Travel Letdowns and Why I Don’t Like Athens

Parthenon, Athens

I was supposed to love it. Everyone told me I would love it. All the guide books and even Samantha Brown said I would love it. That’s why I felt so bad when I hated my travel experiences in Athens.

We were on a Mediterranean cruise and at first we were disappointed that we didn’t have more time to spend in Athens. I’m an antiquities nut and the thought of rummaging about Athens - THE ATHENS – gave me goose bumps.

We knew the timing would be tight, so we prepared to leave the huge Celebrity Solstice cruise ship as soon as we were allowed. We flagged a cab and asked him to head for the Acropolis as fast as he could.

Parthenon, Athens

People sometimes use the names Acropolis and Parthenon interchangeably, which isn’t quite right. The Acropolis refers to the mount that rises above the great city of Athens on which the Parthenon is perched. The Parthenon is a gigantic temple that has been the center of Athenian life for millennia. Whatever you call it, this iconic monument was our first stop.

We arrived a few minutes before the site opened and I was pleased to see that the hoards of tourists had not yet finished their coffees in the cafes below. We weren’t alone, but I didn’t feel like I was in a Tokyo subway car either. We walked through various ruins, I have no idea what they were, intent on reaching our objective, the Parthenon. Finally, as we emerged from the last set of stairs there it was, the ancient temple in all of its glory. And a lot of scaffolding. And cranes.

Parthenon, Athens

Even though it was early, it was hot and it felt like it was going to be another scorcher. We walked around the construction site that is the Parthenon, looking at it from various angles and taking the required photos. There were other buildings nearby, but there wasn’t anything describing what they were. I guess they really want people to rent their audio tours because there was nothing in fact to explain anything. We approached an observation point and saw the city of Athens spreading below us in all directions. Athens is in a bowl and the haze hung thick over the city. Except, it wasn’t haze it was smog, thick, disgusting smog. It was depressing actually.

Athens, Greece

We walked back around the giant temple that was once the center of devotion to the goddess Athena, and descended to the nearby Forum. My only other experience with an ancient forum was in Rome, and I was let down when I saw the Athens version. There was nothing there, not really. Just a lot of poorly explained rubble. One of the most impressive buildings in the agora was, as it turns out, a reproduction. One monument I really did love was the Temple of Ares, at the extreme edge of the forum. It’s geometric perfection appealed to me at a base, almost instinctual level.

Temple of Ares, Athens

We stayed long enough to feel that we hadn’t wasted our money, and wandered into non-ancient Athens for a coffee and pastry.

I should probably mention that my partner is not as enamored by ancient things as I am. He has a pretty low tolerance for them actually and our travels through the Mediterranean was stretching his travel patience to the limit. I couldn’t visit Athens though without a stop at the National Archaeological Museum.

National Archeological Museum, Athens

We navigated the creepy Greek metro system, managing to avoid pickpockets, and arrived at the museum in the early afternoon. It was very hot at this point and we were beat. We had done a lot of walking, and the pool back onboard the ship started to sound better and better.

I was nervous as we entered the stately building, glancing at Scott to see how he was managing. I knew his attention span wouldn’t last long and so I set out to see the highlights of the museum. It really is an impressive place and demonstrates the amazing and impressive history of Greece.

After an hour, Scott threw in the towel and I agreed. There’s only so much marble you can look at before losing all interest. We popped in to the gift shop to purchase a set of coasters in the design of the Phaistos Disc and left.

We finished our time in Athens walking around, trying to get a feel for the city. And to a large part we succeeded, we just really didn’t like that feel. As a city it doesn’t have the same intangible “something” that Rome or Paris has. It was dirty, crowded and at times dangerous. It’s not at all what I expected, what I hoped for.

I’m of course thankful for the opportunity to visit Athens and witness firsthand remnants of the amazing accomplishments of Greek society. But I felt guilty that I didn’t like the city. I felt as if I was supposed to like it, and because I didn’t I must have missed something or done something wrong.

