The 2019 Easter Holiday was our last week-long holiday to enjoy while still living in Belgium (we will move back to the U.S. in July!). After some consideration, we decided to visit Greece for that holiday. There were other contenders on our list … Florence, Venice, Berlin, Dublin, Vilnius, Dubrovnik, Copenhagen, Budapest, Marrakesh … but we settled on Greece in order to see a new (to us) country, and to see some of the world’s oldest and most famous landmarks.
We decided to split the week in half, spending half of our time in Athens and the other half in Crete. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see new things on a city trip, but also wanted our last big European vacation while still living in Europe to be slower paced and more relaxed than most of our other trips have been in the past 3 ½ years.
We started the week in Athens. Athens is a lively, bustling city with no shortage of tourist attractions and historic sites. We mostly used the metro to get around. We took metro line 3 from the airport to get to our hotel, and used it to get to and from most places in the city. It was pretty easy to use and I recommend buying one of the multi-day pass options if you are going to use the system for more than a few trips or days.
One of the most lovely and enjoyable aspects of the city, in my opinion, was the abundance of orange trees that grow throughout the city. I don’t know if they are always blooming or if we were just there at the right time, but they smelled amazing!
Aside from that, the presence of Greek and the Greek alphabet everywhere really made it visibly clear that I was in a new and unique place. I thought I was fairly knowledgeable of the Greek alphabet, until I saw Greek words everywhere and realized I actually was not.
One of the more surprising aspects of the city, to me, was how much that even the locals seemed to be aware of and protecting themselves from pickpockets. Everyone, and I mean everyone, including locals, was wearing their bags on their chests or clutching them tightly. I soon learned why.
What We Did
Acropolis Hill, Parthenon, and Crime Fighting
Of course, the first thing we did was head to the Acropolis and the Parthenon. We took the metro to Monastiraki Square and walked from there up to the hill. This is an area filled with tourists and all things catering to tourists, and all things ready to take advantage of tourists. Within 5 minutes of getting off the metro, we had spent money on a souvenir crown for our son.
As we strolled through the streets, I did what I always do, tried to take it all in with my eyes, and take pictures with my DSLR camera and take pictures with my cell phone! Classic tourist, blogger, Instagrammer behavior. Now, I still pride myself on being a smart, alert traveler, and I try not to let the picture-taking take me over, both because I want to enjoy the moment in the moment and because I don’t want to be so distracted that I become an easy victim of something.
If you have traveled anywhere recently, you know that everyone is taking pictures everywhere of everything. We are all distracted. As we walked up a narrow street with ancient Greek buildings and current souvenir shops, I noticed two women near me taking photos just like I was. Keeping pace with me, but just behind. I felt something touch my hair on the back of my head. I have quite long hair and it was down at the time, so I felt it right around where my long hair hit the top of my backpack. I moved my head and touched it, thinking it might have been a bug or a bird or bird poo or something, but nothing was there. Except for one of those two women, oddly close behind me. It took a few seconds but my suspicion radar started going off.
Now, you heard me correctly. I was carrying a backpack. This is something I try to avoid while traveling because they are easily pick-pocketable. I usually try to carry a crossbody bag that I can keep in front of me and hold onto. But on this day, with a big agenda ahead and the knowledge that there were no food options at the top of Acropolis Hill and a weather forecast of passing showers, we had water bottles, umbrellas, rain coats, and snacks to carry with us. Backpack time, it was.
So, I started considering this and the fact that these two ladies weren’t passing me and I decided to slow down and keep an eye on them. It took them awhile but they eventually moved on and I took a closer look at my backpack. The zipper, which I had kept at the top, had been opened about 3-4 inches. Yup, one of those ladies tried to pick-backpack me.
I took a quick inventory and everything was where it should be. Luckily my wallet was buried at the very bottom, under water bottles and umbrellas and rain coats and a sweatshirt and who knows what else. She was unsuccessful. And I was PISSED. Pissed at her, of course, but also mad at myself for almost being a victim. Still, since nothing was missing, a very small part of me still wanted the world to be good and safe, and wanted to be wrong. So, I started walking again and started following the two women to see if they did anything else.
They continued to slowly walk along this shopping street, taking pictures of walls and magnets and other unnotable subjects. At that point I caught up to my husband and son and told them of my suspicions. We all watched the women who were at that point about 50 paces ahead, and within 60 seconds one was back at it, following another tourist, reaching for her backpack and slowly trying to unzip it to get inside.
I yelled. “Hey! Hey!” pointing, “watch her, she’s…” and she stopped and darted back to a rack of souvenirs, the other victim never even noticing. I couldn’t get her attention but since I knew the thief didn’t get in the bag, I kept focusing on her. A huge tour group came around the corner at that point and I yelled to them all to watch out for both women, pointing them out and saying, “watch them, they’re thieves!!” loud enough and often enough that they ladies took off back the way we all came from and disappeared.
