On top of the Acropolis hill, the Parthenon temple almost shimmers, sunbeams reflected on its off-white, marble columns. You’ve probably heard of Athens before. It’s this insanely ancient city (its origins dating all the way back to 3200 BC), where the sun refuses to leave and history feels as tangible as it could ever be, as if emerging straight from the ground – the very same ground once walked by Socrates and Aristotle. You might know Athens as the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, theatre drama or, at very least, souvlaki. And while it may be all that, to me, it’s just home.
There’s no way of truly understanding Athens as a tourist. To be honest, I don’t quite understand it myself, and I’m a local. A Canadian friend of mine once told me that she can’t really work out Athens’ character. She’s been around a lot and each city gives her a certain ‘vibe’ – Athens did not. This is probably due to the fact that next to mind-blowing ancient ruins, historic monuments marking some of the most important chapters in time and a few beautifully preserved neoclassical villas, you will find derelict blocks of flats from the ‘70s still (half-)standing alongside modern structures desperately trying to fit in.
But the city is so much more than its rich history and somewhat mixed architecture. It’s the place where you can leisurely stroll around trees or semi-smashed pavements, only to be interrupted by a fancy restaurant or an astonishing mural evoking feelings of a turbulent time. Over the last decade, Athens’ promising past has been plagued by consistently incompetent politicians, frequent riots and some way under-paid but still hard working people who carry the financial crisis on their shoulders. The shadow of those who left the country to make a better life for themselves looms large. Far from tokens of a propitious future.
Yet amidst all this chaos, it’s easy to remember what makes Athens so charming. Walking around the historic centre of the city, you find yourself casually passing by a number of very old buildings (the Parthenon alone was built in 438 BC) and ruins that once served as markets, theatres or gathering places for renowned philosophers and politicians of the 5th century BC. Between history and food, though, Greeks would choose the latter every time; for better or for worse.
The traditional tavernas of the quaint Plaka district, one of the oldest in Athens, invite you in for a refreshing Greek salad in an island-like setting of flowers and paved alleys. A few feet away, the area of Thiseio makes for a perfect stroll on a calm Sunday morning, in between outdoor jewellery stalls and café-bistros equipped with local delicacies. The irresistible smell of the souvlaki (pork or chicken gyros wrap) permeates the air, especially around the Monastiraki and Psyrri area. A few sips of ouzo, the intense aperitif that’s not for the faint of heart, should be enough to numb a throbbing toothache, or even heartache.
Then, there’s this whole other – less traditional – side to the city that feels nothing like My Big Fat Greek Wedding (thankfully, not much here does) or the folklore tsarouchi shoe you’ll see hanging in Plaka’s tourist shops. It’s the modern, creative face of Athens that comes alive through the vibrant graffiti, the stylish concept stores, the abundance of classic museums and contemporary art galleries, as well as an inconceivable wide range of cafés, bars and restaurants; every neigbourhood has their own, with new ones constantly popping up. In them, you’ll find people chatting till 3 am, most of them still smiling, because there’s nothing a good old cup of coffee can’t fix.
Meanwhile, the more sumptuous part of city, the Athenian Riviera, seems unaffected by any financial or political turmoil. And while no region really is, the warm sunrays and the unrivalled view of the vast blue sea somehow alleviate it all. On the other end of the town, Athens’ northern outskirts offer intricate hiking paths on luscious green mountains overflowing with oxygen. Clear air (for the most part), blue waters and delectable food. What more does one need? Besides, nothing beats the serenity of an illuminated Acropolis overlooking the white-washed city at night. Certainly not the crisis.
If you liked this – Insider’s Guide – St Petersburg