Part I of this post: Travel in the Balkans: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Greece
I forgot how much I loved Athens the first time I went in 2008. On our recent trip to the Balkans, I was to attend a conference for 3 days in Athens, and we had just arrived after traveling through Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, and Northern Greece. As soon as we stepped off the metro and into the hustle and bustle of Monstiraki Square at night, I turned giddy as if it were Christmas.
It smells like Latin America, the hot, muggy air is enough to make you quickly shed a layer, locals are out enjoying the late night activities, and the Acropolis (which means city on a hill), lit up in all its splendor, sits on top of the hill just above Monastiraki Square, demanding attention yet at the same time just being. Just present. Boasting so much history that it doesn’t even have to try to be awesome.
We stayed at Zeus Hostel for the second time, a mistake I will not make again. Zeus Hostel is the cheapest place to stay in Athens. At $9 per bed per night, we saved a ton of money as it blows the other hostels out of the water for price, but I felt as if they hadn’t cleaned anything since I was last there 6 years ago. I tried not to think about it and not to touch anything. Go there if you want cheap, avoid it if you want clean.
We hardly spent any time there as it was. We participated in a free walking tour before the opening night of the conference, and while I had an amazing time connecting with other travel industry professionals, Nate and Daryl (my husband and brother, respectively) spent their time exploring the Acropolis and new Acropolis Museum, the Temple of Poseidon and more.
Athens does not feel like the rest of Europe, and I say that because I’ve lived in both Costa Rica and Italy for good amounts of time, and I would liken Athens more to Latin America than Europe, and I think that’s why I loved it. It is like a hot, beautiful hybrid that people either love or hate. The culture is alive and vibrant, the people are beautiful and welcoming, the food is delicious, and the history is rich. You know which side I’m on. It’s dirty streets and random smells that you can’t avoid are all part of what give Athens its identity and set it apart.
Since the riddance of restaurant tax, I found the food much cheaper this time around. You can get a great kebab/doner for just two euros right down the street from Monastiraki, and within 10m of the square we found a restaurant that serves one euro glasses of wine. We went there a couple times 😉
Since we were only there for the conference before heading back up to Bulgaria, we did not visit any of the islands on this trip. However, if that is in your plans, don’t sweat it. Get to Athens, talk to some of the tour offices, and book your ferries the day before. The only reason that it might not work to book last minute tickets is if it’s peak of high season and even then it might be possible. It is very easy to travel to and from the islands from Athens by ferry or plane.
We took a 10am train back up to Bulgaria via Thessaloniki, a place I will never go back to if I can help it. The train was expensive, about 40 euros each (ouch), and since we didn’t know if we could catch a bus or train to Bulgaria once we got there, we didn’t book a hotel. Public transportation in Greece (and the rest of the Balkans) is simply not traveler-friendly. It turns out we arrived just in time to miss our only hope of connection to Bulgaria by about 15 minutes, leaving us no choice but to stay over night.
We had a terrible experience with Airbnb in Thessaloniki, the girl completely stood us up and left us literally in the street without a plan or any more patience.
We ended up paying more than we wanted to at a nice hotel right back where we started near the train station after a few hours of chasing after the wind trying to find this girl’s place.
The train to Bulgaria was cheap, just make sure you are on the right end of the train, because at one point we stopped and the train broke up and we started going different directions (luckily we were in the right place) but had we been in the wrong train car, I don’t know where we would have gone, but our patience surely would have gone with it.
If you want a stopover on the way to Sofia in a nice little Bulgarian mountain town, go to Blagoevgrad. It is near a popular ski town, so if you are in the right season you could hit the slopes or just stay in town and explore. There is a bustling center with a walking and shopping street (I love those), a lot of great cafes, and quite phenomenal sunsets. I recommend staying at Hotel Bali, the value, service, and location was great, especially after Thessaloniki.
Before we found Hotel Bali, we had another bad experience with Airbnb here, which isn’t good for my opinions of Airbnb, nor does it bode well for us using them in the future. At least not in the Balkans.
Our last couple days in Bulgaria after a two week trip were relaxing and inexpensive, which is just what we needed.
Travel in the Balkans is definitely an adventure. I think it requires more resourcefulness and patience than travel in the rest of Europe, and you would do well to learn the Cyrillic Alphabet before you go if you can.
See my Tips for Traveling in the Balkans for more information about that area if you are heading there, and happy travels!