Athenians are the first to admit that their city isn’t the typical European capital with acres of parkland, bicycle lanes, and well-thought-out architecture. Rather, it’s compulsively spontaneous, full of energy, and brimming with dualities -- bohemian versus mainstream, classical theater versus bouzoukia (nightclubs with live folk music), protests versus festivals. You can explore the mythical world of ancient deities and heroes then stumble across graffiti art in downtown alleyways.
Beneath the 2,500-year-old Acropolis, where some of the most pivotal foundations of Western civilization are rooted, lies a city that can be as exciting on Monday evenings as on Saturday nights. Athens means something different to every person who gets to know it, so forget everything you have heard about it, and make it yours.
Athens enjoys all four seasons of the year with relatively moderate temperatures, except some rare extremes during mid-summer (July and August) and mid-winter (February and March). From April to June, visitors can revel in the pleasant temperatures and the uplifting spring and summer vibes without experiencing the heatwaves and summer fog that usually strike in August. September and early October are also good times to visit Athens as average temperatures are still quite warm (68 degrees Fahrenheit), tourist crowds fade away, and accommodation prices drop significantly.
Greece is a European Union member country, and therefore its currency is the euro. The current exchange rate is EUR$0.86 per 1 USD. ATMs and card machines, including contactless payment machines, are widespread in Athens, but some corner shops or mini markets may charge a transaction fee for small amounts paid by card.
Tipping in Greece is appreciated, but it’s a matter of personal choice. In restaurants, satisfied customers can leave a few coins on the table for the person who clears it and tip the waiter between five and 10 percent or tell them to keep the change. Some restaurants apply a one euro “cover charge” for the bread, tap water, and so on, but this is not a tip. In bars, customers sitting at the counter for awhile can buy themselves and the bartender a round of shots. Even if the bartender doesn’t drink it, it’s culturally appropriate and a generous gesture. Coffee shops usually have jars for tips on the counter; anything from 20 cents to one euro is highly appreciated.
For taxis, it’s common to round up the fare by a few cents. For luggage in the trunk, a charge between 50 cents to one euro applies for each piece. In hotels, a doorkeeper can receive one euro for hailing a taxi or assisting with the luggage; a bellhop two euros per bag; and a concierge five euros and above, depending on how much they go out of their way to be helpful.
Overall, tipping etiquette in Greece is casual, and business owners, especially in family-run restaurants and cafés, appreciate a good chat with customers, some compliments about the quality of food and service, and a strong recommendation more than a tip.
Modern Greek is the official language of Greece, but diverse regions speak different dialects. The alphabet has 24 letters, which are non-identical to the Latin alphabet. English is widely spoken by the youth due to its introduction as a mandatory subject in primary school. However, Greeks tend to be shy about expressing themselves in foreign languages. On the other hand, when Greeks hear travelers speaking a few Greek words, they are filled with pride and appreciation. So, if you want to learn the very basics of conversational Greek, here are a few phrases to get you started:
Athens has all kinds of public transport: metro, urban railway, tram, buses, and trolley cars. The metro is the most efficient and comfortable way to move around the city; it’s on time, clean, secure, air-conditioned, and accessible for the disabled. Even though the metro consists of three lines only, they are far-reaching and ever-expanding. The metro tickets are rechargeable electronic cards, offered at different fares: a 90-minute ticket is valid for unlimited journeys on any public transport within this time, and it costs $1.50; a 24-hour ticket costs about $5; and a five-day ticket costs approximately $10. Travelers should keep in mind that vending machines at stations are limited, so lines are long.
The best way to reach the airport is by metro (the journey takes about an hour), and the individual ticket costs $11. Travelers who are staying only for a couple of days can purchase the $25, three-day ticket, which includes two rides to and from the airport.
The railway, even though not as well-maintained as the metro, is the best way to reach the port of Piraeus or explore the northern suburbs of Athens. The tram, which at the time of writing is operating with limited services due to lack of maintenance, connects the center of Athens with the coast of Attica and the Athens Riviera.
All public transport in Athens has similar operating hours (between 5:00 AM and 12:30 AM) except for a few buses, including the bus to the airport, which operates on a 24-hour basis. Also, on Fridays and Saturdays, the metro remains open until 2:00 AM.
Taxis in Athens are yellow and can be hailed from almost everywhere -- they also line up outside clubs, hospitals, and lively spots. However, the safest and cheapest option is the local version of Uber, called Beat.
In spite of the recent bad media coverage due to protests against the austerity measures, Athens is a very safe capital city. Of course, as in any metropolis, incidents of crime cannot be eliminated, and therefore travelers are encouraged to stay alert and be reasonable when exploring Athens by night or moving around unpopular neighborhoods. Pickpockets are not uncommon in crowded spaces, such as public transport and touristy areas. The standard precaution is not to leave your personal belongings unattended, even when sitting at a bar or a café.
Athens by night is very lively, and downtown, it’s unlikely you will feel unsafe. Greeks are known for their hospitality, and they are always willing to share their cultural values and traditions with foreigners. So, don’t hesitate to engage with the local Athenians and ask for help, directions, or recommendations.