The Enigma That is Athens

Athens is like origami – complex and layered. Ancient ruins stand stoically amid chaotic traffic.

Orthodox priests stroll the streets with backpackers, while well-armed soldiers keep a wary eye on protesters. Priceless statues and structures coexist with street art and graffiti in this birthplace of democracy.

This month we’re launching our “Enigmatic Athens Series.”  We lived in Athens a few years ago, so we know that if you visit, you will not come away from the city feeling neutral … or bored. Will the ride be bumpy? Quite possibly. Between public transit strikes and anti-government protests you’ll see glorious sights, eat fabulous food, and get an education in democracy … and patience. 

But is it worth it? Absolutely! Athens is like your first love – she’ll take you on a roller coaster of emotions. Who knows if you’ll decide to go steady.

“Athens has a long history. You’ll walk in the footsteps
of the great minds who created democracy, philosophy,
theater, and more … even when you’re dodging motorcycles
on ‘pedestrianized’ streets.“
—Rick Steves

Hope you’ll join us,
Terri & James

P.S. A Little Athens Trivia
Did you know that no one in Greece can choose to not vote. Voting is required by law for every citizen who is 18 or older.

“Compulsory voting is the law in Greece but is not enforced. In the past a citizen had to present an up-to-date election booklet in order to be issued a driver licence or a passport, or else justify why they did not vote (e.g. because of absence, infirmity, or advanced old age). Nowadays the civic duty of voting is still considered “mandatory” but there are no sanctions for failing to vote.” —Wikipedia


Photo Credits:
5. By Peter van der Sluijs via Wikimedia Commons


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

89 thoughts

  1. Having had only two days in this amazing city I very much look forward to the hidden gems you will share. Mandatory voting….who knew? Not me. 🙂

    1. Sue, did you and Dave get to hike to the top of Mount Lycabetus while you were there? It’s right up your alley. What a view! We did it, but you guys would have zipped up there in a jiffy. 🙂 ~Terri

      1. Terri we did not do the hike. Honestly I don’t zip anywhere in a jiffy. I’m a bit of a determined snail actually. Our time in Athens was at the end of our cycling trip to Turkey so I will admit to being rather sloth like. I do a post last week on Athens and how we wandered into a massive indoor meat and seafood market. Wow what an action packed scene. When you lived there did you shop there?

      2. Sue, I was definitely had the snail thing going … but no bike trip to account for it. We also stumbled into that market, but I must admit it was a bit hard to stomach. Literally. 🙂 So I wandered out pretty quickly and headed for the veggie market. We had a great weekend market near our flat that we really enjoyed – otherwise we used local merchants in our neighborhood. ~T

  2. Very interesting! I love the photos AND the facts. 🙂 Greece has always appealed to us, but we’re still trying to get through Central & South America. We love being able to experience it through you all and look forward to your next posts. What is your favorite meal when you’re there? Is it something we would be able to reference, resource, and cook here??

    1. Hi Kirsten and Steve, It’s hard to beat Central and South America, with its wonderful proximity to the States. I bet you can fly there (direct?) from Denver. But when you’re ready to head a different direction, Greece is beautiful, fascinating, and frustrating. All good, memorable things. As for food, it’s hard to go wrong. but if I had to pick some faves that you can fix at home, I’d go for Spanikopita, Moussaka, Pasticcio as main courses, and Baklava and Galaktoboureko for dessert. You can find recipes online and you’ll be in heaven! 🙂 So glad you stopped by. All the best, Terri

  3. Just yesterday I was talking to my son, and telling him that Greece is among the top ten places on my to-go list. He was in Athens a couple of years ago and said it was a big dirty city and that we should go straight to the islands, But I couldn’t possibly be so close and not see the Parthenon. I am looking forward to your series!

    1. Naomi, I can certainly appreciate your son’s perspective. Athens is a city of incredible contrasts. We were lucky enough to have the chance to dig deep beyond the surface frustrations and gain an appreciation. We’ve learned that it often takes time, patience and focused energy to “make friends” with a place. 🙂 ~Terri

    1. Thanks, so glad you stopped by. I find that it often helps me when I compare other people’s impressions of a place to get a balance perspective. And since you’re there in Munich, I’m sure you could get there easily. Are you planning a trip to Athens soon?

      1. You’re welcome 🙂 yes Im planing to go next year, Im still deciding when its best… I want to go to Athens for a few days and then to one of the islands. How long do you think I need to explore the city?

      2. Probably a minimum of 4-7 days to see all the wonderful antiquities, Archaeological Museum, markets … and of course a few protests. We also walked up the path to Mount Lycabetus (about 3-4 hours round trip) for a fantastic view of the city. And then there’s the food! 🙂 ~Terri

  4. I used to live in Athens as well and it is one of my favorite cities in the world. I look forward to seeing your series!

    1. Hi Annie and Ryan, It’s so great to meet other people who lived in Athens. I was just reading some of your posts and they’re great! And if you came away loving it, then you certainly delved beneath the surface. I’m looking forward to reading more of your post, too. So glad you stopped by. Have you reached Seattle yet? All the best, Terri

      1. Terri, thanks for checking out our blog! I definitely did delve beneath the surface, and I loved it. I hope to move back one day. We are still in Europe for a while–no Seattle yet.

