Athens is a city of phenomenal food, friendly people, and a fantastic and flexible nightlife. I lived in Athens for two months in the spring of 2015. It was Sarah who proposed the idea and I was a bit indifferent before arriving, but I ended up falling in love with the city.
(Order) Anything on the Menu
Food in Athens is great. Not only are there sprawling, local street markets most days, but restaurants make delicious food well into the night (we never had a problem eating dinner after midnight). Obviously traditional Greek foods like souvlaki and pitas are everywhere, delicious, and dangerously cheap. Athens is full of amazing fresh seafood as well, but what really took me by surprise were the small, often family-run restaurants with absolutely boring menus that concealed delicious and inventive food: freshly made with interesting spices, sauces, and sides that weren’t mentioned in the three-word description. “Tomato meatballs” would be a spiced tomato sauce with fresh herbs and tender veal meatballs served with freshly baked bread and wine for €6–sometimes less. And these restaurants would often open at 7pm only to stay open until 3am (barely even getting busy until midnight!)
The trick to ordering food in Athens is to order absolutely anything on the menu. It’s going to be fun and tasty–if anything, go for the most boring-sounding dish and it’s sure to be a knockout.
And if you’re in the area, check out Street Wok. It’s some of the tastiest noodles made in Europe I’ve ever had. I ate there a lot, helped by the fact that they were open until 2am!
Sweet, sweet vino
Wine in Greece is cheap, but Greek wine is way too sweet. It’s served cold and never in a real wine glass; maybe this is related to the heat. It’s drinkable but not not much to write home about; instead I’d try a Zeos beer (I recommend the pilsner) if you can. It comes in what is essentially a soda bottle but it’s fresh and delicious. Many pubs suffer the same fate as those in Berlin: they’re full of generic lager. But hit up The Wee Dram or The Local Pub to get some delicious beers on tap.
I expected, after being in Berlin and Warsaw previously, that I would encounter much less English in Athens. Instead, I was treated not only to a few English menus but a wealth of people who spoke excellent English. Athens itself is not the most tourist-oriented city (which is refreshing), but everyone there I met spoke English. Menus will be in English less often, but you can always ask for help. I wasn’t even staying in the city centre, but near Panormou–and all the way out to the airport I met English speakers of at least passable skill.
Perhaps the English knowledge there is a result of needing to learn another alphabet to travel anywhere else in Europe (where most countries use a Latin script). This was offered as an explanation by a Greek friend of mine, anyway.
What’s really lovely about Athens was that people were more than just willing to speak English to this annoying tourist in their town: they were remarkably warm, friendly, interested, and interesting. The women who ran the bakery nearby would recognise me, teach me a few Greek words and ask to learn some new English ones, before giving me some extra sweets or a free coffee with my loaf of bread. Everyone wanted to share their stories and learn yours, and service in restaurants and bars was awesome. Not the absolutely quickest in the world, but way better than a lot of Europe, even in places that expect a tip (Athens places don’t).
Athens was a fantastic city to live in for a few months, and I could imagine it being great to stay in for some time. The heat in the summer surely gets a bit oppressive (it was nearly “too hot” as I was leaving in early May) and combined with the traffic the air quality apparently suffers in the summer. But aside from that I can’t think of many reasons not to spend time in Athens.
It has so much more to offer than what I’ve mentioned, including some absolutely amazing parks and mountains inside the city that are open to the public. They’re fantastic to walk up and down. Athens has some of the most interesting green space in any city I’ve visited–it actually seems criminally under-appreciated by the locals.
The Wee Dram had a saying about their pub, but I’d say it extends to all of Athens: Enter as Strangers, Leave as Friends.