Greece Family Road Trip

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Part 1: Kid-friendly Athens

We booked an off-season trip to Greece in search of some winter sun and were dazzled by all that Greece has to offer. From the amazing food to the diverse landscape and the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, Greece is a fantastic country for exploring as a family. A truly perfect off-season destination with mild winter weather, fewer tourists, and a more affordable cost. Most of the sites, including the Acropolis, are half price during the winter season (November- March). Flights, accomodations, and car rental follow suit with seasonal pricing.

Our adventure started in Athens, the heart of ancient Greece. For many, Athens is just a quick stopover before heading out to the Islands, but this city has so many layers that make it a worthwhile destination in itself. Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world, founded in 508 BC. Ancient history permeates every aspect of this city and provides a perfect opportunity for world schooling with children.

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We started out our Sunday at Syntagma Square for the Changing of the Guard ceremony. Every Sunday at 11AM there is a special Grand Change where all the presidential guards (Evzones) march in ceremonial uniforms from the barracks to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Crowds gather early, so arrive about 30 minutes before to get a good viewing spot in front of the Hellenic Parliament building. Our kids got a kick out of the pom poms on the guards’ shoes and imitated the special march throughout the rest of the day.

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The Hellenic Parliament is located at the corner of the National Gardens, which was the next logical stop on our agenda. Our kids always travel better with some green space and designated playtime. The park was a bit underwhelming, but the kids enjoyed looking at the turtle pond, spotting parrots, and of course, playing on the playground.

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A walk through the gardens is also a great route to reach the magnificent Panathenaic Stadium. Originally built from limestone in 330 BC, the stadium was rebuilt completely from marble in 144 AD and used for the Panathenaic games as part of a religious festival held every four years in Athens. Many years later, in the late 19th century, the stadium was refurbished and became the venue of the first modern day Olympic games in 1896. The stadium is a really cool site to visit for kids of all ages. Our son loved racing around the track with some newfound friends and we all stood on the winner’s podium, just like great athletes of the past. There is also a small museum with olympic torches and memorabilia that can be accessed through the athlete’s tunnel. A free audio guide is included with admission, although our kids monopolized the handheld players for most of our visit. For an amazing view of the Acropolis, climb the steps to the very top of stand 21!

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The Temple of Olympian Zeus is a ten minute walk from the stadium. The building of this massive Greek temple began in the 6th century, but it was not completed until 700 year later. The scale of the structure is truly impressive and the site can be easily seen without paying entrance admission. Also nearby is the Arch of Hadrian, a symbolic gateway between the old and new city, erected in 132 AD to honor the Roman Emperor Hadrian. We walked by these sites on our way back for a much needed break with one sleeping child in tow.

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In the evening, we headed to Mount Lycabettus, the highest point in Athens. Mount Lycabettus is a massive limestone hill that offers sweeping panoramic views of Athens. We walked through the beautiful Kolonaki neighborhood in search of the Lycabettus hill funicular, which was a bit tricky to find. It is possible to walk up to the viewing area of Mount Lycabettus, but our kids had already maxed out on their steps for the day and we were a bit hurried to catch the sunset. If you have more time or are travelling with older children, I would recommend the walk over the funicular. It’s a pretty climb and would be more rewarding to reach the top by foot. The funicular is quite pricey for a three minute ride in a dark tunnel, but does get you from A to B!

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On our second day in Athens, we meandered through Monastiraki Square and into the charming Plaka district, slowly making our way up to the Acropolis. The Acropolis of Athens is one of the most remarkable archeological sites in the world. This giant limestone plateau has been inhabited since the fourth century BC and is home to several ancient temples. The Parthenon, built in the mid fifth century BC, dominates the Acropolis and is one of the greatest enduring symbols of ancient Greece. It was dedicated to the goddess Athena, protector of Athens. Majestic and mind blowing, an iconic architectural feat in ancient times. The scale and beauty is simply magnificent.

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Our visit to the Parthenon was extra special, as there happens to be a full scale replica of the Parthenon in our home city, Nashville. It was built as the centerpiece of the 1897 Centennial Exposition because somewhere along the way Nashville was nicknamed “Athens of the South.” Gabe and I used to live just up the hill from Nashville’s Parthenon and our wedding photos were taken at the very same spot. Visiting the real thing as a family was quite the experience.

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There are two entrances to the Acropolis. We used the main entrance located on Dionysiou Areopagitou. We were able to walk right up to the ticket counter, purchase our half-priced (off-season) tickets, and enjoy the site with minimal crowds. If you are traveling in-season, the alternate entrance is recommended for shorter wait times and if you plan to visit the Acropolis with two or more other archeological sites it is worth looking into a multi-site ticket. There are many options for guided tours, but we were a bit weary of joining a tour with our kids. Rick Steves does offer a free audio tour that I fully planned on downloading, but I honestly forgot. So instead we wandered around at our own pace while our children’s imaginations ran wild. They had the best time pretending to be gods and goddesses, battling the mythical creatures of the Acropolis.

