Joshua Barley, The Slow Cyclist guide in Zagori and Crete, has lived and worked – as a writer and translator – in Athens for over a decade. Here he describes the best way for a visitor to spend 24 hours in the Greek capital.
I have heard the scenario many times.
You have booked your summer holiday on a Greek island. Perhaps you have even booked a Slow Cyclist holiday. You have a layover in Athens; a couple of nights in town; one full day. What do you do?
You have probably booked a hotel somewhere in the Plaka, within walking distance of the sites. After breakfast you eagerly scamper up the Acropolis and visit the wonderful Acropolis Museum, if you have not done so before.
Now you want an alternative dose of history and culture. You stroll across Syntagma Square in the morning sun, perhaps taking a detour through the lovely National Gardens, saunter down Vassilis Sofias Avenue and enter the fine neoclassical mansion of the Benaki Museum. Here you find artefacts from the whole span of Greece’s history – from ancient vases to Byzantine icons to folk costumes. When you have finished, you have coffee on the sun-washed terrace.
You’re already thinking about lunch as you wander back into the centre, making for the Central Market, taking in the spice shops or cheese shops on Evripidou Street, or the bric-a-brac stalls on Athinas Street. When hunger takes over, you have several options. Diporto, in the wine-barrel-filled basement of a nondescript building, has served chickpeas, fried fish and salad since time immemorial. It is a legendary haunt of old Athens. Of if you want street food, there is nowhere (in the world) that beats Feyrouz.
After lunch, you walk in a pleasant, wine-filled haze through the colourful lanes of Psyrri to the site of Keramikos: the cemetery of ancient Athens. This is one of the most atmospheric and unvisited ancient sites in the city. In spring it is covered with wildflowers and the ripe smell of squashed olives. You take tea on the terrace of the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, enjoying the museum’s marvellous exhibits as you make your way upstairs.
In time for sunset, you wander through Thiseio and climb the Filopappou Hill, relishing the fine views of the Acropolis, before joining the legions of lovers gazing out at the red glow over Piraeus and the Saronic Gulf. It’s a cliché but it’s worth it.
Using what’s left of the light, you amble down the hill, along the ancient Koile Road, into the charming neighbourhood of Petralona, where you sit for a drink in Merkouri Square, possibly at the bookshop-café Adad, for a glass of organic wine (and a book), or at the old favourite Braziliana, for (literally) anything else. Petralona also has a host of excellent dining spots, with Oikonomou’s Taverna serving traditional Greek fare (very well) and the charming Aster providing a taste of Athens’ new, thriving food scene.
True to Athenian tradition, you won’t return to your hotel without several more drinks. You head back towards Monastiraki, perhaps to MS Roof Garden for its roof-top views over old Athens, or to the square of Agia Irene, where you will find dozens of bars to meet all your desires. You stagger back to your hotel, hopefully remembering to set your alarm in time for the morning ferry.