We Broke a Bus
A short list of different transportation options in Athens
My various experiences with transportation in Athens
Some useful links about public transportation in Athens
An inclined street with no cross walk, a taxicab, some motor bikes, and pedestrians in the distance: Half of my transportation experience in Athens captured in one photo.
Transportation Options (and my experiences with them)
Our various attempts to get from Point A to Point B are some of the most vivid memories I have of Athens . . . for better or worse.
A fleet of taxis at the airport
Athens technically does not have Uber, but you can still use the Uber app to call taxis, from what I understand. I never called a taxi, but I saw plenty of them inching through traffic in all their pale-yellow glory. As a tourist, be on the lookout for scams, though; a taxi trip from Monastiraki Square to the Acropolis, for example, should only cost you about 5 to 6 Euro (approx. 6 to 7 USD).
Graffiti on the walls next to tracks.
The Athens metro as it is today was completed in 1991. You can get around the metro easy by getting a metro card (called an Athena Card). Overall, it’s an excellent way to get around the city, covering long distances in a short amount of time for a good price. That said, though, I didn’t like the metro at all.
The last metro I rode was in DC; I was four years old and the only thing I remember is the panda on the metro ticket. This means that even though I had ridden a metro before, I didn’t remember what it felt like, so riding the metro in Athens as an adult felt like my first time. Riding the metro made me the most motion sick I had ever been in my life, which is saying something because I’d been combatting motion sickness for at least a decade. It was also crowded, so crowded that I had a hard time fitting into the cabin and a random old lady grabbed me to keep me from getting squashed by the metro doors. Ah, and speaking of crowds, pickpocketing is definitely a thing on the metro, keep that in mind.
Also, in addition to feeling bleh while physically being in the train, simply watching those graffiti-covered metal traps speed by made me dizzy, like the whole platform was tilting. It was like the entire metro process—from arriving at the station, to waiting for the train, to riding the train to who-knows-where was not my cup of tea. The size of our group also made it difficult to keep up. There wasn’t time for metro-novices like me to learn how to read a metro map or to simply understand where we were going, how we were getting there, and how we knew how to get there. I had no choice but to blindly follow the group as we rushed through stations, my 5’2 self fighting not to lose them in a crowd, which was anxiety-inducing all on its own.
I think this all boils down to the idea that the metro is a very practical way to get around, but my specific circumstances made my experiences with the metro one of the worst parts of the trip. On the bright side, though, the metro stations are like mini museums and all the trains I rode save for one were covered in graffiti, making metro stations an unexpectedly interesting hub for art.
Athens also had a tram system, which was like a sister to the metro. However, the tram seemed like the younger, prettier, less crowded sister who doesn’t go very far and takes her sweet time getting there, but you enjoy the time spent with her more. From what I understand, the tram essentially takes people from city center to the beach.
Trolley buses are as they sound: Buses on electric tracks. When you mix these routes with the city bus, you can get truly anywhere in Athens. However, our group never took a trolleybus.
There were plenty of buses in Athens, more buses than I had ever seen. In fact, I saw my first articulated bus in Athens, you know, those buses with the thick black accordion band that makes it extra long and slinky. I hadn’t had much experience riding city buses for arriving in Athens; in fact, I think the last time I had ridden a city bus was when I was three years old (and I distinctly remember not liking the jokes the bus driver was trying to make with me).
To my surprise, I learned that you could use your Athena Card to pay for bus rides, however, the payment system seemed off to me. When I say “off”, I mean that it was insanely easy for someone to ride a bus without paying because 1) You could enter & exit the bus from either the front or back door 2) The payment scanners were scattered throughout the length of the bus (not solely placed at the front), and 3) The bus driver never checked, as far as I could tell. The crowdedness of most buses also contributed to this habit because sometimes it was just difficult to physically reach a payment pole. I’m certain that some people in our group didn’t pay.
That reminds me, the buses were still just as crowded, hot, and physically uncomfortable as the metro and you still had to worry about pickpockets. In fact, it was on a bus that another random old lady tapped my shoulder and told me to hold my purse in front of me even though it was zipped and buttoned (but I figured that this old Greek lady knew a helluva lot more than I do, so I readily complied). To add, having that these were buses and not metro trains, they didn’t go as fast, braked more gently, and weren’t nearly as loud or disorienting, meaning that motion sickness didn’t hit me as hard. The buses also had clear maps and screens indicating where we were going and what stop was next.
Now, time for a bus story. Our group had plans to catch a bus from Pampiraiki back to Monastiraki. This was a weird experience, though, because:
No one knew what time the bus was supposed to come
2) We wondered if we were at the correct bus stop (considering we were leaving Pampiraiki in a different way than we had arrived)
We all came to a consensus that the bus was late (based on absolutely no evidence)
When the bus did come, it broke.
