7 Reasons Athens Might Still be Europe’s Greatest City

 

Athens is the oldest city in Europe. With a history spanning over 2,500 years, it’s the birthplace of democracy, history, theatre and many aspects of science. The modern version has a population of 4.5 million people and while falling on tough economic times, that hasn’t changed the fact that Athens might still be Europe’s greatest city to visit. I recently returned from spending 3 and 1/2 weeks in Europe, almost exclusively between Berlin, London and Athens, all cities I’ve previously visited on multiple occasions. I left feeling Athens was my favorite of the three. We’ve also visited almost every European capital, and while travelers have varying preferences, Athens stakes a claim as the greatest for the following reasons.

Parthenon Athens

1) Food

Athens has better food than Berlin and London for mid range travelers, though I’ll give Berlin the edge in one category- bread. I think German bread is probably the best quality in the world. But I’ll take a meal out in an Athenian taverna over a Berlin beer hall or a London pub (which I’d rate 3rd in terms of average quality between these three very different European capitals). Greece has the best olive oil, honey, oregano and yogurt on the planet, adding tons of flavor to their savory and sweet dishes. The oregano is so flavorful it’s worth trying to sneak through customs (shhh, we didn’t write that). And some of the desserts you’ll encounter in Athens are as good as anything you’ll find in Paris or Brussels, two of Europe’s best capitals for food.

Plaka and Monasteraki are popular spots for tourists because you can enjoy tasty food and drinks with a lovely view of the acropolis. For great food that’s less touristy, but just off the beaten path, try any of the restaurants or cafes in Platia Agia Irini (Saint Irene Square), near Monasteraki. It’s convenient for tourists, but quintessentially Athenian, trendy and high quality.

 

Athens has lots of great dessert outside baklava. Loukoumades, which are fried donuts covered in honey syrup and cinnamon are just one of the excellent treats you'll find all over Greece.
Athens has an abundance of great dessert outside baklava. Loukoumades, which are fried donuts covered in honey syrup and cinnamon, are just one of the excellent treats you’ll encounter all over Greece.
Greek salads are a favorite for those looking to eat a bit lighter.
Greek salads are a favorite for those looking to eat a bit lighter.
Greek sausages in marinara sauce- restaurant food that tasted deliciously homemade.
Greek sausages in marinara sauce- wonderfully prepared restaurant food that tasted deliciously homemade.

2) Value: Why Athens Might Still be Europe’s Greatest City

Athens is cheaper than Berlin and far cheaper than London, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world to visit. For a major capital city, Athens is one of the cheapest in Europe for food and accommodation making it a better value for visitors. For fast food, the price of a tasty gyro in Athens is almost always €2 ($2.60 USD) compared to an average of £4.50 ($7 USD) for a mediocre takeaway sandwich in London. I stayed in an excellent hotel in Athens called the Delphi Art Hotel in the center of the city for €43 ($55 USD) per night for a single room with my own private bathroom. The room was newly renovated, comfortable and had two balconies overlooking the national theater, it also included a quality buffet breakfast and free wifi. Berlin also offers pretty good value in terms of accommodation for mid range travelers but London is far more expensive, with the equivalent room costing at least 3 times as much.

3) Hospitality: Opa!

Greeks are some of the friendliest and most welcoming people on the planet. If you’re out to dinner in Greece there’s an excellent chance you’ll receive a free dessert, coffee or ouzo complimentary at the end of your meal. It gives people a good feeling, and it’s good for repeat business. On prior trips to Greece I randomly had someone give me their lunch on a long train ride and was once given a free beer in an Athens bar because I’d missed the last bus. The owner rang a taxi and didn’t charge for the beer, which was unbelievably nice. My Greek aunt once invited an English backpacker she randomly met on a train ride to Olympia to stay at her house a couple nights, which the English backpacker happily accepted. Welcome to Greece.

4) History: Why Athens Might Still be Europe’s Greatest City

Athens has the oldest recorded history of any European city as the Parthenon and many other fantastic sites around the Acropolis, like the incredible Theseum, date back nearly 2,500 years to the golden age of Pericles. Athens is even older though, with a history dating over 4,000 years. Greeks are extremely proud of the fact that they’re the birthplace of democracy and ancient Greeks made a significant impact to the fields of science, math, theater and sports. Panathenaic Stadium, built for the first modern Olympics, which was held in 1896, is the world’s only active stadium made entirely of marble.