But I didn’t. I wouldn’t change anything about the way we toured the city, the fact is that I just don’t like Athens and that’s ok. Travel is a huge commitment for most of us, both financially and in time. We want everything to be great and perfect, but that’s not possible. I don’t regret visiting Athens, it provided experiences I will always remember, I just don’t ever want to return. Not everything will be great when we travel, but it’s what we take away from those experiences that matters. Rather than learn anything about Athens, my takeaway from the city adventure was that even some of the most iconic, most visited places in the world can suck. It’s just a part of the travel experience.

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

40 Responses

  1. Jessica

    Nooooo!!! Don’t tell me that!!! We are heading there soon! Now see this is why I like the idea of organised tours for first timers. Spending only 2 nights in each city may not seem a lot, but its enough to get a feel for the city, and if you like it you can go back. However in your case, if you hate it it doesn’t matter, your not stuck there for a week. We don’t have to organise accommodation or deal with queues, transportation or anything overly taxing. We can relax and enjoy our time there. Im am still looking foward to going to Athens, just so I can say that I went….then again the same applies to Rome, Paris, Barcelona, London…..sorry, I’ll stop bragging (three weeks to go, yay!!)

    Reply
    • Jamie

      That’s funny, because I usually feel the opposite. If you’re doing a tour then you *don’t* have the freedom to leave when you want to! I organised my own trip around Europe last year and I loved that I was completely in control. Because of the short amount of time I *chose* to stay 2-3 nights in most places, rather than being forced to.

      Reply
  2. Angie Orth

    Crossing my fingers my 24 hours here turns out better! But thanks for the reminder about pickpockets and whatnot. It’s hard not to get complacent when traveling all the time =)

    Reply
  3. Andrew

    Although we loved Athens when we visited last fall, I can understand why you felt that way. The modern city that is Athens is a bit disappointing and doesn’t match with the ancient Athens we hope to find. That was my feeling anyway. I tried really hard to look out on the bowl that is the modern city and imagine it with countryside rather than more buildings. It must have been a great view from the Acropolis back then!

    If you have more time to walk the hills around the Acropolis, there are a lot of the ancient Athens still there, just hidden from view. Also, the Acropolis museum is a _must_… it really helps to understand what remains and what is missing. It’s a modern museum at the foot of the hill and it is built over a section of old Athens that archaeologists are currently investigating.

    When we visited last fall, we stayed in Vouliagmeni in the south of the city at the end of the coastal tram line. We found that it was perfect because we could visit Athens, explore the sites, and then escape. If any one is interested, you can check out our experience here: http://cheeseweb.eu/2010/11/acropolis-athens-greece/

    As you say, it’s ok to not like something; I’ve been to Venice twice and have never enjoyed it. I will go back again some day to try to find the Venice that everyone falls in love with, but for the moment there are other places to visit.

    Reply
  4. Ri

    I had a similar experience with Istanbul recently. Everyone assured me I would love it, but I found it overcrowded with tourists and hawkers and inordinately expensive due to the exchange rate. I most enjoyed the two days we stayed in the Taksim area, walking around the neighbourhood and finding inexpensive eating spots. A highlight was sitting on plastic chairs for a few hours watching the Bosphorus, sharing a fish roll from a nearby cart, and drinking strong Turkish tea.
    That said, the Hagia Sophia is the most amazing, awe-inspiring building and I’d love to see it again.

    Reply
  5. Marina C.

    I am actually from Athens, and it’s interesting to hear peoples’ honest views cause usually they say that they love Greece and that’s it. While I lived there I hated it as well, as getting stuck in the athenian traffic every day is not fun, but I actually loved going to the center occasionally so i’m impressed by the fact that this was the part you didn’t like. The center is defined by the whole area around Syntagma square and the Acropolis, and especially the area under the Acropolis, namely Thisseio, Monastiraki and Plaka are really good places to go out for a drink in the evening, viewing the Acropolis. It is true that you have to be very careful as people do steal a lot, especially in the metro, and that it can get quite dirty. I find the metro pretty useful (especially compared to other metro systems around the world), the bus system is not as good so don’t expect too much.

    Cheers to all!!
    Marina C.

    acitizentoftheworld.blogspot.com

    Reply
  6. The Travel Chica

    I did a cruise of the Greek islands several years ago with friends. We spent one night in Athens before departing. I also was not impressed. The best part of that trip was renting a car and driving to Delphi (4 hours away) when our cruise ship got back to Athens. An adventurous drive and and beautiful views.

