As a continuation of my semester break adventures, I signed up to attend an International Water Association symposium in Greece. This was really an incredibly flimsy excuse to do a bit more traveling. I flew into Athens, stayed there for several days before attending the conference about 2.5 hours away, and then returned to Athens for a few more days. I absolutely loved Athens, and I’m really glad I got to spend some time exploring the city! I thought I’d share some tips for people who might want to go there someday…
DO bring good walking shoes. (Self-explanatory.)
DON’T buy your walking shoes two days before your trip. (Oops.)
DO go to Athens while you are a student in the EU. Seriously, if you have a European Union student ID, people will throw free things at you like there’s no tomorrow. I got into the Acropolis and all of the other major and minor archaeological sites for free (as opposed to paying a whopping 12 Euros). My visit to the Acropolis Museum was also free (compared to 5 Euros), and I suspect that I would have gotten reduced or free admission to the city’s other museums had I attended any. I also used public transit for half price!
DON’T wear a skirt when you go up to the Acropolis. Wannabe hipster that I am, I usually shy away from having “typical” favorites, but my favorite Athens attraction was no doubt the Acropolis, the famous monuments on a hill overlooking the city (including, most famously, the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike). I went up twice because it was so wonderful (and because it was free). The second time, I learned from my previous mistake: it’s super windy up there, and wearing a skirt shorter than probably ankle length is not advisable. I spent the whole time half focused on avoiding a Marilyn Monroe incident.
DO fondly recall your education in Greek mythology/philosophy as you see the sights. I loved learning about Greek mythology in school (my favorite goddesses were Demeter and Athena, namesake of Athens, and I also really liked Hermes, the wing-footed messenger god). It was cool to see all the ancient temples dedicated to the cults of the different deities. I have also studied Greek philosophy and literature somewhat extensively (thanks Plan II) so it was fantastic to see the Academy of Athens, which is steeped in the tradition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the Ancient Agora, the birthplace of democracy!
DON’T be fooled by disparate English names. Don’t follow my example; I was the world’s least educated tourist during most of my time in Athens. I had a vague idea of the things I wanted to see, but I barely knew the difference between the Acropolis and the Parthenon ahead of time. (The Acropolis is the entire hilltop of monuments and ruins; the Parthenon is the most famous of those monuments/ruins.) And so in my ignorance, I created a bit of confusion for myself… for instance, I knew I wanted to see the “Roman Gate and Tower of the Winds,” but even when I followed street signs and wrote down the exact Google Map directions to this supposed monument, I could never find it… until I realized that I had actually already seen it, and that the signage calls it by a different name (the “Roman Agora”). So, in general, I guess it’s a good idea to be a bit more informed than I was, but when all else fails, remember that the translations into English/the Roman alphabet won’t always be exact…
DO eat ALL the Greek food! Souvlaki, various roasted meats and vegetables, hummus, gyros, feta cheese, Greek salad, Greek yogurt and honey… there’s a lot to love. Try it all! (As I’m not an eggplant lover, I did not try moussaka, but that’s one of the most famous dishes.) Greek beer is also surprisingly wonderful! I was glad I went off the beaten path to find less touristy restaurants with better value. I enjoyed a spicy “drunken” beef stew at a tiny restaurant in Plaka (where the waiter treated me to a free aperitif!), and I had delicious fresh mussels from Lesvos in one of the residential districts north of the Academy. Also, the pastries are delicious; I had one for breakfast every morning and never regretted the decision (but what else is new?).
DON’T casually look at too many street-side menus as you try to pick a restaurant. Waiters and hosts at restaurants are SUPER aggressive. I had to walk past a strip of touristy restaurants several times in the process of getting money from an ATM, and at the time I was literally eating an ice cream cone, so I figured I would be safe from harassment, but no… one of the waiters actually called after me, “That’s not enough for you. You need more.” If you so much as slow down in front of a restaurant, let alone look at the menu, you will have a table, a menu, and a glass of water faster than you can say “baklava.”
DO see the changing of the guard at Syntagma Square. I’ve seen several changings of guards now, including the famous one at Buckingham Palace and the less famous one at Prague Castle, and the Athenian version is definitely the most entertaining. It involves ridiculous uniforms, slow-motion marching, and lots of high kicks (also in slow motion). Fun for everyone.
DON’T be alarmed by the number of intimidating looking police officers everywhere. Around Syntagma, there really are police officers everywhere, ostensibly guarding the parliament building and the many embassies in the area. [I found out later that there were so many police in the city because of the Greek Independence Day Parade, which occurred my second-to-last day in Athens.] They’re really intensely outfitted with shields, large guns, and what looked like gas masks, and around the Parliament building they seemed to gather in large groups. I jaywalked as I rushed to get to the square by the top of the hour to see the guards change, and at that moment a HUGE group of officers started processing through the square. I was convinced for several minutes that they were going to arrest me.
Also, DON’T plan to be in Athens on March 25, Greek Independence Day. The whole city shuts down and it’s impossible to get anywhere because of the large military parade that runs through the middle of Athens. I had Vietnam-style flashbacks from the time I was in New York on St. Patrick’s Day…
DO climb Mount Lycabettus. It’s the highest hill in Athens and you get an absolutely breathtaking panoramic view. There’s a small Greek church at the top, which is gorgeous. Especially if you’ve already been in Athens for a few days, it’s fun to spot all the different landmarks from way up high!
DON’T be tempted to take the funicular tram to the top. That was my original plan, but then I realized that I shouldn’t plan to pay for something that I could do for free! So I hiked instead, and it was a really great decision. There were so many gorgeous flowers and beautiful vegetation, and I got to enjoy a range of spectacular views as I ascended the mountain.
DO take a gratuitous number of selfies if you are traveling solo.
DON’T be ashamed of it.