Now, perhaps it wasn’t our group that broke the bus—perhaps it had been having troubles for a while, or maybe it was just a coincidence—but what I do know is that after our group of 20+ people clambered onto an already crowded bus, it didn’t move. At first we thought the bus was just waiting in an attempt to keep on schedule, but after about 10 minutes, it seemed like something was wrong. Amidst our confusion, it was revealed that somehow, some way, the bus was no longer working. All of its passengers, us included, exited the bus and waited indefinitely for about 20 minutes for a new bus to arrive. We all climbed onto that one, which became even more crowded (because it had to accommodate for the crowd of the previous bus in addition to the people who were already there), but this one was able to rev its engines and pull off, no problem.
The path to the Acropolis from the Ancient Agora.
Athens was a very walkable city, which was a nice surprise after leaving downtown Richmond (a very walkable place) and arriving in Doha, where walking wasn’t very common (for both practical, infrastructural, and social reasons). The catch is that in Athens everything felt uphill (to the point where even going downhill felt like it was uphill). My sneakers—and joints—were not prepared for what I experienced. To add, crossing the street as a pedestrian often felt like a game of Frogger. While in our large group, we could cross the street no problem; after all, a cab isn’t going to try and zoom its way through a 12x12 brick of humans. However, when it was just a handful of us exploring the town on our own time, cars and motorbikes rarely slowed down for us, in part because we had the unfortunate luck of being in a part of town without crosswalks.
Also, despite the fact Athens was overall very walkable, there were still naturally some parts of town that were either A) Unruly or B) Unsafe. “Unruly” could be anything from uneven sidewalks to overgrown grass, so just watch your step. “Unsafe” is as it sounds; there are some places where, even if it’s within walking distance, you should probably opt for a cab.
Sidewalks near Pampiraiki
Also, there are a lot of large stray dogs in Athens, so don’t be surprised if one of them starts to follow you around, especially if you’re in a group or have food. I didn’t see any of these dogs show aggression toward humans, but I did see them dish out some angry barks to other peoples’ dogs. So, if you decide to bring Rover with you to Athens, keep him close.
This dog followed us around on two different days. We met him in the Ancient Agora and students named him Doggo.
And, in case you’re as curious as I was, here’s some fun facts about the elevations of cities I was used to compared to what I experienced in Athens:
Richmond is 167 feet (51 m) above sea level, with its highest point being some hill near Bon Air that’s apparently 380 feet (113 m) tall.
Doha is 33 feet (10 m) above sea level and its highest point probably doesn’t exceed much past that; after all, Doha is by the coast and the highest point in the country— Qurayn Abu al Bawl—is only 338 feet (103 m) tall and is close to the Qatar/Saudi border.
To add, both Doha and Richmond have not only low elevations, but also very gradual inclines when their geographies do decide to move a little closer to heaven. Athens, on the other hand, is a city of steep inclines. The city itself is only 138 feet (42 m) above sea level—even lower than Richmond—but the Acropolis is 500 feet (150 m) above sea level and its highest point, Lykavittos Hill, is 900 feet (300 m) tall.
That mini mountain in the distance is Lykavittos Hill. You can see it from anywhere in Athens; this view is from the Aeropagus.
A lone motorbike in Monastiraki, the Acropolis in the distance. I took this photo in the morning, before the crowds came out.
Crowds: I’ve touched on it a bit already, but I want to say that no matter what mode of transportation I took—walking, riding, or just observing—it always seemed crowded. Maybe it was just the part of town we were in, maybe it was the time of day we often traveled in, maybe Athens was like that all the time, or maybe my feelings of “crowdedness” were exacerbated by my American space bubble and the fact I had never experienced a city with such high a population. For reference, Richmond’s metropolitan area was about 1.2 million, Doha’s was about 434,000, and Athens’ was 3.7 million. The only time I escaped a crowded atmosphere was walking around Monastiraki one early morning.
Strikes: Public transportation strikes happened fairly often. Employers usually gave people notice at least a day in advance, if not more. There weren’t any strikes when we went, but it was something to keep tabs on.
Links for more information: When it comes to transportation in Athens, the one thing I wish I had had was a better understanding of it. Some of that understanding could have come from the group and some of it could have simply come from the Internet. So, I give to you a starting point: Two links that give brief overviews of the public transportation system in Athens.
A disclaimer, though: They may be a wee bit dated because, as Greece emerges out of the recession, things like public transportation change (be it the fees or newly funded reconstruction projects). However, I still think it’s a great place to start, and you can always ask your travel group (if you’ve got one) to elaborate on whatever transportation methods they have planned.