You hear about Zeus and Athena when you are nine. You marvel at pictures of the Acropolis when you are 14. You study Plato and Homer when you are 20. Then one day you find yourself in Greece, in front of the temples, and monuments and stadiums, at the ground zero of western civilisation. And you can’t seem to get enough. When you have just 72 hours in Athens, you go on a bender, binging on every scrap of myth and history in sight. This is how you do it:
Once Upon A Time…
Start with the canon. The Acropolis, the dramatic hilltop ruin, is what most people visit Athens for. There is no reason for you to do it differently. But before entering the site, visit the Acropolis Museum (theacropolismuseum.gr/en) on the foothill for an overview of everything Acropolis. Sometimes, it even has an archaeologist on the first floor to help answer visitors’ questions.
Hit Diporto, a small, unpretentious, basement eatery, formerly frequented by blue-collar workers, lately discovered by tourists. With no signage and no menu, it only serves a certain number of dishes per day; the day we visited we got plates of fava, bread, wine in tiny, glass thimbles, fish and potatoes swimming in a gravy. The man behind the counter in a chef’s whites stirred the pots theatrically and mumbled in Greek. He was so authentic, he may as well have been a self-parody. Finish up and return to the Acropolis through the main municipal market, a welter of controlled chaos and colourful produce, and pick up a bag of olives to eat on the move.
From Athens, the quickest island getaway is to Aegina. Photo By: Pfel/Moment/Getty images
Back To The Ruins
With mind and body sated by the museum and lunch, you are now ready for the real deal. You can spend a good two hours weaving around the slopes, hopping over stones that laid the foundation for much of western civilisation. Though some restoration work is still going on at the site, it’s impossible to stay unimpressed. The Acropolis, or city on the hill, dates back to the 5th century B.C., when the Athenian city-state was at its peak. Envisioned by the statesman Pericles—comprising the Parthenon, the ancient temple, the theatre of Dionysius and the Odeon—the Acropolis is synonymous with western antiquity. Lasting over 25 centuries, and considered the cradle of democracy, theatre and philosophy, an Acropolis visit is the centrepiece of any itinerary.
Stroll through Plaka, the busy neighbourhood abutting the Acropolis slopes and the small, picturesque enclave of Anafiotika. Have a Greek coffee (much like the Turkish, a sludge of caffeine in a tiny cup) or a bowl of Greek yoghurt (thick curd topped with berries, nuts or jams of your choosing).
A Matter Of Taste
You have earned your calories, and they will come to you fried. It’s pointless being in Greece and shying away from the array of battered items available: zucchini and tomato balls, eggplant crisps, fried fish. Sample some at Mavros Gatos, alongside the succulent chicken skewers, and a bottle of sharp and tasty ouzo, the local liqueur. The complimentary dessert of semolina halwa, is a nice touch to end.
Athens has a warm, inviting café culture (top left), perfect for tourists; The Acropolis Museum (bottom right) is a reliable introduction to Greece’s classical origins; Desserts such as the koulourakia, a sweet, rolled-up pastry (bottom right), are street food staples in Athens; Syntagma Square is home to a war memorial (top right) dedicated to fallen Greek soldiers. Photos By: Mark Avellino/Lonely Planet Images/Getty images (street), William Gray/LatitudeStock Images/Dinodia photo library (guards), Jekatarinka/Shutterstock (vendor), saiko3p/Shutterstock (museum)
The greatest hits tour through ancient civilisation resumes with a stop first at Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus. Believed to be one of the biggest arches in the ancient world, construction occurred over several centuries but was eventually completed by the Roman emperor Hadrian in 131 A.D. The surviving pillars are majestic in scale, and the one that fell to the ground after a storm in 1852 has been dramatically left to lie.
Witness To History
The Agora was the beating heart of ancient Athens, a kind of shopping arcade or gathering place. There is an abundance of structures here, including former temples, halls and a gymnasium, as also the spot where Socrates was allegedly poisoned to death. Every footstep through the premises feels weighted by history and ripe with significance. The museum inside is again, a good starting point, with an overview of each of the relevant historic periods.
Carry some baked goods from Takis Bakery (the spinach, leek and cheese pies were all great, as were the wealth of cakes), and eat them on site, sitting amidst the greens, under the sun.
Monastiraki square is great for ambling walks and street shopping. Photo By: Milan Gonda/Shutterstock
Hip To Go Square
History hanging heavy? Fear not, a ruins-free afternoon can be had by strolling through the Monastiraki square for souvenirs, postcards or simply a lark. Buy a box of strawberries from a road-side stall which are bloody red and bloody sweet. Walk up to Syntagma square, the central square housing parliament, or sit in the park outside. Wander into a supermarket and get some feta and wine.
Grab More Grub
Krasopoulio tou Kokkora, a cosy tavern, can meet any moussaka needs, should they arise, and also sends out complimentary dessert.
You’ve had two packed days, why not slow down the pace for the third? A good way to do that is with brunch at Barbadimos. The stuffed capsicums and stuffed tomatoes were bursting with flavoured rice and goodness; the spice-flecked feta and the garlic-infused tomato sauce were quite up to the task as well. The meal’s denouement by way of the kunafa, a crusty, cheesy Middle Eastern pastry, was exactly how any finale should be: a dramatic and deeply satisfying form of closure.
One of the most imposing shrines to a Greek god, The Temple of Olympian Zeus (top) will impress even the most casual observer; Aegina is known for its pistachio products (bottom left); Hadrian’s Arch (bottom right) was once the central gateway to the city. Photos By: Adél Békefi/Moment/Getty images (pillars), Rne Beruldsen/Shutterstock (ice cream), Neil Beer/Stockbyte/Getty images (arch)
Though Santorini, Corfu and Mykonos are the best-known Greek islands, dotted with twee, hillside houses and brilliant, azure seas, the closest island to Athens is in fact less than an hour away by ferry. Aegina, though small, is most famous for two things: its temple ruins and its pistachios.
You can deboard and start by strolling down the promenade, a stroll whose pleasures are heightened by pistachio stall-owners interrupting to thrust free stuff at you. We tasted pista liquer, pista pesto, pista butter, candied pistas. I never was a fan of the nut before, but I certainly am one now. The small, pale, slightly sweet pistas of Aegina are unique to the island, and have been grown here for more than a century, with about 400 registered farmers and 120 family-run farms.
God Is Greek
This is still Greece, and you still do have to visit the mandatory neighbourhood ruin. Stop by at the fifth century Temple of Apollo, with yes, first the museum, and then the actual site, a cozy, compact ruin. A single, fraying column dramatically protrudes into the skyline, and the blazing blue ocean, or “wine-dark seas”, (Homer, not me), adds to the atmosphere.
Supping By The Sea
It’s now time for a late, but rewarding meal. Flisvos has all the trappings of a place that encourages a long luncheon. So make time for more tsatsiki, feta, battered zucchini and a few beers, while sitting at outdoor tables that face the sea.
After a satisfying lunch you can walk off your meal by exploring the small town, before you take the ferry back. Once back in Athens, drop by at one of several live music venues, such as Mousiko Kafeneio, where they host rembetika, or what some call a form of Greek blues.
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is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She was previously a beat reporter with the Hindustan Times. She usually writes on criminal justice issues, culture, books and sports.
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