What to Do in Athens Before Your Cruise
When I stumbled upon a deeply discounted Princess cruise to the Black Sea, I knew I could not let it pass me by. My travel buddy (Jo) and I packed our bags and set out on our 23-hour flight to Athens, where the cruise embarked from. I had been to Athens, Greece, before, and done all of the major tourist attractions. It was Jo’s first time, though, so we decided to see a few of the big sites and do something simple, as well. We found a fun walking food and history tour to satisfy that item. Here is what to do in Athens before your cruise, and an excellent itinerary for seeing the incredible city.
(this article was originally published in October 2015, but updated in April 2020)
Dropping Off Our Belongings
We arrived at the Athens airport early morning and found it incredibly easy to maneuver. Everything was 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 around 30 minutes.
Jo selected the Hermes Hotel, in the heart of Athens (Apollonos Street) of the historic Plaka neighborhood. It is within walking distance of the Acropolis, the most popular tourist attraction in Athens. Plaka is filled with pedestrian shops, restaurants, and cafes, and is terrific for people watching. Heed caution because it is known for pickpocketing.
Jo and I checked our luggage in with the hotel and boarded the double-decker Sights of Athens tour bus. Admission was 17€ for a full day bus ticket. We began the 90-minute loop of the most popular destinations while listening to the audio tour via headphones.
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Seeing the Incredible Acropolis
Our first hop off location was the Acropolis, home of the iconic Parthenon and the Palace of Nike, my favorite. We purchased our admission ticket (12€) to the Acropolis at the entrance. I remembered the high temperatures and crowds from my last visit; this time was no different. The climb to the top of the Acropolis is a little strenuous, especially in the heat. 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 marveled at the incredible photo-ops. We photographed the Temple of Dionysus, the city of Athens, and the Parthenon, which was currently in restoration mode. The Parthenon was a former temple dedicated to the Goddess Athena, daughter of Zeus, with eight columns running across the front and 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 the Ionic style. Columns in the shape of women support the roof. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovations.
After seeing enough of the Acropolis, Jo and I reboarded the bus and continued the tour. Our next stop was the Panathenaic Stadium, site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. We also hopped off at the Temple of Zeus, Parliament, and the National Library.
Delicious Dining in Athens
Jo and I chose The Greco’s Project for a delicious al fresco dinner. We feasted on perfect Greek salads, Chicken Souvlaki, and Pork Gyros. An authentic Greek salad is not like one we are used to in America, where lettuce is the star ingredient. Theirs is only feta cheese, herbs (mostly oregano), fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, kalamata olives (sometimes), thinly sliced red onions, and green peppers.
Souvlaki is meat that has been cubed, marinated, threaded onto a kebab stick, broiled over charcoal, and served in pita bread. The meat is topped with tomatoes and onions, plus your choice of tzatziki or spicy red sauce. Beef is not an everyday staple in Athens, so be prepared to pay extra if that is what you want. Chicken and pork are more common and inexpensive choices.
Gyros were 3,90€ and Greek salads 4€, which I found very reasonable for such a trendy restaurant. After dinner, we roamed around Plaka for some souvenir shopping.
The Hermes Hotel
As mentioned earlier, the check-in at the Hermes Hotel was super quick and easy. Our accommodations were clean and satisfactory, plus they had a lift to help us manage our luggage. Our room was on the second floor, had twin beds, a couch, and a small balcony, and offered free Wi-Fi and breakfast. Though the AC was on and running, our room was still hot.
Jo and I forgot to pack adapters, which the front desk staff so graciously offered to lend us. They also provided great maps for touring Athens and made suggestions for dinner.
The Hermes Hotel’s lobby was attractive and welcoming, making it a fun place to hang out in. They provided alcoholic beverages for pay and complimentary coffee and water throughout the day.
The morning breakfast buffet on the mezzanine was highly impressive. It was packed with delicious breakfast offerings including eggs, cereal, Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, pastries bruschetta, English beans and sausages, Greek cheese pies. There was juice, coffee, and tea to drink. We were both impressed by the number of food choices and the organized set-up.
Changing of the Guard
After breakfast, we met the guide of our Athens Small-Group Food Tour to eat our way around the city, but first up, a quick visit to Parliament to watch the changing of the guard. The Greek Parliament has been housed in the Old Royal Palace since 1934 and sat facing Syntagma Square. It was fascinating watching the Changing of the Guard and the rhythmical performance that the guards do. The uniforms are photo-worthy.
I went to McDonald’s for an iced beverage and loved the irony in their advertisement is that of a Mac-Gyro. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed.
Athens Food Tour with Viator
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. We strolled through the famous and very smelly Varvakeois Market, known for their fish, vegetable, and meats.
I enjoyed exploring a new part of Athens 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,” whole, preserved fruits with big flavors that are used for topping ice cream or yogurt. They were incredibly delicious and not overly sweet.
There were twelve people on our food tour, ten of which were sailing with us alter that afternoon. The tour was palatable and educational, plus a great way to see a bit of Athens before cruising. We politely tipped Evangelos, thanked him for a fabulous day, and headed to our hotel by taxi to fetch our luggage.
Sailing Away to the Black Sea
Our taxi driver did not speak English, but we were able to convey to him that we wanted to grab our luggage and continue to the cruise port. He patiently waited while we checked out of the hotel. We then set out to meet the Emerald Princess ship. Imagine our surprise after riding well over 30 minutes in the congested Athens traffic, when the driver calculated our fare, and it was under 20€. Score! We embarked on 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. Again, 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 roam all around the city, lounging in the middle of door fronts or parks, and merely behaving and wanting your attention. It is impressive that their government program stepped up to make sure these animals are cared for. That speaks volumes for this American. Kudos, Athens from my animal lover friends and me!
Tip: Keep Euro coins available for use of the WC (water closets/restrooms)
FYI: The Acropolis was designed by famous sculptor Phydias.
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