The Atmosphere of Athens
Quick fact about Greece & Athens demographics
Safety in Athens
Observations about Athens (including animals, cleanliness, PDA, and cost)
Theater of Dionysus
Athens is a very old city and home to millions of people, which made it quite different than Richmond and Doha. Things like demographics, safety, social behavior, and even geography were very different than I was used to and naturally impacted my experience in the city. So, to start, I’ll just run through a quick fact list of Greece & Athens:
The Ancient Agora
There are about 6,000 Greek islands, but only about 230 are inhabited. Of that 230, only 80 have populations over 100.
I found it wild to see modern buildings backed by the Parthenon.
Athens is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the capital of Greece
Athens is the largest city in Greece, covering 2,929 km² (1131 mi2)
Old Royal Palace, which houses Parliament.
Athens is the most populated city in Greece with a population of about 3 million. Although, technically, it’s Metropolitan Athens that has a population of 3 million. The city itself has a population of 665,000.
For people from Richmond, compare Metropolitan Athens to “The Greater Richmond Area” and Athens “Richmond City”.
For some familiar comparisons, the population of Richmond was about 230,000 in 2018 and the population of Doha was about 800,000.
Greece had been in a recession for about a decade. Although, I think somewhere between 2017 and 2018 marked the start of a significant upward turning point, as in to say, I think they’re slowly getting out of the recession.
A rock on the Aeropagus
The median age in Greece was about 45 years old. This is mostly because many of the young people in Greece left during the recession
The gender population in Greece has been almost evenly split between male and female populations for the past few decades
Greece is majority Greek. 91% of these citizens were Greek, 4.5% were Armenian, and the other top few were Bulgarian, Romanian, Pakistani, Georgian, Turkish, and Romani (each making up less than 1% of the population)
A Greek Orthodox Church near Kotzia Square
Greece is 95% - 98% Christian (primarily Greek Orthodox)
The main—or debatably only—officially recognized "minority" are Muslims.
The was once a significant Jewish population in Greece, however, nearly 90% of Greek Jews were killed during the holocaust.
The pigeons won’t harass you, so that’s nice.
We were told that pickpocketing was very common in Athens, especially in markets and subways. I’d been told this before about a lot of countries in Europe and North Africa, but the faculty made pickpocketing in Greece sound worse than usual. For example, this was the first time it had been suggested to me not to wear any jewelry, as if people on the street would rip a necklace right off my neck and run. However, after experiencing Athens, it seems safe to say that this level of precaution was, well, overly precautious. I think when it comes to pickpocketing—and other petty crime—Athens didn’t seem any more aggressive than other pickpocket-wary cities, which means if you take normal safety measures, you’ll be fine.
Tzistarakis Mosque in Monastiraki Square
There are naturally parts of town that are safer than others. We stayed at Fivos hostel in a part of Athens called Monastiraki and it seemed like we were situated halfway between a touristy part of town and a gnarly part of town. I specifically remember one of our guides gesturing like an airplane marshaller, splitting the air in half to say “this way is dangerous” to our left and “that way is safe-ish” to our right.
To our immediate right was Monastiraki Square—a tourist hub—and further down the street to our right was Omonia Square, which got seedy at night. For comparison, the crimes Monastiraki is known for are all petty, like pickpocketing. Omonia, on the other hand, is known for things like prostitution, drug dealing, and protests.
But hey, here’s a fun fact: “Monastiraki” means “small monastery”, named after a tiny church in the center of the nearby square.
Prostitution is legal in Greece, however, there’s also a substantial amount of illegal prostitution, from what I understand. Just something to keep in mind, especially as a female traveler.
The fountain outside Old Royal House. It changes color.
A lot of Athens seemed poorly lit. Richmond has its moments of dim lighting, but only ever in an “old country road”, “city alley”, or “this is the projects” kind of way. Athens, on the other hand, was a huge metropolitan city with millions of people, which is why it was odd feeling like I was in so many dark places.
The Academy of Athens
Protests in Athens weren’t uncommon. We were warned about protests, primarily that we should stay away from places like Omonia Square and government buildings, which were protest hotspots. I never encountered any protests, but I do remember seeing two men running down the street with a poster, like they were perhaps on their way to a protest.
There was also a lot of graffiti in Athens, some even on government buildings. I’m assuming that much of the graffiti was in direct response to locals feeling “some kind of way” about the environment they were living in.
Homelessness wasn’t uncommon, and though homelessness doesn’t inherently imply danger, interactions with the homeless may catch you off guard. For example, I was eating dinner with another student when a homeless man who had been lingering around, watching us, approached the other student and started talking to her. Well, he wasn’t exactly talking; he was pointing his finger a few inches from the food she had just finished eating, asking for it. She eventually gave him the food, which was kind, but it was also an effort to get him out of our personal space.
