If any of you reading have met us IRL, you know our love for Athens and how much we enjoy giving tips, rec's and insights to this beautiful if slightly chaotic city. In this post, we are joined by fellow Athenophile, Don Domonkos, a writer/editor who first moved to Athens in 1985 and who, after spending more than a dozen years out of the country in the UK and the Netherlands, is thrilled to be back where he belongs in the Big Olive. Like us, Don loves to share the city he loves with everyone who would like to learn more about it.
If you happened to have had a window seat on your flight into Athens, you'll already know when you arrive in the city what I'm about to reveal to you, but for those who were in the middle seat or on the aisle or, worst of all, in that middle aisle no-man's land that exists on larger aircraft, let me share a truth: Greece isn't a flat country.
Whether you're on the islands or the mainland, you'll find hills and mountains everywhere, from the White Mountains of Crete to soaring Mt Olympus in Thessaly, fabled Mt Parnassus rising above Delphi or Mt Taygetus in the Peloponnese, standing watch over the sparse remains of ancient Sparta. In fact, peaks outnumber plains all over the map, and Athens itself is ringed by them. But you don't have to take on any of these heavyweights to enjoy the heights; there are hills right in the city itself that offer views and other rewards in exchange for a little aerobic exercise.
First prize, of course, has to go to that most famous of promontories, the Acropolis, together with its neighbors, Philopappos Hill, the Pnyx and the very slippery Areopagus Hill. There's no question that the Acropolis is unique, and amazing; for twenty-five centuries people have looked up to it in awe, and that's not likely to stop anytime soon. However, since everyone knows that, and since the Acropolis and the surrounding area are already on every agenda, let's move on to some less lauded summits.
View of Lykavittos Hill, Image by Tassos Giannouris
1) Lykavittos Hill is the highest point in the center of Athens; you can see it from nearly any spot downtown, and it's the perfect hill to hit to get a real sense of the scope of the city, because the view from the top is close to endless. When you reach the summit, by all means stick your head into the little church that crowns this hill, because it's charming, but you're really there for the incredible sight of the city stretching out around you in all directions. Oh, and maybe the food, if you can grab a table at Orizontes, the restaurant perched up there as if nesting on a cliff. It's strange that their food is actually good because, after all, with this location and a constant stream of brand new potential clients, there's no need beyond pride to put in the amount of care that they do. It's also not as expensive as it could be, considering, although I hope they don't read this and raise their prices. If you can't find a table at Orizontes, don't despair. Head downhill to the upper streets of Kolonaki, to the café Dexameni on a sloping sidewalk near the St George Lycabettus Hotel. This is, hands down, the best people-watching spot in town, and the food is tasty.
View of Mt Ymittos
2) Mount Ymittos guards the eastern flank of Athens, but even before you get to the mountain slopes, you'll find some rather steep streets (take Dikearchou Street from where it starts behind Kallimarmaro Stadium and follow it east all the way to its lofty end) leading to the district of Vyronas and up to the top of Lofos Kopana (Kopana Hill), better known to the locals simply as "Duncan," because it was on the summit of this hill at the start of the 20th century where the famed free-spirited founder of modern dance, Isadora Duncan, and her brother Raymond commissioned a house in what was then an undeveloped area far out of town. The Duncan house is still here, although now it's the Isadora And Raymond Duncan Dance Center of Athens, and when it's open, you're permitted to look around inside; you might even catch a glimpse, as I did last visit, of a class in progress in the dance studio. Outside, you'll have to clamber around a bit to get the great view that the Duncans used to have, but eventually you'll discover vistas across the Saronic Gulf to the island of Aegina and beyond. Once you've done your far-gazing, grab a table on the sidewalk at the little eatery To Koutouki tou Nikola, directly across the street from the old Duncan place. Food here is simple, spicy, flavorsome and, just like its interior decor, wholly impervious to trends. The house wine, served by the kilo, is good, too.
Mikrolimano, Photo via @alimoslife
3) Some smart aleck is bound to point out that, technically, my third hill, Castella, is not in Athens at all, but while that's true, the port of Piraeus deserves love, too. What's more, the walk up the switch-back lanes of Castella from the nearby metro station of Faliro is a wonderful opportunity to spot some grand if largely dilapidated 19th-century houses on the way towards Profitis Ilias, the church at the top. At the base of Castella on its eastern side is a little harbor called Mikrolimano. There are some very nice dining establishments here at the water's edge, including Varoulko, one of the city's leading fish restaurants, but I always eat all the way up the hill, at the taverna Kefalonitis, 19 Rethimnis Street. The food here (particularly the meat) is outstanding and the neighborhood knows it; locals have made the place an extension of their own living-rooms, creating a casual atmosphere that's warmly welcoming.