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Hello Canberra! August 9, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Canberra, Travel.
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About a month ago (man time flies around here) I took the wife to our nation’s capital for a little weekend getaway.  It had been over a decade since either of us had visited and it was one of the cheapest destinations from Sydney that could be reached without a plane or an all-day drive.

The reaction of every single person we told before we went on the trip was the same: ‘Canberra?’

This was understandable as I too would have had the same reaction a couple of months ago.  Over the years, Canberra has gotten a pretty rough rep.  Most see it as a place with nothing to do, a boring dump for politicians and people looking for legal hardcore porn and fireworks.

However, after about 6 minutes of research, I discovered that there was more to Canberra than just that.  There’s still not a whole lot for people that live there, but for people looking for a weekend getaway (or maybe even 3 or 4 days), Canberra actually has plenty to offer in terms of things to see, do and eat.  In some ways, it reminded me of an Aussie version of Washington DC, except with significantly fewer guns.  There are lots of museums, galleries and good food — well, enough to keep you busy and satisfied for a few days — and it’s lighter on the wallet than most Australian capital cities.

So from here there will be a series of posts on my Canberra visit.  Stay tuned!

Ultimate European Adventure Round-Up! July 10, 2009

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Sensational Palatine Hill in Rome

Sensational Palatine Hill in Rome

One of the main reasons I decided to come to the UK to study (rather than say the US) was so I could get to visit and travel around Europe (something I had not done before but had been a life-long dream).

I have done a couple of round-up posts before after long trips (see ‘My European Adventure Round-Up’ and ‘My Big Fat Greek Adventure Round-Up’), but since I have left Europe now, I thought it would be good to consolidate all the places I’ve visited over the last 9 months and deliver my final judgment.

Here are the places I visited:

(a) England – London, Cambridge, Oxford, Bath, Salisbury, Avebury
(b) Italy – Rome, Venice, Florence, Pisa
(c) Vatican City (technically a country and a city)
(d) Greece – Athens, Santorini, Delphi, Arachova, Hydra, Poros, Aegina, Milos, Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio
(e) Ireland – Dublin
(f) France – Paris
(g) Belgium – Brussels, Bruges
(h) Netherlands – Amsterdam
(i) Spain – Barcelona
(j) Germany – Munich, Berlin, Fussen (Neuschwanstein), Freiburg (Black Forest)
(k) Switzerland – Basel, Lucerne
(l) Sweden – Stockholm
(m) Denmark – Copenhagen
(n) Austria – Vienna
(o) Czech Republic – Prague

[Note: I didn’t count Frankfurt in Germany as I only stopped there for transit (twice) but did exit the airport]

108

In Bruges

Favourite places:

In terms of countries I would vote: (1) Greece; (2) Italy; (3) Germany.

Greece is simply incredible with its plethora of well-preserved archaeological sites and mythology, but is also one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited with its marvelous islands and beaches. Italy is similar in some respects, and gets extra marks for the number of attractions it has on offer (and its proximity to the Vatican). Germany, on the other hand, is very underrated, with wonderful, historically rich cities such as Munich and Berlin as well as terrific attractions such as the Black Forest, Neuschwanstein Castle and Dachau Concentration Camp.

Individual places are too hard to vote on as each location has its own flavour and strengths. Further, some places are big while others are small, and the differing lengths of time I stayed in each place may play a decisive role. It’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges sometimes.

However, if someone held a gun to my head I would probably pick: (1) Santorini; (2) Rome; (3) Athens; (4) Paris; (5) Amsterdam; (6) Venice; (7) Munich; (8) Stockholm – though the order might not always be the same.

Santorini

Santorini was my favourite

Least favourite places

No prizes for guessing that Prague was my least favourite city (see my rant here) but at least I can say that I may have just had some bad luck with my experiences and that I didn’t spend enough time there. Now London, on the other hand, has no excuses.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with London because I visited the place at least a dozen times during my 9 month stay. There are lots of things to do and see there, and the British Museum is a must-visit, but the exorbitant prices, poor service (they just don’t care) and the absolute filth and over-crowdedness just about everywhere (and especially in the Tube) would drive me insane if I lived there!

