Athens is the bomb. It’s super chill, the food is cheap, and we scored a private room in a hostel for nearly a week for free, which turned out to be a pretty fantastic base camp for our adventures in Athens. And the falafel! So much falafel!
I would have been happy to stay longer than a week or seen more of the country, gone out to some of the islands, you know, explored. But it was toward the end of our two months backpacking around Europe and we were ready to chill for a few days. Fortunately, the laid-back atmosphere, cheap food and sunshine went a long way toward making our adventures in Athens just as stellar as they could be. Also, the presence of a friendly philosophical Irishman whom we met in Australia during our nine months there and with whom we would soon embark upon a Transylvanian road trip wasn’t bad, either.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Adventures in Athen begin!
Our arrival in Athens, Greece started with the most traumatizing trip to the airport I have ever experienced. Seriously. It was the worst. And I’ve had a fair amount of unpleasant airport experiences. We left Rome, Italy for Athens, Greece and took our sweet time meandering about the city before catching a bus to the train station to catch another bus to the airport. We had plenty of time because I “knew” our flight took off around 11:00 (It arrived in Athens at a bit after midnight and was 1.5 hours long). On that last bus to the airport, however, my phone buzzed. It was Google Calendar reminding me at 9:00, still 15 minutes away from the airport, that my flight took off in 30 minutes.
I think my heart may have stopped for a minute there. I definitely forgot to breathe. I very quickly (and subtly) searched for the flight confirmation in my email before deciding to tell Josh that I had made a huge mistake and we were going to miss our flight. There it was: Rome to Athens, 9:30 pm, RyanAir. Suddenly I was fairly certain I was going to throw up. We were still 15 minutes away from the airport (do you know what a 15-minute anxiety attack feels like?!), and I debated not telling Josh what terrible thing I had done, (he’d find out soon enough, right?) but laid a shaky hand on his knee and whispered, “I’ve done something very wrong.”
To his eternal credit (he knows me so well), he simply held my hand, and in the most soothing voice he could muster, whispered back, “Don’t freak out. It’ll probably be fine.” He assured me in a very nearly believable tone of voice that we’d probably still make it, but if we didn’t we’d talk to the RyanAir people and work it out. “Don’t panic,” he kept repeating, quoting, I’m sure, the cover text from the inimitable Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (if only he could have said it in big, friendly letters…). So for 15 minutes, I tried not to throw up or start sobbing. It was hard.
When we arrived at the airport we were off that bus so fast I’m not sure the driver saw us wiz past. Miraculously, the airport was empty. There wasn’t a single other person in line at security. There was only one terminal. It was the smallest airport I’ve ever seen. And there was still a line of people boarding at our gate. A very short line, but a line, never the less. It’s a freaking miracle I didn’t collapse into a puddle on the tacky airport carpet. When we boarded and found our seats, I almost wept in relief. It was then that Josh smiled and admitted that, yeah, I might just have a slight anxiety problem. Ugh.
However! Athens contained none of the septic panic of the journey there. It was killer.
The first thing we did when we arrived past midnight was to find our hostel. We had scored a free room by contacting the owners through HelpX.net (our preferred method of free food and lodging that we used all over Australia) and agreeing to work 4 hours a day for 4 of the 6 days we were staying. It was super easy work, too. We swept, cleaned some bathrooms, changed some sheets, and as it usually took far less than 4 hours, we were back out in the city exploring in no time.
All the vegan food
We ate and ate and ate. It was all so dang cheap. Falafel happened every day because we could split a giant wrap for €2.50-3.00. And, to my surprise, many of the Greek bakeries had clearly marked vegan sweets, including big, sugary yeast donuts for €1. There were even a few vegan restaurants and grab-and-go joints where we dropped a little extra cash for some killer noms. Bamboo Vegan Store, Vegan Nation where we picked up some vegan moussaka and killer tiramisu, and there was no shortage of juice bars. The only thing we couldn’t find, oddly enough, was hummus in the grocery stores. You’d think that crap would be everywhere in Greece, but I guess not.
The Adventures in Athens
While it was suuuuper nice to have a room to ourselves and be in no rush to do anything, we spent very little time in our room. The hostel, Small Funny World, was great for socializing and we met tons of cool people, some of whom we merely chatted with, others we joined on a walk to watch the sunset from the hill next to the Parthenon. The kitchen was downright impossible to cook in, but we didn’t complain (much).
There are a million side streets to explore in Athens, so we meandered up and down many of them, finding a wildly decorated cafe that changed its theme every two or three months, fountains galore, and a shop where you could pay by the hour to smash things. I sent a photo of that last one to my aunt who had an identical idea for a business where she lives in Florida. I think it’s a great idea, personally. I love smashing things.
We hiked up to the Hill of the Muses, home to the Parthenon and Acropolis, and had a gander from outside the gate. History is cool and all, but we simply don’t know enough about Greek Philosophy and history to pay the €20 per person entrance fee. So instead, we took in the view of the sea and the city below. We hiked up to Ascension Church on Lycabettus Hill on the southeast side of the city, which had equally impressive views.
We visited the National Historical Museum, which was free the day we were there, and wasn’t even all that impressive to Jimmy, our Irish friend who had arrived and was joining us on daily excursions. What was entertaining were the copious amount of portraits on the walls of men with very serious mustaches. We all got a kick out of that.
There were abandoned buildings, the interiors of which were covered in art, ancient structures and dilapidated graveyards, epic churches, streets lined with shops and kitschy souvenirs, and the beach! We paid a visit to the sandy shore several times, usually to Kalamaki Beach, which is open to the public and free. It was on these trips that we managed to lose at using public transportation.
Adventures in Public Transit
For two months we had navigated public transport like a boss, and now we had failed multiple times in one city. It was bad. Several times we not only got on the wrong bus or tram but went in the entirely wrong direction. In our defense, not only is the city not even remotely a grid, meaning every time you go anywhere you curve around and change directions 15 times even if you stay on the same road, the alphabet isn’t Roman (you know…ABCDE…), it’s Greek (obviously).
And to make it worse, many signs had Greek and an oddly phonetic version side by side. And Google Maps wasn’t helping. It seemed to be offering bus stops and directions in an entirely different alphabet. And between buses, trams and trains, we rarely knew what was going on. But we did always make it to where we needed to be, just not necessarily at the time we wanted to be there.
The long and short
Bottom line: Athens rocks. It’s only a matter of time before we return and do some island hopping and explore more of the country. Maybe we’ll read up on our Greek history before next time…
Where’s your favorite place in Greece? Share it in the comments below! Wander on!
Fun facts about Athens, Greece:
There are cats freaking everywhere.
The official name of the country is the Hellenic Republic.
Greeks love coffee in all manner of unusual ways. For example, did you know a frappe is just instant coffee and water (maybe some sugar) shaken until it’s frothy?
The Olympic games started in ancient Greece. Get it? Mount Olympus?
There are more than 2,000 Greek islands.
There are more tourists in Greece in the summer than there are Greeks.
Alisha is a freelance outdoor journalist and photographer based in Ogden, UT. She loves backpacking, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking and snowboarding (even though she’s terrible at it). She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. alishamcdarris.com