Greece - Country of many Islands Overview
Greece is a country in southeastern Europe with thousands of islands throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas.
Influential in ancient times, it's often called the cradle of Western civilization.
Athens, its capital, retains landmarks including the 5th-century B.C. Acropolis citadel with the Parthenon temple.
Greece is also known for its beaches, from the black sands of Santorini to the party resorts of Mykono. The many islands are really a dream come true and according to Greeks mythology Zeus, the God of Gods, enjoyed spending time resting on the many islands.
Before I ever travelled to Greece, all I knew is that they have beautiful islands and as a child I enjoyed reading all the stories of greek Mythology.
So when it was time to visit it for the first time 2019 the Afronaut was pleasantly surprised when I touched down.
In my opinion, Greek people, mainly on the islands, are hospitable, social and friendly.
They are into socialising and partying.
I see the Greek people as one with a culture who love life.
Not that they love everything that happens, but that they fully invest in the moments and in the people they fill their lives with.
Greek to me is a intense language. Sometimes I think people were arguing and then they end up laughing!
Best Time to Travel
The best time to visit Greece is from Dec till May and September till November.
The weather is mild with clear skies and fewer tourists.
When we arrived the weather was very hot and humid, but we have also experienced the colder winter months where it can become very cold, especially during the nights.
MAR-MAY: This is springtime and one of the best times to go.
The weather is lovely but still a bit chilly.
JUN-AUG: This is summer in Greece and not the best time to go if you want to avoid the heat and crowds. Hotel prices may also be at their highest during this time.
SEPT-NOV: The fall is another great time to visit Greece.
It’s similar to spring in terms of the weather and tourist density.
DEC-FEB: Greece experiences relatively mild to cold winters though December is its rainiest month and may not be the most comfortable time to go.
Athens, Modern Greek Athínai, Ancient Greek Athēnai, is a historic city and the capital of Greece. Many of Classical civilization’s intellectual and artistic ideas originated there, and the city is generally considered to be the birthplace of Western civilization.
Athens lies 8 km from the Bay of Phaleron, an inlet of the Aegean (Aigaíon) Sea where Piraeus (Piraiévs), the port of Athens, is situated, in a mountain-girt arid basin divided north-south by a line of hills. Greater Athens has an area of 427 square km.
The Kifisós River, only a trickle in summer, flows through the western half; the Ilisós River, often dry, traverses the eastern half. The surrounding mountains—Párnis, 4,636 feet (1,413 metres); Pentelicus (Pendéli), 3,631 feet; Hymettos (Imittós), 3,365 feet; and Aigáleon, 1,535 feet.
Athens is a metropolis of 4 million inhabitants and it is noisy and busy all the times.
Leila and I lived close to 7 months here and got to know the very good,the good,the bad and the ugly sides. The city has much to offer from history, culinary and exploration.
It is the heart of Greece from where everything else branches out.
Athens with all its beauty, is also left scarred from the Economic recession that Greece experienced a while back.
Beautiful waterfronts with inviting cafes and restaurants also give way to the many homeless people living on the streets and the beggars stretching their hands out.
Athens is a city that I will never forget.
TRAVELING TO ATHENS
Most visitors to Athens will be arriving via Athens International Airport (ATH). It’s about 32 km east and less than an hour from the city center.
BY SUBWAY: In Athens, the metro station is right across the street and a one-way ticket costs EUR 10. If you get roundtrip, then it costs EUR 18 but the return ticket has a validity period of just 48 hours.
BY BUS: Going by bus is the cheapest way of getting into the city. The X95 bus will drop you off at Syntagma Square while the X96 will take you to Piraeus Port.
Tickets can be purchased from a small blue kiosk after exiting the terminal.
Be sure to validate your ticket once you’ve boarded the bus.
BY PRE-BOOKED TRANSFER: This is more expensive but it’s the most convenient way of getting into the city from the airport, especially if you’re traveling with large luggage.
Many people recommend Welcome Pickups which is a 24/7 taxi service that takes you into the city. This may be the best option if you’re traveling with enough people.
You can also pre-book airport transfers through Get Your Guide.
For people traveling alone, they have shuttle bus transfers.
BY TAXI: First time I arrived at the airport I took a taxi that was paid for by the company I worked a project for. Taxis cost the same as Welcome Pickups.
WHERE TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY
The unit of currency in Greece is the Euro (EUR).
I withdrew EUR from an ATM so I didn’t have to exchange currency in Athens.
You can exchange currency at banks or currency exchange offices in popular tourist areas like Plaka and Syntagma, but you may be better off just withdrawing EUR from an ATM.
