The old and new co-exist on the same street here, just footsteps from one another. This city’s stories of the past is forever just round the corner just to mesmerise its visitors
It’s home to one of the oldest civilisations in the world, and a city I’ve been eager to see ever since we were regaled with stories of Greek mythology in primary school. But as our cab makes its way from the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport to our hotel, my first impressions are of how much delightful graffiti covers the walls and underpasses at every turn and stop. Athens, we realise, is not just a haven of history, but also of food, culture, nature and arts. And as my husband and I discover over the next three days of our winter honeymoon, it’s a walker’s delight too.
Leaving our bags at our hotel in the Agia Irini Square a stone’s throw from the historical district, we immediately head out for lunch (but we grab a few Kourabiedes or delicious almond cookies from the reception desk first). The warm atmosphere of To Paradosiako or ‘The Traditional’, punctuated by the din of lunchtime conversation and laughter gives us our first glimpse of dining life. But it’s the first bites of authentic Greek salad and a massive pork kleftiko brought straight from the spit that leaves us wishing we could do nothing but eat for three days!
Our stomachs overfull, we decide to explore the environs of our hotel on foot, one cobbled street at a time. We walk to Monastiraki Square, that houses flea markets, cafes and restaurants, the Acropolis on a hill high above following us wherever we turn. Monastiraki gets its name from the ‘little monastery’ of Pantanassa at the end of the street, where one can also spot the Tzistarakis Mosque a few feet ahead. A small domed house of worship built during the Ottoman era and greatly reminiscent of Turkish architecture, it’s today an annex of the Museum of Greek Folk Art. The ruins of Hadrian’s Library, a cultural complex constructed by the Roman emperor in the 1st century lie just next door. Such is the charm of Athens — worlds old and new coexist on the same street, just footsteps from one another.
We later head towards the ‘heart of Athens’, Syntagma Square. Also known as Constitution Square, this is the spot where Athenians rose against King Otto in 1843 to demand a constitution, and it continues to be a street of political importance. The cream building of the Hellenic Parliament is an imposing structure that overlooks the district, with The Tomb of The Unknown Soldier just in front of it. Just as we reach the limestone monument starts the Changing of the Guards ceremony, that takes place here every hour. Four soldiers, all dressed in traditional Greek uniform of a white tunic with red leather clogs, perform in perfect choreography, not a single step out of place. It’s truly a fascinating sight to behold — and we’re delighted to get a front row view of it!
Continuing our unchartered walk, we let the streets guide us to our next site. As the sun sets, the street and Christmas lights all come alive together, adding to the beauty of this hour.
We spot an ancient structure across a street we’re walking on, and a road sign tells us we’ve stumbled upon Hadrian’s Arch, a monument built during the Roman era. It looks even more glorious in the moonlight, centuries of wear showing through the age-old marble.
Needing to heed to nature’s call, we look for a stop and the closest locale we find that has a bathroom is the Acropolis Museum, so we head inside. Displays from the earliest civilisations of the Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine Greece, the history of the Acropolis from the 5th century BC, sculptures from the Parthenon, and coins from the different Greek and Roman ages all take us back through the windows of time. My favourite? An excavated section of an actual neighbourhood of ancient Athens, that’s been incorporated into the architecture of the modern building, giving us an idea what the city was like in the 5th century.
Tired out, we dine at the nearby Melilotos restaurant, where I sample a carob pasta while my husband devours a juicy steak. As we wait for our bill, we check our step count for the day — at 14953 steps that covered ten kilometres, it’s probably the most I’ve walked all year!
History and Heaven
“You really can’t come to a European city and not do a walking tour,” my husband, who studied in Spain for a year and travelled the continent during that time, tells me the next morning. So a quick breakfast of spanakopitas (spinach and cheese filled filo pastries) later, we’re standing under Hadrian’s Arch, the starting point of a free tour. The ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus stand imposingly in the verdant expanse behind us as Maria, our guide for the day, gives us a quick recap of ancient Greek history before our walk starts. And what a journey into the past it is.
We walk past ancient Roman and Greek agoras, admire statues of historical figures from Alexander to Lord Byron, stroll through the National Gardens, pay our respects outside the Metropolitan Cathedral, pose outside the Panathenaic Stadium, and catch a closer view of the Acropolis. But what truly takes my breath away is the quaint neighbourhood of Anafiotika. The whitewashed houses, carved entrance gates to the blue-doored homes and patches of blooms makes this locale seem straight out of Santorini or Mykonos.
The gorgeous view we get from there, that encompasses the nature and monuments of Athens in one frame, is a true picture for posterity.
After a leisurely lunch of pork gyros and turkey waffles at Pantheon restaurant in the buzzing Plaka district, we brave the climb to what I’m most excited for — a view from Mount Lycabettus. The 25-minute steep uphill walk, punctuated by my complaining and my husband’s motivating words, ends at the funicular station at the foot of the peak — I’m glad to sit in a cable car and give my legs a break.
The exercise is more than worth it, as we get to view the city in daylight as well as in the orange and navy hues of the sunset hour from the highest point of Athens. Sitting at the café on the hill with a delectable hot chocolate in one hand, my partner across me and the view of one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world lit up for us down below, I think to myself — if there is a Greek heaven, it is this.
Into Ancient Greece
Day three, our last one, takes us to the pièce de résistance of the city, the Acropolis. We spend over two hours here, admiring the majesty of the entire complex, from the Parthenon and the Theatre of Dionysus to the Temple of Athena and the Propylaea, the monumental gateway. Still craving a dose of ancient culture, we make our way to the National Archeological Museum, where we travel from Greek prehistory to antiquity and beyond. A gorgeous neoclassical structure, the museum also houses a garden decorated with sculptures.
It’s true about Athens — no matter where you look, history and art will be there to enthrall at every corner. As we sit at Savvas restaurant polishing plates of souvlaki and gyros, I am proud of myself for walking almost 20,000 steps a day — this city warrants no better way of exploring its marvels.
After all, Athens — the cradle of western civilisation — will always be around, its stories of the past forever waiting to mesmerise.
Best luxury hotels in Athens
Hotel Grande Bretagne: At Syntagma Square, it features a thermal suite, private dining, and is in a prime location close to the shopping, eating and business districts of Athens
Electra Palace Athens: A five-star hotel in central Athens, it has a luxurious spa and a rooftop restaurant from where one can enjoy unparalleled views of monuments
Emporikon Athens Hotel: A boutique luxury property in the heart of the historical city centre, this hotel offers great balcony views of the Acropolis
St George Lycabettus: Just a stone’s throw from the highest hill of Athens, this five-star property is walking distance from all major attractions and eateries of the city centre