International Budget Guide 2013: Athens, Greece

For budget travelers, there’s never been a better time to visit the Greek capital. Despite being on the Euro, the country’s debt crisis has made this popular tourist center dramatically more affordable than the balance of the European Union, making once expensive resorts now surprisingly reasonable.

As unemployment and other economic problems take their toll, Greeks have all but stopped taking vacations, which means most of the city’s tourism bookings rely on foreigners. Unfortunately, many visitors have been scared off by the tide of uncertainty. Fears of a Greek exit from the euro zone and strikes and demonstrations in Athens caused many potential visitors to cancel their bookings – in the first half of last year, the number of tourists visiting fell 9%.

The silver lining to this distress is that for the budget-conscious, it presents a great opportunity. Tourism is the backbone of the Greek economy making up more than 16% of GDP, so the travel industry is bending over backwards to welcome travelers. Hotels, which lost 10-12% in profits last year, have had to drop their prices dramatically to attract tourists. Visiting Athens now means fewer crowds and better deals than ever before.

Athens is also the jumping off point for travel to the Greek Islands. Like the country’s capital, the islands have also seen a reduction in the number of tourists and have had to lower their prices accordingly. As an added bonus, the strikes, demonstrations and closures that occasionally afflict the capital are not really felt in the islands.

Activities

The New Acropolis Museum. This modern structure opened a few years back but it’s actually one of the few newer developments in a city that has dramatically cut back spending. Even if you’ve visited Athens before, the New Acropolis Museum provides an excellent reason to return. The beautifully curated exhibition details the historical and archaeological significance of the Acropolis and is a great primer for a visit to the ruins. The museum also hosts various temporary exhibits, and this year visitors can see the caryatids – sculptures of Greek women who form part of an Acropolis temple known as the Erechtheion – being restored. Earlier this year, the museum also launched a series of workshops during which visitors can learn about ancient technology, modern preservation techniques and the production of replicas. The workshops, which are run by archeologists and conservationists, are free with museum entry on a first come first served basis. At 5 euro for entry (or 3 euro for reduced admission) the museum is a great value.

The Antikythera shipwreck exhibit. The National Archaeological Museum already boasts some of the most important artworks and artifacts from ancient Greece, and this temporary exhibit provides another compelling reason to visit. The Antikythera Mechanism is an ancient astronomical instrument that was lost for 2000 years when the Roman ship it was on sunk in the Aegean Sea. Experts have only recently come to understand the complexity of the mechanism, which has been referred to as the “world’s first computer.” The shipwreck exhibit is on display until August 31st and is free with museum entry, which costs 7 euro (3 euro reduced admission).

See a performance at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Situated on the slopes of the Acropolis, this ancient amphitheater comes to life as orchestral concerts, operas, plays, and dance performances take place during the warmer months. Spectators are provided with cushions to place on the tiered, marble seating of the amphitheater, which makes for a spectacular backdrop. Previous performances have included the Athens State Orchestra, a German contemporary dance troupe, and a tribute to Greek folk music. Tickets start at around 15 euro for seats in the upper tiers. Check out a schedule here.

Hotels

Athens Backpackers. Centrally located just a few minutes from the Acropolis metro station, this hostel offers easy access to all the main sights. Accommodation includes self-contained apartments as well as dorm rooms with access to a fully equipped kitchen. The hostel is air-conditioned and boasts a sports bar as well as a rooftop bar that is open during the warmer months. From 17 euro for a dorm bed, including free breakfast and Wi-Fi. backpackers.gr 12 Makri St, Makrygianni.

City Circus Athens. Located a five minute walk from Monastiraki Square, this budget accommodation option is found in a 20th century mansion complete with frescoed ceilings. The atmospheric hostel has been decked out with reclaimed furniture and was decorated by local street artists. There are a range of room types, including dorm beds and doubles with private bathrooms. Guests receive free breakfast and Wi-Fi and have access to a roof terrace with Acropolis views. From 16 euro for a dorm bed. citycircus.gr 16 Sarri St, Psirri.

Hotel Amazon. If you want to step it up a notch and stay in a hotel, this is a great budget option. Located right by Syntagma Square, the hotel is an easy walk to the popular Plaka area and most tourist sights. The establishment, which is part of the Best Western chain, has been recently renovated and provides guests with television, Internet and breakfast. The only drawback is that some of the rooms do get quite a bit of street noise. Official rates start at 80 euro for a double, but you can often find deals in the 40-60 euro range through secondary hotel booking sites such as trivago.com or opodo.co.uk. amazonhotel.gr 19 Mitropoleos & Penelis St, Syntagma.

