A visit to Athens, Greece in the middle of winter is no one's "dream vacation." Before our budget-travel adventure, I would've thought the only reason to visit Europe in the dead of winter was to ski the Alps. But traveling in the off-season is a financial-must for us budget travelers, especially when heading to one of the most expensive regions in the world.
So, we traded our swimsuits for down jackets and booked a one-way ticket from Bangkok to Athens in the middle of January. It's been my dream to travel Europe since I was a kid, but even I wasn't overly excited.
However, as you probably inferred from the title, we LOVED it. The wintry weather we'd expected was better described as "mild" and the world's top tourist attractions were virtually empty. We enjoyed Ouzo (Greece's famous licorice flavored drink) by the fire at local pubs, feasted on giant gyros for local prices, and wandered the empty streets on what felt like a private tour of Athens.
There's me, enjoying Athens in the middle of winter!
The mild weather was also great for activities that would be downright miserable in the heat of an Athens summer. For example, we spent one of our days hiking Mount Lycabettus, also known as the city's highest point (300 m). While it's more of a hill than a mountain, this steady climb was still hot even in January. My choice of long spandex was overkill and we had both stripped to our base layers by the time we reached the top.
In addition to the pleasant hiking weather, we were some of the only tourists at the summit and we enjoyed 360-degree views of Athens unencumbered. We knew the city was densely-populated, but we didn't quite get the magnitude until we'd seen the views from the top. Athens is truly a concrete jungle!
Mount Lycabettus also offers the best view of the Parthenon, especially at sunset! We imagine this small summit could get pretty overrun by tourists during peak season, but we found this short hike to the top to be totally worth it for the views and the workout.
Even with this nicer weather, we knew a trip to the famous Greek Islands was out. We learned that most of the islands close everything but local necessities during the winter, with very few restaurants, hotels, and shops staying open year-round. This disappointment inspired us to find an alternative seaside oasis on the mainland and we hit the small port town of Piraeus. With clear blue skies and mild temps, Piraeus was ours to explore without any fellow tourists in sight!
A visit to Piraeus is a great way to get your Aegean sea fix and to switch up the heavily urban scenery of downtown Athens. A subway ticket costs 2-3 Euros and we found the 20-30 minute ride to be a quick and easy escape to the ocean!
Of course, the biggest benefit of traveling Athens in the off-season is the almost non-existent crowds at the ancient ruins. Having breathing room at the Parthenon and an almost private viewing of the Temple of Zeus should make a winter visit to Athens alone worth it! But coupled with pleasant weather and low-season discounts on entry tickets and we were smitten.
Of course, a disadvantage of traveling in the off-season is that is typically when historical sites will schedule restoration projects. Admittedly, finding the entire front of the Parthenon covered in scaffolding was a bit of a disappointment. Luckily, the views - and a visit with the resident Parthenon kitty - helped soften the blow. With such a clear day, we still enjoyed the views from the top and happily walked around the almost deserted Acropolis for hours.
For more tips and pictures on exploring the Parthenon, check out our post blog post on the Acropolis.
Luckily, we found even fewer crowds at the other famous landmarks such as The Temple of Zeus and the Ancient Agora. Derrick's favorite site was the impressive Temple of Zeus which towered over the modern buildings surrounding it. The Temple was built for the Emperor Hadrian but was never completed and has fallen into ruin due to severe weather and outside elements. It's now a paid-entry park in the middle of Athens which can be accessed through Hadrian's Gate near the Parthenon. We loved how close you could get to the gigantic columns, and how impressive the building felt, even in ruin.
Equally as impressive is the Ancient Agora which was the downtown hub of Ancient Athens. We've heard you could run into wait times to enter the Agora during peak season, but we arrived to limited crowds and got to explore the massive grounds at our own pace. Not to mention, almost every site in Athens has discounted entry during off-season so we were saving almost 50% off entry fees simply due to the time of year in which we visited.
Finally, our off-season travels provided us with the pick of the litter in affordable accommodation. This was an unexpected benefit for Europe as we'd figured we'd be paying a premium to stay. Luckily, we found Airbnb to be a very affordable option throughout the region!
In Athens, we chose a small apartment in the Koukaki neighborhood, a safe and up-and-coming area about 15 minutes outside of downtown. We loved the local food options, the small bakeries on every corner, and the quaint walking streets full of shops, pubs, and restaurants. Not to mention, the sunset views from our balcony were spectacular!
Our Airbnb was adjacent to Filopappu Hill, which we walked through to access the main city. The park features various walking trails, 360-degree views of Athens, including the Parthenon, and an ancient monument to check out. If you're looking for a place to stay in Athens, be sure to look for accommodation around this beautiful park!
So, if you're looking to explore Athens on a budget and interested in avoiding the mid-summer crowds, then hopefully this post helped prove that off-season is a worthwhile time to visit...and far less cold than you might expect!
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