You can’t fly through Greece and not stop in Athens, right? While we wanted to spend most of our time on a relaxing Greek island, Athens ended up being a nice stop after an initial headache.
Important note on that headache (TLDR version: get an international driver’s permit if you’re in Greece):
You (probably, definitely) need an international driver’s permit to rent a car in Greece. In my personal opinion, this is a pretty silly requirement for licenses that are written in English/Latin characters since most people can read those. Also, they don’t even translate the license into Greek, so it’s extra ridiculous for Greece. We had no issues renting a car in Crete, but after waiting for over an hour to connect with our rental car shuttle (they claimed they “couldn’t find us” but they didn’t call my phone number and didn’t answer the first 9 times I called) and driving all the way to their office with two small children, they refused to rent us a car because we didn’t have the permit. Now, yes, I should have read the fine print (which was not written on the Rentalcars.com website unless you specifically click on an e-mailed link to read it, rather than listed with the requirement to have a valid license), but while we got a permit a long time ago to drive in France, it was expired and it’s really inconvenient to get another one since you have to physically visit a AAA visit. Also, we’ve literally never been asked to provide it by a car rental agency or anyone else, so I didn’t bother adding it to my checklist for this trip. Luckily, since James didn’t do super well on long stretches in his carseat for our Southern road trip, I had cancelled our Nafplio apartment and extended our Athens stay so we didn’t need a car. The host of our Athens apartment was wonderful about connecting through WhatsApp and helped call the car rental shuttle company, who then called us what ended up being one of the nicest cab drivers I’ve ever had to drive us into Athens. The situation could have been a lot worse (like if we were on an island where most of the activities require a car), but it was frustrating and obnoxious.
On to the good parts!
Where We Stayed
We stayed at Athens Short Rentals. I reserved on Booking.com, but I believe they’ve since taken the property off the website. The address was Likomidon 10, Athina 118 51, Greece if you’re trying to find it again (their website is only in Greek). We loved the apartment, which had a large living space, 1 separate bedroom, and another bedroom area with bunk beds and a big open sofa bed that was partially closed off with a curtain. It was less than a mile to the Acropolis and around the corner from a restaurant we loved, and the host (as mentioned above) was phenomenal about working with us when our rental car situation hit a snag. She waited for us for over 2 hours past our expected arrival time because of all the hiccups and wasn’t stressed at all. The place was also family-friendly with the bunk beds and a pack and play in the bedroom for James.
What We Did
After settling into our apartment, both kids were sorely in need of a nap and something cold (it was SO hot while we were in Athens, but got even hotter after we left to the extent that they closed the Acropolis for a few hours). We started to head towards ice cream, but Julia fell asleep before we got there, so we had to eat it all ourselves and were so sad about that… We kept walking and ended up in front of the entrance to the Agora. It was late in the day, so they were scheduled to close in about 90 minutes, but it seemed like a beautiful spot for a walk. Also, the combination ticket available was still roughly even if we only did the Agora and the Acropolis (there are other less well-known sites included, see list here), plus it would save us some priceless time standing in line, so we bought combination tickets and headed in. We had enough time to briefly poke through the museum and stroll along some of the less rough paths, and for me to play with Julia at the bottom of the hill where the impressive Temple of Hephaistos is while Peter climbed up to get a closer look.
It was really beautiful during the “golden hour” a little before sunset, and it reminded me of our experience in Rome last year where we had a rough travel day and then made it to the Forum in the evening and were just able to enjoy without feeling like we needed to see every little thing. We headed to dinner and then took a short walk to see the Acropolis lit up beautifully at night. Our apartment was just around the corner from a great view, so we didn’t need to go far.
The next day was dedicated to the Acropolis, so even though we were mostly on “vacation time” during this trip, we managed to get out the door a little before 8 a.m., stopping for some yogurt and a spinach pie for breakfast before continuing our walk. I was so proud of Julia because even though it was already hot, she walked all the way from our apartment to the top of the hill (over a mile) by herself, despite some complaining along the way. It made her a little grumpy once we got there, but after filling our water bottle at one of the on-site fountains a few times, she was a little more ready to stroll with us. We probably spent a couple of hours checking out the site before walking down and it felt like just the right amount of time for us. Without a guide, we didn’t learn as much, but we were also able to be flexible and adapt to Julia’s need to run around a bit. It was crowded, but not nearly as much as I was expecting, and everyone was very friendly to our children.
We strolled down past the Theater of Dionysus and grabbed a snack at one of the cafes below the Acropolis. Touristy? Yes, but we needed some coffee and carbs to make up for the early wake-up call. Next, we walked towards Parliament to pick up the Athens Happy Train. This wasn’t the adults’ most favorite attraction. The commentary was less than happy, or particularly informative, since the woman doing it seemed more interested in sharing a cigarette with the driver. However, Julia loved riding around in the little train car and it was a nice break from walking in the heat with two small children, while still getting to see a bit of Athens. We popped Julia in the toddler carrier after the ride and she fell asleep almost immediately, which meant we were able to grab a sampling of baklava-type pastries without sharing.
We tried to see if visiting the Acropolis Museum made sense for the afternoon, but the line to get in was SO long at that point in the day. I’m not the greatest tolerator of heat and carrying a huge sleepy infant on my chest all day was wearing on me, so it was at this point that I decided to walk back to our apartment to try to rest while Peter continued on. He walked to the Roman Forum and a few other sites and I played with James in the air conditioned apartment.
