Chances are if you are cruising in the eastern Mediterranean you will either embark or debark in Piraeus, Greece, or visit there as a port of call on your itinerary. Piraeus is the port to Athens and though there are sights to see and many museums in this place, Athens is where you want to go. A short drive, 20 to 30 minutes depending on traffic, will get you to the heart of the city.
Here are some quick facts and a few tips for your next visit to this Greek city:
- Athens is the capital of Greece. It is sprawling and meandering as befits its age. If you want to see the highlights, take a guided tour, preferably a small one, or at the very least a hop-on, hop-off bus. But then with the latter, you miss out on any interactions with your guide and his/her local knowledge and colour.
- If the sun is shining, it is hot, even in the shoulder seasons. Be sure to carry water, sunscreen, and a hat. And wear sensible, comfortable walking shoes because that is what you will probably do: walk. A lot.
- Be sure to visit the National Gardens, the huge green space at the heart of the city. It is over fifteen acres but a walk-about of a half hour to an hour is a refreshing change from bustling city streets plus the foliage is beautiful.
- In the green area you will find, not far from Hadrian’s Arch, the Temple of Zeus where you can wander about the ruins at will. Even the columns which have fallen and lie cracked and broken on the ground are impressive.
- At this point of your visit, you begin to wish you had taken that course in Greek mythology when you were in school. Like Rome, history is everywhere around you and some of the significance of names and origins are lost when you are not familiar with the subject. To get the best out of these cities, read about Roman and Greek mythology, and ancient history, before you visit.
- Watch the changing of the Guards at the Parliament Buildings. You have to be lucky to be there at the correct time but if you are, it is a fascinating ritual.
- Even if you are not taking the Metro, duck into the central station where they have historical artifacts under glass cases. It resembles a very modern museum – until you remember where you are. Athens is surprising in many ways, and very tidy as well for a large city. It exudes a sense of pride.
- If you like to shop, the area around here known as Plaka, and stretching from the Parliament to the Acropolis, is full of shops and restaurants. But don’t ignore the outstanding feature of the city, the Acropolis.
- Acropolis is a word describing the high point of a city and with visitors its name has become synonymous with the Pantheon and the Temple of Athena Nike which sit atop this high hill in the center of Athens. Though guide books suggest the climb to the top is daunting, if you take your time it is not and you are rewarded at the top not only with the ruins of the aforementioned temples but a cooling breeze as well. This, and the Acropolis Museum, are where having a small group and a guide shine. Note: walking is a bit treacherous over fallen and broken masonry, and the place is crowded even at the best of times. An elevator appears to be available for the disabled, but it would be difficult maneuvering once you were there. There is a fee about 20 euro for this UNESCO World Heritage Site; it is worth every penny.
- On your way up or down from the Acropolis, be sure to check out the Odean of Herodes Atticus, an open-air theatre built in 161 AD and still used today. It seats over 4500 people and summer performances are legendary from classical music, ballet and plays to the modern performers like Elton John. The acoustics are amazing. If you are lucky enough to get tickets to a performance, take along several cushions as the seats are stone and have no backs!
- If you climb the Acropolis, you must visit the museum at its base. Why? Much of the statuary and friezes of the buildings atop the Acropolis have disappeared over the years to museums scattered around the world, particularly to England and the British Museum. What remains has been removed to the safety of this Museum, and missing pieces have been cast to show the visitor what has been lost to Greece. There are several floors of artifacts, and in the entrance courtyard and lobby you can even see through glass panels down to the ancient ruins excavated and lying beneath this modern building. It is well worth the minimal fee (currently 6 euro) to visit here. Note: in several areas, you are forbidden to take photographs.
Overall the most important advice for visiting Athens is to do so in the shoulder seasons if at all possible due to the intense heat experienced in summer which makes touring unbearable, and because of the crowds of tourists that descend in the summer months.
If you wish to include Athens on a future cruise or land vacation, contact your travel professional for help with your itinerary and planned tours to make the most of your visit to this marvelous Greek capital city.