 

Parthenon- Selfie with sun
 

Acropolis Carytadides

Athens Temple of Hephaestus (Theseum), dedicated to the Greek god of craftsmanship, is one of the most underrated 2,500 year old buildings in the world.
Athens’ incredible Temple of Hephaestus (Theseum), dedicated to the Greek god of craftsmanship, is one of the most underrated 2,500 year old buildings in the world.
Athens new Acropolis Museum is a world class museum that was completed in 2010
Athens new Acropolis Museum is a world class facility that houses a wealth of antiquities.
Athens Panathenaic Stadium was built for the first modern Olympics in 1896 and is the world's only active stadium made entirely of marble.
Athens Panathenaic Stadium was built for the first modern Olympics in 1896 and is the world’s only active stadium made entirely of marble.

5) Beaches a Tram Ride Away, Unique for a European Capital

You don’t have to travel to the islands or even drive a car to relax on Greek beaches, in fact you can just jump on a tram right in front of the Greek parliament building in the center of Athens at Syntagma Square. The coastal tram line, which opened before the Olympics in 2004, will take you all along the Saronic Gulf coast to the beaches in Glyfada, Kavouri, Vouliagmeni, Varkiza and as far as Voula. The tram is modern, air conditioned, comfortable and convenient. If you rent a car in Athens (which I don’t recommend driving in Athens) your best best is to drive along the coast to the historic Temple of Sounion, which also has some great beaches. It unfortunately wasn’t beach weather during my recent visit but I enjoyed a lovely meal at Kastelorizo in Varkiza, with a lovely seaside view.

Athens subway goes directly to the port of Piraeus which is also great for having a meal before catching a ferry to the islands, though not necessarily great to swim. Athens suburbs offer a long stretch of beaches and wonderful seaside cafes and tavernas, which is very unique for a European capital (Rome and Madrid are both landlocked).

 

The lovely seaside town of Varkiza, just outside Athens, is great for a meal and to swim at nearby beaches, which I unfortunately didn't get to this past visit.
The lovely seaside town of Varkiza, just outside Athens, is great for a meal and to swim at nearby beaches, which I unfortunately didn’t get to this past visit.

6) Picturesque Mountains Surround Athens

Athens is one of the few European capitals completely surrounded by picturesque mountains, and the only one that also has the sea as well. There’s even a mountain in the center of Athens called Mount Lycabettus, which offers the best panoramic views of the city as you have a birds eye view of the acropolis, the sea and port of Piraeus just beyond, the entire city and all the surrounding mountains. This is a breathtaking place to enjoy a meal with one of the best city views on the planet.

 

Athens Sunset Lycebettus
 

IMG_4195
 

Theseum Sunset from Acropolis
Athens from the Saronic Gulf

7) Great Public Transportation and one of Europe’s Best Airports

Most European cities have great public transportation and Athens’ is on par with Berlin and London. Athens had a new state of the art international airport, subway line and coastal tram line built prior to the 2004 Olympics and this shows in terms of ease of getting to and from the airport and around the city itself in speed and comfort. Public transportation in Athens busts the myth that the city is a backwards and inconvenient place to visit. Athens is super easy to get around and very tourist friendly, as electronic metro boards and announcements alternate between Greek and English. Despite the Greek alphabet, Athens is a great city to visit for English speakers.

A typical Athens metro stop- clean, efficient and reliable.
A typical Athens metro stop- clean, efficient and as reliable as you’ll find.
Some of Athens subway stations double as museums, with antiquities showcased behind glass, unique even in Europe.
Some of Athens subway stations double as museums, with antiquities showcased behind glass, unique even in Europe
Athens modern Venizelos International Airport happily welcomes visitors from around the world.
Athens modern Venizelos International Airport happily welcomes visitors from around the world.

Greece has been mired in a rough economic stretch, with overall unemployment at 25% and youth unemployment at 50%, but hopefully the country is past the worst of it. Despite tough times, Greece is still a welcoming country that’s safe to travel to. And the more time I’ve spent in Athens over the years, the more I believe it’s one of Europe’s greatest cities. If you haven’t already visited Athens, try and visit in the next couple years as the city will most likely become more expensive to visit in the very near future!

