Off The Beaten Path in Greece III: Attica
Updated: Oct 24, 2019
The Cradle of Civilization. Home of the Great Thinkers. Home of Democracy. More Mercedes Benz taxicabs per square meter than all of Germany. Greece's largest ports of entry. That's right, I can only be talking about Attica, usually the first place most travelers to Greece set down on. With that in mind, let's get right down to it!
When most folks come to Greece for the very first time, they always hit the major tourist spots in the city, the Acropolis with the Parthenon atop and the Odeon of Herodus Atticus nestled in its shadow, the "new" Acropolis Museum, the Monastiraki flea markets, Syntagma Square, and elsewhere. Don't get me wrong, these are all crucial, must-see places for first-timers (especially the Acropolis Museum, it is one of the finest museums on Earth). But if you're not a first-timer, or you have a bit more time in the city and want to explore the area more, then, by all means, allow me to be your guide.
Inside the City of Athens -
Ok, so your flight has finally touched down in Athens, and surprisingly, you're not jet-lagged at all and ready to hit the ground running. You hail a cab and make your way to your hotel in the city, 30 kilometers away. Once settled, you grab your trusty travel guide, fanny pack, and camera, and hit the streets. Now, these places I'm about to mention are in no particular order, so please enjoy them at your leisure.
One of my favorite places in Athens itself is the Zappeion Gardens and Hall. Mainly used as a conference and exhibition hall nowadays, construction on this fantastic structure began in 1874 and was finally completed in 1888, just in time to be used in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 (this was the main fencing hall). If you are fortunate enough to find the Zappeion open and are able to peruse inside, you will not be disappointed. It is beautifully done, pictures just do not do it justice. The gardens outside the Zappeion building are also exquisitely done as well, and Athens being a city of statues, these gardens have some amazing statues located throughout, including my favorite, depicting Eros destroying his bow. There is also a statue of famed Hellenophile Lord Byron at the southwest edge of the Gardens. You could spend a couple of hours perusing through here, and during the hottest days, don't forget to pack your water bottle with you.
Next up is the Varvakios Central Market, where there are huge halls full of purveyors of the freshest meat, seafood, and produce in Greece. Make no mistake, this place is huge. But you better wear shoes with good traction, as it gets slippery in places (especially around the seafood stalls!). Freshly slaughtered pigs, lambs, chickens, and ducks were hung in stalls, huge King Prawns and Octopus were put on ice...and people, there are tons of people everywhere, just going about their daily business and buying food for their households. It is something truly epic to see the goings on of this place during the morning hours. You will not be disappointed. You should also take a break and drop into one of the onsite ouzeries for a shot of ouzo and some of the freshest cuts of charcuterie in Athens.
Wander over to the Hill of the Nymphs (in the Thissio neighborhood), and the phenomenal National Observatory of Athens, Greece's first modern scientific organization dating back to 1842. Here is where visitors can see some of the first telescopes in Greece, and now some of the most powerful in all of Southern Europe as well as explore the Geoastrophysics Museum, the library of the Observatory, which contains hundreds of historic books and documents, as well as a variety of scientific instruments of the 20th and 19th century. They can also examine from close by the first optical telescopes of Greece, including the Meridian Refractor, and the original 16cm telescope housed under the dome of the Sinas building. The latter was used by Julius Schmidt, the third Director of the NOA (1858-1884), in order to draw the most accurate map of the Moon during that period. The Visitor Center in Thissio is open Monday to Friday from 9am until 2pm. There are special tours for students as well as organized groups in Greek and English languages. The entrance fee is 5 Euro for adults and 2.5 Euro for students. The Visitor Center also organizes special events of night sky observations in collaboration with the amateur astronomer clubs in Athens.
I won't even bother going into the myriads of options there is for food and nightlife to satiate every taste, diet, palate, or budget, but if you have questions or want some custom-built recommendations, email me or hit me up on social media, and I'll be glad to steer you several which ways.
The Rest of Attica, Outside Athens -
That was just a VERY brief look at only 3 spots inside the City. Now, let's get on with the rest of this amazing prefecture. The first part is, naturally, the Athens Riviera.
A few kilometers outside Athens, the urban landscape gives way to a unique seaside resort. This gorgeous stretch of coastline with its green-blue water, organized beaches and rocky coves is teeming with five-star resorts, spas, esplanades, marinas, windsurfing, and sailing.
