After our brief and windy afternoon in Mykonos, our cruise ship set it’s navigational sights on Athens and the port of Piraeus for an overnight stay. Though I love that cruise itineraries can take you to multiple destinations with zero effort on the part of the traveler (I mean who doesn’t love visiting several countries in one holiday and only having the burden of unpacking and traveling to the airport or train station once?), they do however limit your travel adventures some in that you don’t get to experience the nightlife culture of a destination or get to explore at a more leisurely pace without the time constraints of the ship sailing away without you before you’ve seen everything you wanted to. Hence why overnight ports of call when cruising are so great!
Dan and I were looking forward to exploring the ancient city of Athens at a nice relaxing pace during our brief stay in the “cradle of European democracy”. Here’s where the day took us!
Went for a guided walk
After disembarking our ship, a quick and relatively inexpensive taxi ride brought us into the heart of modern Athens and deposited us in front of Syntagma Square, the location of the city’s Parliament building, and the start of Rick Steve’s free audio guide tour of Athens, which takes you through both modern Athens and the “Old Town” while passing through the Ermou shopping street, several Greek Orthodox churches, and the touristy Plaka district.
Tip learned from experience: make sure all members of your party have downloaded the tour before you leave for your holiday so you are not waylaid for an hour trying to find a free wi-fi connection to download the tour, since trying to share headphones while waking through crowded streets of Athens is not really an option. If you do find yourself in this predicament though, there is a conveniently located McDonalds across the square that offers wi-fi access with any purchase receipt- expect slow download speeds!
We were fortunate enough to catch the changing of the guards ceremony by the evzone, an elite infantry unit of the Greek army, in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before leaving Syntagma Square to follow the rest of the audio tour. Fun fact I learned from Rick: the evzone soldier’s skirts have 400 pleats, one for each year of Greece’s prior Ottoman occupation.
Ate some souvlaki (and a lot of tzatziki!)
Once lunch time rolled around, we bee-lined it for Monastiraki Square and its popular string of restaurants and cheap take-aways known as “Souvlaki Row”. After consulting TripAdvisor and our trusty Rick Steves guide (honestly every Rick Steves recommended restaurant we’ve been to during our travels has been amazing!), we opted for a breezy outdoor table at Thanasis to try their famous special kebab made from a traditional recipe that combines ground beef and lamb with their secret blend of seasonings.
To die for! And don’t even get me started on the pita bread. Well since I started. Underneath all the delicious, juicy meat, tzatziki, and olive oil on the plate lies a large piece of fresh, slightly crispy pita bread that has soaked up all those tasty flavors. There may have been some scrabbling between Dan and I over who got the bigger piece.
The food was so delicious here that we returned to the same restaurant for dinner to try their gyros and get more of that pita bread! The waitstaff recognized us from lunch and cheerfully brought us over some ouzo to finish off our meal. And since I kind of have a small love affair with baklava we stopped at a bakery for dessert to pick up a few pieces of the best thing that has ever happened to nuts and honey.
Admired some ruins
Athens is rife with ruins including the ancient remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest temple in mainland Greece, whose construction took almost 700 years to complete. Begun late in the 6th century B.C. under the rule of tyrannical Peisistratos and then abandoned half-built for centuries during a change in power, it wasn’t until the Roman emperor Hadrian conquered the Greeks in A.D. 131 that the temple was finished. Only 15 of the original 104 Corinthian columns remain standing but when you stand in front of them and feel as small as an ant you can imagine the impressive scale of how it once looked. Just beyond the Temple of Olympian Zeus lies the remains of the Arch of Hadrian, built in A.D. 132 to celebrate the completion of the aforementioned temple.
Also, we may or may not have been frightened by a small tortoise that crawled out from behind one of the columns and took us by surprise.
Pet some kitty cats
Nestled into the hill below the Acropolis lies the village-like neighborhood of Anafiotika with its narrow lanes, flower pots, and peaceful sunbathing cats. These “island cottages” in the city were originally built by people from the tiny Cycladic island of Anafi after coming to Athens post-Greece gaining its independence from the Ottomans. The characteristic blue doors and maroon shutters are reminiscent of their ancestral island.
Our journey through the winding uphill paths of Anafiotika on our way to the Acropolis took us some time as we kept stopping every few houses to pet the friendly felines!
Got a bird’s eye view of the city
Of course we visited the Acropolis! More on that in the next post. A view spoiler pics below of the commanding views of Athens from this perch.
Stepped back in time
The Ancient Agora was the heart of Athens and its hub for commerce, socializing, and religious activities for close to 800 years with famous figures such as Socrates, Plato, and Paul (as in St. Paul) having once strolled the streets of the ancient marketplace.
Amongst the ruins is the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos (the voting machine inside the museum is pretty neat and worth checking out), the well-preserved Temple of Hephaistos built in the same Doric style of the Parthenon, and some great views of the Acropolis looking out over it all. Dan and I imagined ourselves as long-ago Greeks walking along The Panathenaic Way, ancient Athen’s main drag that ran through the Agora, starting from the main city gate and ending two-thirds of a mile up at the Acropolis.
As history enthusiasts and tzatziki lovers, our impression of Athens was a good one despite the city’s recent maladies and the encroaching urban sprawl of modern Athens upon that of the antiquity Athens. I had read and heard from several people describing Athens as a great city to see but not necessarily one worth lingering in. I would beg to differ. Or at the very least, my appetite would since my stomach would like to permanently dine on Souvlaki Row!