Two Incredible Days in Athens: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 2016

There are a dozen things that could have gone better with this trip: Delta could have cared about me getting on a flight out of Montana in time to see Istanbul, my not unreasonable fears about the dangers in Turkey could have abated, and I could have planned better than to be in Athens for two nights when the archaeological sites and museums were closed, to name just a few. Some degree of very last minute planning because of those interlocked reasons may mean that I won’t make it to a Greek island, won’t see the Blue Mosque other than on a quick drive by on my way to the airport, or even see some of the amazing museums in Athens, but none of that seemed to matter the past two days as I wandered through Athens in two of the most perfect travel days I’ve experienced.

Athens at Christmas is a marvel. While there didn’t seem to be any of the big Christmas markets of other European cities, subway stations had small market areas selling Christmas goods, not to mention the occasional symphony playing traditional Christmas music. That’s not the only amazing part about Athens subways; during the excavation to build the line (Europe’s newest) so many antiquities and burial sites were uncovered that many stations were built as micro-museums housing some of these treasures.

On my first day, I woke just before sunrise and headed out to see a bit of the city before a walking tour of the Acropolis and its museum. The sights of the Parthenon and Temple of Zeus at sunrise were an incredible start to the day, which I thought was quite warm. The Athenians I met disagreed completely, noting my “bravery” for only wearing a light sweater with the sleeves rolled up. When I explained that I was from Montana (near Canada), they nodded and laughed, but seemed to wrap themselves up a bit more.

We had an excellent tour from Walking Tours of Athens. Our guide, Vicki, took us to see the changing of the guard and the Temple of Zeus before handing some of us off to another guide who led the walk to the Acropolis and its museum. At the changeover, we stopped for a quick snack, and it’s fair to say that I’ve become quite attached to Greek/Turkish coffee. I also sampled a Greek yogurt dessert, that at 8% fat, made the healthy food of American breakfasts seem like a sad imitation.

The Acropolis and its museum were as excellent as you might guess. It’s hard not to be struck by the pride of a people in their culture that is so much older than our own, not to mention the incredible workmanship that led to the creation of the two temples left on the Acropolis. While you can certainly explore the area on your own, a knowledgeable guide’s insight about the history of the area, from the mathematical precision of its creation to the destruction wrought by the Ottomans, was incredibly interesting.

A day that begins with sunrise at the Temple of Zeus and ends with sunset at the Philopappos Monument would be hard to beat, even if the middle of the day had not been amazing. I felt incredibly lucky to have had such a remarkable first day in Athens.

My second day in Athens was Christmas itself. I’d been worried that the city would be shut down for the holiday, but it was anything but, with cafes and tavernas open throughout the central neighborhoods. I spent the daily aimlessly wandering neighborhoods like the Monastiraki Flea Market, Plaka, and then down to the Piraeus port area. With no real agenda, I wandered, took photographs, and ate incredible Greek food, including at a taverna that has been open for over 100 years near the Monastiraki neighborhood. “Because it’s Christmas,” my waiter kept bringing more items to my table as the meal went on, including a shot of Ouzo, dessert wine, and, best of all, a plate of shreds of chicken meat and skin that might have been one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

One other stop deserves mention. Off the main streets of the Monastiraki neighborhood, I came across a little shop owned by a man who had to be in his late sixties that sold products from what he described as family farms. Normally, I might take such a claim somewhat dubiously, but the plastic bottles of “house Ouzo and raka” and his demeanor convinced me it was the real deal. He offered me a drink of the raka, flavored by honey produced by his older brother, and I have to tell you it tasted as incredible as it sounds. There’s no way I’ll be getting that plastic bottle through customs, so you’ll have to just take my word for it, but if you’re getting a gift from me from this trip, odds are it came from this amazing little shop.

Travel on Christmas can be a melancholy experience. I’ve spent them in American airports on my way to more exciting destinations and even in large American cities that seemed entirely shut down. While you may not be able to visit the Acropolis on Christmas Day in Athens, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more vibrant, friendly city to spend a future Christmas.

Off for another day of exploration!