An Adventure in Athens

Can you see Athens in two days? Is a Winter city break in Athens a good idea?  The answer to both of these questions is YES. Read on to find out more….

Where did I go: Athens, Greece

When did I go: February 2019

Thursday

1415: Our flight from London Heathrow has landed. Flight delayed at Heathrow for about an hour, but we still made good time and arrival was only delayed by 45 minutes.

1430: Quick exit through immigration and luggage collection at Athens airport. I had booked a transfer with Welcome Pickup Athens, so the driver met us with a name board in the arrivals hall. One way transfer from welcome pick up from the Airport to the centre of Athens costs 47 Euros. They also send an email with the driver’s details and photo to you a few days before, and a text message when the driver has arrived at the airport. In the car, there were water bottles, a small welcome gift of a linen tote bag and a map. Our driver, Michael, was very personable and pointed out the main sites in Athens as we drove past and he gave us tips on how to get around and where to eat. There was no high pressure selling, but he also gently point out other day trips available from Athens with Welcome Pickup.

On the way to the centre of Athens

Tip: A more cost effective way to travel from the Airport to the centre of Athens is the underground metro. Tickets are cheap, and the system is clean, reliable and efficient. Ticket machines and signs are in English and Greece both, so it is not difficult to find your way around.

1500: Arrived at Hotel Herodion, our home for the next 3 nights. Herodion is a modern 4 star hotel, with an onsite bar and restaurant. The hotel is perfectly located, one street away from the Acropolis museum and only 5 minutes to the Acropolis itself, and close to numerous shops and restaurants in the Plaka area of Athens. There is also a roof terrace with a hot tub and views of the acropolis. Our room was nice, if a bit on the small side. The bathroom however, has really low ceilings – so much so that if you are more than 6 feet tall you would struggle to take a shower.

1530: We unpacked our bags and set out to explore. As there were a few hours of day light left, we decided to take the city sightseeing tour bus. I like taking the tour bus in a new city as it allows me to get my bearings and prioritise what to visit. I was a bit weary of city sightseeing after our Budapest experience (more on a later post), but the Citysightseeing Athens tour is pretty good. 22 Euros gets you a two-day ticket, covering 3 lines; the main one, the “Athens lines” covers the centre of Athens and the major attractions, whilst the other two takes you to the port and the beach areas.

Views from the tour bus
Views from the tour bus
Views from the tour bus
Views from the tour bus

1730: In 2 hours, we had completed a tour on the main Athens line and gone past all the main attractions. All the main sites, the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora, The Roman Agora, Hadrian’s library, Temple of Zeus are within walking distance of each other and the Acropolis towers above the whole city. We finished the tour at the main entrance to the Acropolis. Entrance was closed by this time, but we still had enough time left for a few sunset photos.

Sunset view of the Parthenon

1830: Dinner at the a Yard restaurant opposite the Acropolis museum. The Orzo pasta was particularly delicious.

Orzo pasta and prawns for dinner

Friday

0830: This morning, we decided to visit the Acropolis first. (It was recommended to us to visit the museum first and Acropolis second, however, it was supposed to rain later on the day, so we decided to take advantage the better weather in the morning). Tickets for Acropolis and its slopes is normally 20 Euros, but during November to March, tickets are reduced to 10 Euros.

Tip: There is also a combined ticket which covers entry to 7 attractions across Athens; The Acropolis and slopes, Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Temple of Zeus, Hadrian’s Library, Kerameikos (Ancient Cemetery) and Aristotle’s Lyceum. The combined ticket costs 30 Euros and is worth it in the peak season. However, during low season (November to March), individual entry tickets are half price at all the attractions, so it is better to pay as you go.

We entered the Acropolis from the side entrance, opposite the Acropolis museum. From here, we were able to see the ruins on the South slope, as we worked our way to the top.

View of the South slope

The South slope has ruins of many temples, theatres and other buildings. The Theatre of Dinosyus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus are particularly impressive.  The Odeon is still used for musical and theatre performances in the summer.

Theatre of Dinosyus
Odeon of Herodes Atticus

After working our way to the top, we entered the summit through the Propylae gates.

The Propylae Gates

Once at the top, you can see the World famous Parthenon, the Temple to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. The Parthenon was built around ~447 BC following the Hellenic victory over the invading Persian forces. The building was converted to a Christian Church in 6th century. After the Ottoman conquest, it was turned into a mosque in the 1460s. In September 1687, during the Venetian war, large part of the Parthenon was destroyed by a cannon which ignited an ammunition store inside the Parthenon. In subsequent years, many of the sculptures and decorations around the building were removed to other countries, the most notable being the Elgin Marbles.

