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The Creative Professional’s Guide to Athens

For the average tourist, I’m sure three days is more than enough time in hot, graffiti-tagged Athens. Outside the ancient ruins, the Greek capital seems to lack character and charm. So why did I stay for two weeks? This is the reality of being a creative professional. You settle in places for longer than deemed necessary and move past the basics of the tourist trail. Behind the never-bare walls and litter-filled streets, is a passionate city of artists and activists. There is a modern design culture in Athens unlike any other and I had a hunch it would be a strong hub for a digital nomad. So come on. Give Athens a chance.

Athens gets stifling hot in summer, but the National Gardens make a cool escape.

When to Go

Hot and crowded, Athens is not at its best at the peak of summer. So much of the city is covered with graffiti and litter – there is no point in detracting further from its charms with scorching temperatures and masses of sweating tourists. Better to wait for the shoulder seasons to enjoy the Greek capital. Weather in May or September will still be plenty warm and sunny.

How Much to Spend

A one-way flight to Athens from the US in peak season will cost at least 300 euro. If you’re elsewhere in Europe, expect to pay about 100 euro, or perhaps a little less, on a budget airline. Peak season dorms run 20 to 30 euro per night. A private room would probably cost about 50 euro per night, but you may be able to find private rooms on Airbnb that will match dorm costs. Sit down meals in restaurants and cafes run about 10 euro. Street food like sesame bread and cheese pies are just a couple euro apiece. If you’re self-catering, a week’s worth of groceries is about 20 euro. The Metro may seem minimal with just three lines, but it’s a reliable way to get around the city. Tickets are 1.50 euro a pop and valid for 90 minutes, including subway and bus transfers.

Despite rumblings amid the country’s long-standing economic crisis, Greece is still part of the EU and uses the euro as currency. Assuming a 1:1 conversion to USD won’t hurt your bottom line too much.

Ferries dock at Piraeus, served by the city Metro’s green line.

Getting There

The Athens airport welcomes flights from all over the world, and is connected directly to the blue M3 line of the city’s Metro and the Suburban Rail, which is favored by locals. Special airport metro tickets must be purchased for 10 euro traveling to or from the airport and validated before boarding. Otherwise, hefty fines apply.

A railway station is located a bit north of the city center, between the Attiki and Omonia Metro stops. Routes are predominately regional, such as to Thessaloniki.

Coming in from the islands? Ferries dock at Piraeus which is directly served by the green M1 line of the Athens Metro. You’ll be in the city center in under an hour.

Getting Around

The Athens Metro is very modern with smooth rides and spacious, well-lit trains. There are only three lines. Line 1 or the Green Line – also called ‘the Train’ by locals – runs aboveground from the port of Piraeus, where you can catch ferries to the islands, through Monastiraki, Omonia, and beyond. Line 2 or the Red Line centers around Syntagma Square and the Acropolis. Line 3 or the Blue Line serves the airport, as well as Syntagma and Monastiraki.

There are also plenty of safe metered taxis available, and an extensive bus service, which can be used in concert with the Metro. A 1.50 euro Metro ticket is valid for 90 minutes, including any line changes or transfer to a bus route.

There’s hardly a bare wall in Athens, but you’ll see the most street art near Exarchia and Monastiraki.

What to Pack

Even in shoulder season, Athens can be hot, hot, hot. Stick to lightweight clothing and use plenty of sunscreen. Don’t forget a hat and sunglasses, especially when visiting the Acropolis. Wear very comfortable shoes sightseeing – thoroughly exploring the ancient ruins or even just one of the city’s museums can take all day.

As in many large cities, pickpockets can be a real danger on the Metro and at crowded tourist sites. Wear a money belt or a cross body bag. PacSafe and TravelOn both produce good quality anti-theft bags with extra measures against sticky fingers.

Women traveling alone may want to wear a fake wedding ring to stave off unwanted attention from men. Lack of interest doesn’t always send a clear message to would-be paramours, but a husband – even an absent one – does.

Standard two-prong European plugs are the norm in Athens, and WiFi is generally reliable, so the amount of tech gear you need to pack should be minimal.

Where to Stay

Tourists tend to stick to the Plaka and Monastiraki districts like glue. To be fair, Athenstyle with its rooftop bar and modern design is a pretty trendy place to stay. Who can resist being minutes away from the city’s top attractions? Even in peak season, dorms start at 20 euro, making it surprisingly affordable for such a tourist-heavy neighborhood. Athens Backpackers and its nicer affiliate Athens Studios fall in this camp as well, though they are closer to the Acropolis than to Monastiraki.

The cheapest dorms you can find will probably be near Omonia. Book these with caution. Omonia Square has a rough reputation, particularly at night. The neighboring Exarchia district, however, is still gritty, but more student and artist populated. It’s also within walking distance of the National Archaeological Museum. I spent two weeks there in an Airbnb, and while there are definitely neighborhoods I’ve felt more comfortable in, ultimately I was safe. It is also a more interesting base for creatives than the touristy Plaka.

