G R E E C E
A professional tour guide and archeologist shares tips for making the most of a trip to Greece, and its stunning capital
Penelope Triantafyllidou isn’t your typical Athens tour guide. Her career as an archeologist makes her a special ambassador, and her tours offer a window into one of the world’s most fascinating ancient civilizations. I got to know Penelope on my recent trip to Greece and enjoyed her enthusiasm for Greek food, culture, and ancient and modern Greece. She’s sharing her Greece travel tips here: her favorite things to see, do and eat in Athens – as well as recommendations for a special day trip from Athens, and touring the Greek islands. Read on for Greece travel tips from an exceptional Athens’ tour guide.
From Archeologist to Athens Tour Guide
Susan – You worked as an archeologist with Greece’s Ministry of Culture for many years. What made you decide to leave that work and start a business in tourism?
Penelope – Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that everything is in constant flux. Change is the essence of life. I strongly believe in this wisdom.
I enjoyed very much the years I worked as an archaeologist. I gained invaluable experience and I learned so many things. But it became time to change my professional path.
Tour guiding was not something I had ever thought of doing before. I’d say it came to me by chance. But in the process I realized that it’s the perfect job for me since it encompasses everything I like: working outdoors, walking, meeting people from different cultures than mine, and offering them a meaningful experience, by making a specialist’s knowledge more accessible.
Every new day is a new challenge. But I love challenges: they help me develop further as a person.
Visiting Athens Greece
Susan – I loved Athens so much more than I was expecting. And it seems as though many people only spend a night here, on their way to the islands. Why do you think that is?
Penelope – I think the main reason is because Greece is primarily advertised abroad as a beach destination. So most people, when they think of Greece, they think about sea, sun, and relaxation on one of our many islands. For most, Athens is a necessary layover on their way there. They might (and should) visit the Acropolis since it’s a worldwide famous monument, and symbol of 2500+ years of history and democracy, an iconic representation of the origins of western civilization. But those visitors who give Athens a little more time discover a beautiful, vibrant, modern and welcoming city. Many people tell me they change their minds and wish they had booked more days here.
How Many Days in Athens?
Susan – I agree. I think everyone should spent more than one night in Athens if they can. How much time do you recommend in order to really see the city?
Penelope – I would say at least three days in order to learn about the present day city, its culture and its vibes, as well as its glorious past. These are two very different things.
Athens downtown is compact and easily walkable so many people think they can visit it in a day. That is true, but Athens also has many places of interest which are located far from the center.
Where to Stay in Athens?
Susan – Many people stay in the Plaka area of Athens. Do you think that’s the best choice for a first-time visitor? Any other areas you like?
Penelope – Plaka is a beautiful neighborhood, one of the oldest in Europe and also one of my favorites in Athens. But it can get terribly busy in the high tourist season since it is the most visited area of the city, being located at the foot of Acropolis Hill. Most of the venues you will find here cater primarily to tourists which means if you only stick to it you won’t experience the real pulse of the city.
Alternatively one can try the more local neighborhoods of Koukaki, Thissio or Mets, all of them in the downtown, within short walking distance of the major sites and with all the services a traveller might need. But they can be more quiet or at least have a more balanced mix of locals and tourists.
Kolonaki is another favorite if you prefer staying in a more upscale neighborhood with upmarket but excellent dining and shopping in its small, exquisite boutiques.
Tips for Visiting the Acropolis of Athens
Susan – Every visitor to Athens should visit the Acropolis. It is stunning! Since it’s also Athens’ most popular sight, can you share some tips for visiting the Acropolis.
Penelope – If you can, avoid the high tourist season (June to September) and consider coming to Greece in the spring or fall. If you are visiting during high season, start as early as 8 a.m. when the Acropolis opens, in order to avoid the crowds and the heat. Wear shoes with good grips as the ground is slippery and bring a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water with you. Also hiring a good guide to show you around can be particularly important here, in order to gain context of what you see, and to understand the significance of this place.
An Athens Hidden Gem
Susan – Can you share a hidden gem in Athens?
Penelope – I would say Anafiotika, the little island quarter hidden in the heart of Plaka, the historical neighborhood which lies at the foot of Acropolis hill. It feels like a visit to a Cycladic island, with its tiny whitewashed houses with the small windows and doors painted in all shades of blue. Just remember to respect the people living here and be discreet.
