Athens – The good, the bad, the ugly

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If my bank account would allow it, I’d spontaneously plan trips all the time. So here I am, mid February, freezing in gloomy Bucharest, editing photos of blue waters and sunny landscapes from Malta. I would have given anything for a few warm sunny days! So out of nowhere I find myself browsing Ryan Air website looking for a quick getaway. With a few clicks I just booked my first solo trip to Athens. I could not believe that with 110€ (accommodation included) I was going away for 3 days in sunny Greece. It’s not beach weather, but going from 0º to +17ºC felt like getting out of hibernation.

So why the good, the bad, the ugly? To be honest, Athens is pretty much a mix of all of that. Unfortunately the economic and refugee crises left deep marks on this beautiful ancient city and chipped away from it’s mystical aura. Of course I did my research before going and found quite a few articles that didn’t put Athens in the best light. But hell… what do these people know. Ancient city, cradle of civilization and culture, all those ruins… Athens can only be amazing… or so I though. But there is a silver lining at the end. Promise!

The bad…

Because I don’t want to leave you with a bitter taste at the end of this post, I’ll start with the bad, to get it out of the way.

I’ve been in my share of crowded cities and had my share of warnings “Beware of pickpockets”. I’ve bow my head down in shame seeing Romanian gypsies beg on the streets of Paris, Rome, Florence or Barcelona. Acting like I don’t understand what they are saying. Though maybe I shouldn’t. They don’t represent me, or my beautiful country! And on the other hand, not all are coming from Romania, but I won’t start this debate here.

So here I am, getting in the subway, squeezed in between 4 construction workers (Romanian gypsies), trying for dear life to grab a bar and keep my stability. I knew better, so all my valuables – money, id, phones were neatly tucked away in my breast pocket. Just 2 subway stations later, I get out at Monastiraki only to discover my backpack was about a quarter open. But like I said… I knew better. I only had my tripod and a jacket inside… so nothing went missing.

Fair warning – be careful what you carry on yourself and where you keep your valuables. I feel like this warning should be a no-brainer. But here I am emphasizing in again.

The ugly…

When I was a kid I LOVED the ancient Greek stories with heroes and Gods, temples and ancient wars. So my imaginary Athens vanished the moment I stepped off the bus at Syntagma and headed toward Monastiraki. The bad graffiti, the homeless people sleeping on the streets wrapped in blankets, the sketchy streets… this is not what I had envisioned at all. My expectations were already deflated. Was this all? This was what Athens had in store for me? I mean this is a central area… I didn’t want to imagine what I would find once I left the center.

The good…

Yes, there were beggars, sketchy streets, bad graffiti, a feeling of uneasiness here and there. I hope I didn’t turn you off completely from Athens, because, like I said, there is a silver lining. So here is the sweet to counter the bitter and the reasons why you should visit Athens.

1. Acropolis

I am an ancient history geek and if I had the choice to go back in time, I’d chose either Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome. Maybe for some people Acropolis is just a big pile of ancient rocks, but for me, it was a chance to actually follow on the foot steps of Socrates, Plato or Aristotle.

The one benefit of traveling solo… well I got to have Acropolis all to myself. No pressure to move faster or rush my photos. I ended up spending about 3 hours among the ruins, taking it all in, getting lost in my imagination and chasing the cats of Acropolis for some nice shots. The best part of my trip is that it was off-season. So the ticket to Acropolis was just 10€ (half price) and it was not crowded at all. You could actually enjoy the ruins without getting trampled.

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Greek Garfield posing at the entrance of Acropolis for some… moussaka or maybe a nice juicy gyros
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Don’t rush your visit to Acropolis. Take some time, enjoy the surroundings.
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The perks of traveling off-season… the tourist groups are not taking up all of your frame, and you can actually enjoy the views
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My favorite view in Athens and a picture I wanted to take in such a long time. It’s for sure one of the highlights of my trip. I love the Caryatids even if the ones on Acropolis are just replicas. If you want to see the original statues, you will find 5 of them in the Acropolis Museum and one in the British Museum in London.
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Erechtheion Temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon

2. The panoramic views

Athens looks breathtaking from above. So if you are on top of Acropolis, Mars or Lycabettus hills get ready to be swept of your feet. Day or night, Athens looks amazing from high up.