Prague Castle From Afar

Prague Castle from afar


Most/Least Expensive

Just about all of Europe is expensive compared to where I come from. It got to a point where if I tried to convert the currency I would probably just start sobbing uncontrollably.

But in any case, the ones that stood out for me were obviously London, Switzerland (as a whole), and in particular the Scandinavian cities of Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Cheapest was definitely Prague, but I think Italy was not too unreasonable. In Greece it depended on where you went (the islands, for example, were relatively more expensive compared to Athens).
Best/Worst Food

Another tough one because I probably didn’t get to sample the best/worst food each place had to offer. Hence I’ll just try to recall the best foods I can remember.

Number 1 has to be the calzones we had in Barcelona. Damn they were bloody good (Can Conesa at Jaume I). Number 2, the hotdogs (from portable street vendors) and ice cream we had in Copenhagen (see more at this post). Number 3, the some of the pizzas we had in Italy.

Copenhagen Marble Church

Copenhagen's Marble Church

As for the worst, this is probably a little unfair because I ate there quite a bit, but London has some extraordinarily bad food (though to be fair, as well as good food), but you just don’t expect something so bad for the prices that you pay.

Most Romantic

Easy top 3: (1) Venice; (2) Santorini; (3) Paris. Three very different places with different charms, but all great for a romantic weekend or getaway.

Venice

Most Romantic: Venice

Top 15 Attractions

This is probably the toughest of them all. My list started with 5, then 10, then 15, then got to 20 (and could have gone to 25) before I cut it back to 15.

In the end, I decided just to go with gut instinct on this one. Note that while Santorini is, as a whole, one of the best places I visited, it’s not really an ‘attraction’ per se. Also important to note is that I love archaeological sites, museums and memorials, so keep that in mind when you read on.

Counting down:

15. Dachau Concentration Camp (in Dachau, near Munich) – a highly depressing place to visit but also one of the most important and informative. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable but it’s one of those places you’d be glad to have experienced.

Dachau

Depressing but worthwhile: Dachau

14. Rosenborg Castle (in Copenhagen) – one of those unexpected gems with a neat little castle, beautiful gardens and a well-managed sea of flowers. A great place to have a picnic or just to chill out for a couple of hours.

13. La Sagrada Familia (Barcelona) – this freakish, still-under-construction piece of art created by Gaudi is either loved or hated. But either way, it’s hard to keep your eyes off it.

12. Roman Baths Museum (Bath, UK) – the site of the ancient Roman Baths, where much of it is still wonderfully preserved. I went there twice and I can tell you that it has been newly renovated and has improved on its already exceptional audio guide.

11. Nea Kameni (Santorini, Greece) – Fira and Oia are beautiful, and the Red and Black beaches are spectacular, but if I had to pick an ‘attraction’ from Santorini, the volcanic island of Nea Kameni is it! Take a 90 minute walk up to the top and back – even in the heat it is well worth the experience of seeing the destructive power of the volcano up close.

Santorini Volcano 2

Nea Kameni in Santorini

10. Tivoli (Copenhagen) – the famous theme park has a splendid carnival atmosphere. The entrance fee does not cover the rides, but you don’t need to go on a single one to enjoy the place, especially when it gets dark and the coloured lights illuminate the fairground. Magical!

9. The British Museum (London) – if nothing, London has tremendous free attractions, and they don’t get much better than the enormous British Museum. If you race through it you can probably see it all in half a day, but to truly appreciate how much priceless stuff the Brits stole from just about every other culture in the world, you’ll need at least a full day, if not 2 or 3.

8. Anne Frank House (Amsterdam) – Amsterdam may be best known for its weed and girls, but the highlight for me was the Anne Frank House, in which you can get to see where the legendary Anne Frank and her family once hid from the Nazis. Yes it can be depressing at times, but it is also quite uplifting too to read Anne’s touching words and see just what a magnificent and insightful writer she was. One can only imagine how many great writers must have perished in the Holocaust.

