Segways are out, scooters are in. In Syntagma Square, a group of tourists on electric Trikkes (a three-wheeled type of scooter) are circling their tour guide as he makes a futile attempt to inform them about the Presidential Guard (also known as the Evzones); showing off how skilled they have become on their lightweight vehicles seems more important than learning about the guards’ iconic uniforms. A few streets away, another group is exploring the passageways of the city’s forgotten stoas (covered arcades). Meanwhile, in Plaka, a family equipped with maps and booklets full of clues are on a treasure hunt inspired by Greek mythology.
“Alternative” thematic tours are all the rage now. A wealth of new companies have sprung up to offer a wide range of imaginative and original guided experiences in Athens. Regular tours just don’t generate the same buzz anymore. “Seeing the city as a series of images flashing by through a bus window is a way of traveling that irrevocably belongs to the past,” says Suzana Theodoridou, founder of the tour booking platform Grekaddict. “It leaves few permanent impressions, unlike when you try flavors, create art, interact with the locals and play games.”
This new trend only began after a profound shock to the traditional guided tour industry. In 2010, spending cuts prompted by the economic crisis forced the public School of Tourist Guides to shut its doors. The following year, This is My Athens, a volunteering platform initiated by the Athens Development and Destination Management Agency (ADDMA), began offering “free walks” with Athenians. These unpaid locals weren’t trained guides or necessarily educated in archaeology or tourism. The purpose of the walks was to bring tourists and locals together, offering visitors a glimpse behind the scenes in a city which had traditionally steered tourists straight to the sights of the historical center.
“Visitors feel like we’re the missing link between seeing the city and living it,” says Alexis Galinos, Managing Director of ADDMA (and a member of the Steering Committee of This Is Athens & Partners, an allied public-private organization). “Locals walk tourists through their favorite neighborhoods and talk about what it’s like to live in Athens and how the city has changed over the years.”
That was the beginning. By 2013, several new companies offering thematic tours were up and running, and proving successful. Food tours were especially popular. Tina Kyriakis, founder of the tour company Alternative Athens, was one of the first to offer them. Like many others, she’d been steered towards this creative new career by the economic crisis, but mass unemployment wasn’t, she says, the only factor behind the rise of thematic tours offered by locals: “There was a gap in the market and thematic tours filled it.”
Thodoris Nikolakopoulos, sales and marketing director at tour company Discover Greek Culture, agrees: “The existing tours offered a conventional and very dull flow without the element of performance needed to captivate and entertain.” Today, there are tours tailored to music lovers, shopaholics and kids. There are photography tours, vintage bike tours, street art tours, organized bar-crawls, audio tours and running tours. Some are fully hands-on as well; you can go behind closed doors at museums to hold ancient artifacts, run in the Panathenaic Stadium, or make your own tzatziki.
Traditional tours of the ancient sites are often combined with another activity. For example, you can follow your visit to the Acropolis with a photo safari, or discuss the state of the Parthenon during a wine tasting in Plaka. Some companies specialize in customizing tours for each group or visitor, taking into account their interests, ages and previous knowledge of the city. They describe themselves as experts in anticipating what you will enjoy before you even think to ask for it.
The growing market for new tours has also made room for initiatives such as street newspaper Shedia’s “Invisible Tours,” led by homeless Athenians, where visitors get to see a side of the city rarely noticed even by the locals – one centered around people, shelters and the literal cornerstones of the lives of the city’s homeless people. Guides gain a source of income while visitors leave with an unpolished view of the city and a greater awareness of the human toll inflicted by the financial crisis.
Despite the boom in alternative tours, some are concerned that many of the new guides are unlicensed. Kritos-Isidoros Piperas, president of the Association of Licensed Tourist Guides, cautions that guides showing people around historical Athens without a license could be under-qualified. “However, there are state-licensed guides giving all sorts of thematic tours, so there are good options,” he explains.
The Athens Guide School reopened in 2017 and the first class of newly licensed guides has just graduated. This will help ensure that guests have a variety of options and that standards are kept high. The city’s best tour companies employ licensed guides for their historical tours. For other tours, like photography tours and food tours, unlicensed but professional guides passionate about their topics, sometimes called “hosts,” or simply “locals,” might provide a better option. Overall, satisfaction is high and Athens’ tour operators are applauded on ratings platforms like TripAdvisor. But, as always, read third-party reviews and the information from the tour provider carefully to find the experience that is right for you.
Talking to both guides and guests, they all seem to agree on one thing: thematic tours are here to stay. As Tina Kyriakis puts it, this isn’t a passing trend – it is, in fact, the new mainstream.
6 top-rated companies we like:
“See more, sweat less” is the tag line of this company, which offers a range of tours around the city center and the coast. Gliding around the streets of central Athens on an electric Trikke scooter is possibly the most comfortable way to see the city in summer.
scooterise.com, Tel. (+30) 216.700.3277
Discover Greek Culture
Everything a foodie could wish for is included on this tour, from traditional Greek breakfast with herbal tea to meze and souvlaki, and from wines made with native grape varieties to Greek coffee brewed in hot sand, followed by having your fortune told through a reading of the coffee grounds left in your cup.
discovergreekculture.com, Tel. (+30) 697.012.0878
This mythology-themed, interactive walking tour of Athens’ most important archaeological sites is designed for families with kids. You’ll find out all about the history, myths and legends of the heroes and ancient gods. Children under six can join for free.
alternativeathens.com, Tel. (+30) 211.012.6544
Street Workout Athens
This company offers outdoor exercise classes and running tours of Athens for travelers who hate to miss a workout. The special Olympic Games program will teach you how ancient Olympic athletes trained, and you will even compete in a race at the Panathenaic Stadium.
streetworkoutathens.gr, Tel. (+30) 693.713.0974
Using a GPS map and a set of headphones, you’ll discover famous landmarks and local secrets as you hear intriguing stories about everything you’re seeing. Available through an app in your phone, this digital guide is always on call.
cliomusetours.com, Tel. (+30) 694.379.6240
Athens by Bike
Time is precious when you’re on vacation but you can see a lot, fast, on two wheels. Athens by Bike’s tours last around three hours and you’ll pass a long list of the city’s most important sights. Choose between a morning, sunset or electric bike tour; all good options for the summer.
athensbybike.gr, Tel. (+30) 216.900.3321