Whilst Athens is one of those cities everyone knows by name, I have the impression that it’s not one of the most popular destinations for most travellers. In fact, before I went, I hadn’t heard many rave reviews about the city. I’d mainly heard things like it’s dirty, there’s a lot of crime, or that you’d better go visit the Greek islands instead. But I went anyway, mainly because I’d yet to tick off Greece on my ‘to go’ list, and because there was a very cheap flight from Kiev. I didn’t have massively high hopes. But here’s why I was dead wrong!
The weather’s great
I was wondering which destination to choose for December, as it’s a time when most of Europe is totally freezing, and if you want some real winter sun you’re going to have to splash out on a flight further afield to somewhere like Egypt or Morocco. I don’t mind Eastern European winters at all, as I really have no problem with the cold, but a little break somewhere with a tad more sun and slightly warmer temperatures was not unappealing.
In summer I can totally see why someone would prefer to hit up the island beaches rather than struggle around a hot, sweaty and smoggy city. But temperatures in December tend to hover around 18 degrees most days, and almost every day is sunny to boot. During the nights it gets a bit chilly (especially in the under-insulated houses), but during midday the sunshine is simply gorgeous and a very welcome change from winter in the rest of Europe. In fact, I think winter is actually the best time to visit Athens, as you can sightsee all day without getting hot.
Athens is a hidden gem in the winter
I’ve not been to Athens during the summer, but I can imagine that it gets pretty touristy and packed. I’m not a fan of destinations like this during peak season when every restaurant is competing for hapless tourists with bland, over-priced tourist menus and every possible sight is hidden behind a wall of selfie-taking hipsters. But in December, things are much quieter, although still with a bit of a buzz. It’s easy to get a table at a restaurant (they’re very quiet during the week), prices are attractive and queues for the sights are pretty short.
The mood is great though. Whereas the rest of us are wading about in the snow, Athenians are still sitting outdoors on their terraces sipping wine and chatting over dolma in dozens of pavement restaurants. For a Brit, it feels like summer.
It looks great
For some reason I didn’t expect Athens to be this photogenic. But with trees bursting with oranges at every corner, blue skies, sunshine and gorgeous buildings aplenty, just strolling anywhere in Athens is a huge treat.
- Plaka district (especially at night). This is the old-town/central area just below the Acropolis and it’s so damn good looking. It’s also full of eateries and places to drink, as well as touristy souvenir shops if that’s your bag. At night it looks simply amazing with lots of lights and people relaxing outside at bars and restaurants.
- The Acropolis – of course. As if you’d visit without checking it out, right? Well you can get a ticket to see the Acropolis and it’s slopes for 10 euros if I remember rightly, and it’s definitely worth it. You can spend a couple of hours walking around here, and of course you have to go and see the famous Parthenon.
- Monastiraki square – Actually this area is a bit dodgy in my opinion, and sitting there on my own I got approached a lot of times by people trying to sell me drugs. But during the day it’s a really buzzing centre to the city.
- Exarchia district. This is where I stayed, and it’s a really exciting place to be. It’s the studenty/alternative/anarchist part of the city, and some people did warn me that it’s not super safe at night (although I didn’t get that feeling at all). However I did have the slightly bad luck to be there during an absolutely huge and slightly scary set of protests, which are held every year in the area to mark the death of a 15 year old boy who was killed by the police. I’d recommend to avoid that area if possible during similar events, as it was swarming with armed police and the protests did get pretty violent and destructive. I also made the mistake of walking home from a drink when the police had evidently released tear gas, and it was not an experience I would particularly recommend (even some time afterwards it really burns your mouth, nose, eyes and throat). But aside from that, this is a must-see area. It’s really arty and cool with the best bars and cafes, and looks really amazing at night).
- The slopes under the Acropolis. If you don’t take the entrance to the Acropolis itself but instead head up the steps round the corner (between Acropolis metro and Plaka), you can wander through some really beautiful whitewashed Greek houses and little narrow alleyways up the slopes on the city-side of the hill. The view is absolutely amazing, and not to be missed.
It’s a vegan paradise
Who knew that Athens is a really vegan-friendly city? I certainly didn’t. But I found dozens of awesome vegan eateries. A few of the best:
Vegan Nation, Ermou 86
This teeny tiny takeaway-style cafe right next to Monastiraki square offers a couple of outdoor tables and a limited amount of indoor seating, and is great for a quick bite when you’re exploring the centre.
It offers a range of salads, juices and other healthy bits and pieces in the fridge, but also does a couple of awesome hot options including a truly delicious, junky grilled veg burger with vegan cheese and mayo and very tasty potatoes and mushrooms if you’re looking for something simple. The fresh juices are delicious too.
Avocado, Nikis 30 (at Syntagma)
Locals and travellers alike rave about this place. It’s a vegetarian restaurant with loads of vegan options and I met up with a few expats to try it out. Unfortunately I developed a really bad headache and didn’t have the best experience. But it was a really nice chilled out place with free water on the tables and lovely food.
I ordered a thai soup and a huge juice. Actually I really wish I’d tried the burger as it looked amazing. The soup was fine but I felt like my whole meal was mainly liquid. I’m not exactly making a great advertisement for this place, but I think I’d have enjoyed it more a second time.
Healthy Bites, Panepistimiou 25
I’ve saved the best for last. This was round the corner from my apartment and was perfect for lunch. It’s not fully vegan but has dozens of options. I had a delicious pasta dish one time, a healthy lentil salad another, and the vegan souvlaki yet another. Yes, I visited quite a few times!
The vegan souvlaki was incredible. Souvlaki is a popular Greek-style kebab with meat and mayo wrapped in a pita. But the vegan version was out of this world. It was probably the most convincing ‘vegan alternative’ I’ve ever had, and even had my meat-eating partner’s seal of approval. It’s loaded with tasty fake meat and vegan mayo, with plenty of chips and a tomato sauce dip. You win this round, Healthy Bites.
Is it worth going?
This is a simple one to answer – yes! I was seriously pleasantly surprised by Athens and rate it as one of my favourite places I’ve been in the last year. I can’t recommend it enough for a winter-sun city break. The amount of stuff to see and do, all within walking distance, is truly amazing, and the foodie scene is excellent, whether you’re into vegan food or traditional Greek cuisine.
What were your impressions of Athens, or would you like to go? Let me know!