7. Vasa Museum (Stockholm) – the Vasa sank on its maiden voyage and was not salvaged until 333 years later. Today it forms the centerpiece of the exquisite Vasa Museum, one of the most unusual museums I’ve ever been too. I loved how you could get a different view of the Vasa at each level of the museum, from the bottom all the way to the top.

6. Neuschwanstein Castle(Fussen, Germany) – no wonder this is the number 1 attraction in Germany and has been for so long. It’s the type of place you can go a couple of times during different seasons, because I hear it’s a different feel with and without the snow (I went with a bit of snow during early Spring). The walk up to the castle itself is just magical, and the inside is worth a look too.

Neuschwanstein 009

Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany

5. The Acropolis (Athens) – I would have never thought that I’d rank a single monument so high, but the Acropolis has captivated my imagination ever since I was a child, and seeing it up close in person at last fulfilled a life-long dream. Even with the scaffolding along the sides and back it still takes the breath away. Now with the Acropolis Museum opened it will be even better.

4. The Louvre (Paris) – the best art museum, one of those humongous places that can take days to full appreciate. With limited time, I only got to see the main masterpieces (the most high-profile ones, at least – and there were many), so I look forward to going back there someday and seeing the rest.

3. Vatican City (Vatican City) – (I’m calling it an ‘attraction’ because it is small enough) regardless of your religion, Vatican City is one of those places that you just need to see, even if it’s just for the amazing artworks painted on almost every empty space on the inside. St Peter’s Square and St Peter’s Basilica are also some of the amazing places within the world’s smallest country that left my jaw ajar many times.

2. Palatine Hill (Rome) – the archaeological site next to the Colosseum is one of the most fantastic I’ve ever seen. Just use a bit of imagination and thousands of years of history will unfold before your eyes! Make sure you head up to the top around the outside wall to get a full view of the site.

1. Archaeological Site of Delphi (Delphi, Greece) – the centre of the world, up in the mountains, where the oracle once sat – the enormous, well-preserved archaeological site of Delphi is a remarkable place that is well worth the journey from Athens (if that is where you’re staying). There’s a lot to see and absorb and enjoy, so take your time and really use your mind to envisage what it was like 3,500 years ago in Ancient Greece.

Delphi 1

Delphi Archaeological Site is No. 1

Well, that’s it. I’ll probably disagree with a lot of what I just wrote the next time I look at it, but right now, these are my thoughts.

My Big Fat Greek Adventure Round-up! July 5, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
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 [Note: Travel Diary updated to include Greece!]

Round Up 4

Get up and close to the Parthenon at the Acropolis

Keeping up with my tradition of a outlining the highlights following a big trip (like my European Adventure Round-up), here is a big fat round-up of my spectacular adventure in Greece!

Overview

As an aspiring writer who is kicking things off with a fantasy novel, I am a sucker for the ancient world.  For those who have not read my European Adventure Round-Up, my favourite attraction from that trip was Palatine Hill in Rome (a large area of ancient ruins).  Greece is full of places like that, and many of them more spectacular and better preserved, plus there are the amazing, absolutely breathtaking views.  I had never been much of a scenery kind of guy, but the things I saw on this trip just blew me away!  I had already seen too many churchs and cathedrals (to the point where they kind of all melt into one), so Greece was an exciting new experience for me.

We had roughly 8 days in total, but you need to keep in mind that my wife and I were lugging my 60 year-old parents with us (though they are in supreme shape and after often mistaken for being in their late 40s).  Hence there was a lot of starting and stopping, some decent rests in between.  We probably saw less things but it was a lot more relaxing than it would have been had it just been the two of us.  If I had more time and money, 2 weeks would have been perfect, though you could easily spend a month island hopping if you wanted to.

Places visited

  • 2 days in Athens;
  • 1 day cruise to the Saronic islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina;
  • 1 day trip by taxi to the Peloponnese (Corinth, Mycenae and Nafplio)
  • 1 day trip by taxi to Delphi;
  • 1/2 a day on the Cycladic island of Milos; and
  • 1 day on the Cycladic island of Santorini.
Ancient Corinth

Ancient Corinth

Best experience(s)

It’s too hard to pick a single experience as the best in Greece, so I’ll pick 2.

