As a newly self-ordained digital nomad, I felt that my first order of business was to properly explore my Greek roots (being half Greek on my father’s side).
I had visited Greece once before (ten years back), but as had always been the case until now, time constraints didn’t allow for a deep exploration of the country. Although I would now have all the time in the world, traveling at the tail end of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic came with its own set of risks and ethical considerations.
Nevertheless, my wanderlust won out, and I seized the window of opportunity: Greece re-opened to international tourism at the beginning of July, and I didn’t feel too guilty hopping on a plane from Germany. I would practice my good hygiene as usual and diligently wear my mask transiting through the train stations, airports, and on all forms of public transportation in Greece.
I arrived in Athens in the late evening heat, quickly working up a sweat hauling my backpacks through the airport and onto the X95 bus to Syntagma Square (travel time is 40 minutes to 1 hour; departures are every 15–20 minutes). Bus tickets (€5.50 for one way to Syntagma at the time of writing) can easily be bought at the 24-hour kiosk or from the automatic machine outside the airport arrivals area.
If you plan to use the bus or metro more regularly, the ATH.ENA Card is a good option, which can be either personalized (requiring an application process) or anonymous. I purchased my anonymous card pre-loaded with eight tickets from the ticket booth in Syntagma, but you could purchase it at any ticket counter in the metro stations or central bus stations. The card can be reloaded at one of these counters or at any of the automatic machines.
After arriving downtown, I initially took the wrong bus––well, to my credit, the right bus number but in the wrong direction––and had to backtrack on foot to Syntagma, finally reaching my Airbnb at 1 am dehydrated and with bright red marks carved into my shoulders.
Photobombed at Syntagma Square on arrival
Despite the late hour, I was warmly intercepted by my hosts for the next two weeks, Lyudmil and Daniela. They gave me a quick tutorial on their home mainly by way of animated, Greek-narrated hand gestures because of their lack of English and my pidgin-level Greek––all my lessons on Duolingo during the lockdown seemed to abandon my brain once I was put to the test. But the few pleasantries I learned during my childhood at least made me a polite foreigner.
Located in the neighborhood of Kypseli, I was within walking distance (or my version of “walking distance,” which in this case was no more than 40 minutes) to the major tourist areas, including Plaka, Syntagma Square, and Monastiraki.
Over the course of my first week in Kypseli, I had already identified my favorite spot for people-watching: a mini roundabout about a three-minute walk up my street with cute cafés and restaurants around the periphery and a small park in the center. I quickly came to be on a first-name basis with the girl working at the bakery (Ria, who knew exactly what to give me before I asked––spanakopita and granola bars) and the waiters at my favorite restaurant (who generously presented me with halva on the house more than a few times after my meal).
Pretty houses brimming with flowers line the side streets of Kypseli.
Pretty houses brimming with flowers line the side streets of Kypseli.
The normally pigeon-ridden St. George's Square (Platia Agiou Georgiou)
As I experimented with the most elegant way to spit out an olive pit in public, I watched the antics of the out-of-control pigeons in the park. I sympathized with the frustrated waiter frantically throwing water out of glasses at the pigeons as they aggressively descended onto the table he was clearing, but I still had to laugh at the ridiculous scene from a distance.
In the mornings, the long-bearded priest of the Greek Orthodox church next to the park sat alone on its steps (presumably contemplating God) and the same exuberant dog ran around the the park while I ate my breakfast spanakopita, perking up its ears when my paper bag crinkled.
St. George's Church in Kypseli with an unholy pigeon lurking in the foreground
Beyond Kypseli, about a 20-minute walk from my Airbnb, lies the neighborhood of Exarcheia (also spelled Exarchia). In stark contrast to the stately columns of the government buildings and museums surrounding Syntagma Square, Exarcheia embodies a completely different vibe.
I'm always drawn to less picturesque, alternative neighborhoods when I visit a new city, so Exarcheia was up my alley. First mentioned to me by a friend in Germany, I had thought it was a fully autonomous, self-governed neighborhood like Christiania in Copenhagen, but only parts of it are managed by the community.
Historically a haven for anarchists, artists, drug dealers, refugees, homeless people, and left-wing students and intellectuals, interesting artwork and in-your-face, politically charged graffiti cover the exteriors of shops, apartments, and abandoned buildings of Exarcheia.
When I told Daniela I had been wandering around these nether regions, she took on a worried, motherly tone, exclaiming, "Oh no, Jenna!" But with the sun out and police officers stationed on several street corners, I was more concerned about being accosted by pigeons than anarchists.
Clashes with the police have been a routine affair in Exarcheia since 1973, when students of Athens Polytechnic University, located on the fringes of Exarcheia, protested the military dictatorship in force at the time, resulting in the deaths of at least 24 civilians.
In more recent times, Exarcheia has struggled to fend off other threats.
Greece's current prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, vowed last year to "clean up" Exarcheia, and in a series of police raids, ousted refugees from established squats and shipping them off to detention centers or camps.
Gentrification has also ushered in a wave of Airbnbs and tourists as the area becomes more trendy, creating housing shortages and slowly driving out Exarcheia's long-term residents due to rising rental costs. An Instagram account (exarcheiatourism) discourages tourists from staying in the neighborhood, bluntly stating, "Hipster tourists, tech expats, & documentary artists leave now" in their account description, and "Tourists, don't be surprised if the neighbors hate you," in a pinned message.
Point taken. I'm not sure exactly which category I'd fall into, but I'm confident I'd be hated if I had set up shop there instead of Kypseli. So, if you spend time in Athens, just be mindful of this perception and choose accommodations in one of the many other more tourist-friendly neighborhoods.
But don't get discouraged––this doesn't mean you can't visit the area or that you'll be met with animosity from the locals. The narrow streets of Exarcheia are lined with authentic and inviting bars, cafés, shops selling vintage clothes, old books, records, and musical instruments. The neighborhood is especially well-equipped with vegan/vegetarian restaurants––although a number of options pop up in a Google Maps search, I only tried out Mama Tierra, which I can recommend.
A vast farmers' market also springs up along Exarcheia's Kallidromiou Street on Saturday mornings. After browsing the market, you could do as I did: drink a Greek coffee and people-watch from one of the cafés facing the market and/or walk to the top of nearby Strefi Hill to take in the city from above.
A farmers' market (laiki – "people's market") pops up on Saturday mornings in Exarcheia.
A very appropriate Guy Fawkes decoration at a café beside the farmers' market