“Who needs to purchase an expensive cruise ship shore excursion to see Athens? I’m an experienced traveller; I can manage on my own,” I told myself.
I figured we could get along fine without a guided tour — even though I had never been to Athens before. But as we disembarked our cruise ship last July, I started to have doubts.
The local temperature was a scorching 43C and I couldn’t help but notice my children eyeing the line of air-conditioned motor coaches longingly as we passed by on foot. I had read that it is fairly easy to get around Athens by train and we had been informed that the metro station was a short 15-minute walk from the cruise terminal. Under normal circumstances, 15 minutes of walking wouldn’t be a worry but with the extreme temperature, it seemed a little daunting.
The fact that we didn’t have a city map did not help alleviate my concerns.
With only a faint idea of where the metro station was actually located, we set out on foot in sauna-like conditions to find it. As we walked along, we encountered other intrepid cruise ship passengers who were equally disoriented and directionally challenged. But there was some comfort in seeing others following our route — if we got lost, at least we wouldn’t be alone.
After a long 15 minutes of steady walking, we rounded a corner and heaved a sigh of relief as we caught site of the metro station. Stepping inside the air-conditioned building was even more satisfying.
Since the 2004 Olympics, the metro in Athens has become remarkably easy to manage and it was relatively simple to figure out how to purchase a ticket and board the correct train to get to the major sites.
The metro has the added advantage of giving you a little flavour of local culture. Our train was packed with locals on their way to work — speaking to each other in Greek.
When we got off the train at Akropolis station and caught site of the Parthenon perched high on a hill above, we knew the 15-minute walk in sweltering heat had been worth it. Even from a distance, the Acropolis is as beautiful in real life as it is in photographs.
Saving a substantial amount of money by getting there on our own was just an added bonus.
Top sites in Athens
Europe’s oldest city has an abundance of ancient sites as well as modern cafes, galleries, and museums linked together by a city boardwalk that makes the city remarkably walkable — even during the summer heat. You could spend many hours just getting to know the Acropolis — watching the light dance off the columns of the Parthenon and listening to the sounds of the city floating up from the Plaka. But if you only have one day as we did, you may just want to get a look at the major sites that are easily accessed on foot from the Akropolis stop on the Metro line.
Acropolis: The Acropolis is the definitive landmark of Athens and towers above the city both physically and spiritually as the city’s most significant ancient religious centre. In Greek, the word “Akropolis” means “High City,” and most of the structures on the flat-topped limestone hill were built between 461 and 429 BC.
The Parthenon is the most important religious shrine and the most photographed structure in Athens. Dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the patron goddess of Athens, the structure once contained an 11-metre tall gold and ivory statue of the goddess that only priests and honoured visitors were allowed to see. Although the statue is no longer there, the ruins of the Parthenon and the other structures of the Acropolis evoke the spirit of the ancient Greek Gods that were once worshipped there.
New Acropolis Museum: With more than 4,000 artifacts on display, this museum is the must-see for anyone visiting Athens. Even if you don’t have time to go inside this museum, you should check out the front of the building where plexiglass panels allow you to see ongoing excavation work. Inside, you can see original artifacts and sculptures that once adorned sacred sites in Athens or wander along metal ramps and peer through glass panels at an ancient Athenian neighbourhood that is still being excavated.
Ancient Agora: Included in the cost of admission to the Acropolis, the Agora was once the commercial and civic centre of Athens. It’s humbling to sit in the Agora and think of the famous individuals who once walked here such as Socrates, Plato, and even St. Paul. The most significant monument in the Agora is the Stoa of Attalos, built by King Attalos of Pergamon in the second-century-B.C. There is a museum on the stoa’s ground floor with many interesting ancient everyday items, all labelled in English.
Temple of Olympian Zeus: A short walk from the Acropolis, construction of this massive temple began in the sixth century BC and was completed by Hadrian in AD 132. At the time of construction, Hadrian commissioned an enormous gold and ivory statue of Zeus and a slightly smaller one of himself for the temple’s inner chamber, which in modern times can only be seen with an imaginary eye. Only 15 of the original Corinthian columns remain, but it is a beautiful ruin. On the outskirts of the site are the remains of a Roman bath.
• Be sure to pack plenty of water with you on a day trip of Athens — even if you are on a guided tour. Regardless of weather conditions, it is a long, thirsty climb to the top of the Acropolis.
• If you are arriving by cruise ship and do not wish to endure the 15-minute walk to the metro station, you can catch a cab for about 5 euros. Be sure to negotiate the full fare before getting inside the cab.
• Don’t forget to validate your metro ticket before hopping on the train. There are machines inside the terminal for validating tickets. If you are caught with an unvalidated ticket, you can be fined.
• Shore excursions to the Acropolis with a guided tour cost about $70 per person, including admission fees. Doing the trip on our own using the Athens metro system cost just under $21 per person. For large families, the savings may be worth it. The disadvantage of doing it on your own is that you do not get the in-depth history of the site that comes from a trained guide. There are advantages to exploring on your own, though. Besides the cost savings, you have the opportunity to go at your own pace and explore more than you might be able to on a group tour.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.