Updated: Apr 1
From PLAKA to Parthenon, GRAFFITI to Sea...You Go!
It may be slightly anathema to say so but so what—one of the best ways to discover Athens is actually by car. Sometimes you need to park and stroll, while others times all you need to do is look out the window and channel the fortitude of Athena Nike.
A small clarification: the best way to discover the heart of ancient Athens is still the way the ancients got around, that is mainly on foot. And hoofing it is still the way to uncover secret nooks and crannies or catch a whiff of Athenian orange blossom in spring. Driving does however open up new vistas, even if it can try your patience—but it doesn't have to!
Says Kostas Atzemopoulos, General Manager of Kosmos Car Rental,"Athens is very big and one of the best ways to get around the city is by car because you can go at your own pace and discover spots that might otherwise be hard to find." And, he adds, "if you can avoid the morning and evening rush hours you may actually find driving around the capital to be a more pleasant experience than you thought."
Here are 10 highlights of Athens...by car!
1. THE ACROPOLIS FROM AREOPAGUS HILL
You know the times are changing, or already have, when Beyoncé can shut down the Louvre to pose in front of the Mona Lisa but ladies and gentlemen, you still can't drive up the Acropolis. Actually you used to be to able drive pretty close to the base of the sacred rock, before they started pedestrianizing more of the streets in the center. So here's what you do: head over to the central but quiet neighborhood of Thisseo and park as close as you can to the famous craggy rock of Areopagus Hill. Climb up for the best "up close" view of the Acropolis, then saunter over to the Pynx hill, where the ancient Athenians gathered for their popular assemblies. Enjoy the silence and then hit the road again (N.B. the foregoing is not meant as a substitute for a visit to the Acropolis itself, which obviously is a must and takes more time than a typical Athens drive tour would allow). Allow 1 to 2 hours.
2. ATHENS VIEW FROM LYCABETTUS HILL
You can take the winding footpath some 900 feet to the top of Mount Lykavittos (also written as Lycabettus), opt for a shortcut with a ride on the funicular or bypass both for a pleasant drive which you can do one of two ways. The first is to follow the road behind the hill until you come to a big parking lot.
From there, you can enjoy the view of Athens to the sea or walk up to the summit (from the lot it's a relatively short walk). Or, just below the summit and facing the Athens basin, park along Kleomenous or another of the little streets in Kolonaki and sashay over to the St. George Lycabettus Hotel: you can't do much better than the view from the rooftop (pictured above) with libation of choice in hand. 1-2 hours.
3. KALLIMARMARO MARBLE STADIUM
The Kallimarmaro marble stadium is one of the most iconic ancient sites of Athens and also one of the most popular. But don't even think of stopping for an extra second on always-busy (even in August) Leoforos Vasileos Konstantinou which passes by the open, front end of it, unless you want an army of impatient Greek drivers to run you off the road (see coda below). No, what you must do instead is turn right on Eratosthenous Street and make your way to Archimedous, behind the stadium.
Find a place to park—it's not a touristy neighborhood (Pagrati) so it should be easy—and then approach the stadium from the "closed" back end. You will be rewarded with spectacular views—even better from the top of Ardittos Hill—plus you'll be glad to see there's no admission fee on this side, and then you can hop back in your car and move on to our next stop. 1 hour.
4. SYNTAGMA SQUARE FROM THIS SECRET ROOFTOP...PARK IN PLAKA AND THEN...
Sssh...it's the rooftop of the Hotel Amalia, once again open. Half an hour.
5. TEMPLE OF OLYMPIAN ZEUS
(FROM YOUR CAR WINDOW)
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is something of an underdog among Greek ruins, partly because though Greek in inception it was Roman in completion. And today incomplete for that matter, though the cluster of colossal remaining columns still draws groups of tourists which you could once easily avoid by driving right past them on Vasilissis Olgas avenue, but now that avenue is part of the "Great Walk" of Athens project so cars can no longer go there.
But you can still get an eyeful of the site from Ardittou street, with the Parthenon in the background, or from busy Vasilissis Amalias which runs past the National Garden and the Hellenic Parliament. The latter also affords a nice view of Hadrian's Arch (left).
If you do want to linger around here a bit more, you'll find it easier to park in the side streets behind Ardittou. From there you can walk through the Zappeio gardens (more columns, not as old) and onward to Syntagma Square.
6. THE 2.80€ "NEW" AIRPORT EXPRESS
There are a variety of ways to make the journey from Athens International Airport to the center of Athens, including the trusty X95 bus and the metro but the most interesting—and economical—way to do it is by car. The Attiki Odos highway is both modern and scenic, essentially slicing through mighty Mount Immitos (also called Trellós or 'crazy mountain because it's so long) through a series of tunnels. There are also vistas of olive groves. The toll is 2.80€, making it far cheaper than either the metro/railway connection or bus. At the airport you will also find a Kosmos Car Rental counter—once you're in the main terminal look for the exit B4 (see diagram below). And take note: Kosmos has a free airport pick up and drop off service.
