As a travel destination, Athens might be the ultimate sufferer of middle-child syndrome. It is eclipsed by the pearly sand and white-washed architecture of its brother islands in the Adriatic. Its classical and historical limelight has been snagged by its more refined sister city, Rome. Though overlooked, Athens is by no means drastically undervisited, receiving a healthy 6.3 million travellers a year. However, its visitors often have a caustic subtext to back up their stay: they are doing a layover towards the Greek islands or sticking to ancient ruins and taxis to avoid, quoting The Pogues, a “dirty, old town”.
I encountered this thinking consistently from backpackers, families, and even islander Greeks themselves while I travelled throughout the country this summer. I felt compelled to put forward the case for Athens and why this soulful, exciting city is worthy of a visit.
The history of Athens needs no introduction. Fragments of Greek history are threaded throughout childhood media and storytelling (it’s likely you have engaged with at least one of the following: Disneys’ 1997 Hercules, The Percy Jackson novels, Groovy Greeks from CBBC’s Horrible Histories). Alongside popular culture, Athenian democracy and Greek thinkers are an academic cornerstone of numerous modules homed in the Arts Block.
The Acropolis is the historic and geographic centrepiece of Ancient Athens. Rising well above the skyline of the city, this formidable outcrop of hilly rock contains the remains of the ancient citadel. There are just two entrances: one at the base for a true Athenian pilgrimage up chalky steps and through dusty ruins and another entrance towards the top, connected by road, for the more time-constrained, energy-conscious visitor. At the summit, where the colossal Parthenon pillars and weathered Erechtheion statues open into view, the grandeur is overwhelming. You can still feel the indomitable spirit of the empire two-thousand years after its demise. This ancient site — dating back to the fifth century BC — alone makes Athens worthwhile to visit.
“The Acropolis Museum imparts much to think about regarding the values and flaws of the weighty civilisation.”
The Acropolis Museum, newly refurbished in 2009, displays many of the recovered artefacts and provides historical information regarding the Acropolis. It lends incredible insight into ancient Athens, provoking joy within onlookers who stand appreciating the beauty and other-worldliness of sculptures and objects from another time, but also imparting much to think about regarding the values and flaws of the weighty civilisation. The museum is impressively comprehensive, exploring the incredible feats of maths, architecture, and skill involved in construction of the Parthenon, to the inhumane prices of slavery and military plunder that made its construction feasible.
Other compelling sights to see include: The Greek Agora, The Temple of Zeus and more. Most sites can be seen without breaking an economic sweat, either. Archaeological sites, historical sites, monuments and museums owned by the Greek State are free for EU member-state nationals under 26, which makes the city extremely budget-friendly for the student traveller.
However, Athens is not just its ruins or archaeology. Part of the city’s allure is witnessing the fold where ancient chronicles meet contemporary vigour. About a third of the Greek population live in Athens, roughly 3.2 million people, and because of this, Athens is a beating, evolving heart of Greek culture.
I was spellbound by the unique soul of each district, and there is at least one area of the city that is guaranteed to connect with you deeply.
Neighbourhoods in the Greek capital are deep with character, and you can feel the metaphysical shift as you travel throughout different parts of the city. Exarcheia is the rebellious and self-proclaimed anarchic district with rock bars, thrift stores and second-hand bookshops galore. Plaka is the historical kernel of the city, resembling a hidden, colourful village and bustling marketplace among the metropolis. Among other districts is the bohemian and artistic Koukaki, the thriving nightlife faction of Psirri. I was spellbound by the unique soul of each district, and there is at least one area of the city that is guaranteed to connect with you deeply.
Athens especially rewards deep knowledge of local food and places to eat. Family is profoundly important in Greece and Athenians champion this principle, caring deeply about their urban communities. Family run koutoukia taverns such as Diporto, open since 1887, purposefully obscure their discoverability by having no sign or menu. Bakeries offer specifically local cuisine and interpretations that are not always on the menu, Athenian kreatotourta pie at Fillo bakery was a stand out. Don’t be afraid to venture off the standard touristic path towards discovery. Scouring the internet for food guides and blogs along with soliciting advice from locals expands the experience of visiting Athens immeasurably. Some of the best food I’ve ever eaten was found through these obscure avenues of recommendation.
The art of Athens was more raw and confrontational than any other European capital I’ve visited. While pieces of historical and classical art can be found in The Benaki and National Gallery, I was deeply moved by more modern pieces that raised questions about the exigencies of urban and contemporary living.
This art reflects the very real social strife of citizens since the 2008 financial crash and 2015 bailout with images or mantras of fury, hope and nostalgia.
Nothing exemplifies this more than street art in Athens. Resulting from post-WWII housing policies, residential Athens is abundant with hackneyed concrete surfaces. These surfaces form the perfect canvas for aspiring street artists. While its most common manifestation is hollow graffiti tagging, a significant amount of street art is acutely political and provoking. Street artists, such as the muralist Ino and iconographer Fikos, have Banksy-level notoriety among Athenians. This art is committed to depicting current living in Greece and reflects the very real social strife of citizens since the 2008 financial crash and 2015 bailout with images or mantras of fury, hope and nostalgia.
The National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) was the major artistic highlight within Athens, containing some of the most jarringly innovative pieces I’ve ever seen. These exhibits platform up-and-coming artists, both Greek and international, who have a lot to say about our twenty-first-century world: the coldness of our constructed intimacies, grappling with the “The Death of God”, and more. Many of these pieces push the limits of audio and visual art evoking awe, discomfort or puzzlement with the human experience. Some noteworthy mentions included Acropolis Redux (Kendell Geers 2004), a Parthenon reconstruction using steel, razor and barbed wire (you could step inside at your own risk) and Content for Frustrated Queers (Marijke De Roover 2019), a collection of sardonic memes that reflect Gen Z cynicism, insecurity and self-mockery in the pursuit of love.
In Invisible Cities, a novel I read while travelling in Greece, author Italo Calvino tells the story of numerous mythical and enigmatic cities. Throughout, he alludes to a “model city”, made entirely of “incongruities and contradictions”. I like to think of Athens as such a city. Simply put, it is a profoundly incongruent place. It can be ugly yet beautiful, domineering as it is welcoming. However, the many faces of Athens are what give it its vibrant and diverse form. These multifaceted personalities are the secret behind what makes the city so rewarding, lending endless, exciting life to the traveller willing to visit with an open mind.