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See Athens in 2 Days! June 22, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
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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.

A Few Quick Thoughts on Italy and Vatican City March 24, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Food, Religion, Travel.
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Note: Travel Diary has been updated!  Pictures to be added

I’m having the time of my life on this awesome 3-week European journey, and I’ve tried to put in the effort to write as much as possible during this time, even if it’s just to keep the creative juices flowing and so I don’t ever forget this amazing adventure.

However, I’m falling a little behind with my Travel Diary entries.  I just completed my lengthy entry on Rome (still no pictures, unfortunately, but I’ll try and add some soon), though I have been in Switzerland the last couple of days and from tomorrow will be in Germany!  I’ve finished listening to Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing but I’m still yet to write a review (but more importantly,  jot down some helpful tips from King that I’ll want to employ in my own writing from this point forward).

In my last post I wrote about this wonderful little cake store near the Colosseum called Cristalli Di Zucchero.  Anyway, I thought I’d add a few more thoughts about Italy and Vatican City before I forget it all!

Must-see attractions

I visited 4 cities in Italy: Pisa, Florence, Venice and Rome.  I’d say Venice is the prettiest, with its beautiful turqoise canals, clean, narrow streets and lack of modern architecture.  Rome, of course, is a must visit because of its history, the abundance of attractions, and Vatican City.  Florence is very nice, kind of charming and relaxed in its own way, and Pisa is just good for the Leaning Tower.

Of all the places I visited in Italy, my top 5 attractions (in descending order) are:

5. San Marco (St Mark’s Square) – a massive square and a world heritage site in Venice and home to Basilica Di San Marco.  Moreover, the journey through the canals to get there may be as amazing as the place itself.

4. Galleria dell’Accademia – in Florence, home of Michelangelo’s David, a truly magnificent masterpiece.  See it if you plan on seeing just one sculpture.

3. National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II (or Altare della Patria  or Il Vittoriano for short) – in Rome, very close to the Coloseum.  Big, white and not ancient, but amazing to look at nonetheless.  Plus you can walk up all those stairs to the top where you can enjoy the best views of Rome!

2. Vatican City – corridor after corridor of art in the Vatican Museum (and the most famous ones in the Sistine Chapel) and St Peter’s Basilica are unforgettable regardless of your religion.  Just make sure you buy tickets in advance for the Museum if you want to avoid the long queues.

1. Palantine Hill – the archaeological site next to the Colosseum in Rome.  Head around the walls to the North-Western side and look down from above.

Pizza

Pizza is everywhere and we had it at least once a day (fat city).  It’s difficult to find BAD pizza in Italy, but some are clearly better than others.  Prices can also vary significantly, from a couple of Euros a slice in corner stores to twenty-plus in posh restaurants.  Chances are they won’t taste all that different.  The best ones we had were actually from the small shops where you buy a slice and eat it standing on the side.  The worst would be from chain store restaurants that look too neat and touristy.  However, the most amazing tasting ones we had were actually from a takeout joint called Spizzico, at Roma Termini station.

Most pizzas we came across were pretty authentic – meaning tomato base, cheese, and one or two simple toppings such as mushroom, prosciutto or sausage.  None of the crazy toppings you’d find at Pizza Hut or Dominos.  However, a common problem (for me at least) was that they were too salty, especially the tomato base.  It seems they are a bit inconsistent in this regard.  You can get two pizzas from the same place and one could be just right and the other too salty.

Gelato

We (well, my wife) are big gelato fans.  There are plenty in Italy, just about on every touristy street.  The majority taste pretty similar, to be honest, but prices vary.  €2 for a small cone would be a decent price, but some can charge as much as €3.50 for a single scoop.

The best and cheapest we had was at Old Bridge Gelato (address: Viale dei Bastioni di Michelangelo 5) just around the corner from the Vatican Museum.  The smallest cone is just €1.30 (and the next up is €1.50).  The gelato is top notch and you can get up to 3 flavours regardless of size of cone – plus you can get free cream on top!  Here is a review of the place.

The crepe place next door is very good too.

Coffee

I’m not the biggest coffee fan but my wife likes to look for good coffee places.  There are quite a few in Italy, but some can be quite expensive.  The best one we went to came highly recommended, and it’s very close to the Pantheon.  It’s called Caffé San’ Eustachio and it is quite small and seemingly always crowded.  You order at the counter then give your receipt to the coffee makers.  Most people stand and finish their cup, though a few take them to the limited seats outside.  I found this blog post about the place.

Safety

Before I came to Italy I was warned by family members that it was a dangerous place.  People get mugged all the time.  If you don’t keep an eye on your bags they could disappear any second.  Hoards of kids crowd you in and pick your pockets.  Stuff like that.

Fortunately, I experienced none of the above.  Not even close.  For the most part, I found Italy to be seemingly quite safe.  Of course, I took the necessary precautions, such as not going out too late, keeping my belongings zipped up when I go out, and keep to the main streets.  The street vendors were actually quite nice and polite, totally unlike the thugs we encountered in Paris that try to force you to buy their crap.

Vatican City

Visiting Vatican City was a dream come true.  I’m not a Catholic, but I had always been fascinated by its history, and more importantly, the amazing architecture and priceless art works.  In that regard, the visit was everything I had expected.

What I didn’t expect were the long lines (silly me) and the number of people who tried to push in and sneak to the front.  When everyone’s waiting patiently, seeing people who blatantly break the rules can be frustrating.  So be smart and purchase tickets in advance to avoid the hassle.

Another thing I found disappointing was the over-commercialization of the place.  Sure enough, the tickets were expensive, but I didn’t expect there to be so much merchandise everywhere I went!  And people (I assume mostly the religious ones) were lapping up the over-priced products like Pope pens and pendants like crazy!  Don’t they make enough money from the entry tickets already?  It almost felt like they were exploiting people’s faiths.

Most troubling were the school groups, where the guides would point to various paintings like The Last Judgment and try to scare kids into Catholicism by telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t do this and that.  Surely there has to be a better way to teach religion to children?

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