7. THE PSIRRI FLASH GRAFFITI TOUR
The neighborhood of Psirri (also written as Psyrri) is an open-air canvas and mecca for street art. Park your car anywhere you can find a spot—the further west you go from Athinas Street the easier this will be—and let the Instagram nourishment begin.
There is also a wealth of street art to be found in neighborhoods like Exarcheia, edgy Metaxourgeio and to a lesser extent Gazi, but Psyrri is the most user-friendly, so to speak. Rare is the crumbling neoclassical façade not decorated with some artwork.
Amongst the narrow streets you will sometimes find alleys literally plastered with art and it's not amateur stuff: we're talking some very arresting tableaux that out-Banksy Banksy.
If you want to do a proper street art your, get in touch with Alternative Athens. One of their guides reminded me that it was actually a Greek graffiti artist, TAKI 183, who started spray painting his name around the streets of Manhattan in the early 1970s. And along came Basquiat...what The Village Voice called Basquiat’s “skittery repertoire of cartoony faces and cars” caught the eye of Andy Warhol. Art powerhouse Joan Agajanian Quinn, a close friend of Warhol and West Coast editor of his Interview magazine, mingled with them both. “When fab 40, Jean-Michel, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring were making their street art, we didn't think much of it because they were hanging out with established fine artists, going to art openings, but still working in the streets,” Quinn says. “Using the streets as their galleries, certain artists rose to the top just as in the proper art world: these guys had something that survived and springboarded from the streets to the walls of famous collectors.” Enter Psyrri.
For any Athenian street art by car flash tour, park first and then allow up to 2 hours.
8. ZIP THROUGH PLAKA
Often unfairly maligned in tourist literature because it's, well, kind of touristy, Plaka is where Athens does pretty. That doesn't necessarily make it the most dynamic or even the most authentic, but every great city needs its postcard-worthy promenades and in Athens, Plaka is the place to induce those oh-look-at-those-lovely-buildings swoons.
Now, there are some sections like Anafiotika where cars can't go, and even in lower portions the driving can be harrowing but that doesn't mean you can't do it. Just pay attention and try to avoid driving on pedestrian-only streets, because traffic streets can turn into pedestrian zones without warning.
For parking your best bet is to try to locate a spot on the periphery of the neighborhood. From Vasilisis Amalias, on the eastern side, hit any of the streets going west, such as Lysikratous. At the corner of Lysikratous and Vyronos you'll find the best ice cream parlor in Athens, Kayak, which is also the only maker of mint ice cream worthy of the name in Greece. You could sit in the outdoor café section with a view of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, or just grab a milkshake (pricey but refreshing and car-friendly) and be on your way. 1-2 hours.
9. THEMISTOCLES COAST, PIRAEUS
So you thought that Piraeus was just a port? Then you may have some reading to do:
Drive south from the main passenger port area to Akti Themistokleous, the "shore" drive named for the wily ancient Athenian general Themistocles. Pass south from the entrance of the Hellenic Naval Academy and you'll start to see remnants of ancient walls that tumble right down to the sea, and some fine seafood tavernas too. 1-2 hours
10. SUDDENLY LAST SOUNIO
There is just one part of the Great Athenian Drive By (which by the way was inspired not in part but in whole by part two of Duran Duran's The Chauffeur, the L.A.-centric Drive By) for which having a car is not a value-added option but rather an absolute necessity and that's the vast chiseled littoral known as the Athens Riviera.
Yes, just ten miles or south of the Acropolis a parallel universe of sundry seaside charms beckons. The blue waters of the Saronic Gulf greet the whole of the Attica shore from the southern Athenian suburbs like Glyfada all the way to Cape Sounion (Sounio) and its iconic Temple of Poseidon. This area includes all manner of posh yacht marinas, secluded coves, ancient ruins and first-rate beaches plus the occasional fine resort. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you can see it all with public transport—you can, but it will feel more like endurance test than holiday indulgence. Better idea: get in that car and drive baby, drive.
CODA: TIPS FOR DRIVING IN ATHENS
Be prepared for unexpected interruptions and one-way streets where you least expect them. Assume that your fellow drivers are more heavily caffeinated than you and gird your loins. Forget about GPS; study the best map you can find beforehand (not Google maps) and hope for the best. Remember that if a Greek driver thinks you are going too slow you probably are, so you either need to get of the way, step on the gas or steel yourself for angry curses and the actual risk of being run off the road. In sum, you're going to see lots of spectacular sights from the driver's seat in Athens, but in general you're going to want to park first, then gawk. Return to vehicle and repeat.
Special thanks to Kosmos Car Rental.
Recommended listening: Radio Best 92.6 Athens