I was experiencing full-on rocking vertigo. Back and forth. Up and down. This continuous boat-like rocking sensation would last for a few hours until I got my “land legs” back. After spending a week sailing around the Saronic Islands, I, like many people, found myself with a brief stopover in Athens awaiting the long journey home.
As first-timers, my group mostly stuck to Plaka, the oldest neighborhood – and arguably the most beautiful – in central Athens. The area is known for its labyrinth of streets (mostly closed to traffic) and whitewashed Neoclassical architecture (not dissimilar to the islands). Our day was spent strolling along the narrow, cobbled streets visiting historic monuments sandwiched between sidewalk cafes and kitschy souvenir shops -- and punctuated by breathtaking views of the ever-present Acropolis perched above the city.
Of course, Europe’s oldest city has a myriad of unique things to do and neighborhoods to explore that aren’t easily covered in a day or 2, but with a little planning you can still see some of Athens’ best sights even on a time crunch. Here’s the perfect day in Athens to get your bearings.
When you’re just passing briefly through a city, you want a hotel with 2 important features – comfort and convenience. You’ll find this affordable 3-star hotel more than fits the bill; it also boasts panoramic views of the city from its top-floor rooms and rooftop terrace. Though not in Plaka per se, it is centrally located near Syntagma Square and a short walk from Monastiraki metro station and flea market as well as the Ermou shopping district, where you can pick up some trinkets to take home if your luggage isn’t already overflowing.
If you choose to skip the complimentary Greek and American breakfast at Plaka Hotel, treat yourself to classic Greek yogurt from Fresko Yogurt Bar – a popular spot with locals and tourists alike. Near the Acropolis, this café makes for a great stop on your way to or from a day of sightseeing. You'll choose from 5 types of thick, creamy and not-too-sweet yogurts (including traditional Greek, sheep and goat), served with locally sourced toppings like fresh strawberries, quince (similar to pear) preserves, walnuts and honey.
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Yes, you’ll pass only tourists on the slow, steep and -- in the middle of the summer -- hot ascent up the Acropolis, but it is the most important ancient site in the Western world and must-see in Athens. As you wind up the dusty path, remember to pause at one of the Acropolis’ many lookout points to catch your breath, have a sip of water and take advantage of its unique vantage point of the city – a view equally breathtaking as the majestic marble Parthenon, the Propylaia gateway and Temple of Athena Nike that await you at the top. Continue your historic tour with a visit to Panathenaic Stadium, the site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and the starting point of the Olympic Torch Relay to this day. Now that it's open to the public, for a few euros you can find out what it feels like to run around the track in the center of 60,000-marbe seats, or if you’re short on time like we were, settle for a selfie taken from just outside the gates.
After winding our way back through the old city, we, like many tourists, stumbled upon Brettos, the oldest distillery in Athens, whose brightly colored bottles beckoned for us to stop in for an afternoon wine tasting and rest our weary tourist legs. Sitting at a high-top table, one of founder Michael Brettos’ granddaughters handed us a book of Greek wines to choose from and recommended a few to round out our flights. An aperitif or nightcap of homemade ouzo or raspberry liquor (made from family recipes that date back to 1909) is an equally-welcomed respite from the city's summertime heat.
After a week of eating your weight in Greek salads -- seriously the best tomatoes you’ve tasted in your life -- this charming restaurant was the perfect setting for our last meal. Our rather large group dined al fresco at long, rectangular tables with red-and-white tablecloths, perfect for people watching in Caravel square. The friendly staff kept baskets of freshly-baked bread and carafes of decent house wine coming, as well as a varied mix of traditional Greek and Italian dishes, including fresh grilled fish, succulent lamb, homemade ravioli, chicken souvlaki and wood-fired pizzas. Bonus: even if you skip desert they will likely bring you a slice of cheesecake or some refreshing melon to end the meal on a sweet note.
City of Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau
Forgo the glitzier rooftop bars (a la the Galaxy Bar atop the Hilton), and instead head to this local gem in the city center. Like many of the best rooftops in Greece, you’ll enter the hotel lobby of the same name and take the elevator to the top floor. When it’s a full house, you’ll need to bypass crowds to get up the staircase to the terrace, where you’ll find specialty cocktails, music pumping and a minimal design that really lets the unbeatable views of the glowing Acropolis and Monastiraki Square shine. If your schedule doesn’t allow an evening visit, stop by earlier for a coffee or better yet, at sunset, where watching the sky change colors is met with the added bonus of seeing the Acropolis and city light up and come alive.