Travel – City Break to Athens

I have been lucky enough to have travelled extensively over the years, but since moving back to the UK, most of my trips now tend to be the odd holiday or weekend/mid-week getaways. This hasn’t stopped me from wanting to get the most out of every trip that I do though.

Of course, there’s the usual’s for this sort of trip – Rome, Amsterdam, Barcelona, but for this trip I wanted to try somewhere slightly different.

It’s fair to say that the Greek capital of Athens hasn’t had the best press over the last few years and you can understand why it’s not on the hit list for most city break travellers. But with it’s beautiful weather, history, culture and food, it was certainly on my list of must do’s.

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We flew into Athens direct from Manchester which takes a little under 4 hours, as is usually the case, I booked a Lounge at the airport. You can read more about Manchester Airport Lounges here.

On arrival into Athens we landed at the satellite terminal, a bolt on to the original airport, designed to increase the capacity and only officially opened for use earlier this year, you walk through a tunnel which takes about 10 mins – the tunnel is beautifully designed and lit, with moving walkways.

The airport itself is situated 20km outside the city, which due to hills makes the road journey around 30km. We took a taxi directly outside the airport, which cost us 60 Euro due to it being after midnight (about 38 Euros at other times) with the trip to our hotel taking around 35 mins.

The roads into the city from the airport are not what I was expecting from Greece. A new multi lane toll road, with metro line in the centre, built to accommodate visitors of the Olympic Games. With this much money being spent on a road, you can start to understand why locals were getting angry about how public money is being spent.

We arrived at our hotel, the Wyndham Grand. Part of the Wyndham Hotel Group, the Wyndham Grand is located in a quiet part of the city, whilst only being around a 15 min walk from an abundance of bars and restaurants, and a 20-25 min walk to Syntagma Square.

We checked in and were given a beautiful suite on the 5th floor.

Although we were out and about for most of our stay, we did get to try out the rooftop bar. The view from the 9th floor bar was gorgeous, and the drinks were also reasonably priced for a 5-star hotel, in fact I’ve paid more for a glass of wine in a UK 3-star hotel! Unfortunately, the service in the bar was a little lacking and didn’t encourage us to stay for more drinks, which was a shame as with a little more hospitality in this area, we would have happily have sat there for hours.

Also, on the 9th Floor is a beautiful swimming pool – as we only came for a 2-night city break, we didn’t use this facility. But with a little more time to spare, this would have been a great spot to call down in the Greek heat.

Having spent a large amount of time on Greek Islands, specifically Kefalonia were we had both lived and worked, we are real fans of the Greek hospitality, warmth and of course food.

One of the best ways of exploring a city is through the latter. The Greeks are very passionate about their food and coffee, but it also gives you a huge insight into their history and culture. To really get the most out of the city, we joined a city food tour, organised and arranged by Alternative Athens.

Alternative Athens are a local based tour company, who arrange a host of tours to suit a wide range of needs. Due to our love of Greek food we attended the ‘delicious Athens food tour’.

Meeting with our tour guide Ilias in Syntagma Square at 10am, we were introduced to the other tour guests who were from all over world, all keen to experience some Greek food and culture. Some of the tour guests had never visited Greece before, whilst others like us, wanted to learn more about the country they already loved.

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Being 10am Ilias started to mention a Greek breakfast. India and I immediately knew what this meant – Coffee!!

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Coffee in Greece is not just a drink, but a culture. You find Greeks sitting along quiet streets, sipping coffee for hours, having chats and watching the world go by. Greek coffee however is a little of an acquired taste. With Ottoman backgrounds, Greek Coffee is like that you find in the middle east and specifically ‘Turkish Coffee’. Brewed on a stove top, Greek Coffee is strong and unfiltered, so has a little bit of a gritty texture, with sediment in the bottom.

Ilias explained how the coffee can be read, much in the way Romany gypsies would read tea leaves. Coming from a line of ‘Coffee Cup Readers’ Ilias even offered to read your ‘Coffee Grinds’ for you – thankfully mine were all positive.

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Next up after coffee and some cultural background, we headed for some Baklava. Another piece of cultural history, stemming back to Ottoman rule. A very poplar sweet pastry dish, traditionally made with Pistachios, Baklava can be found all over Greece, Turkey and the middle east. However, I have to say, this was one of the finest I have ever had, with the pastry being perfectly crispy whist still sweet and not dry.

Other food tasted on the trip around the city included some stunning bread, great Olive Oils, some meats and cheese and of course Bougatsa.

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Bougatsa is a sweet semolina custard filled pastry, best served still warm. It has always been one of India’s favourite dishes, and by the reaction when I posted it on social media, its soon to be a few other people’s favourite too.

The tour lasted around 4 hours and filled our minds with Greek Cultural History and our Belly’s with stunning Greek Food. There really is not better way to introduce yourself to a country and a city. Ilias the guide was passionate about his food, history and culture and was a pleasure to learn so much from him.

Read more about Alternative Athens here.

On completion of the tour we took time to wonder some more and take in the stunning city.

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People often ask, what’s a place like. So, I try and summarise as best I can.

Athens as a city, is much like its food and people – a complex mix of culture and history.

The larger streets have a feel of New York, with the yellow taxis and grand banking halls, but many of the buildings that were grand in times gone past are now fallen and left to ruin, which made me feel like I was in a fallen colonial city, much like the feeling you get walking through Panaji, the capital of Goa. The sudden coming across archaeological wonders in the streets shouted Rome, whilst the Graffiti echoed the passion and outspoken nature of the Greek people. Athens is where so much history and cultures collide.

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We visited A for Athens hotel, which has a roof top cocktail bar with some incredible views of the Acropolis. Enjoying a chance to sit back and relax. We took in the sights of the ancient city, which we planned to visit the following day.

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The Acropolis is an ancient citadel, most famous for the Parthenon. It is easily reached by foot and isn’t as steep as it first appears.

Walking from our hotel only took around 35 mins. We opted to enter the Museum First – Entrance was 5 Euros and was a great way of understanding the history of site, as well as being able to picture it how it once was. Opposite the entrance to the museum is the South Side Entrance to the Acropolis. The entrance to this is another 20 Euros per person.

Now its fair to say that I have been a little spoilt. Being a tour guide around such marvels as Petra of Jordan or the Pyramids of Giza, I have entered and explored some real sights. The unfortunate part for me, was the inability to get up real close and personal with these structures. With so much reconstruction work being done on these sites, its more about taking in the scale of these constructions and the historical pillaging from them. Whilst not one of my favourite ancient sites, it is still well worth a visit, especially as you can access it so easily as part of a weekend break – which would be impossible for many of my favourites.

Now we were on our second and last day, and time was ticking down, so it was time to do what made any trip to Greece a success – Eat Gyros Pitta!

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Its frustrating how restaurants either don’t write it in the menu, put it in small writing or only allow it from small areas of a restaurant – but a Gyros Pitta, eaten with the hand, is what makes a trip to Greece complete for me. So, until I’m in Kefalonia in 6 weeks’ time, I’ll be remembering these.

If you have never considered a trip to Athens, you really should. A foodie delight, with history and culture galore – we only stayed two nights, however you could do so much more. We will be back one day for sure!

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