THE BLOG

8 Reasons to Fall in Love With Athens

06/19/2015 04:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016

About a year ago, I left my home in Greece to come study in the U.S. It was a dream come true for me, however I quickly realized that I was not completely immune to homesickness. Like most teenagers, while in high school I longed to become independent and take control of my life. When it finally happened, I found myself in a weird emotional state where excitement for everything new I was experiencing was mixed with an intense longing for my beloved city, Athens. What I missed the most, apart from my family and friends, were the places where some of my most cherished memories were born. Places that I would love to share with anyone planning to travel in my country. Places that reveal that Athens is not just a city leading to magical beaches. It is a city filled with the contrast between the old and the new, making one feel as if they are walking through history. Athens has a unique aura of the past mixed into the present. So here is my list of my favorite places, some lesser known than others but nevertheless worthy of exploration.

1. The Acropolis isn't the only hill to explore.
Everyone visits the Acropolis and the Parthenon, however the surrounding areas are also worth exploring. Filopappou Hill is south of the Acropolis and offers a breathtaking view along with green scenery in the middle of the city. Small paths lead toward the top of the hill, where you'll find the Filopappou monument and a panoramic view of the Acropolis, Mount Lykabettus and Athens.

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2. You can trace the origins of Greek democracy... with a sunset view.
Walk toward the Acropolis, and you'll find the National Observatory on the "Hill of the Nymphs." Even farther than that is the historic rock named Pnyx, one of the first historic sites in democracy, where Ancient Greeks held assemblies. This rock also offers a beautiful view of Athens perfect for sunsets or stargazing.

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3. Everywhere you look is a stunning contrast of old and new.
As you descend from the Pnyx, Old Athens reveals itself. Plaka's small houses look as if they were taken out of a fairytale, mixed with the occasional elevated view of Athens. Thisseio is an area northwest from the Acropolis, perfect for a long afternoon walk through historic landmarks. The pavement leading down to the bustling Monastiraki area is crowded with cafes and vendors. And the Temple of Hephaestus is also one of the most well-preserved in the area.

4. And there are plenty of ways to sneak off the beaten path.
Most tourists take the teleferique or a taxi to visit the small church at the very top of Mount Lykabettus, which also offers a beautiful view of the city, the Acropolis and the sea. But a better option is to hike through the small forest or walk along the road to the top of the hill. As you ascend, you'll get small peeks of Athens, and it's truly breathtaking. Climb as high as you can - it's worth it.

5. Athens is changing, and you can be a part of the movement.
A complete alternative to Lykabettus is Mount Strefi. It's located in what is known as the "hip" area of Athens Exarcheia, a vibrant neighborhood where students, artists and intellectuals interact. Small squares and bars in the area offer a close-up look at Athens social life. It's not advised to visit the Mount at nighttime, but in the day it is perfect for a view that combines the city and the sea. Take a perfect hike with no paved road and possibly the closest you'll get to a forest in the middle of a city.

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5. But time-honored paths take you through the city -- and history.
Other neighborhoods worth a visit are Kolonaki and Pagkrati. To get a feel for the city and its history, start from either and gradually walk toward the Acropolis. Kolonaki is a social hub with numerous cafes and restaurants: Dexameni Square is a favorite spot for locals, with a playground, cafes and an open-air theatre in the summer. Voukourestiou is a friendly area for window-shopping. Pagkrati, on the other hand, is a hub for students, relaxed cafes and bars. Stroll through the National Gardens and Zappeio Park as you move closer to the center.

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6. You're not far from the sea.
The Palaio Faliro neighborhood is close to the ocean, perfect for walks and relaxation. The Planetarium offers breathtaking science screenings aimed toward extending natural sciences to the public.

7. ...or the mountains.
Beyond history and the sea, take note of the mountains that surround Athens. Mount Ymittos combines a beautiful view with a family-friendly atmosphere: Locals looking to escape the hustle usually go hiking with their families or dogs, while more adventourous types bike the rocky terrain. The "Τheater of Rocks" and the Melina Mercouri Open Air Theatre are close by.

8. And Greek islands are at your fingertips, too.
For a taste of Greek island life, head to Aegina. It's just a 40-minute ferry ride from Piraeus, the main port of Athens. Aegina has a rich history, as the island was in a rivarly with Athens during the 5th century B.C. The Temple of Aphaea completes the ancient triangle along with the Parthenon and the temple of Sounion. Aegina also offers beautiful beaches and hiking destinations, too.