In the latest in my occasional series of Insider Guides, I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Bex Hall to share her insider knowledge of Athens. I’ve visited Greece many years ago, but it’s definitely not my area of expertise, so I’m happy that Bex has been able to share her insider tips for a great visit to Athens. Having lived in Athens for five years, Bex is well placed to point us all in the right direction!
Greece has obviously been through a lot of economic and political change in recent years. How have these changes impacted on the visitor’s experience to Athens? How can visitors help Greece in light of these changes?
Unfortunately, as you correctly stated, Greece has been impacted heavily by the extreme austerity measures being taken out against it. Many independent shops and tavernas have closed down in the past five years, so the visitor may find empty shops in areas which were once thriving.
I find the Greek people incredibly friendly and when I do socialize in Athens (usually in a coffee shop). I always chat to the owner, get to know them and try to frequent it often.
How can visitors help? Not just by spending money, but by having an appreciation of the hard time the Greeks are facing, and by taking an interest—talking to people, taking the time to truly understand what’s going on, not just what you see or hear in the news (which is invariably incorrect, often sensationalist reportage).
Being an expat, I would imagine you have family and friends visit you regularly. What is your favorite place in Athens to take overseas visitors, and what makes it so special?
My dad comes to visit me once a year, usually at Easter and I always take him to my favourite café in the centre of Athens—the owner knows me now and always enthusiastically greets my dad. We spend about 3 hours over lunch and coffee. It’s in a side street off Kolonkai, not a particularly touristy area of Athens, so we chat to the locals.
When friends come and stay, I always take them to the A for Athens rooftop bar in Monastiraki. There are fabulous views to the Acropolis from here, as well as reasonably priced drinks.
Tell me about your favorite place that I wouldn’t find in a guidebook.
Once a month over a weekend, independent stallholders and food retailers come together for The Meet Market, in various locations around Athens. I love going and purchasing wares.
I also like the various Street Art projects that take place, usually around run down places in Athens with a view to making the place nicer.
What is your perfect day out and about in Athens and why?
Meeting a friend for coffee in any one of the many coffee shops. It’s perfectly normal to nurse one coffee for three hours or so, without pressure to move on. So I usually meet with a friend and we sit under the Acropolis, people watching & catching up or I take my laptop if I’m alone and get on with some writing.
It might not sound like much, but I find the lifestyle in Greece means you don’t need to be constantly stimulated or doing something different in order to have a good time. And the weather dictates a LOT of what we do…as it’s so hot, it’s not possible to rush around, seeing a lot, etc! Just chill, go with the flow.
There are many great day trips from Athens. Could you share some of your favorite day trip destinations?
Hydra island is about an hour by high-speed ferry from Piraeus, as is Agistri. They’re lesser known islands and are great because most foreign tourists want to go further afield, so you’ll experience more Greek tourists.
What is the best way to find out about concerts, exhibitions and other special events for English speakers?
I use the great website www.xpatathens.com It has all of the above, plus cinema listings. In the summer, Athens comes alive with their outdoor cinemas and they’re a wonderful experience. Much better than the indoor multi-plexes.
Some quick fire favorites now:
Favorite garden(s) or park(s)
Syntagma (Parliament) Gardens in the centre.
Favorite window shopping street
Ermou Street. It is incredibly touristy,but I love it. In the middle is an old church—and at the bottom you come to Athenias Street, great for old spices.
In local neighbourhoods in Athens, every week there’ll be a Farmer’s Market where everything from fruit, vegetables and underwear is sold. It’s great to wander through the stalls, even if I’m not buying anything.
Favorite spot for a tea or coffee
Cafe Mon Cheri as mentioned above, in Kolonaki.
Favorite value for money restaurant(s)
The Tzitzikas ki o Mermikas chain (think high quality at good prices, not a Denny’s chain or anything). Even souvlaiki and gyros, the fast-food dishes of Greece is of a healthy, high quality. In fact, I’ve only seen one McDonalds in Athens!
Thanks, Bex for your great insights. Having not visited Athens for over 20years, I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to get back there, and check out your recommendations!
About Bex: An unconventional British lass with a degree in International Relations, the wrong side of 35 and only just the right side of 40, Bex finds herself living in the unconventional country of Greece. She’s travelled to, lived and taught in various places around the globe—Sri Lanka, Cambodia and even undertaken an adventure from Athens to Hong Kong via Container ship! A jack of all trades, Bex has worked at LHR airport, dealing with high profile passengers, organised people’s lives through her role as P.A. to various individuals and returned to full time education in her early 30’s. All experiences have helped to shape who she is today.
Photo credits: all photos Bex Hall