A trip to Greece almost invariably means a visit to Athens. Almost any international flight will route through this packed capital, where the history is thick and the layovers long. (Punctuality is not high on the to-do list around here.) In particular, anyone hitching a ferry down to the islands will pass through the center city on their way to the docks at Piraeus.
The only catch is that often those ferries wait until first thing in the morning to set sail, leaving you, the traveler, with an entire evening to kill. Sure you could get a bed and nap until dawn, but Athens is one hell of a second act city. So down some of the city’s fine coffee, because there’s a lot to do once the sun goes down…
7:00 – Binge watch some ruins
Take the train in from the airport and disembark at the aptly named Acropolis Metro station, because it’s time to hit some ruins.
It’s hard to understand sometimes how, exactly, the Greeks have managed to build and operate an entire city around the ruins of ancient Athens. It seems like you can’t dig a flower bed around here without turning up some prehistoric living room or dining set. Not far from your subway stop you can see where the city once tried to run a new subway line… only to have to abandon the project after uncovering the ruins of an ancient bathhouse.
Running a city has to be tough enough without having to play a game of archeological minesweeper with every civic improvement.
The upshot, though, is that a density of monuments virtually unmatched anywhere else. Within a couple hours you can sightsee past a dozen temples, markets, towers and, of course, the Parthenon itself. It’s the perfect amount of time to let some of the immensity sink in without getting numb to it all.
9:00 – Drinks at the Athens Backpackers
I’m a huge hostel fan and try to live out of them everywhere I go, although these days I often hold out for a private room. (I may be slower than I once was. Hangovers are harsher, and it’s been some years since a comely stranger offered share an insinuating drink, but I’ll say this for age: it also means no more sharing a dorm room with recreational bunkmates from Perth.) Three of my personal favorite guesthouses all coincidentally just happen to be in Greece: Francesco’s on Ios, the Koukos on Rhodes and the Athens Backpackers, appropriately enough, in Athens.
Book your bed well in advance, this is actually one of the most popular hostels in the world, but more importantly head to the rooftop bar for drinks. Almost directly at the foot of the Acropolis, this bar has one of the best views in the city from which to watch the Parthenon lights wink on and sip a drink in good company.
Just take care. The ouzo is cheap and you’ve got an early boat to catch. Trying to make it down to Piraeus hungover is no fun…
11:00 – Dinner around the Plaka
Blocks away from the Backpackers is the Plaka, a vast open air marketplace that once served as the beating heart of Athens. Back in the day this was where you could buy books and food, carved stone and housewares and virtually anything else in a market that stretches on and on and on.
Today the Plaka still sells just about anything anyone could want, as long as that person is a tourist who wants a t-shirt that reads “I’ve Got Greece On My Shirt.” Like many of the great markets of old the Plaka has turned almost entirely tourist, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. In fact it might be a little more fun these days. We travel writers can grouse all we want about tourism driving away the “real” city, but is it really that much fun to browse dishwasher racks and last generation thumb drives? If I have to choose between housewares and t-shirts, give me tourist schmaltz any day.
At night, with the shops closed up, the real feature of the Plaka is its tavernas. Unarguably dolled up for tourists, these are lively, fun places, and the right ones can have absolutely amazing food. Try the (slightly nearby) Kouklis or To Kafeneon, two taverna’s located on a steep street called Epiharmou that runs a little ways away from the Plaka towards the Parthenon. Less price-conscious diners should make sure to hit the Cafe Eris at the intersection of Vyronos and Lisikratous. Take your time and linger over your food. It’s the Greek way, after all.
12:00 – Brettos Bar
This is the Plaka bar. Don’t believe me? Just Google “Athens Plaka bar” for yourself. It’s the first hit.
And they’ve earned their reputation. Decorated with casks built of creaky wood and stocked floor to ceiling with rainbow colored liqueur bottles, at first glance Brettos looks like a spectacular little place to stop in for a quick drink for the night. Then you find out it is… and so much more.
The oldest continuously operating distillery in Athens, Brettos specializes in its homemade ouzo, brandy and liqueurs. Better still, you don’t even need to bother with the menu (of admittedly excellent drinks). Just order from the wall. Try a glass of blue or a shot of orange. Brettos offers a reported 36 different flavors of homemade liqueurs. It’s worth a stop to try your hand at a few of them, and to soak in the ambiance.
2:00 – The Rock
I wish I had a picture that could do this justice.
The Rock is the central Athens equivalent of Lookout Point, or the parking lot outside a closed down Borders if you grew up someplace less poetic. It’s… well, it’s a big rock on the Acropolis situated outside one of the entrances to the Parthenon. Look for the main steps close to the Museum, then turn left on the broad path the winds around the hill. It’s hidden a little, especially at night, so keep an eye out, but eventually you’ll see a dirt path disappearing into the darkness that leads to a set of metal stairs.
From this perch you can see all of Athens. By day it’s a neat view of the city. By night every light comes on for as far as the eye can see. Take a few minutes to imagine ancient Greek teenagers stealing up here for a quick debate on the virtues of stoicism, and try to picture what it must have looked like to gaze out over the dark plains of Attica with only the lights of a distant port winking in the distance.
Bring a bottle of wine and someone special to really enjoy a birds eye view.
3:30 – Psiri
You’ll want to take a cab to this little neighborhood of artists and students, but mostly to avoid getting lost at night. Close enough to the Parthenon to make it convenient, the neighborhood of Psiri is filled with tavernas and ouzeries that stay open long after dark.
Don’t let the colorful graffiti intimidate you. In fact, get charged up by it. Take the opportunity to wander through Psiri’s still bustling streets and stop by the James Joyce Pub to chat with some expats. This neighborhood captures the late-night spirit of the Greeks. Passing by tables filled with people sipping ouzo and small coffees at 4 in the morning is an excellent way to end your first night in this marvelous country.
5:00 – Piraeus
Dawn is near, and so is your ferry. Catch a cab down to the port at Piraeus, or the metro if time is on your side. Slow boats to the Cyclades leave early so get there even earlier and have a cup of coffee while you wait. You don’t want to sleep through the ride. Sunrise over the islands seen from the water is worth every minute of grogginess.