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Athens panoramic view from the top of Mars Hill. This is a great place to hang out, enjoy an amazing view or even have a picnic on the rocks. (Click the photo for the large view)
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View from Acropolis: Odeon of Herodes Atticus and Athens in the background. The theater was built by Atticus in the memory of his late wife. It has a capacity of 5,000 seats and it was renovated in the 1950’s. Today it’s the main stage for Athens and Epidaurus Festival that runs from June through August.
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View from Lycabettus Hill: The last rays of light falling over Arcopolis and Athens. After hiking up Lycabettus Hill you can enjoy a drink or dinner at the restaurant at the top. The road however is not lit, so you might need to bring a flashlight. But the neighborhood is one of the safest in Athens.

3. The good street art

I feel that good street art gives a city more personality. Desolated by all the bad tags and random text graffiti, I was on the hunt for something more pleasing to the eye. I knew Athens had some real gems in terms of street art, so after a hefty lunch I was ready to uncover it. Hidden in parking lots, on the side of buildings, through narrow streets, around Psyri, Exarcheia, Anafiotika – Plaka, Metarxourgeio and Gazi, you will find some amazing murals. Here are a few that really stuck with me.

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The curly girl from Athens is one of those urban symbols that is hidden in plain sight. You can find her all over Athens, just like Aeul in Bucharest or David Selor’s yellow fox in Bordeaux
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More inspiring street art from Athens… ‘Hope dies last’ painted by WD aka Wild Drawing – strong straight to the point message. I love a mural that tells a story!
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Loukanikos is probably one of the most famous dogs in Athens. He faced the police during the Greek riots. He died in 2014 and this mural was made in his memory. All dogs go to Heaven.
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Music band mural in Psyri, behind Monastiraki square
Psyri really has an amazing display of street art. I was pleasantly surprised, after the initial shock of bad street tags.

4. The Greek food

Food makes everything better. And Greek food… well… if you haven’t had any until now, my God you don’t know what you’re missing! I’m no stranger to Greek food, one because it’s really popular in Romania and second because being part Greek, it was on the menu while growing up. As soon as I stepped out of the plane I already had my thoughts set on a delicious souvlaki. I haven’t had one in such a long time, and while on vacation no one is counting calories.

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Street Souvlaki for your dose of Greek street food

Another favorite dish that I absolutely had to try was moussaka. I can’t count how many times my mom made this delicious dish. I usually say nobody cooks better than my mom, but here I am sitting at a Greek taverna in middle of Psyri having probably the best moussaka I have ever had. Sure the place looked touristy, menu in six languages, so you might say that “it’s not real Greek food”. Well, news flash, whole Athens is touristy! So it’s all real Greek food.

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Greek tavernas right on the street in Psyri

On my way to the Greek taverna my eye caught this amazing HUGE desert, so of course I made a mental note (highlights and all). But after a huge lunch I couldn’t find myself wasting what look to be an orgasmic culinary experience. So I decided to make some room an hike up Lycabettus hill, snap a few shots and come back to Psyri for dinner and that desert. And let me tell you it was worth it! Forget baklava! This decadent chocolate almond cake with a huge scoop of Greek ice cream, swimming in a moat of fudge, rightfully named “Love cake” was absolutely amazing. So if you find yourself in Athens, visit Nancy’s Sweet Home and get a Love cake!

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Oozing chocolate that goes straight to the heart (…not on the hips) – Love cake from Nancy’s Sweet Home

The conclusion

Sure, this might not have been my ideal solo getaway. And Athens fell a bit short of my expectations. Would I give it another chance? Hmm… I am a firm believer in second chances. So I think I would, but for sure not as a solo traveler. Athens is one of those places you shouldn’t enjoy alone, because I really don’t think you can actually enjoy it by yourself.

So my dear Athens, this is not good-bye, this is see you later.

