It was just after 5pm, rush hour on the Athens Metro (tube), I’d been travelling since 5.30am. At this point dreams of seeing the Acropolis, enjoying fresh Greek salads and exploring pretty sun-dappled streets had given way to a desperation to simply lie down someplace quiet.
Then I heard a friendly voice – “Where are you looking for?”
A man in his sixties had occupied the seat next to me, he had a kind face, which was directed at the couple sitting opposite, rather than myself.
The couple stated their destination and the man gave a few instructions.
I quickly blurted, “Can I just ask please, does this train stop here?” pointing at the word ‘Sydagma’ on the message on my phone.
The guy gave a quick side-glance before continuing his instructions to the couple.
After few painful seconds of silence he turned to me, “yes, it’s there on the map”.
Looking up at the map the word ‘Syntagma’ came into focus.
I considered explaining my confusion was caused by the different spelling (a typo?) on the message from my AirBnB apartment host, but having already presented myself as an interrupting idiot, I went with a simple “thank you”.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
He’d returned his attention to the man and woman opposite. The bloke was wearing a black fedora and she a colourful kaftan, I guess they looked more interesting travellers than me in my crumpled jeans and T-shirt.
“India”, fedora responded.
“Oh very nice.” said my seatmate, “Indians are quiet people. Never cause trouble for us in Greece.”
After giving me another stab of side-eye he opened a Solitaire app on his phone and began tapping the screen.
Forty uncomfortable minutes later, during which I became sure Greeks had a major problem with the British and braced myself for four days of animosity, the train arrived at Syntagma station.
Emerging into the late afternoon sun I was bathed in warm, exhaust-fume-scented air as Google Maps guided me alongside a road roaring with four lanes of angry traffic. I discovered my apartment flanked either side by plastic-chaired bar/restaurants. The dirty glass door and shabby entrance hall weren’t exactly inspiring, but at this point I was glad just to have found the place.
My Athenian home
The metal door slammed shut and the small 1970’s-looking elevator clunked into operation. I studied the ‘No Smoking’ sign whilst inhaling the previous occupant’s cigarette haze as it delivered me to building’s fifth and final floor.
‘Look, you’ve just got to get through four days and then you’ll be back home,’ I reassured myself.
To my relief the key I’d retrieved from the lockbox turned in the apartment door. It swung open to reveal a crisp white-walled living space shaded by closed blinds.
For the first time since Train Guy had given me the solitaire-shoulder I found myself smiling. It was a really nice place.
Spotlessly clean, with tasteful modern furnishings, the apartment was a compact rectangle containing a sofa, small dining table, kitchenette and double bed in the main space, with separate shower and toilet rooms at the end.
I dropped my bags and began opening the window blinds along the exterior wall.
Stunning views over pretty rooftops were revealed, then the treetops of the national gardens, and beyond, Mount Lycabettus. Out on the terrace I found myself gazing right at the iconic Acropolis hill. OK, I thought, maybe Athens would be cool after all.
It was a moment too good not to share, so I fired up my phone camera and made this short video:
Reluctant to leave the sanctuary of my apartment to re-enter the noisy streets, but in need of sustenance, I Google-Mapped it to the nearest grocery shop.
Outside I headed in the opposite direction to the route I’d arrived – it was like entering a different city, more of a village really.
The walk to the mini-supermarket revealed narrow cobbled streets, pretty cafes and restaurants bedecked in flowers and lush greenery, and cute little shops crammed with interesting souvenirs. Artists sat on fold up chairs with their works propped up on the walls behind them. Street musicians played traditional Greek songs on guitars and accordions.
Athens’ and I might have got off on the wrong foot, but from that point on I was smitten.
Street in Plaka // 📸 Snapped by Michalis
In the morning I headed further into Plaka to meet local tour guide Maximos. I was still a little unsure what to expect from the Athenians, but I needn’t have worried. Max was the first of many warm, friendly and hospitable locals I encountered.
It turned out Max is an Athens police officer, but he told me the 45 days annual leave the police get as standard give him ample time to have a fun side-hustle sharing his local knowledge with tourists.
Along with telling me the history and myths of the Acropolis, Roman columns, various shrines, churches and many more historical points of interest, Max showed me things like colourful street art, often with subversive overtones, pointed out some cool bars and even mentioned with a cheeky grin whilst walking past a dark doorway that, “this is the only brothel in Athens with transsexuals”.
Athens street art // 📸 Snapped by Michalis
I’m not actually vegan, but I don’t eat meat, so the ‘Vegan Food Experience’ seemed a good way to sample the city’s healthy and meat-free options. I was not wrong.
I’d arranged to meet the host, Maria in the cobbled Monastiraki Square close to the flea market I’d had fun exploring earlier in the day.
While waiting, distracted by the fruit stalls piled high with huge strawberries, giant berries and pomegranates, I felt something pressed into my hand.
My eyes met one of several ladies carrying buckets of roses I’d seen around central Athens. They place the flowers in the hands of tourists saying it’s a “free gift” then, once the flower is accepted, ask for “a donation”. But I didn’t have to wrestle with my conscience over the rights or wrongs of handing over any money – the thought of how weird it would be for Maria to find me waiting bearing a single rose was enough to compel me to thrust it back and shuffle aside.