Restaurants

Kostas. This hole-in-the-wall restaurant serves up juicy souvlaki at bargain prices and the long line out the door is a sure sign of its popularity. The closet-sized eatery is located in the same square as the Agia Irini church, and diners can either take the food to go, or eat it at one of the standing room only tables located outside in the small plaza. A serving of souvlaki or kebabs topped in a rich and spicy tomato sauce will fill you up for around 2 euro. 2 Plateia Agia Irini, Monastiraki.

Mani Mani. Located in the leafy Makrygianni neighborhood close to the New Acropolis Museum, this restaurant serves up food traditional to the Peloponnesian region of Mani. The restaurant is tucked away on the 2nd floor of an unassuming building, but once inside, there’s an open kitchen and warm, modern vibe. Dishes have a haute cuisine feel and include a type of traditional pasta known as chilopites, a pork belly cooked for 17 hours, and a desert flavored with mastic liqueur from the islands. Mains cost around 10 euro, but most plates are also available in half portions for half the price. manimani.com.gr 10 Falirou St, Makrygianni.

Tzitzikas & Mermigas. Despite being in the heart of Athens and close to the tourist sites, this restaurant seems to attract a large local clientele. The décor has a kitsch feel with shelves of jarred and canned goods lining the walls. Butcher’s paper covers the old-school wooden tables and you’ll find your silverware stashed inside drawers beneath them. Dishes include saganaki (cheese fried in olive oil and spices), traditional greek salads, and chicken with a mastika sauce. The mezedes (small plates of food) cost around 5-10 euro and diners are treated to a free shot of ouzo. Be sure to check out the unusual tomato can sinks in the bathrooms before you leave. 12-14 Mitropoleos St, Syntagma.

Logistics

Getting Around

If you’re staying in the downtown area of Athens, you’ll find many of the tourist sites are easily accessed on foot. For traveling longer distances, the metro is cheap and efficient. Individual tickets are good for multiple trips within 90 minutes of being validated in the machines at the train stations. Tickets cost 1.40 euro from the vending machines and can be used on buses as well. While you’re at the metro stations, keep an eye out for artifacts that are on display – these were found while the metro was being constructed.

You can also get to the international airport via metro although you need a special ticket that costs 8 euro. Buses to the airport also depart from Syntagma Square. Tickets cost 5 euro and are available from the bus driver.

Seasonality

Summer is the peak travel season and hotels raise their rates (sometimes doubling them) during this period. The temperature in Athens can also shoot into the high 90s and beyond, making sightseeing feel like an exhausting Olympic sport. But if those things don’t deter you, summer is a great time to visit with the Hellenic Festival taking place – the summer arts event that involves music, theater, and cultural programs. However, for those who prefer lower prices and milder temperatures, the best times to visit are spring and fall when the mercury hovers around 70 F.

Safety

Like with most large cities, you should beware of pickpockets, especially when traveling on packed buses and trains. At night, some parts of the city can feel a little unsavory. While most tourist haunts such as the popular Plaka area are fine, it’s best to steer clear of Omonia.

Given the economic unrest in Greece, you should be careful when sightseeing near the parliament building on Syntagma Square, which is often the site of demonstrations. While it’s still safe to visit this area, it’s a good idea to keep abreast of the latest political developments to avoid getting caught up in any potentially violent protests.

Lastly, it’s worth being aware that Greece has been cracking down on illegal immigration and recently made headlines after a number of tourists got caught in the net.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Panoramas]

The Acropolis: Greece’s most famous monument weathers the crisis

The Acropolis, Athens, Greece
Visiting Greece and not visiting the Acropolis is unthinkable. Set atop a high rock overlooking Athens, the temples here were built primarily to honor the city’s patron goddess Athena in all her attributes. The buildings here are some of the best examples of Greek architecture and have had a profound effect on the architecture of all the Western world. While I have a preference for medieval sites like Acrocorinth, and I’ve visited the Acropolis before, I couldn’t help but go back.

The last time I was there was 1994, and a lot has changed. There has been a great deal of restoration and the world-class Acropolis Museum has opened up.

Here’s one attraction that the Greek government needs to preserve as it passes through its worst economic crisis since World War Two. People still flock here and it’s a major reason why Greece is an important tourist destination. Tourism accounts for 18 percent of the Greek GDP and tourist numbers went up last year. Several sources told me there were two reasons for this: budget-conscious Europeans are traveling closer to home and people are staying away from North African favorites like Tunisia and Egypt.

Even though sites like the Acropolis generate billions of euros a year in revenue, the Ministry of Culture survives on just 0.7 percent of the national budget, and that budget is shrinking faster than the supply of Greek olives I brought back from this trip. In the past year the ministry has seen its budget slashed by almost a third, with warnings of more cuts to come. Museums are already feeling the pinch and now ministers, archaeologists, and site directors are scrambling to find ways to maintain their their heritage. There are even plans to lease the Acropolis for film backdrops and photo shoots to help raise funds.

