Katherine’s Athens

Katherine LaGrave traveled to Greece with her family when she was young, then moved to Athens to teach English after finishing college. One year turned into two, and though she left to attend journalism school, she returns often. The things that drew her to Greece are the things that keep her coming back: the food, the beauty of the country, and the spirit of the people who live there. Here are a few of Katherine’s favorite things about one of the world’s oldest cities.

Katherine is the director of communications at a nonprofit in Boston, and blogs about fashion and travel on the side. Follow her story on Twitter @kjlagrave.

Athens is My City

The first place I take a visitor from out of town is Adrianou Street. It’s an excellent place to have coffee, get acquainted with the Athens café culture, look up at the historic Acropolis, and observe both locals and tourists. Get there early on the weekends.

When I crave hearty, homemade Greek dishes, I always go to Doris. Inside the cozy pink building at 30 Praxitelous, you’ll find a menu that changes daily and an oft-packed interior. My favorites are the fasolada (bean soup), keftedes (Greek meatballs) and loukoumades (Greek doughnuts with honey and cinnamon). The prices are unbelievably cheap for the quality and quantity of food you receive.

To escape the hustle and bustle of the city, I head to the National Gardens. Located behind the Parliament building, there’s a small zoo, a café, ancient ruins, jogging paths, gazebos, flowers, and plenty of benches for sitting. Or, bring a blanket and some snacks and have a picnic.

If I want to bargain at a market that sells anything, I go south to Piraeus. Be prepared to elbow your way through the locals!

For complete quiet, I can hide away in any number of the city’s Orthodox churches. They’re open daily and are an interesting lesson in history, as well as a respite from hectic Athenian life. They smell of incense and have incredibly ornate, detailed mosaics. Regardless of what else I’ve got going on, I always take time out of my day to stop in, light some candles and sit for a few moments.

If you come to my city, get your picture taken with a traditional Greek guard in front of the Parliament. You can smile and move, but they’ll remain motionless. Be careful of getting too close, though: you’ll get elbowed!

If you have to order one thing off the menu at Zonar’s, it has to be their modern take on the Greek frappé. Mixed with pomegranate seeds and chocolate made in the café’s chocolatier, it’s a coffee not to be missed.

Public is my one-stop shop for affordable presents: imagine multiple levels of quirky gifts, beautiful books, and the latest music and movies. It’s centrally located in Syntagma Square, and has a great rooftop café/bar that offers stunning views.

Locals know to skip tourist markets in Monastiraki and check out the bustle of the lively markets of Athinas Street instead. Here, I like to find my hand-cut soaps made from olive oil.

When I’m feeling cash-strapped I go to any number of kiosks you see around the city. They’re the best places to get chocolate, magazines, and snacks on the run.

For a huge splurge I go to the Hotel Grande Bretagne, one of the oldest and most luxurious hotels in Athens. My favorites are its café, with fine china and afternoon tea, and the rooftop garden, with an unbeatable mix of trendy locals, strong cocktails, and a one-of-a-kind view of the Acropolis.

For the best atmosphere and a glittering view of Athens, go at night.

Photo ops in my city include the Acropolis, and the best vantage points are Filopappou Hill and a lookout point next to the Thissio metro stop. One of the best tips is to learn early where the Acropolis is in relation to other things. That way, because you’re always able to see it, you’ll know more or less where you are and what direction you’re going.

If my city were a celebrity it’d be Madonna: original and controversial, but something that undeniably changed history.

The most random thing about my city is the beauty that can be found in any number of the metro stops. Here, you’ll find sculptures by famous Greek artists, exhibitions of ancient artifacts, and interesting art.

My city has the most forward men.

My city has the most capable women.

In my city, an active day outdoors involves strolling in Kolonaki and enjoying a coffee outside with friends. I love this section of Athens—classic, with beautiful buildings and elegant storefronts.

My city’s best museum is the relatively new Acropolis Museum. Made of glass and marble, it has unbeatable views of the Acropolis and is an amazing addition to the city’s impressive roster of museums.

My favorite jogging/walking route is inside the National Gardens. You can’t beat it.

For a night of dancing, go to Exarchia, one of Athens’ most diverse neighborhoods, and check out any number of rock or pop clubs. Or, for live music, check out Anifori, in Piraeus. Here you’ll hear traditional Greek rembetika.

Evergreen, a healthy fast-food chain that’s sprung up around Athens, is the spot for late-night eats. My favorite is the pesto pasta salad.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read AthensPlus, which is in English and quite cheap. It can be purchased from the kiosks I mentioned above.

You can tell a lot about my city from the pace at which things move.

You can tell if someone is from my city if they speak a certain way and wear lots of black.

In the spring you should take a bus to Cape Sounion, the ancient ruins of Poseidon’s temple. On the short bus ride from Athens, you’ll wind along the coast and enjoy some of my favorite views.

In the summer you should make the hike to PiuVERDE, a café located in Papagou Park. You’ll be surrounded by foliage and get to taste modern Mediterranean fusion cuisine in the process.

In the fall you should go to a football match: Watch rivals (and local Athenian teams) Olympiakos and Panathinaikos battle it out. I’m a Panathinaikos fan, myself.

In the winter you should make a day trip to Arachova, a picturesque town that Greeks flock to for skiing. There are lots of great rugs and crafts here, too, and lots of tucked-away stavernas with hearty dishes.

A hidden gem in my city is 7 Jokers, a fusion bar tucked away on Voulis, a backstreet in downtown Athens. Enjoy a cocktail while admiring the high bamboo ceilings and the eclectic set list.  It’s Jimmy Buffett-meets-Havana.

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For a great breakfast joint try Ariston. It’s more of a bakery, but you have to try a cheese pie—it’s what this institution is famous for.

Don’t miss the Easter festival in Hydra. There are no motor vehicles of any sort allowed on Hydra, so it’s already incredibly peaceful. Take part, if you can, in the Easter procession that winds through the towns and along the seashore.

Just outside my city, you can visit any number of close islands by a short boat ride: Aegina, Hydra, Spetses, and Poros, to name a few.

The best way to see my city is on foot. You’ll discover things you’d never think of.

If my city were a pet it would be a goat: Determined, set in its ways, and tough.

If I didn’t live in a city, I’d live on a Greek island—preferably Kythira. The island is sparsely populated, but one of the most beautiful in Greece. Mythology supposes that Kythira is the island of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. I’m hoping to retire there one day.

The best book about my city is The Colossus of Maroussi, by Henry Miller. Here, Miller writes not only about Athens, but also about his experiences in Delphi and several Greek islands. His candor and ability to capture the spirit of the people is remarkable.

When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is “Na Eisai Ekei,” by Greek pop artist Mixalis Xatzigiannis. It has nothing to do with Athens, but there’s an association because it’s the first song I learned by a Greek artist. He’s since become one of my favorite singers.

If you have kids, you won’t want to miss either the Hellenic Children’s Museum or the free zoo in the National Gardens.

Too many things could only happen in my city. It’s one of the world’s oldest cities — how could they not?

My city should be featured on your cover or website because it’s largely misunderstood.

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