Athens is a wonderful city that I have been lucky enough to visit multiple times throughout my life. The first was as a backpacking student and I was armed with a less than sufficient amount of knowledge about the city but more than a sufficient amount of beer. Mistakes were made, lessons were learned, and I had a fabulous time. The trips that followed honed my skills and I began to feel pretty comfortable traveling to Athens. The most recent trip, however, involved extended family members and four kids so it was a different ballgame altogether from my previous trips. New mistakes were made and new lessons were learned, but we all still had a fabulous time. These are just 5 of the things I have learned the hard way not to do when visiting Athens:
1. Wear high heels.
If you take nothing else from this list, take this one to heart. And I'm not just talking stillettos, I mean wedges, platform sandals, kitten heels, etc. If you are unfamiliar with the Acropolis, it literally translates as “high city.” That means there are stairs to the top, and once there, the top happens to be very uneven and the paths are not paved. If you are really lucky, it will be raining and you can enjoy an impromptu slip and slide contest with your fellow tourists. (For this reason, I would skip the flip-flops as well if there is rain in the forecast.) Stairs are not just on the way to Acropolis either, they abound everywhere in Athens (that’s what happens when you build on 7 hills). The charming Plaka has its fair share of cobblestone streets as well. But most importantly, you will be walking miles each day to see all the sights, so pick out your most stylish sneakers and get going.
2. Walk around the Acropolis on a summer afternoon.
The Parthenon is a captivating site and well-worth the time you spend admiring it, just make that time in the morning or the evening if you are here in June, July, August, or September. The Acropolis is basically a giant piece of white limestone, which makes for an imposing symbol of the city, but also reflects all the sun’s rays back up to whomever is walking around on it. Bare rock also doesn’t make for good tree growth so there is zero shade up there. In case I am not painting a vivid enough picture for you, the Acropolis is darn hot--scorching, desert heat, can’t-drink-enough water, hot. Get up early and be there when it opens at 8am. Trust me, I have been there in the morning, afternoon, and evening and not having to worry about heatstroke was so much more fun.
There is a reason many of the car rental companies in Athens will offer to drive you to the outskirts of the city before handing the car over to you. Imagine crowded streets with motorcycles that speed around you and that may or may not pay attention to traffic lights or any traffic laws at all (even easy ones, such as not driving on the sidewalk). While you are busy watching out for the crazy motorcycles, don’t forget about the pedestrians who like to cross a street anywhere that’s convenient and feel no need to wait for a red light to do so. Oh, and the street signs are tiny as well as unhelpfully located up high on the sides of buildings so you will most likely be using Google to help you find your way. Which is fine except that Google doesn’t always know which streets are pedestrian only and you often find that out about halfway down a one-way alley. I find driving in Athens to be a fun adrenaline rush (to be fair, I also like driving in NYC and have a bit of a lead foot), but others have nightmares about it. The last time we were there, my mother remarked that she “did not feel the need to go to Six Flags for at least a year or maybe ever” after finally safely arriving at our hotel in the Plaka.
4. Forego the view of the Acropolis when selecting a place to stay.
You may be thinking “Who cares about a view?” or “I don’t plan on being in my room besides sleeping!” But after all that walking mentioned above, it is wonderful thing to take your shoes off, sit back with a glass of Greek wine and enjoy the view of the Parthenon lit up at night.
5. Try to see everything.
Unless you plan on moving to Athens for an extended period of time (years maybe), there is no way to see all the city has to offer. Museums alone could take you a week, never mind the dozens of archaeological sites. Pick what interests you most and stick to that. Especially if you are traveling with children, there is certainly a point of diminishing returns. You’ll recognize it by the glazing of eyes and groaning at the words “museum," "ancient Greece,” and “I promise this will be fun.” Part of attraction of Athens is its tavernas and coffee places, so stop and enjoy them. Sit at an outdoor table, have a coffee, beer, or ice cream, and watch the world go by.
Ready to take your family on a trip to Athens but too busy to read a million blogs and guidebooks to figure out what you should do? I have written a detailed itinerary with everything you need to know for a two day tour of the city including maps, lodging recommendations, and my favorite tourist attractions. It covers the best of the city without wearing you out (after all, it's a vacation right?) and is geared towards those traveling with kids (ie- nearest playgrounds are marked on maps).