“So, we’ve got 24 hours in Athens then”
“What’s there to see in Athens?”
“Well, there’s some old temple on a hill. And some Olympic stuff. I’m sure we’ll fill our day somehow”
It’s safe to say we hadn’t planned to spend any time in Athens. The plan was a taxi from Athens airport to Piraeus Port, and then a ferry the next morning to whisk us away from the mainland and to the island of Naxos. And then this happened. Yes, Friday 13th struck, and suddenly we had a whole Saturday 14th to fill. Undeterred we googled how to travel back to Athens without taking a 50€ taxi, and set out to discover what the Greek capital had to offer.
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We swap our ferry tickets for the following morning from the Blue Star Ferries office and then head to the metro station. It’s just a 5-10 minute walk from Gate E8 to the metro station but from the other gates it could be quite a trek. The self-serve ticket machines are pretty easy to fathom out, and by selecting the option for Athens Area we purchase our tickets. Useful Info Klaxon: A single ticket is 1.40€ and is valid for 90 minutes. As we enter the barriers there’s a train at the platform; I shout what sounds a bit like “Monastiraki?” to a bemused member of staff who bundles us onto the train.
Like all public transport systems in major cities, we are wary of pickpockets. I however am subjected to a reverse pickpocketer who chases me on to the train to advise me that the zip on my bag is open. It’s a 15 minute journey on the Green line to Monastiraki; we’re planning on heading to the centre so we switch over on to the Blue Line for one stop to Syntagma.
(If you prefer to take the bus, the express X80 goes from the port to Syntagma. Tickets cost 4.50€ and can be purchased from the driver. Remember to validate your ticket against the box inside the bus. Or there is the 040 bus, which costs 1.40€ but takes twice as long.)
We emerge blinking into the sunshine at Syntagma Square. This is the heart of Athens, a plaza with tree-shaded benches surrounded by shops, hotels and restaurants. On most planned city visits, I’d now be consulting the notes saved offline on my phone, or points of interest saved on a lovingly-curated Google map. This is a much more fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants visit, and therefore we have no idea what we want to see. Or even if we did, where we’d find it. And then I have the best idea of the day. (Apart from when I suggest an Aperol Spritz stop – that is probably my best idea of the day). A city sightseeing bus. We get to see all the highlights, plus we have a handy way of getting around the city.
We see the familiar red hoardings of the internationally-recognised City Sightseeing tour and make a beeline to check out the prices. For the Athens tour it’s 20€ each. We also get a free beer token for the rooftop cafe at the Public Department Store. We’re sold. As luck would have it, Syntagma is the first stop on the tour, and there’s a bus ready to depart. We grab a top-deck seat, plug in our headsets and settle down for our first circuit. There will be plenty of time to hop on and off at our leisure.
As our 24 hours in Athens was unexpected and not budgeted for we decided to try and keep expenditure as low as possible. Which means that although we paid out 40€ on the sight-seeing bus we decided not to pay to enter any museums or temples. If we were spending longer in Athens then we definitely would have explored more of the cultural aspects!
As well as being the transport hub of Athens, Syntagma Square is the location of the Greek Parliament Building. If there’s going to be a demonstration, march or protest in Athens, this is where it’s going to happen. As indeed it did during our day. Be aware that if roads are closed for a march then your sightseeing bus schedule is going to be disrupted. In front of the Parliament Building is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, guarded by elite soldiers who go through a fancy dance routine every so often. Check out their pleated skirts and their pom-pom slippers. And also their big pointy guns.
This half-ruined temple was one of the biggest of the Greek-Roman empire, and is still a pretty impressive sight. Only 15 of the 104 columns remain, and a sixteenth toppled column remains at the site. If you’re not planning on stopping and paying a visit (6€ entry) then you’ll get a decent view from the tour bus. Better than trying to peer through the fence anyway.