The Parthenon – Temple the Athena
The Parthenon

Whilst the Parthenon is the most famous of the ruins atop the Acropolis, there are several others smaller temples also; such as the Temple of Erechtheion, which is famous for its Porch of Caryatids – columns in the shape of female figures.

Temple of Erechtheion
Temple of Erechtheion – Porch of Caryatids

From here, you also get some great views over Athens, all the way to the Aegean sea.

View from the top of Acropolis hill – Odeon of Atticus and Aegean Sea in the distance
View from the top of Acropolis hill – Theatre of Dinosyus and Acropolis Museum

1030: We left the Acropolis by the main entrance gate and climbed to the top of the nearby Areopagus hill. In ancient times, this was the seat of the council of elders of the city. It’s a great place for pictures of the Acropolis North face and the Ancient Agora.

Acropolis from Aeropagus Hill
Ancient Agora – from Aeropagus Hill

1100: Next, we headed towards the Roman Agora. (Agora means place of gathering or forum). Built in 15 BC, the Roman Agora is smaller and newer (relatively speaking) compared to the nearby Ancient Agora. It was used as a commercial centre by Athenians, after the much older Ancient Agora became more of a cultural centre.

The Roman Agora

1130: From the Roman Agora, we headed onto the Ancient Agora. This area dates back over 5000 years and has been in continuous use as a cultural and commercial centre of Athens. At the Agora today you can see ruins of theatres, temples, seats of governments, meeting places of craftsmen and even a mint. Ruins in the Agora are in various states, but one of the best preserved buildings of the Agora is the Temple of Hephaestus.

Ancient Agora – Temple of Hephaestus

A number of buildings were added to the Agora after the Roman conquests, mainly in honour of Roman emperors. The Odeon of Agrippa is one such example.

Ancient Agora – Status at the Odeon of Agrippa

The Ancient Agora is also home to a modern day Museum, housed in the re-built Stoa (covered walkway) of Attalos. The museum houses many artefacts founds in the Agora and provide a good overview of the Agora’s history.

1315: From the Agora, we walked to Hadrian’s library. The library was created by Roman Emperor Hadrian in AD 132. The library is said to have contained rolls of papyrus “books” as well as reading rooms and lecture halls. When we arrived, part of the site was roped off for maintenance, so we could not see a lot.

Hadrian’s Library

1345: Next on our list was the Temple of Zeus, about a 15-20 minute walk from Hadrian’s library. The temple construction began in the 6th century BC, but it was not completed until the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD. Once completed, the temple (consisting of 104 colossal columns) was renowned as the largest temple in Greece. The temple was however destroyed during a barbarian invasion in 267 AD, only a century after its completion. Today, the temple is still impressive, containing 16 of the original columns.

We were also able to see the nearby Hadrian’s Arch, a triumphal arch built to mark the arrival of the Roman emperor Hadrian to Athens.

Hadrian’s Arch

At this point, we decided to break for lunch and head back to our hotel, mainly because the rain which had been promised started to come down.

1600: At the Museum of the Acropolis. Entry tickets costs 5 euros, and being a Friday, the museum would stay open till 10 p.m, meaning that we didn’t need to rush.

Acropolis Museum Entrance

The museum was opened to the public in 2009 and known to be one of the best museums of its kind in the World. The building works of the museum unearth a number of Ancient city streets, so the museum was build on stilts with glass walkways on the ground floor, so that you can see the ruins underneath.

The museum houses many artefacts found on the Acropolis as well as models of the many buildings of the Acropolis.

Model of the Acropolis and it South slope
Caryatids from the Temple of Erechtheion
Artefacts from Acropolis
Model of the Temple of Erechtheion

The top floor of the museum is dedicated entirely to the Parthenon. There are video features about the history of the Parthenon and the Elgin Marbles.

Model of the Parthenon and (video feature in the background)

The top floor of the museum has the same orientation of the Parthenon atop the Acropolis. The spacing of the columns of the Parthenon hall is the same as that of the ancient temple, and all the exterior walls are made of glass. The 48 columns in the Parthenon hall mark the outline of the ancient temple and form a colonnade for the display of the Parthenon marbles.

