Athens has come into its own as a delicious concentration of its classical and modern flavours. The second southernmost capital city in Europe, its peripheral location sets it apart from its fellow continental metropolises. Whether you feel drawn to the Greek capital for its archaeological assets, or because of its youth culture and emerging gritty edge, Athens is an intoxicating city. As you explore its streets, you’ll marvel at the infinite nature of time as you clock how a millennia-old monument casually flanks an early 20th-century residential building, or how a Byzantine-era church rubs shoulders with a glass and metal museum.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with what to see in terms of Athens’ rich classical offerings, especially if you’re only there for a short time. Start with the Acropolis: derived from the Greek words “acro” (highest point) and “polis” (city), the hill with the iconic Parthenon can be seen from all over central Athens, and visiting it is a must. There are two advantages to going to the Acropolis in winter. Firstly, the smog isn’t as intense, offering incredible views of the city – perhaps even with some sunshine glinting off the white buildings! Secondly, an adult ticket to the south side of the hill and its summit costs just €10 in the winter, while a ticket with full admission to the sites comes to €30 (all year round, not including entry to the Acropolis Museum).
Little Tree Books & Coffee
Need a moment to reflect on these awe-inspiring sights? After walking down from the Acropolis, head immediately south to the charming neighbourhood of the same name. In Greece, it’s never too late for a cup of coffee – especially when it’s in a café-bookshop that’s open until 11:30pm! Little Tree Books & Coffee has limited seating inside, but in the winter, the staff will offer you a blanket and turn on the heater for you if you sit outside. Now that’s what we call xenia (hospitality)! Most of the books are Greek-language, but unique, local-made stationery is also available to buy. It hosts music and spoken word events, which are ideal for meeting locals and other travellers.
If, after a few days of sightseeing, you’re yearning for less concrete and stone and more nature, the good news is that there is plenty of this around Athens, often within the metro zone. One of these is Piraeus, Athens’ main port and a city all on its own. And if you’re coming from climes where winter is a state of mind rather than just a season, why wouldn’t you want to glimpse the blue Mediterranean?
Piraeus is the gateway to an emblem of Greece: its islands. Every day, ferries take holidaymakers to spots like Crete and the Cyclades, but if you don’t want to stray too far, Piraeus has a beach all of its own. Walk up its main drag, the hilly Vasileos Georgiou Avenue, before you arrive at a view over the sea. Make your way down typically quaint, white-painted stone steps and you’ll end up on Votsalakia Beach. In the off-season, it is quiet — perfect for perching on a rock, closing your eyes, and breathing mindfully in time to the waves. Hopefully the sun will be shining so you can get your vitamin D fix while you’re at it.
Greek cuisine may be characterised by its mincemeat, gyros, and feta, but for those who are more inclined towards a plant-based lifestyle, there are places around central Athens where you won’t just be avoiding animal products, but enjoying some of the most delicious cuisine you’ve ever had. Falafel House is a convenient lunch spot a short walk from Monastiraki Square. Try what may well be the best hummus in the city, making for excellent fuel for an afternoon of wandering, at a very reasonable price.
For dinner, Mama Tierra is located in the Exarchia neighbourhood, just north of Omonia station. Everything on the menu is vegan, from their famous mushroom burger to their variation on a traditional Greek favourite, moussaka – perfect comfort food for a chilly winter night!
Also, Avocado is Athens’ veggie mecca, nestled in a side street off Syntagma Square. With an emphasis on local, organic ingredients, and an exclusively vegetarian menu with many vegan options, where better to savour the produce of Greece in a colourful, chilled atmosphere to boot?
A night out in Athens doesn’t have to be outrageously Dionysian to be enjoyable. Many cafés transform into bars come evening, most likely to economise on rental costs. For that reason, there’s somewhere for everyone. Unlike in some other parts of Europe, note that smoking indoors in bars is generally allowed in Greece.
Hidden away in an easily overlooked alley off Monastiraki Square, you have to know where you’re going if you want to find trendy bar Couleur Locale. Walk through a small shopping mall before taking a narrow lift right up to the top — you may need to follow a group of people headed there if you’re unsure where you’re going! And in the winter, sitting on the terrace is no problem, thanks to a heated marquee, so you can sip your wine with a fantastic view of the Parthenon illuminated at night. Sometimes the best things are hidden in plain sight.
Athens remains an exciting destination all year round, thanks to the city buzz — and even though there’s no summer heat, it’s certainly warmer than most other European cities in winter!
The Athens metro is possibly one of the world’s cleanest — and it is certainly good value. Once you’ve shelled out the flat rate of €10 to get from the international airport into Athens’ city centre, a five-day pass will cost you just €9. Distances between metro stations tend to be quite a bit longer than in, say, Berlin or Paris, and only the truly plucky will try their hand at navigating the streets of Athens by bike — so if your feet are blister-prone, it’s worth the investment!