 

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Jaunting Tips

  • It might sound redundant and you might already “know better” but watch out for pickpockets. Keep your valuables close and protected.
  • At night stay in the popular areas like Plaka, Monastiraki, Anafiotika and less in neighborhoods like Omonoia and north of it. I didn’t do my research too good on this and I wish I had. I would have felt more at ease for sure.
  • Make sure you take the official taxis and ask them to put on the meter. Also, if they offer to take you around the city for a tour so you can take pictures, be sure they are setting you up for a scam. You’ll find these jackals near the main attraction points. For more information about taxis in Athens check this guide.
  • Make sure you try at least once the Greek street food – gyros, souvlaki, spinach pies – it’s cheap, delicious and it will give you that boost you need to explore Athens by foot.
  • Swing by Nancy’s Sweet House to try the Love Cake.
  • Hike up Lycabettus Hill to catch the sunset over Acropolis and an amazing night view of Athens. It might look a bit sketchy, because of the low light or no light hike up the mountain, but Kolonaki is one of the safest neighborhoods in the city.
  • Travel to Athens off-season. It’s warm enough to enjoy it, and you have the added benefit of not getting trampled by hoards of tourists.

31 Replies to “Athens – The good, the bad, the ugly”

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  1. I love how you built up this article. It’s great that you are honest and write about the things that are not so nice. Your photos of Athens from above are great.

    1. Thank you. It is harder to write about things that are not nice… because come on.. let’s face it. Everybody would love to portrait their perfect vacation/getaway/adventure. When in fact they are not. But like I said in the article. I am sure Athens is one of those places you can better enjoy in a group. Bar hopping, for example, would be a ton of fun in a group of friends. But as a solo female going to a bar in a city like Athens, at least from my perspective… not something I would try (and I didn’t). But for sure I would give it another try 🙂

  2. Athens is such an amazing city. My favorite place was Monasteraki. Thank you for showing all the different aspects of this compelling town.

    1. It was a bit difficult when I started writing the post. I really wanted to make a balanced view of Athens. I still feel she hasn’t showed me everything and all it’s best parts. I will give it another chance in the future for sure.

  3. Rachel Silverwood says: Reply

    Love your honest review of your trip! It’s certainly scary how easily people can get in your bag without you knowing – but I suppose that’s an issue in a lot of cities! I love Greek food and history though so Athens is still on my list!

    1. It’s going to go back on my list… but we need a break at the moment hahaha. I like to be honest. At least this is a good way to temper expectation. I’m sure I can find a ton of post describing what an amazing time someone else had in Athens. And who am I to say it’s not true. Hence my closing. I want to give it another shot for sure, and I will, but maybe more of a friends getaway. I would stay in another part of Athens. Despite having an amazing AirBnB host, the neighborhood was bringing chills up my spine in the evening. So that’s one thing I know I would change – better research on the best places to find accommodation.

  4. I loved Athens and the Acropolis! Appreciate the candid warnings about pic-pockets, it’s an important reminder. Traveling off-season is also a good tip – I absolutely prefer to avoid the heat and the crowds 🙂

    1. You’d thing that the pickpocket warning is redundant… but it’s one of those things that is good to be reminded from time to time, even if you know better. The mixed feelings I have about Athens really depend on what part of my trip I think about :)). Acropolis, yes. Amazing and I stayed there for hours and recommend to anybody who is interested in history and ancient Greece to do it.

  5. I can relate to this post! When I arrived in Athens by train late at night, I was shocked to find people injecting drugs openly as I walked out onto the street. I had a moment where I second-guessed my destination! But I pushed past it and ended up loving my time there. I accepted that every big city has a dark side!

  6. I definitely have mixed feelings about Athens. I was a bit scared to be walking around by myself at night haha. But it’s still a cool place to visit.

    1. I know! I hate having mixed feelings. I had so much hope for my Athens trip. But I will give it another chance one day. We’ll see how that goes 🙂

  7. I love the honesty about this – It’s funny how we are sometimes scared to be critical of places, or how we hide negative experiences. Athens is not high on my list of places to go, but honestly those views look incredible and the food is a HUGE selling point. Perhaps I’ll reconsider if I snag a sweet flight deal too!

    1. I still thinks Athens deserves a second chance. I know where NOT to go now hahaha. I’m sure there is so much more to explore.. I mean looking at the pictures from up top… It’s HUGE!