The first of course is the marvellous island(s) of Santorini, definitely one of the most beautiful places in the world.  There’s just something magical about the place, made more mystical due to the suggestion that it may be the lost island of Atlantis.  Every picture you take in Santorini could be slapped onto a postcard.  Whether you’re into ancient archaeological sites (Ancient Thera or Akrotiri – when it opens again), beautiful scenery (Fira, Oia), volcanoes (Nea Kameni) or just like to hang out on the beach (Kamari, Perissa or the Red Beach), Santorini caters.  No wonder it is a favourite for celebrities and weddings.  It’s a place I’d very much like to visit again if I get the chance.

Santorini Oia

People waiting to catch the sunset in Oia (Santorini)

The second is the archaeological site of Delphi, one of the surprises of the trip.  Delphi is jaw-dropping because of where it is situated, the sheer size of the site, the granduer of the structures and the amazing level of preservation.  There are temples, theatres, halls, treasuries, stadiums – you name it.  If you only see one archaeological site in Greece, Delphi is the place to go (though it’s hard to skip the Acropolis in Athens).

Worst experience

Easy – our hellish ferry ride from Athens to Santorini that took 23 hours instead of the scheduled 5.  Double-booked seats, poor safety, mass vomiting, disorganisation to absolute chaos, the ride just about had it all.  I think it’s something I’ll look back upon as a fascinating experience, but it’s certainly not something I want to go through again!

Most beautiful/spectacular

Too hard to pick.  In terms of pure natural beauty, you can’t go past Santorini.  Views from both Fira and Oia are unmatched.  he volcanic island of Nea Kameni is also worth visiting.  On the other hand, the island of Hydra (though we only spent 90 minutes there) was also very pretty.  But if you prefer views over Athens, Lycabettus Hill and the top of the Acropolis are my picks.

In terms of the biggest spectacle, there’s the archaeological sites of Delphi, the Acropolis and Ancient Agora.  I just can’t make up my mind.

Round Up 2

You can see the Acropolis atop Lycabettus Jill

Most informative

I only went to 2 museums, the massive National Archaeological Museum in Athens (near Victoria metro station) and the small but impressive Museum of Prehistoric Thira on Santorini.  Nevertheless, both were excellent and I would recommend them to anyone wanting to learn a bit about the fascinating history of Greece.

Note at the time of visiting, the highly anticipated Acropolis Museum in Athens had not yet opened, but it has now, and I hear that is a must-visit too.

Most underrated

I hadn’t heard of Palamidi Castle in Nafplio before, but if you are visiting the Peloponnese I’d recommend checking it out.  It is exceptionally well-preserved and you can explore the various bastions, climbing up to the top if you want to.  The views are also impressive.  The place gave me plenty of ideas for the settings in my fantasy novel.

Round Up 7

Palamidi Castle was superb

Most overrated

I don’t want to call any place ‘overrated’ in Greece because they were all good in my opinion, but if I had to pick one it would probably be the Mycenaen Acropolis.  Apart from the Lion Gate at the entrance and a few grave circles here and there, there wasn’t all that much to see in terms of archaeological structures.  That said, the view from the top was still mighty impressive.  However, if you visit somewhere like Delphi then you can probably give Mycenae a miss.

Top 5 must-see attractions

It’s extremely difficult to pick 5 out of so many attractions in Greece.  Of the top of my head here are mine, in descending order.

5. Ancient Agora (Athens) – I wish I had spent more time here because it was so big and there was a museum there too, but even just an hour or so in Ancient Agora was enough to place it in my top 5.  The Temple of Hephaestus is perhaps the most complete and well-preserved structure I’ve ever seen at around 2,500 years old, but it’s not the only thing to see there.  If you’re in the area make sure you go and take a look.

4. Palamidi Castle (Nafplio) – maybe I am overrating it here, but the surprise element probably has something to do with Palamidi Castle being ranked 4th.  The scale and scope and views are all top-notch and I love how you can explore the grounds – each bastion is a mini-adventure.