Display of Parthenon marbles and statues on the top floor
View of the Acropolis from the Museum

1900: After a long day of sight-seeing, we treated ourselves to a delicious dinner at the Elaea Mezedadiko restaurant.

Saturday

0915: Having spent the previous day amongst ancient ruins of Athens, today we decided to make a day trip to the nearby  island of Aegina. There are 8 islands to which you can make a day trip from Athens. However, we had a hard time finding any ferry timetables online or via the hotel. It seems that in the winter, the timetables change at short notice because of the unpredictable weather, so the only reliable way to check the ferry times is to go to Piraeus port itself.

1000: You can easily get to Piraeus port from the centre of Athens using the metro. It usually takes 30 to 45 minutes. Once out of the metro station, we turned right and headed to the port marked E8. This the departure point for the hydrofoils and ferries.

Gate E8 at Piraeus Port

There was a large car ferry to Aegina leaving at 1130 (Taking 75 – 90 mins), costing 14 Euros for a return, or a passenger only “flying dolphin” hydrofoil leaving at 1100 and taking 40 minutes, costing 25 Euros return. We opted for the flying dolphin as it meant less waiting.

Tip: If buying a return ticket for the same day, book your return journey for the last departure from Aegina. You can use the ticket to come back on an earlier hydrofoil if you would like (but you have to go to the the ticket office in Aegina to get this changed).

The flying dolphin hydrofoil

1100: Aegina is 16 miles from Pireaus, and the dolphin made quick work of the distance.  Inside, it was nice, warm and comfortable especially on a cold day, and not busy at all.

Inside the flying dolphin

1140: Arrived in Aegina. As it was the middle of winter, the town was quiet sleepy. There were still a few shops open and we had a quick coffee by the pier to warm up.

Aegina Port

1200: One of the main attraction of Aegina is the temple of Apollo, about a 10 minute walk from the pier. There is also an archaeological museum on site.

Temple of Apollo

There are also a number of coastal walks next to the beautiful beach.

Aegina Beach

1430: Aegina has many more places to visit, but we decided to head back to Athens as it was cold and threatening to rain. I did manage to buy some delicious pistachio butter as a souvenir though.

1510: Back at Piraeus port and metro back to Athens.

1600: We had timed our return well, having just enough time left to visit the Panathenaic Stadium. (We wanted to see it the previous day, but had to give up that plan due to the rain).

Panathenaic Stadium

The Panathenaic stadium is the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble. The stadium dates back to 330BC, and has since undergone many renovations.  The stadium was excavated and after being refurbished, it hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympics in 1896. It was also used in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Today, it is the finishing point for the annual Athens Classic Marathon and also the location where the Olympic flame handover ceremony to the host nation takes place.

Entry costs 5 Euros, and you can walk around the stadium, run the track and even stand on the podium. There is also a vault which houses a small museum, with an Exhibition of Olympic posters and torches from the last 100+ years.

1715: We left the stadium and walked through the nearby national park to the Syntagma square. The park is beautiful, with many paths, flowers and water features. Unfortunately, it was starting to become dark, so we didn’t have a lot of time to explore.

1750: We arrived at the Syntagma Square to watch change of guard infront of the Greek parliament. It occurs on the hour, ever hour. 10 minutes to the hour, a guard comes and straightens the uniforms of the guards on duty, and you can take close up pictures. As the hour mark strikes, the guards for the next rotation arrive and the change occurs.  The whole choreographed routine takes 7 minutes.

Changing of the Guards

1900: Back to the hotel, dinner and souvenir shopping.

Sunday

0500: We were catching an early flight out of Athens, so it is an early start. We had arranged a return journey with Welcome pickup.

0800: As our flight took off, I reflected on our short but packed city break in Athens. Athens is often thought of as a summer destination, but I could see many advantages to coming here in the dead of Winter. There are no crowds to speak of, so you save a lot of time on queuing, and it certainly makes taking photographs a lot easier. A lot of entry tickets are half prices to encourage low season tourism. Weather is quite mild and you don’t need to worry about the lack of shade atop the Acropolis or the insufferable heat. Only downside for us was that the we happened to be there during a rainy weekend, which was a bit unfortunate, but we were assured that it was unusual, even for winter.

Good bye Athens

For many people, Athens is a stop en-route to a holiday in one of the Greek islands. However, I would highly recommend it as a city break, especially in the Winter.

If you would like to find out more about my impressions of Athens, stay tuned for my next post on 7 Things that surprised me about Athens.

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