This summer, Maria A. Karamitsos & her family spent a month in Greece. They only had a few days in Athens, but there’s so much to explore. Let’s go along! [photos & video]
Athens in the summer
This month, we’ll share stories of our month-long stay in Greece. Today, we’re going to Athens! Like everywhere in Greece, there’s so much to do, and never enough time. Unfortunately, we only had a few days in the capital. I know many are anxious to get out of the city in the summertime, but we loved it! Athens was an amazing host. We explored, met up with family, friends, and WindyCity Greek contributors, as well as past interviewees. Next time we must plan a longer stay. Though it’s an ancient and historic city, Athens is vibrant and thriving — alive day and night. Here are some highlights from our time in Athens.
Stay in the city
While, we typically stay in the suburbs with family, we stayed a few days in the city center, a short walk from Syntagma Square. Via Airbnb, we found a cute little place that was comparable in price to a hotel room. For a family of four, this was perfect. Adults and kids had separate sleeping areas, we had a small kitchen to make a coffee and breakfast, and there was a washing machine. When you’re traveling with kids – and for a month – a washing machine is crucial!
I have also stayed in hotels in the city before, from boutique hotels in the Plaka, to larger hotels, and I can say, wherever you choose, do spend some time there. It’s hot and it’s busy, yes, but you must experience Athens! From the heart of the city, you can walk (or if your hotel has a shuttle bus, take it) and won’t have to fuss with a rental car and parking. If you must venture outside the center, taxis are readily available with friendly drivers, and there are Metro stations close by. From our “home base”, we were able to some great exploring. Come along!
Visit a secret oasis
We met up with our Contributing Writer, Chryssoula Katsarou, and she suggested the perfect place — a “secret garden”. We took a short walk to the Numismatic Museum (Eleftheriou Venizelou/Panepistimiou Street 12). Known as the “coin museum”, it contains one of the world’s greatest collections of ancient and modern coins. It’s located in the former mansion of Heinrich Schliemann, the renowned archaeologist best known for his excavations of Mycenean sites, as well as one that many believe could be the ancient city of Troy. Unfortunately, the museum was closed, so we were not able to visit. Next time!
There, we were led through immense wrought iron gates to a veritable oasis in the city. The garden and café, called Iliou Melathron — Palace of the Lion — takes its name from the original mansion. It’s the perfect respite from the chaos of the city. Here, enjoy a coffee and a snack, and on some nights, special events. Honestly, you’ll forget where you are!
Explore the neighborhood
One afternoon, we went exploring. We were greeted by buildings of different eras and varying styles, co-existing just like today’s city dwellers. Here, you’ll find boutiques and restaurants, cute coffee shops, even yoga studios, spas, and holistic health centers. Athens is truly a global city, and from sushi and Chinese to Indian and Italian cuisine, there is something for every palate.
I was particularly struck by the presence of a tiny 16th century church called Ayia Dynami tucked underneath the modern Elektra Metropolis Hotel (Mitropoleos 15). We saw it on our first day, but the door was closed. On this day, we approached it from the back side and light was streaming through the rear window. We walked around the front and found the door open. A peek inside revealed a short-statured woman, painting and restoring the centuries-old house of worship. I’ll be anxious to see the progress next time. We didn’t know that another wonder exists within the Elektra — the remains of the Themistoclean Wall, which surrounded ancient Athens to protect it from invaders — stands in the basement of the hotel. Put that on the list. There are so many surprises in this city!
We visited the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens (Metropolis Square). The last time we were here, it was undergoing renovation. Many curious visitors found their way inside the glorious cathedral to have a look, yet we still found a peaceful place to light a candle and pray.
Adjacent to the Cathedral is the tiny Church of Theotokos Gorgoepikoos and Ayios Eleftherios, better known as “Little Metropolis” a holdover from a quieter, simpler time.