The tour route stops on both sides of the road close to the temple. We chose to disembark and walk the pleasant pedestrianised route towards the Acropolis
No visit to Athens is complete without seeing the Acropolis. It’s actually an ancient citadel comprising of several temples, the most famous of which is the Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena. The queues for entry were pretty crazy, but if you do want to make the Acropolis part of your visit then you can book a “skip-the-line” admission ticket online. Preferring not to spend our short visit standing in a queue, we decide to get views the cheap way. It’s a short pleasant climb up Philopappos Hill (although I am dressed for city strolling rather than hiking) and we have views across Athens all to ourselves. The Parthenon is half-covered in scaffolding. This is pretty standard for A Brummie Home and Abroad visit to an iconic location.
If you have the luxury of time then plan your visit to Acropolis early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid both the crowds and the scorching sun. If you’ve got a little more than just 24 hours in Athens there’s also a state-of-the-art Acropolis museum close to the site. Ironically a number of pieces in the museum are copies, and the originals are in the British Museum. The museum’s terrace cafe is another place to get great views of the Acropolis above.
We chose to retrace our steps towards the temple of Zeus where we left the bus tour, but a walk around the base of the Acropolis slopes would have taken us to Plaka, the oldest neighbourhood in Athens. I think I’d have liked this maze of narrow cobbled streets lined with tourist shops amid ancient ruins.
Monastiraki was my favourite area of Athens. It’s bustling and vibrant, and filled with tourists and locals alike. There’s an abundance of eateries, and the scent of souvlaki, kebab and gyros permeate the air. There’s a flea market, and souvenir stalls attracting tourists like bees to a honeypot, all overlooked by the Acropolis. We hopped on the metro back to Piraeus from here to save us having to change lines.
We passed this stadium first time around on the bus tour and made a note to return back a little later in the day when the light was better. Oh the joys of being married to a photographer. Disappointingly though this is another site with an admission charge. Although the admission charge was a measly 5 € which makes me feel like a bit of a cheapskate. You can peer through the gates at the all-marble horseshoe-shaped stadium that hosted the first modern Olympic games in 1896. These days it’s used for various sporting and cultural events, and is also the official location for the handover of the Olympic flame to the host country.
It’s nice to get out of the traffic-filled streets and into nature, and this lush green city park is the perfect refuge. The eucalyptus trees provide the perfect shade from the searing afternoon sun. We lingered here for a while in between tour bus stops, and later on we realised it provided a handy shortcut between the Ancient Olympic Stadium and Syntagma Square.
Clutching our free beer tokens from the bus tour we head for the rooftop cafe at Public. It offers panoramic views of Syntagma Square, and we decide to linger a little longer for lunch. There are plenty of spots to refuel around the city – both Monastiraki and Plaka are buzzing with cafes and restaurants. We found a small leafy square on the fringes on Monastiraki which was the perfect place for that mid-afternoon happy hour Aperol Spritz. Had I known we’d be spending the day in Athens I’d have consulted the experts (travel bloggers) for recommendations. Since coming home I’ve found great foodie guides from The Mediterranean Traveller and One Man and his Backpack.
With just 24 hours in Athens – and technically, only around 10 hours in the capital itself – it’s impossible to see and do everything that the city has to offer. But we were able to see the city’s main attractions and get a taste of Athens life. It’s slightly chaotic, and we were shocked by how much traffic is around. The narrow streets surrounding the Acropolis were horribly congested, and the air quality felt very bad in some places. Despite being surrounded by so much history it doesn’t hold the charm of other capital cities.
It was actually quite refreshing though to visit a city without a fixed itinerary. We didn’t feel like we had to “tick off” certain sights. It’s also a surprisingly walkable city, although the metro is handy for getting across town quickly. A tour bus is probably one of the slower ways of getting around, but we took advantage of the chance to sit down when we could!
We would probably never have planned to visit Athens, so getting this opportunity – however unexpected – was a bonus to add to our Naxos trip!