3. Nea Kameni (Santorini) – you can’t really call the whole of Santorini an ‘attraction’, but it’ll be a crime not to include something from Santorini in the top 5 – so I’ve chosen Nea Kameni, the magnificent volcano that left me awestruck at its devastating power.  If you’re making the 90 minute trek to the top of the volcano and back, make sure you wear a hat or bring an umbrella and bring plenty of fluids, and remember to avoid wearing open-toed shoes.

Santorini Volcano 2

Nea Kameni volcano at Santorini

2. The Acropolis (Athens) – it was a tough choice to put the Acropolis at number 2.  Typically, the number one attraction can get hyped up too much, but no amount of hype can make the Acropolis disappointing.  It needs to be seen, simple as that.  Don’t forget to check out the Theatre of Dionysos and Odeum of Herodes while you’re there.  And now, with the Acropolis Museum, it’s a must-must-visit.

1. Archaeological Site of Delphi – there’s an element of surprise with this one as well, but the archaeological site of Delphi is a true wonder of the Ancient Greek world that every visitor to Greece should experience.  When you’re there, try and imagine what it was like more than 2,600 years ago, and no matter how unbearable hot it gets, try and make it to the very top.  The view of the entire archaeological site is something I will always remember.

Round Up 8

Delphi is No. 1

There were many other attractions that I left off the list that are worth visiting.  Just missing the cut include Lycabettus Hill, the Temple of Olympic Zeus, the island of Hydra and the National Archaeological Museum.  The towns of Fira and Oia (especially for the sunset) on Santorini aren’t too shabby either.

Places I wish I saw (or want to see next time)

My biggest disappointments on the trip were missing the theatre at Epidavros (Epidaurus) and the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia at Delphi.  I would have also liked to have visited more places on the Peloponnese, such as Olympia and Sparta.  On the mainland I wish I had time to visit Meteora, which I hear is awesome, but you’d need to take a 2-day trip from Athens.  In terms of islands of course I wanted to see Mykonos and also Crete.  If I visit Athens again I’d also like to see the new Acropolis Museum and the Benzaki Museum near Syntagma Square.  Maybe next time.

Additional information

For more details see the following individual posts or my Travel Diary:

Review: the Peloponnese and Delphi by Taxi! June 25, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
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The Temple of Apollo at Delphi
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

For those visiting Athens in small groups or are willing to dish out a little extra cash, you may want to consider hiring a taxi for a day or two to visit places outside the capital.  As a sucker for ancient ruins and Greek mythology, my family of 4 (parents, wife and myself) took two separate day trips by taxi to the east side of the Peloponnese (Corinth, Mycenae and Nafplio) and Delphi, some of the most amazing and fascinating places in all of Greece.  Here’s what I thought of it.

Why taxi?

All-day taxi hire prices in Greece are generally quite reasonable, and there are plenty of services around that specialize in such tours.  We went with Greece Taxi (which was the cheapest by a slim margin) but there are lots of others such as Greek Taxi and George the Famous Taxi Driver of Greece

The only con I can think of is of course the lack of a knowledgeable tour guide.  Your taxi driver may know a little general information, but they are not experienced guides who will be able to answer all your questions.  However, if you are like me and like to read things up for yourself in your own time (either before or after), or if you are or are with people who just like to see things and know some basic stuff without going into the intricate details (such as my parents and my wife) then it might not make much of a difference.  Most of the sites provide a short outline and have information boards anyway.

My experience

Booking online in advance with Greece Taxi was easy and straightforward.  They were very fast in responding to inquiries and wrote and spoke excellent English.

Both tours were also pleasant, though if I were to pick one I would go for Delphi (which I’m told is the msot popular one-day tour).  Before I arrived in Greece, I was most looking forward to the Peloponnese trip, but if you were going to visit just one place outside of Athens, I would recommend Delphi.

The Peloponnese (Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio)

Corinth Canal

The spectacular Corinth Canal

Our driver Bill arrived a little late due to traffic, but when we called up the office to check they were very apologetic and good about it.  Bill was pretty funny, and spoke enough English to communicate and tell us a bit about the places we were going to.  The funniest thing was that he printed off info off the web for us and added his own comments and corrections to them.