At this restaurant, and others, I noticed waiters and hosts literally shooing the homeless away from the restaurant.
It was sometimes hard to tell whether someone was genuinely homeless or just pulling a scam.
Two boys near the Acropolis Museum, playing the accordion and singing.
Scams. Common scams you’ll hear of are taxi scams (in which they’ll upcharge you), street flower-sellers (men, women, and children), musicians (on the street and in the subway), or pregnant women—sometimes toting children around—just asking for money. I experienced all but the taxi scam. There was that one time at a restaurant where the host kept bringing us ouzo and water only to tell us later that we had to pay for it.
But, you know, a student in the group raised an interesting point. When it came to the people on the street selling flowers or playing music for money, we were specifically told not to interact with them. We were told that they were scammers. However, we were also told that Greece was full of homeless people and refugees, people who would naturally be trying to make money any way they could. So, couldn’t it be true that these people weren’t scammers? That they were just trying to earn money some way, somehow? And that perhaps we were in the wrong by completely dismissing them as con artists without a second thought?
Bubbles near the Acropolis Museum. C’mon, everyone loves bubbles!
All this said, though, statistically Athens was pretty safe, and much to my surprise, many internet sources asserted it was very safe for solo female travelers. Though there may be some truth in that, I personally didn’t feel very safe during my stay in Athens, especially not as a woman. I felt constantly nervous about being the victim of petty crime and I was freaked out about the seemingly unsafe part of town we were based in (and the fact I had also gotten used to how absurdly safe Doha was probably heightened that feeling). To add, I was plunged into a very unfamiliar environment, full of crowds and homogeneity when it came to race, religion, and language.
Before I move on to the next topic, though, here’s a link to an easy-to-read but thorough 2019 article about some dangers to be aware of in Athens.
It’s generally agreed upon throughout the world that Europe is expensive. I can say that as an American, Greece was naturally expensive because the American dollar was worth less than the Euro in 2018. To add, though, there were unsurprisingly a lot of tourist traps in Athens, places where a mug suddenly cost $30.
Some things I bought in Athens: A scarf, a handmade journal, a handmade boat, and a tiny bronze turtle. When the salesman was selling me the turtle, though, he originally picked up a larger one. To prove it was a strong object made of real bronze, he threw it on the ground . . . it broke. Not the best sales tactic, huh?
I’d also like to mention that I needed my passport in order to exchange my USD to Euros at a booth in Monastiraki. Maybe that’s completely normal, but I’d never had that happen before when exchanging cash. I tried to offer the clerk the paper copy of my passport that I carry around, but she asserted I needed the real thing (though she didn’t tell me why). I was lucky in that the exchange booth was only a 10 minute walk from the hostel, so I could easily just grab my passport and come back, but for people who aren’t in that situation, it can be a big problem (especially since it’s recommended for travelers to not carry their passport while out & about).
The view from the Aeropagus
It felt like everything was uphill. I had never experienced that many inclines or inclines that steep in my life. Even going downhill felt like I was going uphill.My sneakers just didn’t cut it.
There was plenty of greenery, which was really striking considering it was the first time in five months I had seen that much vegetation, After all, I had left the U.S. in the middle of winter to live in the desert . . . all I'd seen in those months were gray, brown, the occasional white with snowfall, and beige. Lots and lots of desert beige.
I found it really cool seeing bits of green pop out from in between a hazy mix of tan and gray buildings, especially at the Acropolis.
A trashcan at the Aeropagus
I don’t know how to put it politely: Almost all the bathrooms I used in Athens were disgusting.
See, like in Doha, toilet tissue is supposed to go into the trashcan (not down the pipes), but unlike Doha, there weren’t any hoses or bidets. This means that when people used tissues, they weren’t just trying them to dry themselves or clean up remnants, they’re using them to fully clean themselves. And since you can’t flush these dirty tissues, like we do in the U.S., they go directly in the trashcan . . . and these trashcans weren’t emptied often. I entered more than a few bathroom stalls where there were huge piles of soiled, poopy tissues taking up half the space in the stall, spilling onto the floor and around the base of the toilet like a waterfall & moat.
Stores are closed on Mondays?
A restaurant alley in Monastiraki. There were some fun-looking places around this part of town.
When we arrived in Athens, we immediately had to get groceries because we were told that the stores nearby would be closed on Monday. Thing is, I’m not entirely sure why; there wasn’t a holiday going on and most online sources suggested that Greek business were normally open Monday – Friday. However, there were a few sources that mentioned Greek businesses being closed on Sundays, Mondays, and Wednesdays (either for the whole day or half the day), but I still can’t quite figure out why.
Sex & PDA
Some graffiti across the street from our hostel.
