March 30, 2011

0 Seven Tips for Your Visit to Athens

1. Do your research on a hotel. We stayed at the Athens Gate Hotel, which I strongly recommend (no, unfortunately they're not paying me).  While it is a little out of our normal price range, we were able to snag a deal Paul found online.  The incredible views of the Temple of Zeus and the Acropolis can't be beat, and the included breakfast is the best breakfast I've ever had at a hotel, and is better than most restaurants' as well.  The other upside, which is more practical?  It's just outside of Plaka, the main tourist shopping area, but close enough to still have tourist police right on the corner.  The theft-crime in Athens is quite high- pick-pocketing, bag snatching, etc., so having tourist police right outside of our hotel was a bit of a comfort.  Luckily we didn't have any issues, although we did see one incident first hand, watching an assailant run by quickly followed by a police officer.  The only complaint we had about the hotel was the street noise, although I'm not sure where in Athens you could stay without either traffic or tourist noise at all hours!

2.  Have some common sense.  As I've mentioned, the theft-crime rate is high.  It seems obvious, but don't leave your bags unattended anywhere, but especially on the Metro.  Put your wallet in a front pocket, and if you carry a bag, have a cross-body strap and a zip-top.  We didn't have any issues, but we heard a few first-hand accounts before we got to Athens that made us that much more vigilant.

3.  At least sketch out an itinerary.  Not all sites are open everyday.  The New Acropolis Museum is closed on Mondays, as is Kerameikos, the ancient cemetery.  Other places (not the more popular tourist sites) close early- it's not uncommon for them to close around 2 or 3,  reopening in the evening on certain days.  One thing you may be able to take advantage of is the free admission on Sundays in the off season (November through March) as well as the first Sundays of April-June and October to most major sites including the Acropolis.  For instance, Paul definitely wanted to see the elaborate changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, so we knew that was a priority on Sunday at 11 AM.

4. Be ready to bargain!  The souvenir shop workers make Stateside used car salesman look wimpy- they are aggressive in their sales pitches!  They will offer you percentages off, but the best bargaining tool is to be willing to walk away- you'll often get their lowest offer when one foot's out the door.

5. Use the Metro!  Be willing to use the buses for out of town excursions!  When we went to Mycenae and Nafplio we spent less than €30 total for transportation.  The organized trips we found online and from our hotel were at least €99 each, and not on our own schedule. It will take some extra legwork on your part, both figuratively- trying to find which bus to take, and literally- changing from the city bus to the KTEL bus (the ones that head out of town).  One note on the Metro- be sure, if you use it to get to/from the airport, that you have the proper ticket.  If the Metro police catch you with the incorrect ticket the fine is hefty- around €60. Also be sure to validate your ticket properly, and when in doubt, ask at a window.  We weren't sure if we validated again when changing from the Metro to the bus, and the gentleman at the window was happy to answer.

6. Learn a few basic Greek words.  Familiarize yourself with the Greek alphabet.  Paul is much better with languages than I am, so he was in charge of this, but I learned "kalispera" (good day), "efharisto" (thank you), "signomi" (excuse me, I'm sorry), and I definitely learned "spanakopita" (spinach pasty) and "koto poullo gyro" (chicken gyro!!)!!  Knowing the Greek alphabet helps because if you can identify and sound out the letters you can find most place names.  For instance, Ναύπλιο is Nafplio/Nauplio/Naflion (same place)- Nu-alpha-upsilon-pi-lambda-iota-omicron.  So when we were looking for our bus, we could recognize that.  Neither of us were in the Greek system in university, but I knew a lot of the letters from my friends' fraternity and sorority names!  Most people in Athens do have at least a little English, but as my friend who lived there says "A smile and a 'kalispera' go a long way!"

7. Try the foods!  Greek foods  are delicious, fresh, and filling. Be brave, try something new, and if you don't like it, try something else next time.  Most restaurants have pictures or English approximations in the menu, and most waiters have enough English to answer your questions.  Of course, dietary limitations are a reasonable cause for selective eating, for example, I don't eat mammals, so any lamb or pork dish was out for me, but within that parameter I was up for a bite of most anything, and discovered some new favorites!

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