Bill drove like an absolute demon, going up to 160-180 km/h, but for the most part he was in control.  The first stop was Corinth Canal, which was spectacular to look for a little while.   Then we headed to the archaeological site of Ancient Corinth (at one time one of the 3 major powers in Greece), where we got to see the majestic Temple of Apollo (there seemed to be quite a few of these in Greece).  Much of the place was in ruins but there was enough to see (including a small museum) to get your money’s worth.  Entry was 7 Euros per person (free for EU students!).  About 60-90 minutes was sufficient for us.

Ancient Corinth

The Temple of Apollo at Ancient Corinth

Next we headed to the ancient city of Mycenae, also worth a look but probably the one place I would personally skip if there was something else better (and there probably was, read on).  The Mycenean acropolis is perched on a hill and you have to walk up to see the various archaelogical finds.  The highlights include the Lion Gate at the entry and Grave Circle A, which dates back to 16th Century BC.  Roughly 45 minutes to an hour is ample time.  Entry is 8 Euros each (students free).

Mycenae

The Mycenaean acropolis

The third stop was the beautiful seaside town of Nafplio, we we had a lengthy albeit expensive lunch, while Bill went to visit his cousin and grandmother.  After lunch we went to visit Palamidi Castle up on the hill, one of the most underrated attractions on the Peloponnese.  The castle was most probably our highlight of the day, and we spent about 2 hours there as there was much to see and explore.  You can go right in and see the well-preserved bastions (as it was built in the early 19th Century) – it was a true architectural masterpiece, and the views overlooking the sea were magnificent.  Entry is 4 Euros (students free).  We had a feeling that you can easily spend a couple of days in Nafplio.

Palamidi 1

The very underrated Palamidi Castle in Nafplio

Unfortunately, Bill told us that time had run out and it was time to head back to Athens.  Here’s an important tip: make sure you know what’s on your itinerary.  We didn’t, so we didn’t know that we were supposed to visit Epidavros (or Epidaurus) and its famous theatre on the way back.  We did inquire about it but Bill told us there wasn’t enough time to fit it in the schedule (even though we stuck to his time recommendations at each location).  I had a feeling Bill was trying to get home early for the day, as we arrived back at our hotel an hour earlier (so our trip was 9 hours instead of the 10 we paid for).  So it was a little disappointing because I was really looking forward to seeing the theatre, and we actually did have time to go see it but were kind of tricked out of it.  Apart from that bitter pill the rest of the trip was awesome.

Palamidi 2

Some views from the top of Palamidi Castle

Delphi

Our driver today was David, who spoke perfect English (as he was originally living in Melbourne).  David also drove like a demon, but he maxed out at around 160 km/h.  It took a little while but we eventually reached the town of Levadia, where we stopped to take some photos.  There wasn’t enough time to see the Castle there but we did get to see the water wheel, some running water, stone bridges and a nymph statue – all very pretty.

Levadia

The Nymph at Levadia

We had another short stop (for coffee) just before reaching the town of Arachova (popular in the winter for skiiers), where we took some fantastic shots of the little houses perched on the hill.  Then we drove through the town’s narrow streets and eventually reached the brilliant, must-see archaelogical site of Delphi.  In my opinion if you see Delphi then you can live not seeing any other archaelogical sites in Greece.  It’s not only huge but also extraordinarily well preserved and there was so much to see (including a small museum).  It was, after all, considered by ancient Greeks as the centre of the world, and was where the Oracle once sat and delivered advice from the gods.

Arachova

The bustling town of Arachova

The combined entry ticket (site and museum) is 9 Euros (students free again!).  For me, the highlights were of course the Temple of Apollo, the Theatre (to make up for the one missed in Epidavros) and the Hall of the Knidians right at the top.  The view was amazing and only got better and better as you walked up.

Note that the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaea is literally just down the road, but as we didn’t see any signs pointing towards it we missed it.  Make sure you don’t!

We actually spent a little too much time at Delphi (like 3 hours) because we liked it so much, and consequently decided to skip lunch and head back to Athens early.  We arrived only a few minutes to the 9-hour limit we paid for due to traffic.

