I didn't know what to expect in Athens...
There are some cities that need no introduction. Cites like Paris, New York, and Rome, whose character and culture and cuisine is so well known, so exhaustively represented and reproduced that most travelers have formed their opinions long before they ever visit. But Athens was no such city for me.
I visited Athens with only the vaguest snippets of rumor and conjecture floating around in my head, with whispers of crazy traffic and urban chaos, all with the slightest suggestion of a city gone slightly to seed in the wake of the country's recent economic crisis. But try as I may, I couldn't come up with a clear vision of what Athens would be like, what it would look like, what it would sound, smell, and even taste like. And therefore I was utterly caught off guard when Aphrodite sprinkled her magic dust and I fell in love with the city.
Sometimes, it's the smallest, simplest things that make all the difference in the world when it comes loving and knowing a city. Here are 7 of those little things that made Athens my dream destination - and I think you'll love it too!
Athens Is Clean
"Clean" may not be the first thing you think of when you first catch a glimpse of graffiti covered Athens, but for a large city it is actually is remarkably clean. In Syntagma Square, a major gathering spot in the heart of the city, equally famous for hosting protests and the ceremonial Changing of the Guard, there was scarcely any litter to be found. Even in the more humble parts of town the streets were still neat and tidy.
Athens Is Green
If civic pride could be measured by plant pots then surely Athens would win any and all competitions. Even the most humble of balconies was teaming with greenery and basil trees the size of small shrubs stood outside restaurants. Plants and vines covered walkways and walls. The National Gardens, located directly beside Syntagma Square, made me feel like I was on a Hawaiian island. You can see more examples of beautiful Athens neighbourhoods and landmarks here.
While it would be nice to see a different kind of 'green' in the form of recycling bins (they were non-existent as far as I could tell), the everyday acts of urban gardening were a joy to behold.
Athens Is Calm
For all the rumors about chaos and congestion, Athens is a remarkably calm city. For every crowded street or square, there were 10 more that were virtually empty. The subways and buses were efficient and easy to use. The infamous traffic was just that - traffic, of a reasonable volume in proportion to Athens' size. I never drove in Athens but I did walk all over town and I never once observed a traffic jam.
Any major metropolitan area can have heavy traffic. And just like in any other city, pedestrians should be sensible and exercise caution. I'm not sure if I'd have the moxie to venture forth on an Athenian scooter but when it came to walking all over town, I had little fear of any rogue vehicles.
Athens Is Almost Tout-Free.....
Dear touts, where art thou? While your brethern harass visitors at every other tourist attraction all over the world, you have seemingly overlooked the prime possibility of annoying the millions of visitors to the Acropolis. I saw just a single, half heated post card vendor at the Acropolis and, while I was initially baffled by the distinct lack of touts and street hawks, I soon settled into a happy acceptance that there is indeed a world where you can see a popular attractions without having to swat away a relentless swarm of pests.
We only encountered touts twice, which is remarkable considering how many major attractions we visited. On our hop-on, hop-off bus tour, the driver pulled over near Piraeus Port in order to allow the touts to board and offer us what they promised were utterly genuine iPads for a mere 20 Euros. Not cool, bus driver, not cool!
We (along with Athenians themselves) encountered plenty of people who were selling (I think) lotto tickets. These sellers walked everywhere - inside the airport, inside restaurants, on the bus - waving aloft tall sticks from which dozens of paper tickets fluttered in the breeze. Somewhat irritating but it seemed common place and not particularly directed towards tourists.
.... And There's No Price Gouging Either!
Looking to buy a bottle of water in Athens? You're going to pay but a mere €0.50 to do so, no matter if you're at the airport, the Acropolis, the changing of the guard at Syntagma Square, or in a suburban grocery store. And the same applies to the bagel-style bread rings that were sold on every street corner.
I'm not sure if it's the result of regulation or just the honest and good-natured disposition of the Greek people, but there was a complete lack of price gouging when it came to popular items like water and snacks. Try finding bottled water at the Eiffel Tower or the Coliseum for the same price and let me know how it goes!
Living On Bread and Water? No Problem!
Restaurant service - be it a tiny street side cafe or a beautiful bistro - is uniformly friendly, efficient, and generous. Without exception, the servers would always automatically seve glasses of cold tap water - none of of this Parisian attitude of insisting you can only order sparkling or still mineral water! When you're walking around all day in warm weather, this little act of hospitality is a life saver.
Closely behind the water would come the bread basket, always generously filled with white bread, brown bread, and crunchy bread sticks - always accompanied by a container of yogurt dip. This thick dip, seasoned with herbs or cheese or beet root, was delicious and all of it was complimentary. The scrumptious food in Athens is something I could talk about forever, but for now I'll stick to the bread and yogurt. It made every meal that much more delectable and really gave restaurant visits a tremendous value.
Shoulder Season = Stunning Season
Usually shoulder season in Europe means reduced costs - but the traveler pays the price in other ways, like enduring the cold and damp weather. Yet in Athens, the shoulder season means stunningly good weather with plenty of sun. I was told many times that Athens in August is an entirely different beast altogether, with a kind of sweltering heat that you need to feel to believe, so I'll happily stick to the autumn shoulder season whenever I can.
Maybe it's the shoulder season, and not Aphrodite, I need to thank for the clean streets, the reasonable traffic, and the great service I experienced in Athens. But no matter the reason, visiting Athens was an absolute joy, an experience I'll never forget, and I hope my wonderful memories go a long way in helping you form your own expectations of this remarkable city.
Have you been to Athens? Tell me what you liked best!
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