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We spent the afternoon at the Acropolis Museum, which houses a huge collection of artifacts from the archeological site of the Acropolis. The museum itself is sleek and modern, showcasing extraordinary sculptures, large columns, and even includes an excavation site under the museum itself. The top floor also offers a beautiful panoramic view of the Acropolis.

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If you are visiting with children, definitely stop at the information desk and sign out a family backpack. The scavenger hunt and little games were great learning tools that helped keep our children interested and engaged. There is also a lego model of the Acropolis on the second floor that captivated both our children while Gabe and I took turns exploring the upper level.

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If you have additional time, other museums of interest may include the renowned National Archeological Museum, the Herakleidon Museum & Annex, and the Hellenic Children’s Museum. We spent a little time exploring the Museum of Greek Children’s Art on our departure day. It is a small museum that showcases children’s artwork and hosts workshops for kids. The collection of art conveyed a strong anti-bullying message and provided a great opportunity to discuss the importance of inclusion with our children. Our kids took pride in adding their own diversity drawings to the bulletin board. I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to visit this museum, but it made for a relaxed morning and was a great way to bolster a positive discussion surrounding diversity.

The Hop on/off Happy train could be another nice option for families. It is a 40min sight-seeing tour of historic Athens, which you can hop on and off as you please. There are, of course, many more archeological sites to explore, including the Ancient Agora and Hadrian’s Library. Or simply enjoy wandering the different neighborhoods of Athens! From the plethora of cats to colorful street art and souvenir shops, there is plenty to keep the kids entertained!

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FOOD

Greek food could warrant its very own post. We loved eating our way through Greece. Every meal was honestly delicious. We had greek yogurt drizzled with honey and topped with granola and fruit most mornings. We tried all the legendary traditional dishes like chicken souvlaki, spanakopita, moussaka, and of course, plenty of greek salads. We also discovered new loves, like the Feta Me Meli, feta cheese wrapped in phyllo dough and drizzled with honey, and baked Melitzanes Saganaki, an amazing baked eggplant dish covered in cheese. We also loved ordering appetizer platters where we could sample a little bit of everything. As for the sweets, I will be forever dreaming of baklava. I have always loved this sticky sweet desert, but never have I had baklava as glorious as the baklava in Greece. Also, keep an eye out for Loukoumades, greek donuts, served warm and swimming in honey or nutella. Our favorite restaurant in Athens was the Cave of Acropolis, located in the Plaka district with views of the Acropolis. Highly recommend! We visited twice and were really impressed with the food, friendly staff, and atmosphere.

TRANSPORTATION

Getting from Athens International Airport to the city centre was a little trickier than we anticipated. After exiting the arrivals area, follow signs for the train station. The metro and the suburban train both depart from the same central place. The Metro line 3 (Aghia Marina – Douk. Plakentias – Athens International Airport) will take you from the airport to the Syntagma station in 40 minutes. Trains depart every 30 minutes. A one-way fare is €10 or you can purchase a roundtrip fare for €14 if your return is within 7 days. Children age 6 and under travel free. Make sure to validate your ticket! We ran through the (open) gates without validating ours as we were hurrying to catch a train and then had a little trouble at the exit. Using the metro within the city is straightforward, but even during the off-season, it was extremely crowded. We use public transportation daily in Budapest and have used it in cities throughout Europe, but Athens was by far the most packed. The good news is if you book a central accommodation, most of the sites are accessible by foot.

ACCOMMODATION

We had initially booked an apartment stay near the Acropolis in the Plaka district, but were unable to reach our host upon arrival. It was a stressful evening, but we eventually found an apartment with a 24hr front desk that we were able to rebook on the spot. After a long day of travel, we settled into the Urban Nest Suites and Apartments, a swanky boutique hotel located in the Psiri district. We had such a wonderful experience at the Urban Nest, I would definitely recommend it to others. Our spacious one bedroom apartment included a kitchen and private garden. The staff was lovely and there was a beautiful complimentary breakfast each morning, which meant one less meal for us to worry about with the kids. The Psiri district is a quirky area known for its restaurant scene and nightlife, although we found our stay to be very quiet. The kids loved the colorful street art and it was just a short walk from Monastiraki Square.

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The Plaka district is located near the Acropolis and is a popular area for tourists. It is very walkable and charming, with plenty of restaurants and shops. The Syntagma neighborhood is considered the new city center and is centrally located for most of the main sites. We stayed near Syntagma Square one night at Pan Hotel before our return to Budapest. The hotel was well-priced, family-friendly, convenient to the airport, and included breakfast. As long as you stay nearby the Monastiraki, Acropolis, or Syntagma Metro, I don’t think you can go wrong. It just depends what you’re looking for- more modern, classic charm, or edgy urban.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Athens, but were definitely ready for part two of our adventure. We rented a car and set out for the Peloponnese region to experience the beauty and history of Southern Greece. Stay tuned for my next post on our road trip from Athens to charming Nafplio, with a stop at the Corinth Canal and the ancient ruins of the Mycenaean civilization. Finally, part three of our road trip through Greece will cover the last segment of our journey in Hydra, one of Greece’s most beautiful islands. Greece is truly an incredible country and I am excited to share more of our adventures off the beaten path!

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