Skylark Travels

Just Back From Athens

By: Alex Swanson

At Skylark, even our interns travel well. Our own Alex Swanson, who while not toiling in our New York City HQ is studying for a degree in classics and history at Columbia University, recently returned from an enchanting trip to Athens, the homeland of democracy. He found a city brimming with both history and a colorful contemporary spice, plus a Mediterranean brand of luxury that’s one of Europe’s best steals. Here are his favorite ruins and reminiscences.

Why Go?

Think Greece and your mind will probably drift to the Acropolis or the sun-soaked Aegean. But Athens is a dreamy city whose modern life prevails over the imposing grandeur of its past. Streets are alive with bohemian cafés and potters’ shops, colorful signs and street art, making just wandering around a vibrant journey. I spent five days in Athens—well beyond the usual duration of stay—yet not once did I get bored. Many of my walks were interrupted by the need to peruse a monument from the perspective of a café chair, preferably paired with a glass of wine (I was never a fan of ouzo).

The Classic Sites

The ruins are the main attraction—and don’t think a picture does any of them justice. I would recommend starting your trip with an evening stroll to the Acropolis to get in the mood. There is a feel of indescribable wonder atop the Acropolis as the wind rustles through your hair and the whole city is laid beneath you. One ticket will get you into every major site in the city, including the Roman and Greek fora and the towering pillars of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Athens’s ruins aren’t stale things you stare at from behind barriers. You get up close and personal to the history, walking ancient roads, dipping in and out of millennia-old foundations. Perhaps my favorite memory is walking into a clothing shop—Athens has lovely linen, by the way—and tripping over a glass portal that covered an old stone wall. The shopkeeper told me it was part of the “Long Walls” that Pericles had built after the Persian Wars—more than 2,500 years ago. 

The Acropolis Museum

A special mention must go out to one of Europe’s best museums, the Acropolis Museum, which showcases the ancient world’s showstopping art in a dynamic way. It follows the narrative of Athens, starting at prehistory, moving through the development of Athenian democracy, the Persian Wars and eventual decline—all through one continuous gallery flooded with light from floor-to-ceiling windows. Descriptions are concise and well-written, and the collection will help you appreciate the ruins around you more. Definitely end your visit with a macchiato—Athens’s espresso scene might be on par with Rome’s—on the museum terrace with front-row seats to the Acropolis

Best Day Trip

Athens is also in an ideal base for excursions to nearby islands or lesser-frequented ruins. On one day, I visited the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, just over an hour’s drive from the city (roughly €40 by Uber). Historically, it was the last point of departure for Athenian triremes leaving for places far and wide, and how they ever managed to leave after setting eyes on the coastal shrine is a miracle. The temple sits high on a cliff surrounded by the azure waters of the Aegean and the rugged hills of Attica beyond. Although sunset is the real treat, it’s worth coming a few hours earlier to avoid the crowds and take advantage of the nearby beaches.

An Island Excursion

As an overnight, I took the ferry to small, white-housed Hydra, which gives a taste of the charm of a Greek island without the crowds of the better-known spots. The principal town is centered around a distinctive crescent port littered with hip restaurants and funky boutiques. However, the main attraction is the surrounding water. We took a small boat to a beach some ten minutes from town, and from there walked from another ten minutes or so to find a secluded cove just cozy enough for two people. The water is phenomenal: azure blue, slightly salty, and that ideal temperature that leaves you warm both in and out of the water. Our day ended with a meander down to a beachside hamlet where we ordered some local white wine and homemade tzatziki to accompany the sunset. 

Where to Stay

Two classic hotels, the Grande Bretagne and the King George, sit next to each other on Syntagma Square, with dead-on views of the Acropolis. The Grande Bretagne is all opulence and Old World glamour, while the King George has a more modern (but still elegant) outlook. For a more of-the-moment experience, the New Hotel is located in the vibrant neighborhood of Plaka and filled with eye-catching contemporary art.