    Reply
  7. Jeremy B

    I have to agree with you on this. I’ve yet to go to Athens but I’ve read many opinions similar to yours. I just don’t have an interest in visiting. It’s also hot and dirty as well so I’ve heard many people found it disappointing.

    Reply
  8. Debbie Beardsley

    Athens is one of the few places I hear very mixed reviews on. Dirty seems to be a very common theme. It is depressing because it should be exciting and beautiful. Its hard when things are a let down but this is not an uncommon theme for Athens, sadly.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I will say that there are many other areas of Greece which are amazing and overall it’s a great country. Athens, unfortunately, was not the crown jewel I had imagined.

      Reply
  9. Danielle

    Sounds like “ugly American” syndrome – where you expect everything nicely laid out, labeled, and clean…if everything were the same, why travel at all? Each and every place I travel has something disgusting about it and something absolutely wonderful and unique – that’s called “the experience”. You are not a real traveler – stay home.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      LOL, actually I think it’s fine and normal not to like a city or other destination. It’s how we feel, and that can’t be controlled. Everyone is different, some other people love Athens, it just wasn’t for me. As I said, I’m glad to have gone and seen the sights, but I don’t want to return.

      Reply
  10. Andrew

    I had a bit of the same experience. I went in with maybe some preconceptions, but was trying to let be what it is. There seemed to be a lot of neat stuff, just not much that I was interested in. I enjoyed the parthenon/acropolis, especially as by the time I got there they had taken down the scaffolding. I think I was just plunged from the islands into Athens and it was such a shock that I just didn’t like it. The heat could have something to do with it too.
    I am totally happy to have seen it, especially the Agora. But now I have no need to return.

    Reply
  11. Sonja

    My memories of Athens are unbearable heat and a hazy, concrete city.

    Reply
    • Jessica

      mmm unbearable heat. It will be nice to wear shorts just once this year!

      Reply
  12. James Clark

    You can’t like everywhere, so fair enough. I’ve never been to Athens but it is one of those places where I have heard mixed reviews, so I think I would be prepared for the worst.

    I tend not to tell people any more that they will “love a place” just because I did. Each experience is personal, so I just say what I liked about each place.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      That’s absolutely right, and there’s always something to be gained when you don’t like a new place. I mean, everyone can’t like everything. :)

      Reply
  13. Vanessa

    I felt the exact same way about the Vatican, and some parts of Rome too. I think a lot of my feelings stemmed from over-crowding and a very hot day though. Probably if it had been only one or the other, I would have liked it more.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I can easily see that. I toured the Vatican immediately after getting off of a long haul flight, it was hot and crowded and I was beat. I ended up loving it, but I was in such a mood that things could easily have been different. LOL

      Reply
  14. Francesca

    Thanks for writing this. I feel the same way about Florence – and I’ve been there twice! It’s fun to tell people that I don’t like Florence because their reactions range from mild shock to outright fainting. But you’ve made me feel better about not caring for Florence, as I thought I was missing “something”.

    Reply
  15. Jamie

    I must say that I agree quite wholeheartedly with the things written in this article! I do not think that Athens is that great as a tourist; once you’ve seen the sights and wandered around the city for a bit, then it gets pretty old, pretty quickly! The islands are where it’s at!

    Reply
  16. Jenna

    I read this post with interest because I also am fascinated by antiquities and would love to see the things you saw on that day. However, I too would have been disappointed by the scaffolding/cranes (which is so common at famous sites!) and the heat. I actually felt almost the same way when I was in Rome last time, but I have promised myself to go back and see if I change my mind. The important thing is for people to respect everyone’s impressions. If you didn’t enjoy Athens, that’s OK– to each his own!

    Reply
  17. Achille

    I will admit that parts of Athens are a bit dirty, but that’s true of all cities. However…

    1) If you’re not curious enough to research the monuments on the acropolis, don’t complain about not knowing what they are. (Plus, all you have to do is ask for a booklet when you first enter)

    2) How can you complain about restoring ancient ruins AND complain about there not being much left of other ruins? Either suggest that they not restore them and then have nothing left, or admit we should probably try to preserve these priceless monuments (even if it messes up your precious pictures for the one day you’re there).

