A nice Greek-American gal returns to the Motherland with two children in tow. Good views, hospitality, chill expectations, and souvlaki saved the trip.
ATHENS - Some people have summer houses. Some have camp. We have Greece. Every year I drag my children, and for part of the time, my husband, to the country where my dad was born, where I spent four years of my childhood, and where I whiled away all summers through age fourteen. Some years with my kids are more difficult than others (there was the time I blew out the electrical system of a Venetian mansion on Corfu with my breast pump; there was also the time my kids gave my mom HFMD — hand, foot, and mouth disease — on the flight over and her toenails fell out). But the annual pilgrimage has become so vital we'd never forgo it, despite the layovers and jet lag and nights spent sleeping on mattresses in relatives’ homes.
When I was single, my trips to Greece always included a stop in Athens where I’d take in some concerts and museums, eat in excellent restaurants, and hit a rooftop bar — or a dozen — with Acropolis views. But once my children were born, I decided it was easier to avoid the heat and hustle of the city (we get enough of that at home in New York) and stay near an island beach where they tread a path from the sea to the pool to the room until the last possible moment, then go straight from the ferry or flight onto the plane home.
But I began to miss Athens. After all the time the city and I had spent together, it felt wrong that she now had major landmarks — like the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, a hilltop park with the landmark Renzo-Piano-designed national library and opera — that I’d never seen. My children, now seven and three-and-a-half, were no longer hell-bent on running in traffic, climbing balcony ledges, or otherwise trying to find the most creative way to risk death in every new environment. Moreover, they were actually interested in seeing the old sites. Like most of her classmates, my daughter Amalia discovered Greek mythology (thank you, George O’Connor). And like most younger siblings, my son Nico wants to do everything his sister does. Knowing that my daughter’s enthusiasms can be fleeting (I miss you, Doc McStuffins), I took it as a sign that this year was the year to bring my kids to the cradle of civilization. It was a high-risk, high-reward proposition.
When we pulled up to Noble Suites, our hotel in a converted neoclassical mansion, just behind the pedestrian walkway at the foothills to the Acropolis, a gaunt old man standing on the corner started chatting with me and the kids as my husband, Emilio, unloaded the bags. I made patient and borderline polite conversation when he noticed our luggage, and said, “Hold on! Let me get my son.” He ran into the corner store (which, it turns out, he owns), and sent out a burly young man who carried our bags to the entrance and refused a tip. That never happened to me when I was single.
“We’re a neighborhood here,” Marianna, the owner of the hotel, said when I told her about the unexpected kindness. Sure, but I was also realizing that, even in Athens, Greeks of all ages tend to be indulgent of, and delighted by kids. When Amalia played the keyboard in the entryway of the hotel and Nico started to sing along, I shushed them, but Marianna said, “Let them sing! The hotel seems empty without the voices of children.”
So far, so good. It seemed possible that my kids might even be an asset on this trip, if the affection showered on us by strangers was any indication. My mood got still brighter when I realized that our suite, on the fourth floor, looked out on the spotlit Parthenon, which made me eager to drop our bags and run out to one of the many nearby restaurants with rooftop terraces and Acropolis views. But after diverting near-meltdowns as we pushed Nico in a stroller and led a reluctant Amalia around the narrow alleys, Emilio said, “Just get some souvlaki; I’m taking the kids back to the hotel.”
I silently fumed as I stood in line at the souvlaki joint. Here I was, back in the city, near all the nightlife I remembered and hotspots I’d read about and I was going to be stuck in a hotel room with my children. But as I sat on our balcony, eating souvlaki in pita, drinking rosé from a plastic water bottle, and watching the kids run around laughing with the illuminated Parthenon in the background, I realized there wasn’t a better table in town. I didn't worry that my children’s antics were interrupting anyone else’s special meal, and man, the souvlaki tasted really good.
I didn’t need the kids to be a certain age to handle Athens. I needed to grow mature enough to manage my expectations without bending the city, and everyone’s experience, to fit my plans. The lesson of the souvlaki was not to try to do too much too fast. My new game plan would involve picking a few key things that would interest them (and me) and see them at a leisurely pace.
So we focused on central Athens and the Acropolis (or, as my kids call it, Athena’s House). Next year, we may post ourselves in southern Athens near the beaches of the Athenian Riviera, to take in the temple to Poseidon at Sounion and swim in the thermal springs of Lake Vouliagmeni. Two years from now, maybe we’ll stay in northern Athens and hike Mount Pentelis, where the marble that built the Acropolis was quarried. There may be fewer bars in my future, but Athens is back on the menu. And when my kids look back on their childhood summers, I’m sure they’ll remember that half the time they slept in their clothes and neglected to brush their teeth. But I hope they’ll also recall that one morning, Mami took them up to see the Acropolis and wonder at the world.