During his PhD work, Peter took several classes from a professor who is Greek and had since moved back to Greece, so we were able to meet up with him for dinner. Julia was unfortunately in a mood to look for attention by poking James or yelling at him, so Peter and Yannis caught up while I spent quite a bit of time taking Julia for walks to the nearby small park to try to work out some energy. James was also in quite a mood and wouldn’t eat, so I stayed behind and literally sat on the pedestrian street to try to feed him after dinner (repeating to myself “travel with kids is rewarding, damnit!”) while the others walked towards ice cream. I was able to catch up with them and made sure that I ordered myself a double scoop. While it was a challenging evening, it was still really nice to see Peter’s former professor and he was unbelievable kind and gracious about our little hooligans, as well as a wonderful window into some information about Athens and life in Greece. That seemed pretty typical for our entire stay in Greece – our young kids acted like young kids and Greek people just accepted it as a fact of life and either gave us space or tried to help distract/entertain/pacify whichever child was causing a ruckus.
The next day was supposed to have on and off thunderstorms, so we started off at the Acropolis Museum. There was a special line for strollers/families (yay!) that we hadn’t noticed the previous day and we were inside in no time at all. They have various map hunts for kids that you can pick up at the information desk, which was a really nice way to get Julia more interested in the museum. However, they seem to be oddly strict about the age limits rather than letting parents decide what might interest their children (like they wouldn’t let us borrow the cool kit with more activities because she was “too young,” and would only give her the little kids’ treasure hunt) . So, Julia enjoyed the first half of the hunt and then got bored because the story line was a little juvenile and everything was clustered in one place, but it was definitely easier than making up my own treasure hunt! The best part of the museum for us was a section with videos about how statues would have been painted during Ancient Greek times, including displays of the rock pigments that would have been used.
Julia fell asleep not long after we left the museum and while we had planned to go to a sit-down restaurant for lunch as a means of avoiding heat/rain, keeping her moving in a stroller is usually the best strategy for uninterrupted sleep, so we found a great little pop-in souvlaki place. They serve 2 things – a meat stick, and a pita sandwich with the meat inside (pork was the only option) and toppings of lettuce, tomato and a yogurt sauce. 3 sandwiches were something like 6 EUR and I thought they were so delicious!
It was looking increasingly like rain, but Peter got a second wind and decided that he didn’t want to skip our second plan for the day, which was to ride the Lycabettus cable car to the top of the mountain. The cable car ride is only about 3 minutes each way, but we had to do a lot of zig zagging to get to the base station in order to try to avoid steep stairs, so it was quite the adventurous walk. There’s a small cafe at the top of the mountain and we stopped for a drink while it rained heavily. A kindly female janitor who had just had a baby herself showed me where the restroom with a changing table was so that I wouldn’t have to change James on a chair. There was a short thunderstorm in the area and it was kind of magical, albeit a little scary (lots of lightning poles up there) to be on top of a mountain during the storm. After a very quick visit to the church on top to check out the wonderful views, we headed back down the mountain, stopping for ice cream at Le Greche, the same place we’d been the night before, because it was so delicious, and then repeating the dinner we’d had on our first evening.
The next morning, we had just enough time for a yogurt breakfast and some play time at the playground with a view of the Acropolis before heading to the airport.
Where We Ate
Gevomai & Magevomai (this shows up as Savor Charms on Google Maps) – This spot was recommended to us by the host of our apartment and was literally around the corner. Not fancy from the outside, but with such delicious food and wonderful service that we ate here twice during our very short stay. We ordered a bunch of small plates, mostly vegetarian because there were so many options, but our two favorites were the eggplant in the oven, which was meltingly tender (if you hate eggplant, eat this dish and you’ll change your tune), and the dolmades, which had a wonderful yogurt sauce. Wine was something like 8 EUR for a liter, and the servers loved on our kids so much that they even carried James around to meet the other staff one night while we ate.
Kuzina – this is where we went with Peter’s former professor (we wanted to eat near our apartment because of having small children, so he said this was a good option despite being in a touristy area). Rather pricey, but there was a nice slow-cooked pork dish with a sweet potato puree that Peter enjoyed, and Julia loved my chicken. The setting is really what you’re paying for – it’s right alongside the Agora with views of the Acropolis (and the metro goes right by, so Julia got to count train cars).
Full Spoon – great small gelato place in the neighborhood adjacent to the Agora. We sat here on our first afternoon while the kids slept and never told them about our clandestine frozen dessert. Whoops! They also had some good vegan options (I’m not vegan, but I liked the coconut ice cream with ginger a lot).
Le Greche – Peter’s former professor took us to this delicious ice cream place and we went back at least once during our stay. They had some really neat flavors (there was a basil sorbet that I got every day because it was so refreshing in the heat) and the servers were really sweet with the kids.
O Kostas – no website, but the address of the little hole-in-the-wall souvlaki place we went to is Pentelis 5, Athina 105 57 (it’s right around the corner from Le Greche).
Because we had spent the majority of our time in Greece on Crete and Athens was a bonus, we were able to just focus on a couple of key activities and revisit eateries we liked rather than worrying about cramming in as many stops as possible or eating at a different restaurant every night. That was particularly helpful because of the heat, which really limited this nursing, baby-wearing mother from a full day of activities. I enjoyed Athens in the way that I enjoyed Rome – there are wonderful things to do and it’s very child friendly, but it’s not somewhere that my heart pines after, like Paris, although it makes a wonderful spot to branch out to other destinations.