From Athens, With Love

Friendly people, warm weather, colorful districts and lots of things to see: Athens is the perfect destination for a family gateway.


A masked woman with a penetrating stare glares down at us from the side of a building. It’s Apocalypse Now, an amazing work of art by INO, perhaps the most influential contemporary Greek street artist. “Just look at this! And this!” screams my 7 year-old son as we walk through the narrow streets of Psyrri, Athens’ trendiest neighborhood. “It looks,” he says, “like we’re inside a coloring book, Mom.” He’s right. Wherever we look – walls, buildings, doors – there are murals, graffiti, and stenciled patterns. On first glance, this could be the typical hipster area you find in most large European cities, such as Paris, Berlin or Madrid. Yet a quick glance upwards reminds us of the location; atop the nearby promontory stands the Acropolis, with its white marble gleaming in the sun. In the shadow of the Parthenon, Psyrri may not be postcard-perfect Athens, but it has soul. 

The lively neighborhood of Monastiraki is just a few meters away. Its flea market is the right place to find unique items off all kinds, including leather sandals, traditional rugs, used books and vinyl records. The square is a perfect stop as you explore the city. A cup of freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juice from a street vendor delivers the perfect amount of energy you need before starting the climb up to the Acropolis. There are plenty of treasures along the street. Just off the square, Hadrian’s Library was an impressive complex built by the Roman emperor. Around the corner stands the Gate of Athena Archegetis, on the west side of Roman Agora; the second most important structure at this site after the Tower of the Winds, the gate was given to the people of Athens by Gaius Julius Caesar.

The backstreets of this neighborhood are full of pastel-colored buildings covered in outrageous cascades of fuchsia bougainvillea blossoms, and here and there you’ll spot an art student sketching the old ruins. Without a doubt, however, the standout feature of Athens is the Acropolis. The walk up from Monastiraki to the site entrance is peaceful; there’s no fear of motorbike or cars careening around a corner. It feels like a very safe place for families with children to travel. Nonetheless, to be honest, my husband and I were a bit scared to bring our boys, two and seven years old respectively, here on vacation. Would they be impressed by an archaeological site? The moment we stepped onto the stairs of the Propylaia, gates to the Acropolis, that fear vanished. They stared up, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, at the giant white marble columns, and the questions poured out. “How did they build these columns? How much do they weigh? How did they bring them up here?” My older boy wouldn’t stop asking questions; as I tried to remember what I’d learnt at school as a teenager in order to answer him, I saw my younger son run ahead, hollering in amazement at the beauty of the place. The view from here is indeed incredible.

There’s an almost endless stretch of white roofs and then, off in the distance, the blue sea. Athens is so big that it’s hard to understand where it starts and where it ends. Great views of the entire city, the Parthenon included, can also be enjoyed from Lykavittos Hill, another nice place to visit with kids. The climb starts from either the Kolonaki and Exarcheia neighborhoods in the center of the city, and if your kids love to walk – and you want to tire them out before bedtime – you can hike to the top, 277 meters above sea level. Otherwise, there’s a cable cab to take you up. 

The next stop for us after the Acropolis, was the Acropolis Museum. There are plenty of reasons to visit this cultural hub: its collection, of course, with finds from the Acropolis and the surrounding areas; the underground archaeological ruins visible through the glass floors of the building and an accessible exhibition area in its own right; the amazing views of the Parthenon from the museum’s restaurant terrace; and – the main draw for my sons – the Lego reproduction of the Acropolis. Even if you don’t have children, this is a must-see for every Lego lover. Almost all the museums in Athens are incredibly kid-friendly, with special exhibitions, tailored programs and pamphlets designed to help children find out more about the collections on display and other topics. At the Acropolis Museum, your young explorers can learn history and discover the gallery’s treasures while using their imagination, cultivating their observational skills and exercising their memory; after they’ve returned home, they can continue their interest by playing online games via www.acropolismuseumkids.gr, watching interesting videos on the history of Athens or taking part in other interactive options. 

Cats are everywhere in the Greek capital city, and you’ll certainly find them in the neighborhood of Plaka. They’re generally docile that love to be caressed, even by kids. This district, the oldest area of Athens, reminds me of the Cycladic islands with its colorful houses, small boutiques, narrow streets and enticing restaurants offering great selections of Mediterranean meze, or small dishes meant to be shared. Just when you think it can’t get any more picturesque, you stumble upon Anafiotika, a tiny corner of Plaka with white walls, bougainvillea flowers, and small terraces. It’s an oasis of tranquility in the shadow of the Acropolis. 

Greek food deserves a separate chapter. Athens is full of restaurants and cafés, but if you want to sample traditional cuisine, you should avoid the tourist traps and head straight to Exarcheia, even if this might not be the first neighborhood that comes to mind when you think “family-friendly.” Nonetheless, this area is one of the most authentic districts of Athens, full of small restaurants and tavernas frequented almost exclusively by locals, such as Ama Lachei Stis Nefelis (69 Kallidromiou) or Lotzia Tis Geitonias (76 Harilaou Trikoupi). Meatballs, savory pies made with spinach, cheese or feta, souvlaki (pork cooked on skewers), loukoumades (freshly made doughnuts served with honey), and moussaka are just some of the gastronomic specialties that will make you and your little ones happy. We had some of those at Loukoumades (21 Aiolou) at Plateia Agias Irinis, topped with chocolate and walnuts. 

On Sunday morning, we decided to head to Syntagma Square to see the changing of the guard, when the Evzones, soldiers dressed in traditional garb, march from their headquarters on the other side of the National Gardens to relieve the sentries posted in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Greek Parliament. Every travel guide describes this as something you simply must do when you’re in Athens with your children. A far better thing to do to keep them entertained, however, is to skip the mobs of camera-wielding tourists and head into the National Garden itself. Trust me, this is the perfect place to enjoy some nature and quality fun time with your offspring right in the heart of the city, especially on hot summer days when the shaded paths are havens.

We were lucky enough to run into friends who drove us to the port city of Piraeus, where we saw archaeological ruins and private yachts, felt sea breezes, and stopped at cafés to sip chocolate frappes in the sunshine. The right destination for a sunny Sunday, the port city also boasts the Hellenic Maritime Museum; with artifacts dating from antiquity to the 20th century, it will keep your children busy for a few hours. You then have two options: to head to Lemos, a beautiful rocky stretch of rugged coastline in the southernmost point of Vouliagmeni, a seaside suburb 20 km away from Athens, for a refreshing swim in the sea, or to visit the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, a complex in the Bay of Faliro that’s home to the National Library, the National Opera, wide promenades and a huge green park with trees, bushes and flowers. “Hey, Mom, can I tell you a secret?” asked my son as we walked to the top of that architectural masterpiece.

“Sure you can.”

 

“I’m so happy we came here. Athens is so beautiful, with all the things it has; the Acropolis, ruins everywhere, this place and the sea. It has everything. This is my new favorite city in the world,” he said, smiling. We looked out at the Aegean Sea and the Saronic islands – just a few hours by ferry –while the sun went down, and I couldn’t help but agree with him. 



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