Even in touristy areas, it’s not hard to eat for 5 to 10 euro a meal.

Where to Eat

The Plaka and the streets surrounding the Acropolis are naturally packed with cafes and bars. You can enjoy a decent sit-down meal for about 10 euro. The Acropolis Museum’s second floor restaurant actually gets impressive reviews with entrees all under 15 euro. Another hot spot for sit-down restaurants is the upscale Kolonaki neighborhood. It’s a rare clean corner of Athens, filled with dining and nightlife options, as well as boutique shopping.

For cheap eats, grab something to go. Koulouri – sesame seed bread rings – sit in piles at carts on the corner. Many cafes and bakeries sell salty feta cheese stuffed pastries. Both of these light meal options only cost about 2 euro.

Personally, I prefer stay somewhere with a kitchen and just cook for myself in Athens. Solo dining is simply not as welcome in Greece as it is in France or Italy, and therefore not as fun.

Where to Work

While Athens doesn’t have quite the same cafe culture as Paris or Vienna, its gritty design culture and relative affordability compared to the rest of Europe make it an attractive option for digital nomads. Exarchia in particular is filled with artist-friendly watering holes.

For a quiet, more upscale workspace, head to Ntemonte in the Kolonaki neighborhood. Sinking into a crisp white couch with a sweet treat may not be the best for productivity, but this relaxing spot gets an A+ for looks and the WiFi is solid, so the only person you have to blame for missing your deadline is yourself.

For more recommendations, check out this list of Athens’ working cafes on Savoteur.

See that crowd off to the side? That’s where you want to be for the best view of the Changing of the Guard ceremony.

What to Do

Central to any visit to Athens is the Acropolis. The earlier you can get there the better. It is very hot in the afternoons, and quite crowded. Unlike Pompeii, where there were only two spots I really struggled to get a good photo, at the Acropolis, I felt like I was constantly fighting the crowd. If you have the budget, buy a combo ticket for 30 euro, which grants you admission to not only the Acropolis, but all the other ancient ruins in town as well. I felt 20 euro for just the Acropolis was a bit overpriced. The Acropolis Museum down the street, however, is an excellent bargain at 5 euro per ticket and admission to the ruins is less in the winter.

When the heat or noise of the city becomes too much, the National Gardens, bordering Parliament, make a pleasant escape. If you can’t stand even to be outdoors anymore, take refuge in the massive National Archaeological Museum. With two sprawling floors of sculpture, pottery, blown glass, metalworking, and more, this is a must-visit for any art or history lover. You can easily spend an entire day getting lost among this extensive collection.

Tourists come out in droves for the Changing of the Guard ceremony, which starts near Syntagma Square every Sunday at 11am.  The early bird catches the worm. If you aren’t one of the first people to arrive and score a spot by the western face of the parliament building, your chances of a good view are slim to none. As the military parades in and out, anyone parallel to Syntagma Square is relegated to a median. During the ceremony itself, there’s a frantic jockeying for position as everyone relocates along the street. Photographers, take note! You need to be on that side street so your camera doesn’t get buried in the crowd.

Much of Athens is covered in graffiti, but if you can learn to see past the crude tags, there are some real gems by professionally trained and internationally recognized artists. Large murals by INO and Alex Martinez pepper the neighborhoods around Exarchia, Gazi, and Monastiraki. Alternative Athens runs an extensive tour of notable pieces, but it’s an activity best suited for groups. Solo travelers will have to rely on luck to score a booking. I had to wait until my very last day in Athens to join a group of three. (A private tour would have been astronomically expensive.) But it was worth the wait! Easily the best street art tour I’ve been on. With a friendly, knowledgeable guide who never minded waiting while we took tons of photos, it was a great value for our money.

Athens isn’t the only European capital good for art lovers. Set up digital nomad camp in Paris too.

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4 Comments

  1. Enjoyed reading this! Good information for me since Greece is a much dreamed about vacation destination!

    • Danielle Bricker

      January 9, 2017 at 3:02 pm

      Debbie, don’t go to Athens – not like this at least. This was geared for artists and working travelers like myself. For a vacation with Bill, stay in the Plaka for 2-3 days tops, just to see the ruins, then get on a ferry to the islands. You’ll have a much better time there than you would in Athens! I just can’t picture you enjoying the modern city.

  2. I enjoy Athens. Other than Acropolis, I like those little known gems like Kerameikos and Ancient Agora which provide good alternatives to the scaffolding of Parthenon. And I enjoy walking along the streets of Psirri where the hippie stuff and graffiti arts come alive. There’s indeed lots to experience in Athens!
    Andrew Darwitan recently posted…Graffiti in Athens: Street Art or Trash?My Profile

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