 

13 thoughts on “7 Reasons Athens Might Still be Europe’s Greatest City

  1. Fabulous photos and update on Athens. I have not been there in a very long time and you have made me move Greece up my bucket list again. I would love to retire on a Greek island!!!!

    1. Thank you!! So happy you’ve added a return visit to Greece to your bucket list, and a possible retirement on a Greek island! Best of luck building towards this! 🙂

  2. Great post – and so true. I haven’t been to Greece since I was a child, but I would love to go back to Athens. History is a given – so much incredible ancient history to discover. And Greek food is also delicious. Must admit I’ve never explored Athens’ beaches though. I’ll have to put it on my list for next time I go there!

    1. Hey Katie! Thank you for the compliment! Yes Greek food, the ancient sites and the nearby beaches in Athens are wonderful!

      One thing I unfortunately didn’t do on my recent trip to Athens was just to sit down and enjoy a great meal with a view of the acropolis lit up at night- it’s another stunning thing to do. The Reason I didn’t was that I was caught up with a conference, otherwise this is a must when you’re a leisure traveler in Athens.

      We did have drinks one night at a bar called Skyfall which had a great terrace with an amazing view of the acropolis lit up. Places like this exist all over Athens and really add to the magic. Yes, definitely go back and enjoy all this!

  3. Superb article on wonderful Athens!

    You wrote it so well and your information was spot on…..Athens is an underrated city and one needs at least 3-4 days to completely appreciate her hidden wonders, delectable restaurant scene, amazing beaches with those amazing pristine turquoise waters and not forgetting her electric nightlife!!

    Ahhh such a great read!

    Thank You!!

    1. Hi Costas! Thank you so much for reading, commenting and for the compliment!

      Yes, you definitely need a minimum of 3-4 days to do Athens justice. In my various trips to Greece over the years I’ve been fortunate to have spent over a month in Athens and the longer I’ve spent the more I like it.

      The Olympics were heavily criticized for the debt in brought Greece, but the upgrades to the infrastructure have kept Greece on par or surpassed other European capitals in terms of public transport and a wonderful international airport. Athens is a better city to visit now than it was 15 years ago when I first visited. These may be dark times for many Greeks but there’s better days ahead for the people, hopefully soon!

  4. Hi Alex & Bell,

    Thank you for replying 🙂 I agree that the infrastructure has helped the city a lot in terms of transportation and the airport is Top notch….even for a small country like Greece.
    I’ve been visiting Athens since 2000 and immediately fell in love! I became a permanent resident in July 2012 and love it even more now….I feel too many people get hypnotized by the media and automatically make up their minds so I’m so thank full that you guys are setting the record straight.

    It always pleases me when I find likeminded people who share in my love and passion for Athens….let’s not stop ever…

    Have a wonderful evening and speak or tweet soon!!!!

    Best,

    Costas

    1. Hi Costas,

      Thanks for your reply as well! That’s wonderful that you’re now a resident of Athens and enjoying life there! Congratulations on taking the plunge to being an expat in Greece!

      I think too many cities are short sighted about *some* of the Olympic debt. I wouldn’t mind our current home of Boston bidding for the Olympics as an excuse to update some of the infrastructure here. Though this city only needs modest updates, but the Olympics are also good advertising for visiting an area. Most Europeans who visit Boston really like it, but a lot of people outside the USA have also never heard of it or don’t realize it’s only a 5 hour bus ride from New York City and very easy to combine the two on a visit to the USA.

      I have a lot of family in Athens and it’s always great spending time with them on my visits. Anyways, thank you again for reading, we’ll be in touch, and enjoy life in Athens!

      Yiasou,
      Alex and Bell

  5. Very true and good tips! We spent a week in athens (during the banking crisis vote and aftermath) and we couldn’t have been happier. The sites were amazing, food was delicious, and people were so nice. We definitely enjoyed Athens!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Amanda! That was a really interesting time you were in Athens for. There were a lot of celebrations in Greece after that controversial vote, but then there was also the cap on withdrawing 60 euro from ATM’s per day and a lot of worry in the country. Apparently the ATM limit has been lifted. So glad you still had a wonderful time in Athens, I can’t wait to return yet again!

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