Sidestep the crowds - and the heat - in Athens by doing exactly as the locals do, writes Iliana Magra.
Henry Miller once wrote, “The light of Greece opened my eyes, penetrated my pores, expanded my whole being.” Greece can be enlightening — and nowhere more so than its capital city, Athens. But it’s also true that in the summer, it can feel burning hot, with an average temperature of 28C.
And those temperatures are rising. Athens has endured record heat in recent years, and the summer just gone was no different: Greece and much of Southern Europe sweltered under a series of seemingly never-ending heat waves. When you combine the heat with the millions of tourists who visit Athens every year, the city can seem more overwhelming than enriching.
But do not fret. Below is a guide that will help you experience the Greek capital’s glorious past and buzzing modern life while avoiding the worst of the crowds and steamy weather.
Meticulously time your site visits
Athens draws visitors with its ancient ruins, and the Acropolis is the most visited archaeological site in Greece. While avoiding crowds there is difficult, it is not impossible.
First, avoid the long entrance lines by booking your tickets online (€20 for a single-entry adult ticket). Another booking option, the Athena’s combined ticket (adults, €30), provides access to six more sites in Athens, including the nearby Agora. Start your day here before 11am, when most tourists are at the Acropolis.
Your best window for a less crowded visit to the Acropolis is between 1pm and 5pm, when most visitors eat lunch. But the sun is high, and it’s been very hot, so take precautions with the weather: wear a hat and sunscreen, walk slowly, find shade where you can, drink plenty of liquids and take a bottle of water with you. And listen to your body — if it’s too hot, hold off. Also note that starting September 4, the Acropolis will be capped to 20,000 daily visitors. Greek authorities are experimenting with the limit to help combat overcrowding at the site.
Eat like a Greek
With the sizzling summer temperatures, follow the local traditions when it comes to eating. Have a full breakfast in the morning, only a light bite in the afternoon and full dinner in the evening — after 8pm, when the heat starts to subside.
In terms of finding Greek cuisine, restaurants abound all over the city. In Piraeus, get seafood, such as sea urchin and shrimp pasta, at Yperokeanio, a tavern where the scenery feels like a time capsule of a 1950s movie. LS and Sia in the neighborhood of Psyri, in central Athens, offers a contemporary spin on traditional specialties, while Mavros Gatos, a mostly tourist-free haunt in the hip neighborhood of Pangrati, makes delicious meat dishes. For an upscale option by the sea and the best views of the Athens Riviera, go to Ithaki restaurant. Reservations are recommended for all of the above.
Roam farther in the city
The neighborhoods most popular with tourists are beautiful Plaka and lively Monastiraki, ancient enclaves now teeming with visitors. Get away from the crowds in neighborhoods such as the multicultural Kypseli — where you can have a coffee at Agiou Georgiou Square or small bites and drinks at Eprepe Bar — and the gritty Metaxourgeio. Attractions and studios in this creative, artist-friendly neighborhood include the newly opened Alekos Fassianos Museum (€10 for adults, €7 for students), as well as the contemporary Rebecca Camhi Gallery and Breeder Gallery.
You can take the metro or the bus (adult day ticket: €4.10), or hail one of the city’s yellow taxis. Most taxi drivers accept only cash, unless you book a ride using Uber or the Free Now app most drivers in Athens use.
First culture, then cool off with a swim
It’s not summer without swimming, right? You can get a dose of culture and also cool off on a day trip to Sounion, a peninsula about 70 kilometres from downtown Athens. Take the bus or a car to the imposing Temple of Poseidon (adults, €10), from where ancient Greek king Aegeus is said to have jumped, thus giving his name to the Aegean Sea, and after your visit, have a swim at Kape Beach. Note that weekdays are less crowded at this beautiful beach, as Athenians rush there on weekends.
Greece is a country of islands, so other options for temples and swimming include the nearby island of Aegina. You can explore the Temple of Aphaia after taking one of the multiple ferries from Piraeus that run all day, and the journey lasts about an hour, with the prices ranging from €10 to €19 for a one-way ticket. A 15-minute boat ride away from Aegina, the islet of Moni offers greenery and amazing blue waters.
For a swim closer to the city, visit the more upscale Astir Beach (umbrella rentals for two people start at €80), or the hot mineral baths of Lake Vouliagmeni (adult day passes are €16 on weekdays and €19 on weekends), both in the glamorous seaside suburb of Vouliagmeni.
Catch a movie
To truly experience summer as a local, go to one of Athens’ many open-air cinemas. Most offer nightly screenings at 9pm and 11pm, after the heat has abated, and show English-language films with Greek subtitles — or Greek with English subtitles. You might want to come hungry - in Greece, it is customary to drink beer and eat a hot dog while watching a film.
The most popular location in Athens is Cine Thisio, which has impressive views of the Acropolis. More neighbourly venues include Cine Oasis, a cinema filled with fresh flowers in Pangrati, and Cine Zephyros in Petralona, which screens classic and art house films. For newer releases, go to the terrace at Cine Anesis.
Booking online is not necessary, as usually only Cine Thisio has long lines, but it is recommended (adult ticket prices for all theatres between €6.50 and €8.50).
Take in nature
On a cooler day, experience nature by hiking Mount Hymettus, just outside downtown Athens and above the Kaisariani neighbourhood. With a height of more than 900 metres, Mount Hymettus has a lot to discover, including Greek Orthodox monasteries and caves. It’s a good alternative to the more touristy Lycabettus Hill.
Or walk around the free National Garden and the Zappeion Megaron conference and cultural centre. On your walk, notice not just the surrounding flora and fauna, but also the sculptures, which range from busts of the first Greek statesman Ioannis Kapodistrias to a 19th-century sculpture of Eros breaking his bow.
Fly from Auckland to Athens with one stopover with Qatar Airways and Emirates.
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.