%Gallery-146241%This last bit is actually nothing new. Archaeological sites have always been available for rent, but costs were enormous and most projects were rejected out of hand. Now the Acropolis will go for the bargain-basement price of $1,300 a day for a photography session and about $2,000 a day for filming.

Despite Greece’s financial woes, restoration and conservation are continuing. Funds are still coming through from the government and from the European Union. The most visible is the restoration of the pronaos (front inner porch) of the Parthenon shown here in this image by flickr user dorena-wm, who obviously had better luck with the weather than I did. This image was taken last year and now there is considerably more scaffolding obscuring the front. The photo I took last Sunday is in the gallery.

At the Erechtheion, where Poseidon and Athena competed for possession of Athens, the interior of the famous south porch with its caryatid columns is screened off as the ceiling is cleaned with an innovative laser system developed specifically for this project. In ancient times it was believed that Poseidon, the sea god, struck at the ground here with his trident and a salty spring gushed forth. Athena created an olive tree, the first in the world. The Athenians judged that the olive tree was more useful and so dedicated their city to her. The city continued to honor the sea god, though, and the Erechtheion is devoted to his local aspect Erechtheus. Athens owed her power to her great navy, and so it was smart to honor the god who rules the waves, even if he did come in second place in the competition for the city.

No reconstruction was going on when I went, though. I took advantage of Sundays being free to revisit the Acropolis. It was low season and bitterly cold and overcast, but there were still large crowds exploring the ruins. One family from Crete entered at the same time I did and took the same route through the monuments. The father gave a long lecture about the place to his young son and daughter. It was heartening to see how much they enjoyed it. They asked questions, told him some things they’d learned in school, and were obviously having a good time. They took dozens of pictures and I offered to take one of them all together. That got us talking. The father’s English was limited, but his national pride was obvious even through the language barrier. As we talked, his kids went off to take more pictures.

The Acropolis Museum was opened in 2009 to much fanfare and became an instant success. Between between June 2010 and May 2011 more than one million and three hundred thousand Greek and foreign visitors passed through its doors. The museum explains the importance of the site from earliest times through the Classical era and beyond. It’s probably best to see this museum before you see the Acropolis as it will give you a much deeper understanding of that most historic of attractions.

To combat museum fatigue, take a break at the restaurant or café. Prices are remarkably reasonable and floor-to-ceiling windows give a splendid view of the Acropolis and two of its buildings-the Parthenon and the Sanctuary of Athena Nike.

The museum is not free on Sundays but that didn’t stop the crowds coming out in full force. The restaurant, café, and gift shop were all doing a brisk business. Most popular was the third floor, where a reconstruction of the Parthenon sculptures can be seen. As the labels make clear, most of these are plaster casts because between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that then ruled Greece, got permission to remove about half of them. As you can see from the display at the Acropolis Museum, he took the best ones. Now they are in the British Museum in London, while several other sculptures were taken by other antiquarians and ended up in other museums.

The Greeks want their sculptures back. The British Museum says they took them with permission of the government that was then in power. Here is the official Greek position and here is the British Museum’s position.

The economic crisis has added a new dimension to the struggle to return the sculptures. While the plaster casts in the Acropolis Museum are very well done, seeing the real thing is always better. Getting them back would be a major coup for a country that has only had bad news for far too long, and it would help bring in much-needed tourism revenue. But with both sides dug in, it looks like the Greeks won’t be getting good news like that anytime soon.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: The Athens War Museum

Historical Building to be Demolished for View of the Acropolis

Against opposition from architects and cultural conservationists, George Voulgarakis has cleared the way for the razing of a once-protected art deco building in Athens, Greece, because the building stands in the way of a direct view of the Acropolis from the new landmark Acropolis Museum. Voulgarakis also added that demolition of the building “would allow the plot to be excavated ‘to reveal antiquities whose existence is considered highly likely.'”

The Culture Minister revoked state protection of Areopagitou 17 and 19 when the rest of the nation was focused on forest fires in the southern part of the country.

The building, standing just 300 meters from the Acropolis, was designed by Greek architect Vassilis Kouremenos, a Paris-trained friend of Pablo Picasso. Ironically, the structure was originally protected by the driving force behind the new museum, the late actress and former Culture Minister Melina Mercouri.

Two adjacent buildings on Dionyssiou Areopagitou Street will not be automatically demolished, as they are both still protected by the Ministry of Public Works. But Voulgarakis’ decision is expected to ease the way for that listing to be revoked too.

Read the whole article here.

Thanks to Mel Kots and John Kots on Flickr for the photo of the “almost ready” Acropolis Museum.