    3) You really can’t see all Athens has to offer in only a few days.

    4) No mention of the amazing and fresh food, the concerts and plays that are preformed in ANCIENT theaters, all of the wonderful goods handcrafted by locals, the gorgeous architecture in the city center, or the bustling nightlife in Plaka and Kolonaki?

    5) To those people that go to places just to say they’ve been, you’re wasting your time and money, and you’re getting in the way of people who actually want to learn and grow from their travels.

    6) As crazy as it seems, the summer is hot. If the heat really bothers you that much, go in a different season.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      as I said, some people love certain places, others hate them. There’s no rhyme or reason, just personal preference.

      Reply
  18. Claus Gurumeta

    My perception of Athens was much different than yours. I think it may have been the fact that I came in with really low expectations based on what people told me about the city, and was pleasantly surprised.

    The city is somewhat dirty. It is big, unplanned urban sprawl at its worst. Anything ancient, other than the entire ruins in the Agora and up in the Acropolis, is often overshadowed by plain 1970s architecture. At times – especially at nighttime – most places in the city feel very unsafe.

    Yet, there was something about Athens that I loved. An energy in the air made me really enjoy Athens. Wandering through the Placa district, visiting the very first stadium of the modern olympics, eating delicious (and very affordable) food at restaurants overlooking the Acropolis from below, buying cookies from a local bakery, or taking a rest from the smog and crowds of the city by taking a stroll in the city’s central park.

    Most of all, the people. Athens locals are some of the friendliest people I encountered in all my time in Europe, often going out of their way to help you find yours, helping and smiling each at strangers on the street, making tourists feel welcome. And most impressively, their pride fir this notoriously “ugly” city.

    The Pathernon covered 2/3 is scaffolding is disappointing, but more disappointing would be to have it wear away because no one cared to repair it!

    Reply
  19. John

    OMG the heat.The unbearable heat of Athens.This is what I will always remember for the Greek capital.

    Whatever you do dont visit Athens during the summer.Its heat can kill you!

    Reply
  20. Runaway Brit

    I have not been to Athens but I agree about the sense of disappointment you feel as a traveller when you get somewhere so iconic only to find that it is concealed by scaffolding or even worse, advertising! When I visited Italy some years back I went to a colosseum in Verona, half of the ancient buildng was covered in a huge banner advertising push-up bras, so instead of having the chance to photograph an historic momument, I was confronted with a half-naked woman!

    Reply
  21. Journeys and Travels

    just wished they have been done with the restoration efforts of the structures. I hated taking photos of those with scafolding and people working tirelessly. I share in this post Mat. I wanted to stay more time to soak on the glory of Athens.

    Reply
  22. Christy

    Completely agree! Had the same experience when I was there last fall. It was almost a complete letdown. Very anticlimactic. Istanbul and Rome, however, never fail to disappoint. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who felt that way!

    Reply
  23. Vee

    Why don’t you tell us how you really feel?

    Reply
  24. K.

    YES!!! Agree on all counts! I lived in Athens for 2 years and it was not enjoyable. Dirty, terrible place, but at the end of the depressing because of all the history, you’d like to see the Greeks actually take pride in their home, and they simply don’t. I actually once had a Greek woman say that “we should be thanking them, for inventing civilization…” A very arrogant society with no work ethic, which is why the city is in shambles. I’m lucky now to live in Vienna where things work, are clean, people are friendly(ish) and it’s a great place to live. So if you come to Europe, one day in Athens is enough if you have to go, but make sure to leave time to see the cities with heart, and make sure to find time for Vienna!

    Reply
  25. Aristides

    After reading this post, I learned a lot more about the author than Athens… I will spare you my analysis, out of kindness and also humility.

    For the uninitiated: Athens is not a user-friendly city, per se. While there are many world-class sites to keep one busy for several days, the marvel of that city reveals itself slowly and with a bit of work, unless you know a local that can guide you.

    I live in New York, and I usually find that New Yorkers “get” Athens… Can’t imagine a New Yorker complaining that Athens is dirty or noisy. Once you get past midwestern sensitivities, and do some work, you will find that Athens offers much beyond glorious ancient sites. The museums, galleries, architecture, design concepts, restaurants, bars, clubs, even urban hikes and beaches compare very, -very-, favorably against most American cities.