  8. I like historical places so I would probably enjoy visiting this lovely old city. All places where ancient civilizations thrived are on my travel list ! A lot of people skip Athens when traveling around Greece and its many magical islands 😉 I’ve really appreciated the writing about things that are nice and not nice…

    1. It can’t all be nice and perfect unfortunately. But I find myself enjoying real posts more, than the perfect pitch posts. I read a few weeks ago a general article about this… there is no perfect trip to be honest, but people tend to exaggerate what a great time they had. Why are we afraid of telling the truth?

  9. I have always wanted to go to Greece, but honestly, I have read so many things like this, I am not sure when I will get there. Thanks for being honest about the good and the bad.

    1. Ah.. not my intention to scare you even further away from Athens. Because the good is really good 🙂
      More research on a destination will only make you reduce “the bad” and “the ugly”. I have read a ton of “bad” about places like Morocco and Jordan. But still that doesn’t put me off and erase them from my list. I mean to see the Blue City or Petra… All “the bad” just helps me avoid unpleasant situation and guard myself better. Or instead of a solo trip I’ll try and find a group one. So solutions are to any problems. A real review with good and bad can only improve one’s experience. That’s why I’m all for not over selling a place. Hey if there are beggars on the streets and people trying to trick you write about them. If you find yourself in unpleasant situations… write about them. I’m sure a delicious meal, a good coffee or an amazing view make all the difference, but help others not run into “the bad” or “the ugly” you ran into.

  10. Athens is such a beautiful city, but its good to warn people about the bad and ugly too so they don’t have too many high expectations. Unfortunately those things happen in too many places, especially European capital cities.. Thanks for writing this! <3

    1. It was my first travel disappointment to be honest. Or better said the first time I was underwhelmed, disappointment is a much too harsh statement.

  11. Thanks for your down-to-earth and honest review of Athens! I guess it taught me not to set my expectations too high:) However, I’m glad the gorgeous views and yummy food made up for it… There’s a reason Greek people live so long (apparently it’s the Mediterranean diet) 😉 Gorgeous photos, btw! The cat is adorable:)

    1. Thank you! Hahaha yes.. the food is amazing! What can I say… I’m always trying to find more good than bad, and I hope the feeling from this blog post is just that.

  12. Awesome tips! I went to Athens years ago and totally agree with you on the street art. So incredible.

    1. Thank you! Glad to hear from a fellow street art lover 🙂

  13. I actually has less issues with pickpockets in Athens than I did in Rome! But I also went to Athens with pretty low expectations because of their economy and refugee issues going on. Which meant I was pleasantly surprised by the city haha. Good article!

    1. Hmm…maybe I should have taken that approach also 🙂 My mind just refused to do it, despite reading some not so pleasant reviews.

  14. I’m sorry your trip didn’t live up to your expectation. I try not to have expectations when I travel and I’m much happier now than ever even seeing the light side when things go wrong. That’s the funny thing about traveling. With IG and SOCIAL PLATFORMS trying to sell us here and there Travel to X, Travel to Y, it’s all sunshine, well reality check will happen. Find the magic. Talk more to the people. Or at the very least, be thankful that you didn’t get robbed, and that you have both the MEANS and the TIME to travel, which many people cannot.

    1. That is why I decided to go the “harsh truth” with this post. Everything on Social Media is all rainbows and butterflies :)) I am thankful I can travel and I am trying to keep my expectations in check.

  15. Great post! I love that you were honest about the good and the bad of Athens. Athens has been getting a bad rep lately. Many of my friends have sworn never to go back, stating that the place is sketchy and unsafe. Your post does add a silver lining plus I love greek food. and that, love cake, looks so good!

    1. I didn’t want to believe it myself from all the post I’ve been reading up to the trip. But to be honest… it is a feeling… and maybe like I said.. Athens is to be enjoyed in groups. I have a feeling that there is a lot more I haven’t been able to uncover.. and 3 days for a definitive tag on Athens I don’t think would be fair 🙂

  16. I love how you wrote your post, it’s so well put and give a real insight. I’d love to visit Athens someday (I only did two Greek islands for now) so it’s nice to see more than just the “good” side of a place.
    Also spontaneous trip are the best!

    1. I haven’t been to any of the islands.. so here’s to more Greek experiences… and hopefully all on the bright side 🙂