Athens, named for the goddess Athena, is one of the oldest cities in the world, as it dates more than 7000 years old. Located near the Saronic Gulf in Greece, the city was much smaller in area than the sprawling metropolis it is now. If you are not accustomed to city life, make sure you are aware of your surroundings at all times, especially in crowded areas near the metro stations and the ferry ports, professional pick-pockets work these areas frequently.
Athens is all that you would expect from a city: fast paced, with graffiti, nightlife, all-night raves at the college, and high-end fashion shopping. But beyond the obvious, there are the sweet spots of the city that people tend to miss. The new sprawling city is built right around the ancient site, still attracting tourists from all over. Some people think that tourism is what is keeping Athens alive in this time of economic troubles, but it is part of their culture. They want people to share their history, because it is our history as well. As much as I want to say I’m American, even Americans are heavily influenced by Greek culture. It’s not until you experience their culture that you realize the similarities and differences between the cultures. Nothing is new in the world; everything is borrowed, and built upon, from the ancient Greeks and other ancient cultures around the world.. The fusion of old and new works well in a city still developing itself. As I went shopping near Syntagma Square, I looked up and could see the Parthenon keeping watch over the city and over the fashion district, we were in. It’s a mix of old and new everywhere we go.
Greece has been all over the media recently, with so-called riots and protests over the economic crisis, but while I was there for a week, the worst that I saw (as far as protesting goes) was a small group of people peacefully protesting. They just want a better future, that’s all. Isn’t it the same back in the United States, or anywhere in the world?
Athens is as safe as any other city. Something that I noticed even in Athens is that it’s still very community oriented, with the restaurants having their seats set up outside as people walk by. They welcome you into their restaurants with a smile.
One might ask why the Greeks love olives? It goes back to the name of the city and the myth of how it goes back to its name. Athens attained this name through a legendary contest between Poseidon and Athena, as described by Herodotus, Apollodorus, Ovid, Plutarch, Pausanias, and others. They each offered the city one gift. Poseidon produced a spring by striking the ground with his trident, symbolizing naval power. Athena created the olive tree, symbolizing peace and wisdom. The Athenians accepted the olive tree and named the city after Athena. The owl and the bird, both symbols of Athena are still represented on Greek money and can be found everywhere in the city.
One thing to keep in mind when travelling to Greece is the siesta time, usually between 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., these times can vary from day to day as well. Shopping can be particularly frustrating if you don’t know a store closes at six p.m. on a Saturday and the associates don’t hesitate to ask you to leave the store, even if you aren’t finished shopping, something that probably wouldn’t happen often in retail stores in the U.S.
If you want to experience the best of Athens, my first recommendation is going to the Acropolis. First, go to the museum. I recommend having a guide to take you through the museum so you can see the best pieces and understand what is there and why it is significant to the site, to Athens, and to the museum. The new museum is an updated, very modern building with high tech systems and security lurking in every corner ( the men and women dressed in suits with the earpieces), and they will not hesitate to ask you to put your camera away if you try to take pictures in areas where photography is not allowed. They do allow photography in two parts of the museum, the first room with several models of Athens and the Parthenon room. The best part of the museum, for me, was the Parthenon room, where they have reconstructed pieces of the Parthenon and assembled them to show how they went on the actual Parthenon. Going here before going to the actual site is good if you want to have a good slate of knowledge before trekking up the hill to the site. Be sure to go on a holiday, and admission may be free! Then after touring the sites at the Acropolis, eat at the very charming (and not very expensive) restaurant , Strofi, where, if you make reservations, you can enjoy rooftop view of the Parthenon at night, and a lovely dinner served by nicely clad waiters and some Greek wine to drink.
My next recommendation is going to the National Archeological Museum. The first thing I want to say is that the place is massive and (according to our awesome tour guide Faye) it would take 6 months to see the whole museum correctly. Walking through the museum, you cannot take it all in because there is so much to see. Again, I suggest visiting the museum on a holiday; it may be a little crowded, but admission will be free (see below for free admission dates for 2012, also free admission on National holidays.) I had the privilege of seeing the "Antikythera mechanism". This item is considered the oldest known scientific calculator and may have been used in astronomy and mathematics. It dates to the first century B.C. This artifact was interesting to my study abroad group, especially because we are studying astronomy. This exhibit however, was only at the museum temporarily. With, many more exhibits and artifacts from all over Greece, this museum is the largest in nation and one of the great museums of the world.
Finally, a few things that disturbed me about Athens were the rampant graffiti. Some of it was actually beautiful, but regardless, it was everywhere, literally. The drug population is not hidden, people are out in the open, buying, and selling plus, and it is not as criminalized as it is in countries such as the United States. Seeing it up close was a bit unnerving; however, our hotel manager said that they are relatively harmless and they will be moved from street to street by the police. The worst part is they hang out on the streets surrounding the University of Athens, just a block from our hotel and the National Archeological Museum, the Best Western Museum Hotel. Most people seem to avoid these streets and do not seem taken aback by the large druggie population, its part of city life, I guess
Keep your eyes open and your hands on your things at all times and don’t engage beggars. They will try to pickpocket you. Walking to the restaurant Strofi with my group, a lady approached me and another member of my group, trying to give a flower to me, then asking for money for "my baby" "because you are beautiful", "for my baby". She motioned to her belly, though I’m not sure if she was actually with child or not. You have to say no and keep going and try not to feel too bad. At the same time this lady was talking to me, another was circling me, trying to find out if I had anything of value she could swipe. This isn’t something that is new in a city, just something I had never experienced myself, never having been in a large city without a large group or with my parents. It happens in all cities around the world, not just Greece--just be aware that this does happen.
Athens is, by all accounts, a great city to visit. However, the smells are less than pleasant when walking through the streets, like a mix of tar, gas, and waste. The new metro system helps to make getting around the city much easier However, if you are not used to city life, you may find the atmosphere physically and mentally exhausting. After spending a week there visiting several sites within the city and making a few excursions out of the city, it is time for some relaxation in the islands. No wonder Athenians like to get away from the city for a few days. But it’s well worth a visit to be able to see ancient history come alive.
Free Admission Days
March 6th - in memory of actress and Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri.
April 18th - International Monuments Day.
May 18th - International Museums Day.
June 5th - International Environment Day.
September 27th- International Tourism Day