Early in 2022, my family and I spent a month in Europe. We wanted to be immersed in culture while escaping the cold of the upper midwest, so we focused our itinerary on southern locales with mild Mediterranean weather.
Thanks to an email alert from Scott’s Cheap Flights, we were able to book a fare from our local regional airport round trip to Athens for under $600 apiece.
This trip was in January, which was peak pandemic time, and I detailed the pros and cons of traveling at such a time in a previous article, so I won’t belabor the specifics. In general, it meant non-existent crowds, masking both indoors and out, a need to test negative before crossing borders, and showing proof of vaccination to do much of anything.
With time in Athens at both the beginning and end of our trip, we spent about a week in the ancient Greek city altogether.
An Inauspicious Start
I had booked our flights to Athens several months earlier, in October of 2021. Each of the four of us had travel credit from previously canceled travel plans, which made booking via Delta much more complicated. Rather than making one booking with all four of us, I had to book four separate trips with four different confirmation numbers.
Unable to check in online, we decided to arrive at the airport plenty early on our day of departure. We were turned away at the entrance; the only flight out that day was canceled due to weather. Sure enough, I got four emails detailing our four new (and thankfully identical) itineraries leaving the next day.
We returned a day later, plenty early once again. The agent, when trying to check us in, found that one of our children was ticketed through to Athens, my wife and other child were only ticketed through Amsterdam, and I wasn’t going anywhere. Apparently, I was booked, but not ticketed. I didn’t realize there was a difference, but clearly, there is.
The agent was able to square away the other three, but was struggling to figure out what was up with my ticket. Luckily, I had started an online chat with Delta some five hours earlier, and after getting passed around from one person to the next, it was finally discovered that my flight was never charged to my credit card.
For a more detailed account of this fiasco and a terrible Dad joke, see here.
I paid for my flight over the phone via credit card as boarding was wrapping up. We were the last to pass through security, but we all got on the plane!
Lodging in Athens
We usually book our stays via Airbnb. I’ve made my pet peeves known, but overall, we’ve had mostly positive experiences, and it sure is nice to have two or three bedrooms and a kitchen when traveling as a family.
One “trick” I’ve learned is to start with a basic, unfiltered search for a place on Airbnb for whatever city we’ll be visiting. There will usually be a few parts of town with a high concentration of places to book. There’s a reason for that, and you probably ought to choose to stay in one of those places. They’ve got a lot of short-term rentals because that’s where visitors want to be.
Central Athens revolves around the Acropolis, the hill upon which the famous Parthenon sits. Most of what you’ll want to see and do is within a ten to fifteen minute walk from there.
Our first apartment was due south of the Acropolis, and the other was to the southeast by the white marble Panathenaic stadium and National Garden.
What to See and Do in Athens
A family could see and do more in a week than we did. Our preference is for “slow travel,” but this month-long trip was condensed into four weeks in four cities, a faster pace than we like, but we were making up for lost time.
Since we’re homeschooling or worldschooling as we go, and I’ve got this blog to tend to, we’re not out and about sightseeing all day, every day. Travel should leave you energized, not exhausted.
The Acropolis of Athens
We did get right to sightseeing on day one, though, hiking up to the Acropolis that first morning.
The main attraction here is the iconic Parthenon, a magnificent 2,500-year old citadel that has served numerous purposes for many masters over the centuries.
Easily the most disappointing use was the Ottoman Turks’ decision to store munitions there in the 17th Century. In 1687, a Venetian cannonball found the stored gunpowder, resulting in a massive explosion killing several hundred people and destroying much of the building that had stood for over two thousand years.
As you climb toward the top of the Acropolis, you’ll see the large outdoor theater, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which is still used for performances today. As you continue up the hill, you’ll pass through the Propylaea, a columned structure that serves as a grand entrance. Finally, on top of the rocky hill, you’ll see the Temple of Nike, statue of Athena, the Erechtheion (a name that still makes me giggle) with its Porch of Maidens acting as support columns, and of course, the grand Parthenon.
You’ll encounter interpretive placards in both Greek and English throughout the park and lots of smaller ruins and artifacts like gravestones and altars. We spent a few hours taking it all in; it’s not an all-day affair, but it is the must-see site in Athens.
A great follow-up to visiting the Acropolis would be a trip to Nashville, Tennessee to see the full-sized replica of a more complete Parthenon in all its glory, complete with a massive gilded statue of Athena.
The Acropolis Museum
While there has been a long history of destruction and confiscation of Acropolis buildings and materials over the centuries, a large number of statues and artifacts of everyday life have been discovered and restored by archeologists, and the new, modern Acropolis Museum houses many of them.
The top floor houses more than 100 blocks of sculpture that represents the frieze that encircled the upper part of the Parthenon. Some are replicas, some are restored originals, and you’ll also find pieces of the Parthenon in other museums around the world, including at the Vatican and Louvre, two places we’ve also visited as a family.
The Ancient Agora
In the shadows of the Acropolis sits the Ancient Agora, the common gathering place for ancient Greeks looking to engage in commerce, law, education, philosophy, and more. Worship also took place here, as evidenced by the well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus and monuments celebrating Apollo, Zeus, and other Greek Gods.