Being in Athens was the first time I had seen sex stuff out in the open. An abundant of billboards and posters featuring women posing sexily in lingerie, a whole street lined with sex clubs, and a lot of dildo keychains and erotic vase replicas for sell. There was also a lot of PDA, or at least, more than I was used to. I had never seen couples making out in public, especially not in a very populated space in broad daylight.
Some of the students in my group from Qatar were surprised to hear that I had never seen any of these things before in the U.S., but the thing is, America is rather prudish compared to a lot of European countries. To add, I’m sure of all the 50 states Virginia is bound to be one of the more conservative ones when it comes to anything sexual. In Richmond, for example, our toy shops and strip clubs are hidden in plain sight. They’re there, but they blend into the environment; you’ll never see a “Girls! Girls! Girls” poster or a triple X neon sign advertising what goes on inside a building. Instead, we have things like one billboard for an online store that only shows the name of the business, some legs, and maybe an apple. There’s also that sex shop on Broad Street that has displayed the same lingerie in the window for a decade or that one poster stapled to a pole near VCU my freshmen year, advertising that somewhere nearby was hiring strippers.
I loved the hanging lamps on this street . . . and the fact most of the cars were parked.
Streets were often crowded with pedestrians, subways were always crowded, and trying to cross the street was pretty scary. Cars and motorbikes rarely slowed down for pedestrians if you have the unfortunate luck to be in a part of town without a stop light.
A stray dog at the Ancient Agora. The students named him Doggo.
Stray dogs were very common in Athens. Apparently, the government scoops up stray dogs, gives them shots and tags, then sets them free again. The ones I saw were quite large, but most of them were calm; the only time I saw one get aggressive was when another dog showed up, one that was being walked on a leash. I did often hear a lot of barking in the distance, though.
I also saw one cat.
Similarities to the Middle East
Before seeing Greece I had visited Morocco and Qatar. Of course, Morocco isn't technically in the Middle East, but there are some cultural similarities due to Islam and some geographical comparisons (like living by the coast or near a desert). Well, when it came to Greece, I saw overlap when it came to things like markets and food. Some markets were tight, crowded, lined with stores on either side, and a bit labyrinthine. You'd have salesmen try to user you into their stores, you could haggle, and you could buy some of the same sorts of products.
And when it came to food, the first example that came to mind was souflaki: A Greek street food that's essentially just skewered meat with fries and vegetables, often served in a wrap. That sounds (and smelled and looked) similar to shawarma, like they were food cousins. And you know what? They probably were.
See, it hit me later in a "no duh" kind of moment that Greece was geographically closer to places like North Africa, the Levant, and the Middle East (especially if you think about it in terms of ancient travel, which was essentially feet and boats). So, imagine you are in Athens and decide to travel the Mediterranean via ship, starting with the (modern) country closest to you. The first place you're going to get to is Turkey, then Cyprus, then Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, France, and Italy. From Italy you can take a straight shot back to Greece or you can go up the boot and see Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, then finally back to Greece.
All that said, it makes perfect sense that there was some cultural bleeding between Greece and these other non-European cultures. To add, in the prior semester I had taken a class called Greeks in a Diverse World that was essentially all about the fact Ancient Greece had a lot of cultural interaction with its neighboring Levantine countries, interactions that influenced Greek art, architecture, language, and a lot more. However, the fact that I still didn't expect all these "non-European" vibes from Greece perhaps speaks to the way Europe, it's culture, and by default its accomplishments are portrayed in the West, in a way that suggests everything developed within its own bubble. However, being in Athens was an incredible reminder that that wasn't the case.
A view of the Acropolis from the neighborhood I stumbled upon one morning.
You know what my favorite moment in Athens was? It was when I got up earlier than usual, before the rest of the group, and I went for a walk. I was looking for an open-air shopping market I had seen two days earlier, but I wound up in a pastel-colored neighborhood instead. It was only 15 minutes from the hostel, entirely uphill (unsurprisingly), and peacefully deserted (but not in a creepy way, in an early morning kind of way). To my surprise, the end of the uphill path led to an entrance of the Ancient Agora. Then, on my way back to the hostel, I walked a bit through the Monastiraki Square and the flea market, but it was so early, few people were out and none of the stores were open yet. I could see the square clearly for the first time and in the market all the garage doors were closed, covered in colorful graffiti.
The Monastiraki flea market
The neighborhood, the square, the market—it was all a completely different vibe than what I’d been experiencing in Athens up until that point. Now, I know what you may be thinking: I just spent a good chunk of time talking about safety in Athens and my feelings of discomfort, now here I am saying that my favorite experience in Athens was when I was out alone. But here’s the thing: These moment of early morning silence & stillness was the one time I felt comfortable in Athens. In these moments I saw a side of Athens that seemed really special, a glimpse of all the positive things I’d read about on the internet. The atmosphere was totally different and makes me curious about what Athens would be like if I were to experience it under a different set of circumstances.