You’ve got a few precious hours to explore a new city. You could A: Play it safe and take a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. B: Waste some time getting lost while following directions from a guidebook. C: Let a local show you around, see all the important sights and get a real sense of the city. On a recent trip to Athens I did just that when I took a whistle-stop tour of the Greek capital with Greeking.me, a travel start-up founded earlier this year by young Athenian locals, Nikos Theodoris and Anna Manias. Their small private tours set out to bring Athens to life through lessons in Greek cooking, dancing, as well as morning and evening walks through the city’s most interesting neighbourhoods. Here are seven of the best sights and attractions we encountered during our morning stroll…
Don’t come any closer. Get back. Get back. DON’T. COME. ANY. CLOSER. Slowly but surely, the snap-happy tour group do as they’re told. They back away, freeing up space for us to catch the famous Evzoni soldiers getting into position for their traditional changing of the guard ceremony.
There’s a swirl of pleats, a stomp, one foot slides robotically across the marble, then kicks out straight ahead. Cameras flash. We move far enough away from the forest of selfie-sticks to allow our guide Maria to tell us the story behind the white tights, pleated skirts and high-kicks. “These are the elite guard of the Hellenic army. It’s their job to guard the Monument of the Unknown Soldier. They’re chosen especially for their height and physique– if you look carefully, you’ll notice the two guards’ faces are actually very similar, they’re supposed to match. They’re officially representing the country to the world so they always choose the best looking soldiers.” Closer inspection confirms everything she says.
Crossing Syntagma Square, we continue towards Plaka. Along the way, we pass the famous Brettos, a tiny bar stocked floor to ceiling with multi-coloured glass bottles, before making a pit stop at a small family–run shop specialising in local treats such as Greek Delight, which our guide is keen to point out is most definitely Greek (and not Turkish) in origin. We sample honey flavoured with mastiha (a sweet, liquorice-y resin), various liquors and sticky Baklava and continue in the direction of the Acropolis. Maria gives a short history lesson about the Roman Agora and the Tower of the Winds before we stop for a traditional Greek coffee on the picturesque steps of Plaka. It’s thick and sweet and Plaka itself is nothing short of beautiful.
The pretty Anafiotika neighbourhood beckons with its whitewashed cottages that look for all the world like they’ve washed ashore from somewhere in the Cyclades onto the foothills of the Acropolis. We follow the arrows pointing in the direction of the Acropolis, through narrow, shaded laneways filled with Bougainvillea and cobalt blue plant pots. It’s a photographer’s dream.
As you come to realise, Athens is a living museum where new and old complement each other at every turn. At the city’s modern metro stations, busy commuters file past displays of ancient archaeological finds. In Plaka, there’s a rooftop cinema where you can catch a late show with the Acropolis as a backdrop. And in Anafiotika, the quaint white-washed houses give way to awesome works of street art.
We stop to check out the view of Mount Lycabettus before making our way to the pedestrianised Areopagito Dionisou street. Inching ever closer to the Acropolis, we pass the Acropolis Museum, (which itself is a stunning feat of architecture, with its top floor capturing the columns in a clever optical illusion). And then, there it is, the iconic Parthenon and its ivory-coloured temples in all their glory. Maria explains that the word acropolis means “high city” and many cities in ancient Greece were built around an acropolis. They were safe havens in times of invasion and even to this day, the buildings still give the appearance of being close but out of reach.
Copious Instagram shots later, we head to the Monastiraki neighbourhood, where the streets are wedged with market stalls, selling everything from antiques and musical instruments to make-up and shoes. The neighbourhood has a young, bohemian vibe with picturesque squares and an interesting selection of ‘secret’ cafés and restaurants. One excellent find was Couleur Locale. From the outside it looked like an unassuming antique shop. Tipped off by Nikos, we wandered inside and into an elevator that took us to one of the coolest rooftop bars you could imagine. It’s worth stopping to have a drink here for the view of the Acropolis alone.
Our guide tells us we can’t finish our tour of Athens without trying one of the traditional Koulouri bagels. We’re reliably informed that The Koulouri of Psirri is THE place to go for the best in town.
At night the Psiri neighbourhood is the beating heart of Athens’ non-stop nightlife scene, but this morning there’s just the gentle clatter of cups on saucers at the outdoor cafés. The famous Koulouri of Psirri is open for business too. With bagels in hand, the tour comes to an end and we head back into the city content with the thought that we’ve not only learned more about Athens, but we’ve also experienced the city in a totally unique and local way.
Flights to Athens