Athens was the last stop on my first ever summer tour of Europe, and it was the only city that felt truly ancient. I literally tripped over ruins on my way to other ruins, stumbled across archaeological sites while walking to cafes, and bumped into historic monuments just outside some of the city’s most popular gyros stands.
I would honestly say, breaking free of the crowds and getting lost in the history of this city can genuinely change your life, if you’re lucky enough to find a quiet day. But that’s the rub — I’ve never found a truly quiet day in Athens. I’ve been back twice now and, even in the quieter (and much cooler) months of September and October, I faced enormous crowds on my trek up the Acropolis, long queues throughout the Ancient Agora and particularly bustling groups at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Of course, the attention is well deserved, as this city’s most popular sites are also some of the world’s most historically important.
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Luckily enough, Athens, the seat of human civilization for centuries, contains more than enough historic splendour to cater for its millions of annual visitors. My advice is this: knock out the perennial favourites — Parthenon, Erectheion, Theatre of Dionysus, Ancient Agora, Temple of Olympian Zeus — in one hectic, sweaty day, then head for these unmissable and off-the-incredibly-beaten-path sites.
1. Kerameikos Cemetery
It’s more than a little morbid, but the Kerameikos Cemetery was one of my favourite sites in Athens. A train to Monastiraki Metro and a 10-minute walk up Ermou in 35 degree heat brought me to the cemetery gates, where I was shocked to find no other tourists. I wandered through narrow, winding paths alone, weaving through gravestones and historic tombs, some of which dated back to 2700BC. I was especially struck by a section that contained dozens of clustered, cylindrical grave markers, a stark reminder of just how crowded the city was beneath my feet, too. The cemetery also has a small but fascinating museum charting the history of the Kerameikos area, known throughout the ages for its unparalleled pottery and ceramics.
Tip: Once done communing with the dead, grab a cool beer from the hip Gazi College, another 10 minutes up the road.
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2. Souvlaki from O Kostas
Though you might prefer to avoid crowds while travelling, you seek them out when it comes to food. There is no shortage of quality meat wrap vendors in Athens but where can you find the best—the actual best—in the Greek capital? This was maybe my biggest challenge in Athens, and the search consumed my thoughts at every lunch and dinner and also sometimes breakfast. Definitively, the best souvlaki (that is, chunks of pork grilled on a skewer) I found was at O Kostas, a hole in the wall establishment about 5 minutes west of Syntagma. According to local travel website, Why Athens, O Kostas has been operating here for 65 years, and is currently run by the original Kostas’s grandson… Kostas junior. Their time-honoured souvlakis contain incredibly fresh tomatoes, a healthy helping of parsley, tzatziki and paprika, all wrapped up with tender chunks of perfectly seasoned pork.
O Kostas should be at the top of your to-do list in Athens, right alongside the Parthenon. No, seriously.
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3. National Archaeological Museum
Of course, with a city covered in historical sites and structures, many people don’t bother visiting the excellent National Archaeological Museum. And that’s exactly why I did. Not only for its glorious air-conditioning, but for the mind-boggling breadth of its collection. The museum boasts 11,000 exhibits showcasing artefacts from all over Greece, some dating back to the country’s origins in 6000BC. For such a mammoth collection, I found the layout completely intuitive, with exhibits ordered chronologically, era to era. On my whistle-stop tour through basically all of Greek history, I was completely blown away by the haunting funeral mask of King Agamemnon, the historic face of the Artemision Bronze (the bearded man with no eyes used frequently in official Hellenic branding), and the Dipylon inscription — a vase found at the aforementioned Kerameikos Cemetery displaying the earliest known inscription of the Greek alphabet.
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4. Panathenaic Stadium & National Garden
Site of the first modern Olympics in 1896, the only white marble stadium in the world and just a block away from the Temple of Olympian Zeus, I had picked this for one of the city’s busier spots. I was completely wrong. Entrance cost me a measly 5 euros and it allowed me to walk freely throughout the stadium and even to run the 100 metres on its track. Not another soul was around, leaving me free to live out my Olympic fantasies in peace.
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The nearby National Garden also took me by surprise. Its lush green foliage was an oasis on yet another 35 degree day, and I flocked there to take cover on one of its shady benches. The paths were quiet, the birds were singing, and I even found a turtle pond — what more could you ask for?
5. Central Municipal Athens Market
As with many of my favourite Athenian sites, I stumbled across the central market by chance. Here, I wasn’t jostled about by tourists and selfie sticks but by locals buying everything from fresh seafood, meat and produce to coffee pots and vintage musical instruments. Don’t let the dry, bureaucratic name turn you off — this market is exciting and an essential slice of Athenian life.
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6. A day trip to Mycenae
If a little bit of crowding and an hour and a half on a bus doesn’t bother you, I can’t recommend a day trip to Mycenae enough. One of Ancient Greece’s most important cities, Mycenae was where war was declared on the Trojans, where King Agamemnon called home and was a major location in The Iliad. The entrance to Mycenae led me through the foreboding Lion Gate, after which I was free to wander through the ruins at my own leisure, poking my head into crumbling homes, grain stores and religious sites. After wearing myself out in the ruins, I entered the adjoining museum, which provides incredibly detailed information about how the city operated in its heyday. If you’re travelling in the hotter months, as I did, make sure you bring plenty of water, food, and sunscreen, and utilise the air conditioning in the museum frequently. Mycenae sits completely exposed atop a hill in the Greek wilderness — there’s a distinct lack of amenities here.
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Feature photo by Milan Gonda via Shutterstock.