The rates are competitive and you won’t have to bring as much foreign currency with you.
NOTE: Some ATMs may give you the option of proceeding “with or without conversion”. Always proceed WITHOUT conversion. Proceeding with conversion authorizes the foreign bank operating the ATM to do the conversion for you, often at terrible exchange rates.
BEST AREAS TO STAY
Based on our experience, for visitors there are three convenient areas to stay in Athens.
The first is in the city center close to the Acropoolis.
The second is near Piraeus Port, for travelers taking a ferry to the Greek islands.
And the third is near Athens International Airport and Rafina Port. Since my wife and I were going to work and stay for longer, we rented an apartment close to the Piraeus Waterfront. This is where all the yachts moor and a loved place with its many cafes, bars and restaurants.
You can book accommodations in Athens through Booking.com, Agoda, or AirBnB.
This is where you’ll want to stay if it’s your first time in Athens.
It’ll put you close to historical sites, metro stops, and plenty of restaurants, bars, and shops. All these sub-neighborhoods are within walking distance of each other so in my opinion, it doesn’t matter as much where you stay as long as you’re in this general downtown area.
Piraeus is located within the Athens urban area, 12 kilometres southwest from its city centre , and lies along the east coast of the Saronic Gulf. This is also were Leila and I stayed for over 6 months. The waterfront or Marina is situated here and we took many walks and sat down at many restaurants and cafes here.
The sun rises and sunsets are magnificent and living close to the water will always stay with me.
Koukaki It’s a short walk from the Acropolis and surprisingly local in feel considering how close it is to the city’s most famous tourist attraction.
The area is home to plenty of non-touristy shops and restaurants, and the Akropoli MRT station is just minutes away.
If the Acropolis is a priority, then this is about as great a location as any. You can search for alternate listings in Koukaki on Booking.com, Agoda, or AirBnB.
The Plaka neighborhood is one of Athens’ oldest and most charming, characterized by narrow streets and historic buildings. It’s busier and more touristy than Koukaki but we didn’t mind that at all. It really is a lovely place to stay and like Koukaki, very central. You can search for accommodations in Plaka on Booking.com, Agoda, or AirBnB.
Syntagma is the main square in Athens and one of the most important areas in the city. Located just north of the Plaka neighborhood, it’s home to the Parliament building and is considered the seat of modern-day Greek government. Don't miss to witness the Change of Guards every hour.
There are plenty of shops, restaurants, and bars in the area, along with metro and bus stops that take you to key points in the city like Athens Airport and Piraeus Port. Check out Booking.com, Agoda, or AirBnB for listings in Syntagma.
This was one of my favorite neighborhoods in downtown Athens. It’s off Monastiraki square and feels like an artsier, more trendy side to Athens.
There are plenty of cool-looking neighborhood bars and restaurants here.
I found lots of great street art in Psiri so I spent a good amount of time just exploring its streets and photographing the murals.
You can search for listings in Psiri on Booking.com, Agoda, or AirBnB.
We didn’t spend as much time here but if you like high-end shopping, then Kolonaki is probably where you’ll want to be.
Located at the base of Lycabettus Hill, it’s home to the city’s most upscale boutiques and luxury brands like Gucci, Armani, Chanel, and Balenciaga.
Check out Booking.com, Agoda, and AirBnB for listings in Kolonaki.
NEAR ATHENS AIRPORT / RAFINA PORT If you’re only staying one night in Athens and catching an early flight out, then finding accommodations near the airport may be best. Downtown Athens is at least 45 minutes away so it’ll be more convenient to stay here.
Rafina Port is near the airport as well so you may want to stay here if you’re catching an early ferry from Rafina. You can do a search on Booking.com, Agoda, or AirBnB to find listings near Athens Airport and Rafina Port.
NEAR PIREAEUS PORT
Piraeus Port is one of Europe’s busiest passenger ports. Most travelers taking a ferry to the Greek islands like Santorini will board here.
It’s easy enough to get to via the Athens Metro (last stop on the green line), but if you’re catching an early ferry the next day, then you may want to stay here.
Since we stayed in Pireaus we just walked everytime we took a ferry to an island we went to visit. Check out Booking.com, Agoda, or AirBnB for listings near Piraeus Port.
PLACES TO VISIT
The first time we arrived in Athens we book the blue bus which is a cheaper version of the Red bus, which took us on a round trip around Athens highligthing all the major attractions.
The Acropolis is an ancient citadel that sits on top of a hill overlooking the city.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and easily the most important attraction in Athens.
It’s comprised of multiple structures built in the 5th century BC, none more impressive than the Parthenon. It’s a former temple dedicated to the city’s patron, the goddess Athena.
