Photo: alexcoitus

DURING MY THREE MONTHS in Greece, I returned to Athens time and time again. I am not a big city girl, but there’s something about Europe’s oldest city that hooked me like a fish. It’s real. It’s gritty. It’s honest. It’s no Eiffel Tower beaming its romanticisms across a Paris landscape, muting poverty and pollution. In Athens, what you see is what you get.

Most of the time, every traveler I met was spending a brief night or two in Athens before moving on to the islands. I love the Greek Islands, but comparing Athens to the islands is like comparing apples to oranges, or cats to penguins. It just doesn’t make sense.

I spent many evenings at AthenStyle, a wonderful hostel with a rooftop bar overlooking the Acropolis. I befriended the two workers there, Anna and Steve, and stuck to them like glue. For Easter we had a lamb roast and a party, and I confessed my unwavering fascination with the birthplace of democracy.

“I’m going to miss this place too,” Steve said. “I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a bum shitting in the alley on my way to work.”

Realness.

There are at least a dozen different ways to view the Acropolis.

On my first day in Athens, I hired a private guide through Athens Insiders. Essentially I was paying someone to be my friend. They ended up showing me a few spots I would never have discovered.

It actually took me a few tries to visit the Acropolis. On the first day, my guide took me to Pnyx Hill, where the democratic assembly took place, and where I had an uninterrupted view of the Parthenon. A similar view is available at Philopappos Hill. The road between these viewpoints is paved in stone and ancient pottery, and you’re not likely to find big crowds.

Just the same, it’s worth it to battle the crowds at the Acropolis and to see the Parthenon up close. It’s the most important structure from the ancient world, after all.

The locals take their free spaces seriously.

Being the birthplace of democracy and all, Athenians are not afraid to fight for their rights. One of those ongoing battles is for green space within the city. One of the best spots is Navarinou Park, a former car park turned into a neighborhood garden where locals come to socialize and relax. Sometimes it’s used for political and cultural protests, but they’re always peaceful. You’ll see all odds and sods of characters in this park.

The same goes for Nosotros, a free social space in Exarcheia where the youth come to discuss politics or to participate in seminars on literature, theater, painting, music, dance, and more. You can take free Greek lessons here, and during the summer there’s a cinema on the rooftop terrace. When I was here, a rock show was setting up. Admission? Free.

You need to embrace Exarcheia and all its weirdness.

The Exarcheia district is my absolute favorite in Athens. We didn’t get off to a good start, though. My friend Matt and I were exploring one evening when a bus pulled up and dozens of police started filing off, looking like they were prepped for warfare. I texted my Athenian friend, Theo, in a panic.

WHAT IS HAPPENING DOWN HERE?! Police everywhere.

Police? They’re always there. Relax.

It’s just one of those places that come across as intimidating at first glance: a graffiti-ridden neighborhood chock full of punk-ish looking students, cafes, and street buskers. Matt and I eventually settled down at a hookah bar and smoked shisha well into the evening. Our server was a Syrian immigrant who made fun of us for how we prepared the shisha. The table next to us was filled with Greeks sipping frappes, while a few loners scattered here and there read books in the waning light. Sometimes the younger folks gather in Exarcheia Square and drink and swap stories.

If you want a quieter spot, go to Floral Café on the square. It’s equal parts bar and study space, with some fine, cheap food.

There are incredible pockets of beauty everywhere.

It took me a long time to work up the nerve to hike Mount Lycabettus, the 745ft mountain in the middle of the city. But it gives up some special panoramic views of Athens, and is home to the teeny-tiny St. George chapel. You can hike from Aristippou Street in trendy Kolonaki, or be lazy and take the funicular to the top instead.

There’s also the Anafiotika neighborhood, which is about as close to the Greek Islands as you can get, with traditional whitewashed homes and blue doors, stone staircases winding between alleyways, cats sunning themselves on rooftops, and colorful clotheslines strung between windows. It’s a quick walk from the Acropolis.

You can eat everything and not feel guilty about it.

An unusual side effect of Greece’s recent economic troubles is that many people are finding themselves turning to traditional careers in farming and food production. Lucky us! Eating out in Athens is best done with friends. Share some mezethes, small plates of traditional food, and pour some tsipouro (pomance brandy). It’s about to get real.

Kafenio on Loukianou 26 was my favorite little Athenian restaurant, with its wood-burning stones and chilled-out atmosphere. Try the meatballs, or the fried feta drizzled with honey and sesame seeds. Or maybe fried calamari, and fava with bread.

Even more budget friendly is Yperokeanio on Perikleous 46, a tiny café in an alleyway that turns into a local food hotspot in the evenings. The food here is so fresh the daily menu is handwritten on a notepad. Grab some marinated gavros, small fried fish you can pop into your mouth like French fries. My all-time favorite is Bouyiourdi: feta, various other cheeses, tomatoes, peppers, olive oil, and herbs all baked in tinfoil. Just lay off the raki. Trust me on this one.

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