Top 5 Tips for Navigating Athens with Kids
Depending on your family's stamina, interests, and goals, you can take this advice with a grain of Greecian salt. Don't forget to stop for snacks and drinks often.
1. Link Up with History — But Avoid Marathon Touring
You’re surrounded by some of the ancient world’s most impressive monuments. But to actually enjoy them with the kids, I’d suggest staying close to one site that you want to know more about, and popping in and out over the course of your stay. When I traveled without kids, I’d pack the Acropolis Museum, the Acropolis itself, and a walk into Plaka and around the Roman Forum and Thisseion temple into one day. With the kids, we didn’t make any major commitments. We did the Acropolis Museum one morning, the Acropolis itself the next, and ducked back into the museum to stop into the gift shop on the third. (The Playmobil figures of gods and goddesses were as big a hit as the ancient statues of them upstairs.) This was easy for us because our hotel was just below the museum, but the same would be true of most hotels around Syntagma Square, in Plaka, or near a metro line that connects to the Acropolis stop.
Another thing to note: While tickets to the Acropolis and its slopes are 20 euros for a one-time visit, they’re free for children up to 18-years-old (bring ID if your kids are approaching the age limit). Some Acropolis basics: The hill itself is the Acropolis (or top of the city); the main building on it is the Parthenon. Visit in the early morning (it opens at 8 a.m.) or late afternoon to avoid cruise ship crowds and oppressive heat; late in the day you may have nice sunset views as well (closing time is 7:30 p.m.).
2. Remember the Three P’s: Parks, Pedestrian Streets, Pools
Though our visit to the Acropolis a great success, my son did have a full-on tantrum one hot day on the ancient step. Naturally, I posted a photo of him lying on his back to Instagram, and a friend commented that his husband “did the exact same thing in the exact same spot.” The point is: Hiking ancient monuments in the heat can be exhausting at any age. So it’s important to reserve time for relaxing. Swim in a pool (my favorites are on the roof and in the basement of the Grande Bretagne hotel, although they’re only available to guests — and, in our case, freeloading friends who dropped by to say hello).The swings in the National Garden and the high-design playgrounds of the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center are also a good bet for kids.
3. Take Taxis
The Beat app saved our vacation. It’s like Uber for actual metered cabs, and you can pay through the app or with cash, request English speaking drivers, and specific pick-up locations. On my own, I’m all about the subways and strolling, stopping for cappuccino freddos here and there. With two kids and one stroller, it was all Beat all the time, especially since hailing a cab in Athens can be a challenge given the erratic traffic patterns.
4. Play Ancient Games
My kids LOVED the Acropolis Museum for the air conditioning and the Family Backpack program — wherein kids can request a backpack filled with maps and stickers, games and scavenger hunts for Athena’s image throughout the museum. The museum is a thrill for adults as well. Designed by Bernard Tschumi, it offers amazing views of the Parthenon, mimics the experience of an ancient pilgrim visiting the Acropolis, and includes a glass floor outside revealing the ancient Christian city discovered during excavations, and a restaurant with stellar views. Admission is 5 euros, 3 for children aged 5-18, free for children under.
5. Get Outside
I talk a good game about not forcing children into your pre-planned itinerary. But it’s wisdom I learned the hard way. When I met a friend at her favorite restaurant, Papadakis, the staff seemed to find my rambunctious three-year-old adorable, but I was annoyed at having to continually step away from my spicy orzo with langoustines to chase him around. A drink with another friend at Nice N’Easy in Kolonaki turned a little too exciting when Nico kept swiping the cell phone of the hipster on a date behind us off the table — although he straightened right up with the kontosouvli chicken and potatoes came out. Lesson learned. Next time, I’ll get a sitter for nice indoor restaurants and otherwise eat and drink outdoors (there are tons of cafes and tavernas along the pedestrian walkway in Monastiraki and Thiseion,). A quintessential Athens experience that is just as good (or better)with kids is the therino cinema, outdoor movie theaters that pop up every summer. I used to hit up art films at Cine Thisseion or Cine Dexamini, but this year I took the kids to the beautiful Aegli cinema, in the middle of the National Gardens, which opened in 1903, and plays Hollywood blockbusters (in English with Greek subtitles) all summer. As Mamma Mia II lit up the screen, Nico fell asleep in the stroller, Amalia sang along, and I took in the smell of jasmine, my icy white wine, and the joy of being in one of my favorite places with my favorite people. The next morning, when he woke up, Nico said, “Mami, I don’t want to leave Athens.” I didn’t either.