The Great European Adventure

Despite What You May Have Heard, Athens is Pretty Nice!

After Istanbul, Katie and I hopped a flight to Athens, Greece. I’ve spoken to a number of travelers who found this city too dangerous, too dirty, and too touristy. I have one friend who, when you ask her about Athens, replies, “well, I stepped off the bus into a drug deal, so, that was my introduction to the city.” While I can’t blame her for fleeing to the Greek Isles after that experience, based on my own time in the city, I think it’s worth spending a few days in Athens.

The Parthenon alone makes Athens worth a visit.

For starters, the city didn’t feel dangerous to me. This may have been because Katie and I were couchsurfing and when you have a local showing you around, travel often feels easier and more relaxing. Inviting strangers to sleep in your home and agreeing to sleep in a stranger’s home involves a significant amount of trust. So, once you’ve overcome that hurdle, it seems silly not to trust your host leading you around their city.

Our couchsurfing host was an awesome Greek woman around our age whose mother was from South Carolina and whose father was from Sparta. She actually grew up in Sparta and Katie and I had to stop ourselves from saying stupid things like, “wait, people live in Sparta?”

Seriously, though, I'm just going to include photos of the Parthenon and other parts of the Acropolis in this post because they're that cool.
Seriously though, I’m pretty much just going to include photos of the Parthenon and other parts of the Acropolis in this post because they’re that cool.

During out visit, there were some protests, which I suppose might make someone wary of Athens, but they were peaceful and we didn’t get involved. Although there was a noticeable police presence in the city and our couchsurfing host did lead us through a line of gun-touting police officers one evening. That was a bit startling, but the officers were in a crowded public square and none of the locals, including our host, seemed concerned.

I think people from the US get nervous when they hear about protests and assume they must be dangerous because we so rarely demonstrate in our country. However, political demonstrations are common in much of Europe. The people regularly voice their opinions about the government in the form of protests and strikes, and while these events sometimes get violent, they aren’t too hard to avoid, and can even sometimes be safely attended by foreigners.

I’m thinking specifically about the general strike that I watched march down Passeig de Gràcia when I studied abroad in Barcelona. I was safely off to the side and feel that the experience gave me some insight into Catalan and Spanish politics. Later I saw broken windows on some banks and a video of a car that had been lit on fire near my university. Clearly, some damage was caused, but I didn’t hear of any injuries and I was able to witness the event in general without getting caught in these scarier occurrences.

The light was hitting these ruins beautifully.
The light was hitting these ruins beautifully.

As far as Athens being dirty, well, I visited while the garbage collectors were on strike, and I didn’t think it was that bad. I mean, at least the piles of garbage were all in one place, right?

But, in all seriousness, Athens is no dirtier than any other major city. If you find cities dirty, and that’s a problem for you, then you might not like Athens. As always, It’s all about personal preference.

Voting is all about personal preference too. We were in Athens just after Obama was re-elected and saw this message on a side street near the Acropolis.
Voting is all about personal preference too. We were in Athens just after Obama was re-elected and saw this message on a side street near the Acropolis.

Katie and I enjoyed the bits of the city we were able to see in the 3 days we were there. Our couchsuring host introduced us to a few of her friends and brought us to some cool bars we never would have found on our own. One place she brought us was a bar in the courtyard of some rundown buildings, which had been converted into an art gallery. The entrance was unmarked, but it was packed, and clearly the place to be.

And yes, we enjoyed Athens’ touristy side as well. The Acropolis is a major tourist attraction for a reason and that’s why I’ve shown you so many photos of it. We loved seeing the ancient amphitheaters and the ruins of the Parthenon. I had fun pretending to be a caryatid.

Photographic evidence that my impersonations are spot on.
Photographic evidence that my impersonations are spot on.

We also spent an afternoon at the Acropolis Museum – a sleek, modern home for ancient artifacts.

It was a joy to look down over the city from the Acropolis and imagine what life was like in Ancient Greece. And it was a joy to sit on an outdoor patio eating dinner with the Acropolis lit up above us — the past preserved in a modern metropolis. We only spent a few days in Athens, but I’m thankful for the time we had there.

The view of the Parthenon from the Acropolis Museum.
The view of the Parthenon from the Acropolis Museum.

Have you been to Athens? What did you think? Did you find it dirty, dangerous, or touristy?

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.


  • pickledwings

    Cool stuff, I’ve got the Acropolis somewhere on my bucket list.

    My girlfriend went to Athens on business a few years back and had no problems with the place. She arrived alone and in the evening and had no problem finding someone who could speak perfect English to point her to her hotel.

    Her only complaint was that too many things were painted bright white and reflected the sun so much that she needed to keep her sunglasses on most of the time when outside.

    She’s been to quite a few places on business and she didn’t complain about Athens too much. Bucharest, on the other hand….

    • opportunemma

      All of the bright white buildings sounds like a logical complaint to me. I’m glad she had a good experience in Athens, and I’m intrigued by the allusion to Bucharest. I hope she didn’t have too terrible of a time there! (I’ve never been and know hardly anything about it.) It must be very different traveling on business, does she have any time to sight-see? I hope she takes you along with her sometimes 🙂

      • pickledwings

        I did tag along with her to Amsterdam a couple of years ago and had a good time there.

        She does usually get at least part of a day for sight seeing.

        I’ve not been to Bucharest, but most Romanians I know don’t like the place and say the scars of the Ceaușescu regime are still in evidence everywhere and it’s generally depressing. The pictures my girlfriend brought back from her trip there largely support what I’ve been told about the place by Romanians.

  • Colleen Brynn

    Never been to Athens, but I never discounted it despite what other people have said. I’m glad you managed to write a positive post about it, and I think I would feel the same way as you. I love big cities, and garbage like that (esp in nice piles) certainly wouldn’t bother me.
    And about protests and demonstrations… I think North Americans (perhaps Mexicans excluded on this one) freak out about protests and are reluctant to participate… we just don’t do it. But witnessing protests overseas can be a great insight into other cultures as you said. I have witnessed demonstrations in Buenos Aires, Madrid, small towns in France… they are often fascinating and happen so often that it only makes sense that we hear about the ones that go badly. People who don’t travel might not even know that there is such things as a peaceful protest… and just how common they are.
    I can’t wait to visit Greece one day!

    • opportunemma

      Even though Athens’ garbage collectors were on strike, everyone still knew where to pile up the trash, so at least it was an organized mess, haha. I’m glad to have fellow travelers backing me up about demonstrations/protests abroad being common and generally peaceful. People from the US (and maybe Canada?) have a lot of misconceptions about travel and life abroad, and I hope those of us privileged enough to travel and unlearn these misconceptions can share our knowledge with others. Whenever you make it to Greece, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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