Your excursion to the southern suburbs begins from Faliro and reaches Sounion. The tram connects Athens – from Syntagma Square – with the southern suburbs, and is a leisurely way to get to the coast. Route T3, which reaches from Faliro until Voula, is the most enjoyable way for you to get to know the coastline. Along the way, you’ll encounter seaside neighborhoods and destinations full of temptations for you to stop and check out: Alimos, Glyfada, Voula, Vouliagmeni, Varkiza, Lagonissi, Saronida, Anavyssos are all perfect for swimming or a stroll, with shopping, dining and more.
In this corner of Athens you’ll find organized, emerald water beaches, and rocky coves perfect for a swim. There is certainly no shortage of inviting sand or Blue Flag awards on stretches of the coast like Eden Beach at Mavro Lithari, the beaches at Anavyssos, Varkiza, Asteras Vouliagmenis, Kochilia in Lagonissi and many more. Five-star resorts with spas, esplanades, palm trees, sea sports, sailing and even golf at the modern Glyfada Golf Club await you. Traditional tavernas and gourmet restaurants serve freshly caught fish. The beat goes on at numerous beach bars and exclusive nightclubs where you will dance until dawn, barefoot on the sand. Here the sun shines bright and the good times ring out all year round.
If you are a sailing enthusiast, the Athens Riviera has many marinas from which you can set sail for beaches and villages in the Peloponnese (Loutra Oraias Elenis, Korfo, Epidaurus), Sounion – cruising by Athens’ cosmopolitan beaches – as well as the islands near Athens, in the Saronic Gulf. Fully-organized marinas in the area can be found in Flisvos, at Faliro-SEF, in Alimos, Glyfada, and Vouliagmeni. An overnight excursion to the nearby Temple of Poseidon in Sounion, especially when there is a full moon, is a majestic experience.
On the tip of this unique coastline, you’ll find Cape Sounion, where you can admire the aforementioned Temple of Poseidon – one of the most significant monuments of Ancient Greece, and one of the most important attractions outside Athens. The energy of the landscape is indescribable and has inspired myths and legends. This is where Aegeus, king of Athens, jumped to his death, mistakenly thinking that he’d lost Theseus, his only son, to the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Every evening the sun’s rays play hide and seek between the marble columns, then dance down to add a sparkle to the sea below.
And finally, when night falls, you’ll enjoy the coast’s nightlife: in Alimos, Glyfada, Vouliagmeni, and Varkiza the beach bars are filled with people enjoying their cocktails, dancing until dawn and making lifelong memories.
Oh, and speaking of Glyfada, sports fans are in love with the area, which has recently become famous worldwide because of its excellent and pristine golf courses. This resort area is the location of numerous nightclubs and bars and is famous (some might even say notorious) for its nightlife. Lagonisi is a small resort that is very popular with families.
Comfortable and calm sandy beaches are perfect for small children, but vacationers can also make their stay even more interesting by exploring local lemon groves. There is also an excellent resort there – Loutraki, which has become famous thanks to its healing mineral springs.
You will definitely need to go to Attica Zoological Park, which is located in the Athens suburb of Spata, Greece (where the new Athens Airport is). This place is rather new; it started to accept visitors around 10 years ago, but it is the biggest zoological park in Greece. Every child (and adults too) will be enthralled by watching wolves, lynxes, white lions, leopards, and many other animals. The park is well equipped, you will easily find cafes and places to have some rest. It is better to plan your visit for weekdays since on weekends the park gets very crowded. Your little nature-lovers might want to see ARCHELON – the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece (the address is Solomou 57, behind tram stop "Paleo Demarhio"). It is rather far from the city center, but your child will remember this trip because he or she will be able to become friends with turtles and even to feed them.
In respect to historical antiquities and museums, Attica is one of the richest regions of Greece. There is Marathon, a town near the sea about 40 km far from Athens; the Marathon race is named after the town. In 490 BCE, the plain of Marathon witnessed the famous Battle of Marathon, where Athens defeated the Persians, and sent a runner to notify the Athenians of the victory, the runner ran all the way to the center of Athens, told the City elders of the victory, and promptly collapsed and died right there in the City Centre.
One of the most important medieval Christian monuments of Attica is the Kaisariani Monastery. This Eastern Orthodox monastery, built on the north side of Mount Hymettus, near Athens, is one of the centers of pilgrimage in this region. Monasteries, temples, cathedrals, and churches are always worth a visit anywhere in the country.
That's about all I have for Attica at the moment, and, as I always encourage, if you have ANY other places to add, please, PLEASE let me know!