Shop Plaka and Monastiraki
A short walk from our apartment, through the carless shopping district of Ermou, led us to the iconic Plaka. There’s an eclectic mix of boutiques, offering souvenirs, home décor, jewelry, clothes, and more. Be sure to check out Monastiraki, in the shadows of the Acropolis, for great souvenirs at good prices. In the square, catch the Metro to other parts of the city, ponder history, enjoy an ice cream, and take in some great people watching! Catch a glimpse of the old Tzistarakis Mosque (Pandrossou 73-97), built in 1759. Now an annex of the Museum of Greek Folk Art, it’s a sobering reminder of the Ottoman occupation. Steps away is the Ancient Agora (you can only look inside the locked gates) and galleries showcasing local artists. Later, we dined at the famous O Thanasis (Mitropoleos 69, Monastiraki). Best known for souvlaki and kebab, you’ll find locals and tourists alike.
Visit Syntagma Square
It’s become a ritual — a trip to Athens is not complete without a stop at Syntagma Square to watch the changing of the guards. Soldiers dressed in traditional Evzone costume guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a stunning war memorial at the foot of the Hellenic Parliament building. Every day at the top of the hour, see the changing of the guards. On Sunday mornings around 11 am, a more elaborate ceremony is performed. Like the Beefeaters, the Yeoman Warders that serve as ceremonial guards of the Tower of London, the Evzones do not engage with onlookers and you cannot touch them. Be sure to bring your camera. A distant selfie is OK, but don’t get too close.
Enjoy traditional fare
For dinner with Contributing Writer, Athens-based Architect/Engineer Katerina Sirouni, along with Georgia Kalli, whom we featured in our Greek-American in Greece series, they suggested Tzitzikas & Mermingas (Mitropoleos 12-14). Named after one of the most popular of Aesop’s Fables, this outpost is one of four owned and operated by Panayiotis Mazarakis and Tasos Dimas. The owners say their menu is Greek tradition at its next evolution. You’ll get a delicious meal here without the fuss.
See Benaki Museum
Believe it or not, I’d never visited the Benaki Museum (Koumbari 1 & Vas. Sofias), though it’s long been on my list. My children do enjoy museums, but since we can’t fill up an entire day or week with museum visits, we select only a few per trip. This amazing museum was founded in 1930 by Antonis Benakis in memory of his father and housed in the family’s mansion. Though there are several satellite museums under the Benaki umbrella, this is the primary location. The Benaki houses a most-impressive collection of art that captures the history of Greece. From portraits of war heroes and statesmen, to traditional costumes from all over Greece, it’s a treasure.
The photo exhibit, “Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor: Artist and Lover” is a must-see. Though I’ve read the writings of her famous husband Patrick Leigh Fermor (who is also well-known for his part in the kidnapping of a German general during the Battle of Crete) I have to say I was not familiar with his wife’s work. Mrs. Leigh Fermor was a talented photographer whose striking images captured an era now lost to time. Viewing the photographs was like revisiting old Greece, though villages and islands, to people long gone. It’s a pictorial time capsule you won’t want to miss. The exhibit runs through October 21, 2018. Stop for a coffee at the modern rooftop cafe.
Escape in the National Garden
On the way back from the museum, we walked through the National Garden (Koumbari 1 & Vas. Amalias). What a pleasant surprise to find 2.5 acres of public park in the center of Athens! Originally named Amalia’s Garden after Queen Amalia — she spent hours personally tending the garden — the park is open from dawn to dusk. Stroll the tree-lined paths (there are 7000 trees in there!), gaze at more than 40,000 plants and bushes (more than 100 are native to Greece), and observe birds in this tranquil setting. From the entrance on Vas. Amalias Street, you will be greeted by 25m tall Washingtonia palm trees planted by the queen herself. Explore the children’s museum, check out the sun dial, and more. Bring a book, find a bench or shady eucalyptus tree and escape the hustle and bustle.
Drink in style with a view
For our final evening in Athens, we met up with family, friends, and colleagues on the rooftop of the Hotel Grande Bretagne (1 Syntagma Square, Vassileos Georgiou A Str.). With a spectacular view of the Acropolis, in this sophisticated setting, here any night is special.
Don’t skip Athens!
While we did skip a trek up to the Acropolis due to the heat (we typically go every trip), we try to do something different each time we go. You won’t want to skip a visit — there’s so much to see and do in Greece’s historic capital city. The only thing I would change is to plan for more time in Athens. ‘Til next year…
City of Athens website