Bright eyed and looking as excited about the food experience as I was, Maria somehow spotted me in the busy square and whisked me off to our first food stop.
Vegan Gryros at Vegan Beat
We visited three different restaurants, all great little tucked away places I’d never have discovered alone. The food was amazing! Before dessert we took a break to take a stroll back through Plaka and up to the slopes of Acropolis. We stopped at Areopagus, a rocky outcrop also known as Mars Hill where, in Greek mythology, Ares (AKA Mars, god of war) was tried for the murder of Poseidon’s son Alirrothios.
As the sun set and the sky turned beautiful shades of orange and pink we chatted away gazing over the city. Maria and I had been strangers just an hour ago, but she was so open and easy to talk to it was like hanging out with a local friend.
Finally, we descended back into town where I had the most delish vegan coconut ice cream (Maria was keen for me to try the waffles or crepes too which she said were excellent, but I think my belly would have burst!).
Rolling home to my apartment I was glad I’d be burning off a few calories in the morning.
In Athens, 8.30am is considered the early hours of the morning. This is handy if you fancy a morning run as there’s barely anyone around. In any case, most of the streets in the centre are traffic-free and the few roads tend to be narrow with not many cars (although be a bit careful of mopeds and the ubiquitous hired electric scooters whizzing around.)
My walk to the start at the Athens Sports Club took me through the national gardens, a well-kept park with a network of pretty paths shaded by tall pine trees. There I met the three others in the group plus the run leader, a trainer at the sports club.
This was my first guided running tour of anywhere and it proved a great way to be shown around a wider area of the city in a shorter time than walking allows – as well as burning off some of the previous night’s indulgences!
(Don’t be phased if you’re not a fast runner, by the way, it was more of a jog really and our guide set the pace by what was comfortable for the group rather than pushing us along.)
You can’t take more than a few steps in Athens without coming across something of interest so we passed too many sights to list, but among the highlights I hadn’t already properly seen was the Old Royal Palace, where The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded by the Evzones. These are the Presidential Guard who stand motionless in elaborate traditional uniforms with clogs, kilts and red tasselled caps. We also saw the remains of the Acheronian road and cemetery, and the Arch of Hadrian.
We finished at the beautiful Panathenaic Stadium, built c. 330 BC – the world’s only stadium made entirely of marble, which was very impressive.
As much as I’d enjoyed the run I was glad to be able to return to the apartment since large blisters had formed in the arches of both of my feet. Ouch!
(Tip: If going on a running tour, don’t wear shoes you don’t normally run in.)
Feet soothed by my post-run shower, I headed off to visit the Acropolis at last.
At the top of the hill leading to the citadel I realised that seeing it from afar over the last couple of days hadn’t prepared me for the huge size of the ancient buildings, particularly the Parthenon, temple of the goddess Athena whom the city is named after.
The Parthenon // 📸 Snapped by me
I was quite awestruck and spent several minutes sitting gazing in wonder at the sheer enormity of it and contemplating all the many generations of other people who’ve been similarly enthralled.
Almost as inspiring were the views of the city circling right around Mount Acropolis. Looking out over the ring of tightly clustered buildings, streets and squares, dotted with historic landmarks, really gives a sense of how the ancient past resides alongside the goings-on of this modern metropolis.
That evening I met with Michalis a local photographer to get some snaps for my Instagram channel and this blog, which gave an opportunity to explore the narrow winding streets of Anafiotika with its gorgeous tiny whitewashed houses built in the Greek island style.
Anafiotika house // 📸 Snapped by Michalis
Afterwards we went to look through the pictures at the super-cool Couleur Locale rooftop bar. The view of the city lit up as the sun set were simply breathtaking as I sipped delicious Greek herbal tea with honey.
Mount Lycabettus hike & yoga
In the morning I met yoga instructor Deena and three fellow travellers for a hike up Mount Lycabettus followed by yoga in the national gardens.
The tallest of the seven hills around Athens, Lycabettus can be seen from most areas of the city and since I’d been in the city I’d felt a tinge of excitement about climbing it every time it caught my eye.
Our first stop was a coffee bar where I had another lovely sweet Greek herbal tea, however, the typical beverage in Athens is definitely coffee. I thought Londoners loved the stuff, but Athenians clearly adore it! I don’t think you could ever be more than a minute away from a characterful independent coffee shop in the centre of Athens (I only saw one Starbucks).
Deena was warm and welcoming and the group was so friendly that it quickly felt like walking with friends. It took less than half an hour to wind our way up the pine tree lined trail. The little whitewashed chapel at the summit had been twinkling at me from when I first opened my apartment blinds, so it was really cool to be able to take a look inside.
…Remember I said the panoramic views from Acropolis blew me away? Well, the vista from Lycabettus was a level up even from that!
Deena (left) & the hike/yoga group
You can see over whole of Athens, including the Acropolis, which looks even more majestic from above, and then beyond that to the sea.
Seriously, if you go to Athens, don’t miss this view!