As fans and students of Greek mythology and their Roman counterparts, these sites were relevant and remarkable to our two boys at ages 11 and 13.
There’s an indoor / outdoor museum on-site and several acres of ruins. A tossed-aside column here, a crumbling foundation there. Much of it dates back as far as the 6th century B.C., but you’ll also find modern additions, such as the statues of Socrates and Confucious standing side by side, which were unveiled in September of 2021.
A few blocks away from the Agora is the much smaller Roman Forum of Athens. Walking by, you can see everything, and you’ll get some good insights if you take the free audio tour recommended below.
One of the many benefits of traveling in the off-season is reduced prices. Admission to the main archeological sites in Athens are half-price from November to March.
In just about any city frequented by tourists, you’ll be able to find tip-based free walking tours. A great resource is freetour.com, where you’ll also find paid tours. Often, there will be a suggested tip, such as $10 USD or €10 Euro.
Airbnb Experiences and GetYourGuide (websites with apps) are two more places to find a good variety of things to do with in-person guides. These tend to cost a bit more, but there’s obviously a wide variety.
On the other end of the spending scale are the free audioguides narrated by Rick Steves on his app, which is also free. He focuses exclusively on Europe, so you won’t find a guide for all places you might want to go, but the guided walks we took in Athens and Rome were a good mix of education and information with bits of folksy humor.
Our kids were not enthralled by the man’s voice (OK, they were bored out of their minds), but as a grown-up, I highly recommend downloading the app and any applicable tours. Do so when on wifi to avoid using mobile data.
Plaka and Anafiotika
Also at the base of the Acropolis, you’ll find the most touristy area in this city of tourism.
Walking past souvenir shops and restaurants on pedestrian-only white marble streets, this is the place to find trinkets to take home and to sample traditional Greek dishes and desserts.
After passing by a restaurant with my mother’s first name several times, we decided it would be a good place to try some feta with honey, grape leaves, and pastitsio, which is basically a Greek lasagna with hollow noodles. Thea’s did not disappoint.
Anafiotika is a small, picturesque neighborhood sloping up along the northeast side of the Acropolis. You’ll find whitewashed homes, designed to look like those of the island of Anafi, rooftop gardens, and sweeping views. Just below are long, side stairways, lined with restaurants on both sides with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating.
I explored this area and others in the evening for some nighttime photography. You’ll also see photos of Plaka above in the walking tour section.
We like to work a little fitness into all of our travels even if that just means doing some pushups and situps at the apartment and walking a lot. Mount Lycabettus, which, at 900 meters above sea level, rises about twice as high as the Acropolis.
There are several ways to get up there. A taxi can take you most of the way to the top via roads. A funicular (cable car) will take you almost all the way, and walking is always an option. We took the no-cost, good-exercise option, of course.
We took a combination of roads and unofficial but well-worn foot paths going up one side, stopping to explore an Orthodox church carved into the hillside. Once at the top, we admired the expansive views, peeked into the little white St. George church, and enjoyed some gelato before heading down the more official and well-defined walking paths on the southeast side of the hill.
Syntagma Square and the Changing of the Guard
In the heart of the city, you’ll find Syntagma Square and the Old Royal Palace, home of the Greek Parliament.
If there happens to be a protest or demonstration of some kind, this is where you can expect to find it. The area was calm and peaceful when we visited, and we happened to be in front of the Palace once when the choreographed changing of the guard took place. You can catch the pageantry any hour on the hour in front of the grave of the Unknown Soldier.
Our walking tour took us west from Syntagma down Ermou Street, another pedestrian-only lane with street vendors, street performers, and major retailers. After a half-mile or so, you’ll reach the 11th-century Church of Panagia Kapnikarea. Athens certainly has an exclectic mix of new, old, and ancient buildings.
If We Had More Time
Those were the highlights, but not everything we saw and did. I also found a craft brewery with tasty offerings, hiked around some other hills, got goodies like baklava from the bakeries, and wandered through various neighborhoods and churches.
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If we had spent a full seven-day stretch in Athens at the beginning of our European adventures, we almost certainly would have visited the National Archaeological Museum. From what I understand, it’s a large and impressive museum where one could easily spend an entire day.
Our final days in Athens, however, were at the end of this month-long trip, and we had already visited other museums in Athens, Malta, Sicily, and Rome. We had just spent two days at The Vatican Museums in the preceding week.
Being somewhat museumed out, we decided to choose between visiting either the National Archeological Museum or the Acropolis Museum. The Acropolis won out, as it was closer, newer, and perhaps most importantly, smaller.
I think you can see most everything you might want to see in about a week if that’s your goal, but there is so much more to explore in the nation of Greece. You’ve probably heard of Santorini, Mikonos, and Crete, but those are but a few among dozens of inhabited Greek isles. An island-hopping trip could be in our future.
For more on the challenges (and benefits) of doing all of this during peak Omicron, see 6 Weeks of International Travel During Peak COVID. For more from this Family FIRE series, you can see what we were up to in Malta and Sicily.
Have you traveled to Athens? What were your highlights?