The Theatre and Temple at the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi

The Temple and Theatre at the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi

Conclusion

I would definitely recommend getting a taxi for day trips from Athens (or even a couple of days to go further inland like Sparta and Oympia in the Peloponnese or Meteora).  The price is reasonable if you have 3 or more people, you save a great deal of time and the drivers are friendly but don’t get in your way.  Particularly in the summer it can be great getting back to a nicely air-conditioned car.  Just be smart and be aware of your itinerary and the places you want to visit so you don’t miss out on anything like we did.  If there are changes you would like to make then it’s best to discuss them up front with your driver.

PS: Due to a request I have enlarged the photos by, wait for it, 2%…seriously, I’m working on it.

See Athens in 2 Days! June 22, 2009

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Update: new pictures added!

The Acropolis!
The Parthenon at the Acropolis!

When I told my friends I was heading to Greece for a week and that I had allocated 2 full days for its capital, Athens, the response I got was not overly enthusiastic.  They told me there wasn’t all that much to do, and a single day would be more than sufficient.

Well, they lied.

There’s heaps of things to do in Athens!  We used Athens as a base from which to get to other places (like the Peloponnese and Delphi and cruises to the nearby islands), but we did have a full 2 days to explore the city itself.  And it was barely enough.  If I had my way, 3 days would have been optimal.  However, keep in mind that I had my parents with me, and it was scorching hot, so if you are young, energetic and don’t mind the heat, you could probably squeeze all the main sights into 2 days.

Must See Attractions

1. The Acropolis

Usually the so-called ‘top attraction’ of a particular city will be underwhelming, but for me, the Acropolis lived up to its expectations, despite part of it being surrounded by scaffolding as part of maintenance.  If you only go to one attraction in Athens, make it the Acropolis.  It’s one of those things you just have to see and take in.

The nearest metro station is the aptly named Acropolis Station, and from there you just follow the signs.  On the way, you can check out the Lysicrates Monument, which is nothing special but worth a glance.  At the foot of the Acropolis is the wonderful Theatre of Dionysos, which is definitely worth a look before making the trek up.  You’ll also get a good view of the Odeum of Herodes, which they still use for shows and concerts.

Advice: wear comfortable shoes and preferably non-slip, because it can get a little slippery on the rocks.  And if it looks like a long way up, don’t despair, because it isn’t.  You’re up there before you even notice it.  And the view of the Parthenon and of Athens from the top is spectacular.  It’s also more crowded than any other attraction, so try and go early, especially before the noon sun hits.

There are plenty of guided tours available, and if you want to learn more about its history and so forth, then by all means, join a tour because it will be worth it.  However, I preferred to go at my own pace and read up on it beforehand or afterwards.

Note: the long-awaited Acropolis Museum will be opened to the public on 23 June 2009.  Apparently it is going to be superb (and from the promo I saw at the airport I have to agree).  For those visiting the Acropolis from that date make sure you check out the museum as well.

2. Lycabettus Hill

Lybacettus Hill

A sample of the views from Lycabettus Hill

If you want a spectacular view of the city, then head to Lycabettus Hill.  The nearest metro is Evangelismos Station, and from there you have to head north via a steep path up towards the cable car.  From memory the price is 6 Euros return per person.  At the top you can wander around, where there is a little chapel and legendary panoramic views of the city.  There is also a cafe or two where you can relax and sip on a drink while watching the sun go down.  Very nice and highly recommended.

3. Ancient Agora

Ancient Agora

The spectacular Temple of Hephaestus at Ancient Agora

Ancient Agora, Athens’ ancient markeplace is huge and worth a visit because of the well-preserved Temple of Hephasestus, which you would have seen if you were on top of the hill at the Acropolis.  There is also a museum there (which we didn’t visit) and plenty of other ruins lying around the site.  The second best archaeological site Athens has to offer in my opinion after the Acropolis.

4. National Archaeological Museum

If you’re a museum lover then you must go to the National Archaeological Museum, one of the great museums exhibiting ancient artifacts in the world.  Tickets are around 6 Euros I think and the nearest metro is Victoria, from which you’ll have to take a 10 minute walk.

