I took some advice that I had received from friends who had visited Greece before and decided to spend less time in Athens and more time in the Greek Isles. I was told that I could see everything that I needed to see in a day. While we were able to do this, it was a very full day of sightseeing.
As we were sightseeing we found it strange that many of the sites closed at 3pm (during the winter months). This meant that we had to start our morning early, eat a quick lunch and keep moving until the sights closed.
One of the things that we found surprising was the sheer number of restoration projects going on at the same time. I’m not sure if the Greek financial crisis prompted the government to put a lot of funding towards public service projects, similar to what happened in the US during the economic collapse of 2008, or if there is always a lot of restoration work being done during low season. Either way, we were shocked at just how many sites were closed or had lots of construction equipment around.
Getting to Athens
We flew to Athens from Rome. Since both cities are quite large, it wasn’t too hard to find a number of direct flights at reasonable prices. In the end we decided to fly with Vueling Airlines. They are a discount airline who nickels and dimes you, but even after all of the fees, the fares were still extremely reasonable at 60E or $68 per person (including 1 checked bag each).
When we arrived at the airport in Rome we were shocked with just how long the check in line was. We expected a line, but this was much longer and moved much slower than we had assumed it would. Fortunately, I saw that there was a separate, much shorter, line for dropping bags. We had checked in online and printed our boarding passes, so we were able to get into this line.
Since we were flying internationally we assumed that we would have to clear immigration on both ends, but since the flight was within the EU, there was no customs. While we appreciated that it was quicker, it was a little sad that we didn’t get some extra stamps in our passports.
The seats were pretty small and didn’t give us much leg room, but for a short flight this didn’t bother us at all.
The most popular site in all of Athens is the Acropolis so we planned to go there first in hopes of beating the crowds. We purchased our entry tickets for 12E or $13.25 each which seemed a bit high until we realized that the same ticket could be used to go to many of the other ruins in town.
I don’t think it mattered when we would have arrived since it was packed when we were there. The thing that was more upsetting to us than the hoards of people was how built up the site was. Not only were the ruins heavily reconstructed with modern materials, there were also wooden staircases, modern lighting and construction materials everywhere. This took away part of the magic for us since it didn’t seem like an ancient site anymore.
After we made our way through the crowds and took some pictures, we headed to our next site.
Theater of Dionysus
Andy used to be heavily involved in theater so I knew that he would appreciate the Theater of Dionysus. Similar to most of the ruins that we saw, there was a lot of construction going on here as well. Fortunately, there was half of the theater which was better restored than the other half. On the restored section we were able to sit on the seats which was pretty cool since most of the sites in Athens were so controlled you couldn’t even get near them.
With many people coming and going, we decided to be patient and see if we could get a shot with nobody else around. After about 15 minutes of waiting, we had our chance. The camera was set up on the tripod and we were able to get a great picture which looks like nobody else was anywhere around.
On the way out we looked at the really cool stage (where you could not go), which had some pretty intricate carvings.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
One of the most disappointing sites that we visited in Athens was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. It is a historical theater which has been completely restored and holds concerts. While it looked great, it was nearly impossible to get pictures of it since everything was gated off.
Our goal was to get a picture of us with the theater in the background but because of the fencing this was impossible. We had to resort to taking a picture in front of the theater which was a lot less interesting.
I’m not sure why they block off the theater completely from tourists when it is fully operational. I would hope at a minimum that there would be several tours a day which would allow visitors access inside the theater.
After so much sightseeing we were starting to get hungry. Since we knew that we had a lot more to see before the sites closed at 2:30pm, we opted to get some gyros. We ate gyros several times during our time in Greece and were never disappointed – they were fast, cheap and delicious. And of course, Andy got some ice cream as well.
Arch of Hadrian
We made a quick stop at the Arch of Hadrian as it was on the way to our next stop, the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Similar to the Arch of Constantine that we saw in Rome, this arch was also very blocked off. After a quick photo we were off.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
My favorite ruins during our time in Athens was the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Admission to the temple was included in our tickets that we purchased at the Acropolis. Since we arrived just before it closed, there were not too many people around.
The ruins were huge and not overly built up. In fact, there were a lot of pieces of stone from fallen columns all around. With near perfect light and not too many people around, we were able to get quite a few great pictures before the site closed and we had to leave.
I was disappointed when I thought that we would not be able to go to the Panathenaic Stadium since it was after 2:30pm when the sites closed. Fortunately, the stadium is not associated with the other ruins in the city so it was open later.
We purchased entry tickets for 5E or $5.70 each which included an audio guide for the stadium. I was interested to learn the history of the only marble stadium in the world and the audio guide gave us a lot of information.
Once inside we were pretty happy that there were not too many people around as it allowed us to get a number of really great photos. The regulation was not as tight as other Greek sites which we loved – this meant that we were able to get a lot of really great photos on everything from the King and Queen’s seats to the podiums.
The National Gardens were not originally on our radar, but when we walked by I knew we had to stop. I saw some ruins which were integrated into the garden and with nobody around knew that there would be some opportunities to take some nice photos.
Since Andy loves to get viewpoints of the city, he had researched and found Mount Lycabettus. We read online that there was a funicular (elevator up the hill) but opted to hike up the trail instead.
After a 20 minute uphill walk, we reached the top. The hike wasn’t too strenuous but we were happy that we brought some water with us. At the top of the hill there were men selling drinks, a church and a high-end restaurant. Ironically, the better views of the city are from the trail, not the top of the hill as we expected.
I wasn’t expecting to like Athens as much as I did. There were a lot of really cool neighborhoods, the prices were reasonable and we always felt safe walking around.
Sightseeing was easy as many of the attractions were within walking distance. For those that were not, we were able to take the subway which was clean, inexpensive and modern.
I’m not sure if it would have made sense to stay for longer than we did unless we went at a slower pace. If you are visiting during the peak season when the sites are open later, you should be able to see everything in a day. If you’re visiting at low season when sites close earlier, you can see everything in a day if you move at a quick pace – otherwise you may want to plan to spend a second day.