On the way to our yoga spot in the national gardens we picked up smoothies and also popped into a little place specialising in authentic Greek yogurt – all delicious. We strolled through some areas outside of the usual tourist trail, including a slightly shabby but colourful and almost rustically romantic area that Deena told us in recent years has become home mostly to refugees.
Deena shared interesting anecdotes from her own life and experiences as an Athens local, including how her friends and family had been affected by recent political issues in Greece. These kinds of insights don’t feature in tourist guidebooks, but for me hearing from someone who has clearly has a deep love for her city, in spite of its troubles, only heightens my affection for the place.
After a gorgeous yoga session we finished up at tiny kiosk serving traditional Greek cheese pies – the best in town according to Deena. These flat envelopes of flaky pastry filled with several types of cheese (including feta, of course) and egg were absolutely yummy!
I didn’t have much time to rest before my last guided experience of the trip, something I’d been super-excited about – the chance to meet the Cats of the Acropolis!
Cats of Acropolis
Having donned my “Sorry I can’t, I have plans with my cat” T-shirt, I rushed off to meet Eirini, a volunteer with an animal welfare group caring for Athens’ many stray cats.
On the ‘Cats of Acropolis’ experience visitors can join her to feed the kitties in various locations around Acropolis hill, with all fees going directly to fund their care.
I’ve never understood why people say cats are solitary creatures, when not part of a human family it’s clear they form little colonies, as was the case in Athens.
With a wheelie bag full of cat food, Eirini led us to meet our first group of kitties who were already waiting on the wall of the Acropolis Museum.
“They know what time I’m coming,” Eirini says, “also, they hear my wheels,” she motioned to the trolley-bag. “Sometimes I see them chasing tourists pulling suitcases by mistake because they sound like me.”
I’d been a little apprehensive about the heart-wrenching sight of straggly strays, but all the cats actually looked very healthy – some a bit over-fed if anything!
We stopped at five or six different spots, each home to a different cat colony from about six cats to 15 or so at the largest. Eirini knew all the cats by name and told us their stories as we all helped feed them.
There was Hara who doesn’t stop meowing until she gets attention, Vampire with his beautiful fluffy black fur, Sasha a gorgeous friendly calico and her best friend Minas, and a sassy tabby named Fatty who embraces her curves with confidence (and maintains them by stealing bits of the other cats’ food after quickly snaffling her own).
Ghandi (top left) & Fatty (bottom right)
Together we fed over 50 cats in total. A slightly sad moment for me was meeting ginger boy Ghandi who looked a lot like my cat Gimli and purred just as enthusiastically when I petted him. For all that these cats are kept fed and healthy, he made me feel like they’d be really happy to find nice homes with humans who love them.
But at least in Athens they are cared for and with heroic volunteers like Eirini on the case perhaps the number of strays will be reduced before too long. They try to neuter all of them so it looks hopeful for sure.
Eat your heart out Socrates!
Back at the apartment, before my final sleep in the city, I took a glass of wine out onto the terrace for my last chance to see the Acropolis looking magical illuminated by lights at night.
My brain was awash with all the history and mythology I’d learned over the last few days and images of ancient sculptures, epic structures, mountain views, delicious food, quaint streets and characterful cats whirled around my mind.
It occurred to me that what Athens had left me with more than anything was a sense of perspective.
I thought to myself, ‘Wow my life is a blink of an eye compared to the time that building has stood. But like everyone else who might also be staring up at the Acropolis right now, in whatever small or large way, I’m making my own mark on the world just like the people who built it. Eventually the time will come for me to move aside for new generations too. And that’s as it should be. It’s a beautiful thing really.’
Then I thought that even back in ancient Greece they probably knew that drinking wine alone makes a person get a bit over-philosophical.
So then I had some chocolate and a cup of bedtime tea while I posted photos of Athenian cats on Instagram stories.
In the morning I took the bus back to the airport, which treated me to views of miles of olive groves on the way.
Which brings me to the main point of this entire rambling blog post: My advice is, if you visit Athens and want to get public transport to/from the airport, get the bus.
You’ll know you’re on the right one because it says ‘Airport’ on the front and it terminates at the airport/centre of town – so you won’t need to wear a fedora to find out where to get off from a grumpy Metro dude either.
Seriously though, Athens was amazing, go!
Info, prices and booking links
Please, please, please – if you book any of these don’t forget to mention that you heard about them from me and please also let me know too, I’d love to hear that this post has inspired you!
🏛 Plaka Tour (N.B. My experience was a little atypical as this is usually a group experience with a photographer plus guide, but that probably only adds to the fun!)
🏛 Vegan Food Experience (N.B. Alos normally a group experience but since I went in low season it was just me.)
🏛 Photoshoot with Michalis (Michalis took some of the best photos of me I’ve ever seen, highly recommended!)
All the above are via Airbnb which I’m a massive fan of. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, join up via this link for £25 off your first trip or £9 off an experience/tour (from any of Airbnb actually, it doesn’t have to be the links above).
This post is not sponsored and no aspects of my trip were gifted. I paid for everything myself and all recommendations are totally based on my experiences.
Also, this is only second ever travel post, so please let me know if you like it via my social channels and share it with your friends.