Some of the things in there are simply amazing, and the artifacts are not confined to Athens.  Of particular interest are the items found in Santorini (which suggests it could be the mythical Atlantis?).  I was amazed to see the level of expertise they had 3,000 years ago in making pottery, jewellery, wall-paintings…they even had giant clips and pins that are almost identical to what we have today!

5. Temple of Olympian Zeus

Awesome

There’s not much to see at the site itself other than the giant pillars of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, but it is a majestic sight worth seeing.  You can get up pretty close to its 17m high pillars and you can also get a decent view of the Acropolis from there.  Don’t forget to check out the adjacent Hadrian’s Arch nearby and take a happy snap.  It’s located south-east of the Acropolis Station or you can take a walk there through the National Garden from Syntagma Square.

Other Sights and Attractions (in no particular order)

1. Syntagma Square – the ‘central’ station of Athens.  There are actually archaeological exhibits inside the station itself, which is pretty cool, and check out the various vendors in the square.  Across the road is Parliament, with the Tom of the Unknown Soldier.  Nothing special but worth a look if you’re staying nearby.

2. Zapion Exhibtion and Congress Hall – another attraction you can walk past if you take a stroll through the National Garden below Syntagma Square.  The architecture is impressive.

3. Panathinaikon Stadium – the site of the 1896, first modern Olympic Games.  It’s located very close to the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the National Garden.  Definitely worth checking out.  I was amazed at how stylish it was.

Panathinaikon Stadium

Panathinaikon Stadium

4. Roman Market – this is where you go to eat traditional Greek food (like Souvlaki) and buy souvenirs.  There’s also cheap fruits (especially cherries sold by this guy who keeps yelling like a madman).  The recommended restaurant we went to was called O Thanisis and is located on Mitropoleos.  I’m not usually a fan of Greek food but this was excellent.  It’s right outside Monastiraki Station.

5. Roman Agora – if you go see Ancient Agora then you won’t really need to go here.  It’s near the Roman Market.  The Tower of Winds is quite interesting though.

6. Hadrian Library – also near the Roman Market.  If you got a combined ticket then might as well check it out for a few minutes.

7. Keramikos – I didn’t end up going there, but it’s an ancient Greek cemetary.

8. National Library, University & Academy – all three are wonderful pieces of architecture over a hundred years old and are lined up next to each other between Akadimias Street and Panepistimiou (El Venizelou).  We rode by via taxi a couple of times but didn’t stop.

9. Benzaki Museum – apparently really good too but we didn’t have enough time to go.

Where to Stay?

The most convenient area would be near Syntagma Square (Plaka area) or Monastiraki.  There’s lots of shops and hotels and restaurants in that area and you get easy access to the metro.

We stayed at 2 separate hotels, Hermes (3 stars) and Amalia (4 stars) which were both splendid and located in Plaka.  I would suggest you shop around and find some specials to get more value for your money.

Getting Around

I wouldn’t recommend taxi unless you want to get stuck in traffic a lot.  We used a combination of the metro and walking, which was very easy.  The metro is 1 Euro for a single ticket that lasts 90 minutes and allows you to go in and out of stations. It’s an honour system but if you get caught there’s a huge fine (I think) and plenty of embarrassment.  If you’re planning to use it a lot then get a day ticket for 3 Euros (and I think there are weekly tickets too).

Suggested Itinerary

I would recommend splitting the areas up.  You can get a combined ticket for 12 Euros, which allows you go to most of the places such as the Acropolis, Roman Agora, Ancient Agora, Temple of Olympian Zeus etc and you can use it for several days. Definitely worth it.

The first day we started in Syntagma Square, walked through the National Garden then checked out the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch, before rounding back up to see Panathinaikon Stadium.  In the afternoon we went up to Lycabettus Hill and spent the afternoon there checking out the views.  For the second day we started early and went to the Acropolis then Ancient Agora (and the others nearby), then up to the National Archaeological Museum in the afternoon.  Nice and easy and you can squeeze in more attractions here and there if you want.

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