If it’s your first time in the city, then you’ll want to dedicate a good amount of time to the Acropolis. Since we lived longer in Athens we took the Metro from Piraeaus to Monastiraki, and just walked up the hill ourselves.
I didn’t see any audio guides at the Acropolis but you can book guided tours with skip-the-line tickets on Get Your Guide.
Theater of Dionysus
It is widely believed to be the world’s first theater and birthplace of Greek tragedy.
It isn’t technically part of the Acropolis but your basic entrance ticket gives you access to it as well.
Other notable buildings at the Acropolis include Herodes Theater, Athena Nike Temple, Propylaea, and Erechtheum.
All of these are included in the Acropolis entrance ticket, but if you’re planning on visiting more archaeological sites in Athens, including many of the places listed in this guide, then you may want to get the special ticket package.
Again, if you really want to learn about the Acropolis, then I strongly suggest getting a guide. It’s hard to appreciate what we don’t understand, especially if what we’re looking at are old columns and fragments of rocks. Don't forget to visit the Acropolis Museum.
2. Ancient Agora of Athens
The Ancient Agora of Athens is one of the most famous examples of an ancient Greek agora, which is an open-air gathering place used for political and artistic events.
It’s located northwest of the Acropolis so it’s a good place to visit after admiring the Parthenon.
Known as the Tower of the Winds, it’s considered the first meteorological station in the world and is located in the Roman Agora, which is to the east of the Ancient Agora.
3. Temple of Zeus
As its name suggests, the Temple of Olympian Zeus was an impressive temple dedicated to Zeus. He was referred to as “Olympian Zeus” because of his position as head of the Olympian gods. Only a few columns stand today but the Temple of Olympian Zeus was once the largest temple in Greece.
4. Panathenaic Stadium
The opening and closing ceremonies of the very first modern Olympics were held here in 1896. It was again used as an Olympic venue in 2004.
Panathenaic Stadium is the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble.
5. Lycabettus Hill
You can reach the top by car or funicular for spectacular views of the Acropolis and Athens. There’s a chapel, open-air theater, and restaurant at the top.
Leila and I had a beautiful time watching the sun set, or like we say in southern Africa we had a sundowner.
6. Explore the Neighbourhoods
There’s a wealth of interesting archaeological sites in Athens, around which are equally interesting neighborhoods like Plaka, Monastiraki, and Psiri.
We had fun just walking around getting lost and enjoying the atmosphere.
We took a guided Walking tour where we admired the sights and sounds of Athens.
They aren’t that far apart and walking will allow you to appreciate the city’s charming network of alleyways and interesting architecture.
It’s hard to know where one neighborhood ends and the next one begins.
7. Watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Like many other visitors around us we had our camera and cellphones witnessing the changing of the guard.
It’s a choreographed ritual carried out with much precision and pride.
In Athens, you can witness it at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in Syntagma Square.
It’s free to watch and takes place everyday, every hour on the hour.
If you happen to be in Athens on a weekend, then you may want to watch the much more elaborate Grand Change that happens at 11AM every Sunday.
8. Athens National Botanic Garden
Just a few metres away from Syntagma metro station and right next to the Greek parliament lies the national garden which, together with the Ζappeion hall garden, covers 24 hectares full of vegetation, rare kinds of plants, saplings and birds.
The Garden is accessible from seven entrances.
The central entrance on Amalias Avenue, one on Vasilissis Sophias Avenue, three on Irodou Attikou Street and two more in the area of Zappeion park.The impressive numbers speak for themselves. The Garden is home to 7,000 trees, 40,000 bushes and other plants, making up 519 species and varieties. 102 of them are Greek, with Judas trees, oleanders and carob trees the undoubted stars, while others come from different countries all over the world such as Australian pines or Chinese trees-of-heaven.
Centenarian Holm oaks, cypress trees and Canary Island date palms are also amongst the plants that have been a feature of the garden since it was first created.
9. Enjoy a Sundowner at a rooftop Bar in Monastiraki Square
Why? Because the different rooftop bards offer some of the best views of the Acropolis.
There are a few to choose from but we went to 360 Cocktail Bar in Monastiraki Square.
The Parthenon looked absolutely magical at that hour, like something out of an epic tale.
10. Take a Cooking Class
The way I see it, there’s no better way to learn about an unfamiliar cuisine than to take a cooking class. It’s like looking under the cuisine’s hood.
If you like to cook and want to learn more about Greek cuisine, then you may want to take a cooking class in Athens.
They’re curated by Cookly which is an online aggregator for cooking classes in different cities around the world.