“History, Acropolis, Parthenon”, these must be the three most closely associated words to Athens in most foreigners’ mind. “Financial crisis, debt and demonstrations” is another triad that rather completes the puzzle when thinking of Greece’s capital city these days. Yes, to all of the above, but Athens is… a gazillion things more than just priceless ancient marbles and the smell of smoke-generating canisters, as foreigners as well will tell you, both tourists/travelers, and the many who, for a whole bunch of reasons, chose to move to Athens these last years, in the middle of Greece’s ruthless financial crisis.
Geographically “speaking”, Athens is… several cities in one. Strictly looking at this, Athens is just the center of a vast (by Greek standards) metropolitan area, home of about five million people, practically half of Greece’s population(!). Each separate part of this endless metropolitan area, has clearly distinct pockets, with Athens itself not an exception. Add to that, the fact that Greece’s capital city hosts thousands and thousands of foreigners who come from… practically everywhere, from South America to the Far East, and from Africa to… any European country, and you have a truly “many in one” city, with all its pros and cons.
Don’t leave Parthenon for your last day in Athens
If you’re a short-time visitor, the area around the Acropolis is most probably where you’ll spend most of your time, taking in the history, combined with today’s Greek reality. Make sure not to leave a visit to the Parthenon for your last day, since it’s not that rare for employees at the sight to go on strike, locking the place up. If you’re into experiencing something somewhat… “alternative” and you do your homework before arriving in Athens (or stay with locals and tell them you want to see something different), sooner or later you’ll pop into Exarchia, “officially” one of the world’s “coolest neighborhoods” if Lonely Planet is your God, and their guidebooks your Bible (in August 2017 Exarchia was included in such a list).
Appealing mostly to younger people, or older ones who feel young and… revolutionary at heart, Exarchia is rather rightly considered “a State within a State”, in the sense that… for example, even police think twice before entering its limits, and when that happens, a certain smell ends up filling the air, that of burned garbage, lying in the middle of a street or two, with armed security forces on one side, and “angry” youth on the other.
Not Copacabana, but Athens does have beaches(!)
If you go between May and September and you take your time discovering the city, you could be surprised realizing that half a dozen decent beaches are within easy reach, not taking a ferryboat to the closest islands, but just jumping on a bus, tram, or train. Interestingly, even many Athenians tend to overlook the fact that the metropolitan area has nice enough places to sit on the sand, under the sun, and enjoy the sea breeze (not to mention the people-watching of thousands of fellow sun-seekers in July and August), but it’s true, Athens has beaches. They are not… Copacabana or Ipanema, but they’re there, good enough for a beach experience without even leaving the city.
As previously mentioned, Athens is so-so-so much more than just priceless ancient marbles and the smell of smoke-generating canisters. It is, more than any words could describe, a football city as well, one offering so many opportunities to watch the game, that you could make a whole weekend out of it, leaving little time for anything else.
Pick a stadium – or two – and just go
You have Panathinaikos, playing at their old, historic, more like… iconic “Leoforos Alexandras” stadium (not its official name, but how practically everyone calls it, since it’s situated exactly on Alexandra Avenue. “Leoforos” is Greek for “avenue”). You have AEK, playing at the vast and totally non-football-friendly Olympic Stadium, as they’re waiting for the construction of their own home, in Nea Filadelfia, to move forward. The Olympic Stadium’s stands are so far from the field and its capacity so big, that even 25-30,000 fans fail to create a truly warm atmosphere, as any footballer who has played there would tell you. Still, for the avid stadium-goer, it would be super interesting to see.
Obviously, you have Olympiakos as well, the most successful club in Greece, even though Panathinaikos fans would be quick to point out that Olympiakos have never come close to playing in a Champions League/European Cup (as it used to be called) final or semifinal, as their own team have done (in 1971, playing at Wembley, against Cruyff’s Ajax, and in 1985, getting eliminated by Ajax – again, the Dutch – in the semis, despite winning in Amsterdam in the first leg).
Olympiakos have the best, by far, football-specific stadium in the country, it’s actually where the national team play as well, and it may be situated in Piraeus, the port city of Athens, a separate city, but so… merged with Athens proper for decades now, that a foreigner wouldn’t be blamed for considering the two cities one and the same.
Have fun “provoking” an Olympiakos supporter
If you do go to an Olympiakos match with a local, have fun asking him how did the Piraeus club build their lovely stadium, who paid for it, how much it cost them(?). If you do all that, go all the way, and tell your local friend about this “rumor” you have heard/read, that the stadium was actually a gift to Olympiakos by the Greek State, a gift made only to Olympiakos, the most popular team in the country, an unofficial title that comes with another unofficial title, that of “the favorite team of every single Greek Government since World War II”, and especially since the mid 90s. And since you’re at that, ask your local “guide” about the countless refereeing mistakes that have gone Olympiakos’ way the last 20 years. Most probably, the reply you’ll get will be “people say all that only because they are jealous of us”.
Panionios, an excellent alternative
Back to Athens, or, to be more specific, to Nea Smirni, watching a Panionios game would be a lovely experience, in an almost… family-like atmosphere. Unlike Athens’ (and Piraeus’) big teams that seem to attract new fans all the time simply because they are… the biggest, Panionios’ new fans are usually the sons and daughters of already active Panionios fans. If you’re lucky and you’re there on a day that Panionios host PAOK, the biggest team of Thessaloniki, you’ll see something… almost unthinkable, by Greek standards; visiting fans in the stadium (organized groups of visiting fans are not allowed to enter stadiums in Greece, by law), mingling with local fans, drinking and eating together at halftime, a… rare spectacle in Greece, all thanks to the very friendly relations between Panionios and PAOK fans.
As in Thessaloniki’s case, finding and buying tickets in Athens couldn’t be easier. No matter if it’s at Panathinaikos’ oozing with history football-specific stadium, Olympiakos’ modern football temple, Panionios’ vast (by their needs and fan base) home, or AEK’s… “five seats for every spectator” temporary basis, tickets can be found even on match days, at totally reasonable prices, starting at 10 euros. No membership is required, no special card, no need to buy a day or two earlier (unless of course it’s a Champions League game or a huge derby at one of the smallest stadiums), all you need is to… show up, avoiding, preferably, wearing clothes in the colors of the visiting team (better safe than sorry).