When I stumbled upon a greatly discounted Princess cruise to the Black Sea, I knew I could not let it pass me by. My European travel buddy, Jo, and I packed our bags and set out on our 23 hour flight to Athens, where the cruise embarked from, arriving the next afternoon. This was my second trip to Athens, so other than a food tour, we had no plans other than to see as much as possible in the 24 hours we had before our cruise set sail. Check out how I spent my my first 24 hours in Athens pounding the pavement and cramming in as much as possible.
We arrived at the Athens airport and found it incredibly easy to manage and very well marked; even the most novice traveler would be able to navigate through here effortlessly. Our cab ride to the hotel was 40€ and took about 30 minutes. Jo selected The Hermes Hotel, based on Trip Advisor reviews. It was located on Apollonos Street in the historic Plaka neighborhood, which is near the Acropolis, the most popular tourist attraction in Athens. Plaka is filled with pedestrian shops, restaurants, and cafes, as well as offers a great setting for people watching. Heed caution because it is known for pickpocketing.
We checked our luggage in with the hotel and headed out to board the double decker “Sights of Athens” tour bus. Admission was 17€ for a full day bus ticket and we began the 90 minute loop of the most popular destinations while listening to the audio tour via headphones. Our first hop off location was the Acropolis, home of the iconic Parthenon and the Palace of Nike, my favorite. Admission to the Acropolis may only be purchased at the entrance on the day of your visit and the price is 12€. I remembered the high temperatures and crowds from my last visit and this time was no different. The climb to the top of the Acropolis is a little strenuous and the rocks are quite slippery, so wear proper shoes. The ruins found in the Acropolis were mostly built around 400 BC.
Jo and I reached the top of the Acropolis and took photos at the Temple of Dionysus, overlooking the marvelous city of Athens, and the Parthenon, which always seems to be receiving some sort of restoration. The Parthenon was a former temple dedicated to the Goddess Athena, daughter of Zeus, and features 8 columns running across the front as well as the back and 17 along the sides. The Palace of Nike was built between 421 and 406 BC and is one of the oldest remaining buildings in Ionic style. The roof is supported by columns in the shape of women, but unfortunately it was closed for renovations.
After seeing enough of the Acropolis, we jumped back on the bus and continued the tour, stopping at the Panathenaic Stadium (site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896), Temple of Zeus, Parliament, and the National Library.
We chose The Greco’s Project for a delicious dinner consisting of Greek salads, chicken souvlaki, and pork gyros. A true Greek salad is not like one we are used to in America where lettuce is the star ingredient. In fact, it is comprised of feta cheese, herbs (mostly oregano), fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, kalamata olives (sometimes), thinly sliced red onions, and green peppers. There is something about the taste of the cucumbers and tomatoes in Greece, bursting with flavor in your mouth; the best I have ever had. Souvlaki is meat that has been cubed, marinated, threaded onto a kebab stick, broiled over charcoal, and served in pita bread. It is topped with tomatoes and onions plus your choice of tzatziki or spicy red sauce. Beef is not a common staple in Athens, so be prepared to pay extra if that is the meat you prefer as they do not raise cows. Chicken and pork are the more popular and inexpensive choices. Gyros were 3,90€ and Greek salads 4€, which I found very inexpensive for a trendy restaurant. After dinner, we roamed around Plaka discovering the best streets to shop and called it a night, our bodies begging for rest.
The check-in at the Hermes Hotel was easy, the accommodations were clean and satisfactory, and they had a lift to help manage luggage. Our room was located on the second floor and consisted of twin beds, a couch setting, and a small balcony. Super fast WIFI and breakfast were included. The air condition was turned on and running, but our room was still extremely warm. The front desk staff offered us adapters for our electronics as we forgot to bring them, and clear, concise directions along with maps for our walks. The Hermes Hotel has a lovely lobby to hang out in, providing alcoholic beverages, as well as offer free coffee and water most times of the day.
The next morning, we enjoyed the breakfast buffet, full of food, juices, coffee, and tea on the mezzanine. Some items available were scrambled eggs, beans and wieners, bruschetta, tomato salad, cereals, pastries, creamy Greek yogurt, fresh fruits, tiramisu, and Greek cheese pies. Jo and I were both impressed by the amount of food choices and the organized set-up.
After breakfast we set out to meet our guide with the Athens Small Group Food Tour to eat our way around the city; but first up, a quick visit to Parliament to see the changing of the guard. The Greek Parliament has been housed in the Old Royal Palace since 1934 and sits facing Syntagma Square. I took a moment to pop in the McDonalds across the street for an iced beverage and loved the irony in their advertisement being that of a Mac-Gyro. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed.
Our 3 hour Athens Walking Food Tour provided us samples of a wide range of Greek dishes as well as a tasting seminar at a local cheese shop plus a stroll through the famous Varvakeois Market, known for their fish, vegetable, and meats. I enjoyed exploring a new part of town and finding the little nooks and crannies around the city that offered the more popular hipster venues. The highlight for me was sampling what Evangelos, our guide, referred to as “spoon sweets”, which were whole preserved fruits with big flavors such as sour cherries, that are used to top ice cream or yogurt. They were exquisite! Of the 12 other people on the tour, 10 were other Princess cruisers we would be joining later that day. I definitely recommend this food tour as it was something educational and unique. We politely tipped Evangelos, thanked him for a marvelous day, and headed to our hotel by taxi to pick up our luggage.
Even though our taxi driver did not speak English, we were able to convey to him that we wanted to grab our luggage and have him continue driving us to the cruise port. He waited while we checked out of the hotel and then we were port bound to meet the Emerald Princess ship. Imagine our surprise after riding well over 30 minutes in the congested traffic, when the driver calculated our bill and the entire amount was under 20€. Score! We embarked on to our ship and started our vacation exploring the Black Sea.
Athens surprised me on this trip by offering much more than I anticipated. The touristy area I always hear about, Plaka, was not nearly as exciting as some other neighborhoods we explored, so I suggest moving around the city, preferably on foot as most destinations are within a 45-60 minute walk. Be leary of parks as some shady people were lurking. Say hello to the dogs of Athens and give their government a big shout out for taking care of all the homeless dogs by not only immunizing and spay/neutering them, but for making sure they are fed and happy. Fat stray dogs are littered all around the city, lounging in the middle of door fronts or parks, and simply behaving and wanting your attention. It is wonderful that a government program stepped up to make sure these dogs are cared for and that quality speaks volumes for this American. Kudos, from me and my animal lover friends, Athens!
Hint: Have some Euro coins available for use of the WC (water closets= restrooms)
FYI: The Acropolis was designed by famous sculptor Phydias.