    But, by all means, if you don’t like sites, classical culture and “marble statues”, heat, and crowds, either skip Athens, or earn for yourself a different experience…

    Reply
    • Joanna Kalafatis

      I’m originally from Greece but lived in New York for a while, and most of my friends in New York did adore Athens. They took the bad with the good, just like they do with New York – it would be insane to say that New York is an awful city and unenjoyable because some parts of it (aka the rat infested and dirty subway system) aren’t all that great. Also, like you said, in Athens you have to know where to go, and avoid the tourists traps. People I know either love or hate their experiences based on where they stayed. But spending a couple of days in the wrong neighborhoods would be like spending one day in Times Square and one day in the South Bronx, and saying all you saw in New York was dirty tourist traps and unsafe, dirty streets.

      Reply
  26. Joanna Kalafatis

    While it’s perfectly normal to not love every destination, I will say that spending that little time in a city, nevertheless in such a tiny part of such a sprawling city, won’t give you the best feel for it. I lived in Athens for several years, and still spend 2-3 months in the summer there. I agree that it is unbearably hot in mid-summer, and it has many unimpressive parts.

    Athens is best explored with a local telling you where to go and the good spots to hit up. It has a lot of wonderful neighborhoods, and not to be mean to visitors, but it’s mostly the spots where tourists don’t invade and get drunk and messy all over the streets.

    I’m divided on the city, because on one hand there are certainly many positive changes and cleaning up that could take place (don’t forget we are now a county in major recession), but on the other hand, I feel like so many tourists come expecting to find some perfectly preserved city of antiquity, not realizing that while Athens has a past represented in some of its most famous destinations, it is also a modern city with modern people living in it, people who don’t want to live in what amounts to a city-wide pristine museum for the sake of tourists. The culture is different now; there is a large swath of Athens that is anarchist, there is a thriving alternative culture, and the city will reflect that.

    Anyway, just my two cents (and excessive word usage)

    Reply
  27. Emilio

    And another ignorant comment from an American, travel to the US, the most uninteresting peace of earth in this planet. Shitty history , shitty architecture, shitty food, it sucks. Athens is not the top of the world either but anything is good when going out from the US.

    Reply
    • Emilio

      *piece

      Reply
  28. Bex

    That’s such a shame you felt that way – but thank you for writing a well-informed, non-patronizing piece.
    I am British and have chosen to live in Athens for the past 6 years because I love it: the fact that in 20 mins I can be by the sea from the centre (not many capital cities can boast beaches very near), I can watch the moon rise over the Parthenon.
    I’m surprised at your comment regarding the metro – in comaprison to London’s system (and ones in U.S. cities I imagine), it’s gleaming! I think you probably took the overline metro, from Pireaus to the centre (the ‘green’ line). Alas, that’s the oldest line. The actual underground system is spotless, has piped classical music and tv screens with weather updates.
    But as you say, it’s OK not to like a place. I felt the same as you about Cairo and Hong Kong. And like you, I was vocal about it in a polite way via my site.

    Reply
  29. Beto

    Thank you for your review, It helped me to choose my first destination in Greece. I was thinking about going to Athens, but the place has such amount of bad rep that I decided to go to Rhodes instead. I would visit one day Athens but not now.

    Reply
  30. James Goodall

    Athens is a big sprawling city not unlike Los Angeles & Mexico City. I experienced the negative aspects too, but loved seeing the history it has to offer. It would be nice if the city/country could present their biggest city in a more palitable light, but it is what it is.

    For me it’s a must see, but also visit the Northern city of Thessaloniki as it’s contrast, not unlike Los Angeles is to San Francisco. Athens is often the gateway to other amazing part of Greece…I just take it for what it is.

    Reply
  31. anthie

    Well someone was in a really bad mood when he visited Athens. The way you describe it is not only offensive and bad taste but also lacking basic knowledge on history and culture.
    We cant really rely on your mood swings to take your travel site and “tips” seriously.
    The things you write and describe about Athens seem like a PMS or pre-menopause lady’s journal. Bye!
    Maybe you should reconsider your “blogging” career. Pfff…

    Reply

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