garish construction work going on. As I said, I can’t complain though as I got in for free, and the Parthenon was still amazing (I just had to be more creative with my photograph angles). The amphitheater at the bottom is also a really cool place to sit and people watch. Overall, I think I lucked out going on a free day – especially while the construction work is going on, I think €20 is a pretty hefty price tag, though I’m sure people will continue to pay it. An example of a better maintained site was the Greek Agora (usually €8 entry) which housed ruins, a much better preserved temple and a nice little museum.
However, as I said, for me the joy of Athens wasn’t seeing the ruins up close but seeing the blend of old and new from afar and this is a city which is full of incredible viewpoints. Probably my favourite one was Lycabettus Hill situated not too far from my apartment in Zografou. This hill is in a big park (with wild turtles!) and is a fairly easy 15 minute walk up a good path. At the top there is a chapel and a restaurant but the real reason to break a sweat is for the panoramic view of the whole of Athens. You can see across the mountains and right across the water to some of the islands, as well as seeing the whole city, ruins and all. It was popular with tourists but too busy and it was easy to find a seat and soak up the view. There are people selling soft drinks and beers from cool boxes if you don’t want to pay the crazy prices of the restaurant. I came back here for sunset and whilst I missed the actual sunset (my weather app forgot that the clocks had gone back) I still got an amazing view and sunset itself would be extraordinary. It’s a lovely, easy jaunt for a good weather day. Closer to the Acropolis is another park and hill, Filopappou. This is a bit more rugged and has various trails weaving all over but is also a great lookout point. Given its location, the views of the Acropolis are much better here. Even though it’s right in the centre, it was also much quieter up here than the other hill.
To really get away from it all, I ventured south of the city to an enormous forest sitting right on Athens’ doorstep. Imitos Forest was about an hour’s walk from Zografou through the university campus. Soon the noise of the city leaves you and you’re surrounded by lush green trees. There are too many trails to count here and whilst there are signs, they’re not too frequent so maps.me is useful. I hiked up to St Mark’s, a seemingly abandoned monastery next to an amazing view of the city, known as Taxiarchi Hill. From here, I got a great blend of forest and city views, as well as the ever present Acropolis. It’s a great place to read a book or have a picnic. The trails are rugged but not too steep, though you’ll appreciate good shoes. There are also wild turtles here too! I saw two wild turtles during my time in Athens and I was fanboying so hard both times. They’re the cutest things. These were both huge too.
The other thing it’s impossible to escape from in Athens is good food. The Balkans’ food scene wasn’t too impressive in many places so it was great to be in an international city with a lot of choice. My terrace was so amazing that I got takeaway a few nights. If you’re in the Zografou area, Just Pizza does amazing, huge pizzas for crazy cheap prices (€3-€7). There are also plenty of great bakeries in this area. The aptly named The Bakers was particularly yummy and the friendly staff gave me good recommendations for delicious Greek pastries. Elsewhere in the city, there are of course loads of opportunities to try Greek food, a cuisine I didn’t know too much about before. Plenty of restaurants serve great food at backpacker prices. There’s a myriad of pedestrianised streets in the centre to get lost in and find fantastic restaurants and cafes. Not Greek I know, but I appreciated the burger joint in the centre which did a burger, fries and a beer for €6.90. In terms of Greek food, Nikitas, situated on a bustling but pleasant pedestrianised street in the centre, was absolutely delicious and a a hearty Greek meal, bread and a beer came in at around €10. Further out of the centre to the south of the city was 5F, a joint only open during daylight hours, this is a crazy, hectic Greek affair but with delicious results. It was bustling with locals when I got there but the owner speaks great English and invites tourists to try his samples of various Greek dishes. I got bread, a delicious Greek salad, Moussaka and some beautifully tender meat dishes before I had to ask him to stop bringing food (and he would have bought more, I’m certain). All of this came in at €7. It was a wonderfully authentic experience and I’d definitely recommend wrestling through the locals to grab yourself a seat.
My week in Athens was wonderful, a fantastic blend of ancient/modern; local/international and bustling/chilled. I am a city boy at heart but my favourite cities in the world are the ones from which it’s easy to escape and find some peace. Athens has everything you’d want from a big city but is also abundant in those quieter places to escape the mad world and find a bit of zen. If you want a reasonably priced, vibrant city with fantastic weather, culture and food – Athens is your place.