It all happened so fast, in a matter of minutes total, and I didn’t know what to do and I don’t know if I did the right thing, and I think I looked and sounded like a lunatic, but I was raging mad. We have traveled a lot and like I said, I pride myself on being alert and aware, and (fortunately) this was the first experience I had like this and I was mad at myself for being vulnerable and I was madder at the thief for being a thief.
My husband and I pondered for a moment, should we do anything else? Alert one of the shop keepers? Find a policeman? But the area had gone quiet. There were no police or security around, and how do we know if the shop keepers aren’t also in on the whole crime scene? I don’t want to make assumptions about anyone, but the tourist economy is tricky and shady. In an unfamiliar-to-us country, we decided to move on with our day. I took a moment to be grateful she didn’t get anything of mine and felt sorry for any victims she did find that day, and we moved on towards the Acropolis.
At the Acropolis, we purchased the regular entrance tickets and opted to use the Rick Steves App walking tour which we had pre-downloaded on mobile devices for all of us to listen to. The Acropolis does not have its own audio guides unless you purchase a private tour. There were private tour guide options all over the place, but we preferred to go it alone, with our buddy Rick. (We did the same thing at Pompeii.)
We spent a few hours up there, taking in all the views. It was pretty busy, even during off season. We had beautiful weather but I imagine it gets very hot in the middle of summer, so be prepared! There are no cafes or food stands once you are in/on the Hill, only a water tap where you can refill bottles, so go prepared.
It was pretty cool to see the Parthenon and Temple of Athena and theaters and everything else up there. We took a moment to remember all the parts of the Parthenon we saw previously that live at the British Museum in London. The next day, we learned a lot more about what we had seen on Acropolis Hill when we visited the Acropolis Museum.
We were so fortunate to meet up with an Athenian family we know from my son’s school for one of our days in Athens. They were excited to show us the Acropolis Museum, so we met them there the day after we toured the Acropolis. This was a nice way to give additional context to everything we saw the day before. And it was so nice to have our own, personal, local tour guides sharing with us the myths and stories of their home city.
While we were there, we experienced a totally random, and kind of freaky hailstorm which is highly unusual for the area.
Monastiraki Square and Flea Market
After leaving the Acropolis on our first day, we walked around the Monastiraki Square area, which is loaded with shops and restaurants, and the Monastiraki Flea Market, which seemed to have an equal amount of souvenir shops as “flea market” type vendors. From there, we continued to walk, passing through a popular shopping area on Ermou Street, admiring store windows and old churches and pausing for some ice cream, of course.
We also passed through Avissinias Square to browse its flea market. Now this is more what I think of when I think of a “flea market.” Antiques and knick-knacks and old, used stuff everywhere.
The Plaka area was also a nice place to stroll, which we did before we went to the Acropolis Museum.
Varvakios Agora (Markets)
I made sure we also passed through the Varvakios Agora, the home of the old meat, fish, and vegetable markets in the city.
Syntagma Square is one of the main squares in the city and we passed through it a lot because we used the metro station centered there. It’s a nice spot to pause for a snack or a whiff of some citrus trees.
From Syntagma Square, we viewed the Hellenic Parliament building. In front of the building is a memorial to unknown solders which is manned by ceremonial guards. We passed by there a few times but never were able to stop and watch the guard changing ceremony due to schedules and much needed potty breaks, etc. Life happens.
On our last day in Athens, we did something we don’t normally do. We got tickets for one of the 24 hours access, hop-on hop-off city bus tours. I realize this sounds snooty, but I have always thought of these bus tours as being too blatantly touristy, and I’ve always had this feeling that I should try to blend in and not be such an obvious tourist, but I guess my views on that have softened.
We had most of the day to continue to explore the city and didn’t really have anything specific in mind to do, so we thought seeing the whole city by bus would be more relaxing than walking, again, after two full days of walking. It ended up working out well for us. We saw the Olympic Stadiums which we had previously only seen from Acropolis Hill. We also saw interesting neighborhoods and were able to see a lot more than we would have if we were walking.
Athens War Museum
While on the bus tour, we passed the Athens War Museum. It has some impressive looking airplanes and tanks outside, so of course, our son was intrigued. We hopped off the bus and visited the museum. It had lots of weapons which my son loved to look at, and also nicely told the history of Greece’s involvement in major wars throughout history. We hadn’t planned it, but it was a nice, surprise addition to our activities in Athens.