Susan – That sounds fantastic; it’s definitely on my list for next time. And I’d like to add one – the charming area called Proskopon Square. We met for a wine tasting at Wine Bar 33, which is adjacent to the square and owned by Penelope’s friend, Dimitri. The square was filled with locals enjoying food and drinks in the open air on a beautiful evening. At the center of it all were a couple who were singing traditional Greek songs. I think I might have been the only tourist there; it was such a special experience.
Athens - Greek Food to Try
Susan – The food in Greece was phenomenal. I expected it to be good and it far exceeded my expectations. What are three foods that every visitor to Athens/Greece should try?
Penelope – Greek style pies! Those include the: spanakopita/spinach pie, tiropita/cheese pie, and bougatsa, a custard, sweet cream pie.
Also, be sure and try the feta and other cheeses and yogurt made the traditional way, with sheep and goat milk.
And the souvlaki or giros pita, our famous street food.
Best Day Trip from Athens
Susan – Tell us about a day trip from Athens that you love, and recommend to visitors?
Penelope – Cape Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon, which is about one and a half hours from Athens’ center. For me it’s the most scenic trip across the Athenian Riviera, and the beautiful and wild south coast of Athens. The temple site itself is utterly atmospheric, perched on a cliff overlooking the amazingly blue open Aegean Sea.
It is best at sunset but go a little earlier to have it to yourself in the tourist season.
You can combine the temple with a visit to the nearby port town of Lavrio, where you can eat as locals do – fresh and inexpensive fish and seafood at one of the many eateries near the fish market.
Recommended Athens Tour
Susan – We met when I joined you for a walking tour of historic Athens, and you took us to one of your favorite restaurant’s after. (Read to the bottom for Penelope’s recommended restaurant!) I loved the tour and the delicious dinner. But you offer many different types of Athens tours, including private and group tours, Acropolis tours, Athens food tours, etc. Which tour do you recommend for first-time visitors?
Penelope – It depends on your interests; if you enjoy history and culture then the historical evening walk around the main sites and the old quarter of Plaka (the one you did) is the best. If you love eating and/or drinking, then either the day or night Athens food tours offer a more complete and authentic experience of the city and the modern life of the people, while enjoying our famous cuisine and culinary culture.
Visiting the Greek Islands - Penelope's Favorites!
- and are Santorini and Mykonos overrated?
Susan – Of course, many visitors to Greece want to visit some of your beautiful islands, including the most well-known, Santorini and Mykonos. Do you think they are overrated? And which islands are your favorites?
Penelope – Every Greek island has its own vibes. If you like partying, luxury and beautiful beaches Mykonos offers that. If you like breathtaking views, wine or you want to see a volcano, certainly go to Santorini. Both of these islands are cosmopolitan and I wouldn’t say they are overrated exactly, but they can be very crowded and are surely overpriced.
There are so many other islands in Greece that offer incredibly beautiful beaches and crystal clear waters, delicious local cuisine and vibrant nightlife, but without the hype of Mykonos and Santorini. They just aren’t advertised as much, and perhaps it’s better this way so they remain unspoiled and authentic. My personal favorites are Amorgos and Koufonissia, both from the Cyclades Islands group. And of course the island where I was born, Lesvos. It offers a taste of authentic Greece, a step back in time, delicious food and beautiful surroundings, at a fraction of the price.
The Island of Lesvos
Susan – You are from the island of Lesvos. Tell us a little about it. Do you return often?
Penelope – Lesvos is the third biggest island of Greece. Due to the influx of immigrants it has received, it has unfairly received negative publicity.
The truth is there is nothing dangerous about it. On the contrary, it is a non-touristy place where one can experience authentic Greece, away from the tourists traps and the crowds. It’s a small piece of land which encompasses olive groves, sandy beaches, pine tree forests, a petrified forest and amazing architecture. The local cuisine is famous for the cured/marinated sardines, ouzo, olives and olive oil, and delicious cheese.
I’d like to return to Lesvos more often than I do. It’s difficult due to my job’s seasonal nature.
Book an Athens Greece Walking Tour
Susan – I can’t wait to return to Greece. You’ve given me so many ideas for what to explore and experience on my next visit. Thank you for sharing all of these wonderful Athens’ travel tips and Greece recommendations. How can people get in touch with you if they would like to book a tour of Athens, or a day trip outside of the city?
Penelope – My pleasure, Susan. Anyone interested in booking a tour on their trip to Greece can reach out to me at email@example.com
And yes, the name of the restaurant we visited in Athens is Ella Greek Cooking. It’s located in the heart of Athens, near Syntagma Square, at Mitropoleos 26. You can see photos of their inventive but traditional Greek food on their Instagram account.
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