As our last day in Athens came to a close, we took a cab to the port where we boarded an overnight ferry to our next destination, Crete. Taking the cab to the port was recommended to us, as opposed to the metro, because the port is large and services a lot of ferry lines. It can be confusing down there, figuring out where your ferry is, especially if you aren’t used to reading Greek signs! Our cab was able to take us directly to our boat and that made it simple and stress free. We used the Minoan Lines to take us to Crete.
Where We Stayed
We stayed in the Hilton Athens. It was in a good location and the quality and cleanliness and services of the hotel were exactly what you would expect from a Hilton. We don’t stay in Hiltons very often and were a little annoyed by their pricing model, where everything is an extra cost … pool access, internet access, lounge access, etc. I don’t mind paying for what I get, but it’s just annoying to have everything feel like an add on.
It’s 2019. I expect wireless internet in my hotel room in a large, modern city. And if the hotel has a pool, I expect to be able to use it. Include it in the room and room rate automatically, and let the room rate reflect it. Don’t make me upgrade my room to make that happen, please. And even with the upgraded room with pool access, our pool hours were limited because we had a child. I realize maybe the Hilton caters to business people and they considered it a spa pool, but that wasn’t an advertised limitation and we specifically picked a place with a pool to give our son something to look forward to, so the limited hours were annoying. Anyway, rant over, maybe it’s just me. It was a nice hotel. Just be prepared to pay a la carte for everything.
What We Ate
Because we had an upgraded room situation, see rant above, our breakfasts were all included in our stay at the hotel, so we ate those there. We also took advantage of the lounge’s happy hour drinks and snacks we had unlimited access to! We did have lunch at the hotel restaurant on the day we arrived, too, because we had been traveling all morning and wanted to eat as soon as possible upon arrival. We made it out of the hotel for the rest of the meals.
We had a requisite tourist meal of souvlaki near the Acropolis at Efxaris.
We had another meal in the quaint Plaka area at Taverna Plaka before going to the Acropolis Museum. The food was great, traditional Greek food, and the staff was very accommodating in getting us fed quickly and on our way because we were running late for meeting our friends at the museum.
We had another traditional Greek meal for lunch near Syntagma Square at a restaurant that appeared to be a chain, The Greco’s Project.
By far, the best meal we had in Athens was at Vassilenas. We went here with our local friends after visiting the Acropolis Museum. (It is not near the museum; it was closer to our hotel where we had taken a break to let the boys swim). It was recommended to our friend by another local … someone who doesn’t have kids. The restaurant served traditional Greek meals with the chef’s modern twists on the recipes and presentations. It was all delicious, but fancier and “foodier” than I would normally take our nine-year-old! Luckily, we got there early enough we were one of the only tables being served in the restaurant. And, our boys were great! They were well behaved and open to all the dishes, fanciness and all. So, it was a lovely meal!
What We Missed
I would have liked to have strolled longer in the Plaka area and seen more there. Maybe we missed out on that by taking the bus tour, but that’s okay, because we saw a wider swath of the city.
Our friend recommended the Megaron, the Athens Concert Hall to us for music or entertainment, but we didn’t squeeze that in.
A final memory I will always carry with me from Athens is that one of the evenings we were there, we got back to the hotel room after a long day out, turned on the television to unwind, and found ourselves, well at least myself, glued to the BBC News as they were reporting live from Paris as Notre Dame was burning. The news was just breaking and I watched their live footage as the spire fell and the flames raged on.
Like so many people, I was shocked and saddened to see this unfolding. Having the good fortune to have been inside Notre Dame twice, most recently in just the past few years, I could vividly remember certain parts of the inside and I thought about all the artwork and artifacts and beauty within that was being destroyed. I was truly saddened by this and shocked to think that it could happen, and happen so quickly and destructively.
In the days that followed, there was some online backlash against people feeling that same way. Critics complained that people shouldn’t be sad about the loss of buildings and objects when there is human devastation all over the world. They complained that money could quickly be pledged to rebuild a church but not to help give people clean water and basic medical needs. While I can understand and relate to the second complaint more so than the first, I think both are unfair attacks on a basic, human response to a tragedy, regardless of the victim of the tragedy being a building versus a person.
I don’t think much good comes from comparing suffering. I don’t think it is fair to attack a person for mourning the loss of an iconic, spiritual place and the treasured artifacts within. I think we can be decent human beings who value all those things and are saddened by their destruction AND ALSO be mad about inhumane injustices being imparted on people all over the world. I can care about both and be angry about both and be sad about both. I can financially support both. I don’t see any room or need for critics to judge where people place their charitable thoughts and contributions.
It was a shocking event and one that I think most people will remember and be able to say, I was [insert place here] when Notre Dame burned. For me, that place was Athens, an incredible, ancient city that itself shows that culture and civilization and humanity can survive tragic, historic moments like this, recover, and continue to thrive.