    1. Alison, Welcome home! I’m so sorry about your ankle. At least you’re someplace comfy where you can relax and heal. And as to Greece, we find it fascinating … and frustrating. We have a long history with it and have learned to appreciate it. I didn’t know that Australia has mandatory voting. How does that work? ~Terri

      1. Thanks Terri. Yes it definitely could have been worse, and it’s healing well. Re Oz – everyone of voting age (can’t remember what it is – 18 maybe) has to be on an electoral roll and as you vote it’s noted. Fined if you don’t. Have to do a pre or mail-in vote if you’ll be away. It’s pretty strict.

  5. I just wish my photos of Athens (from 1976) were as good as yours.

    I’ll look forward to seeing lots more of your wonderful images this month. Love that 5th portrait image.

    Would love to go back to Athens (& Rome, actually) – wish I had made some more images of the small details that make Athens so unique and different to other capital cities.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Vicki, I can’t imagine that you could ever produce a bad photo – they’re always stunning! Of course, I guess your equipment may have changed a bit since then. 🙂 My first trip (which you’ll read about) wasn’t until the 1980s, so we’ll have to compare memories. I love your point about the small details. Did you also travel around to the islands then? ~Terri

  6. I’m looking forward to this series. I love the idea of mandatory voting by citizens. It would certainly give back meaning to “by the people”

    1. Isn’t that mandatory voting fascinating, Laura? And Alison (above) says it’s also required in Australia. I didn’t know! With your keen photographer’s eye I can imagine that you would love Greece. Is that someplace you’ve visited? ~Terri

    1. Mike, that’s great that Florence has been to Athens. I would love to read her impressions of the city. Has she written about it? Like you, we have found that living in a place really makes a difference when it comes to knowing a city – both the good and bad. ~Terri

    1. Thanks so much Sylvia. Like you, we hadn’t been back in a while, so it was fascinating to see what had changed … and what hadn’t. Thus the enigma. 🙂 We too love the islands. Did you have a favorite? Oh, and are you heading to Florida soon? We were just down there for our niece’s graduation. ~Terri

  7. Athens. Wow. Right up my alley. Have always been fascinated with its secrets and treasures.
    I love the idea of mandatory voting. In my country, I believe people have given up and if they don’t like who’s on offer, they don’t bother going out to vote. We have an election coming up this week.

    1. Hi Tess! I bet after your trip to China you’re ready for anything! 🙂 I think both or our countries go through periods of voter apathy. Alison (above) says voting is also mandatory in Australia. I didn’t know! ~Terri

  8. My son and daughter-in-law are going to Greece in September! I will definitely send them your link! I always love your travel perspective … the photography is definitely not too shabby! 🙂

  9. I’ve always been a fan of Greek history, art and food. Modern politics not so much. 🙂 The streets were blocked with protestors when we were there a year ago. Looking forward to your insights and photography James and Terri, as always. –Curt

    1. We’re with you Curt – huge fans of Greek history, art and food! And I was just talking with Marina (below) who lives in Athens and she says that the strikes are very rare these days. That must make everyone’s life a bit easier. 🙂 ~Terri

  10. I really liked Athens – people had told me that it was dirty and nothing special, but I had a fantastic time there. It’s got character.

    1. That’s great Linda! Of course by now I consider you THE Expert on looking beyond the surface of a place to find the beauty, fun … and humor! 🙂 And you’re so right about Athens having character … big time! ~Terri

    1. Hi Madhu, It’s great to hear that you enjoyed Athens. We’ve been there many times over the years and it’s fascinating to see the city evolve. And the people of Athens are fantastic, truly making a visit worthwhile. Did you write about your time in Athens? ~Terri

    1. Hi Lynne, given all of your great travel experience you would certainly know about patience and digging below the surface. 🙂 Athens will give you wonderful rewards in terms of incredible antiquities, wonderful museums, and lovely people. ~Terri

  11. Terri & James, your title just about sums up this city. It’s an enigma still to me! I’m so happy you discovered beauty under the surface… For what it’s worth, strikes are very rare these days – not sure if we are getting used to the strict financial cuts or just becoming numb. Looking forward to your Athens series. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much Marina! Athens has always had this incredible pull on us, and since we also lived in Sudan we’re accustomed to protests, strikes, and financial cuts. 🙂 We always hate to see a place we love go through struggles, and I’m so glad to hear that the strikes are rare these days. I hope that makes everyone’s life a little easier. Have you lived in Athens all your life? I would love to hear your observations. So glad that you stopped by. I look forward to talking more. All the best, Terri

      1. Ah, yes, I am well familiar with that ‘pull’! I was born and have lived all my life in Athens, with the exception of 4 years, studying on London. While I had some serious job propositions after graduating, I felt the urge to return …home. Not a good decision job wise but probably better for my well being! Personally, I am not the city type. I prefer a quiet living by the sea but Athens provides quiet corners whether in the suburbs or in the center [Plaka or Lycabetus]. Where did you live?

      2. Oh yes, Athens has some wonderful quiet corners. We had a little apartment in Neapolis on Mavromachali Street. We really enjoyed the neighborhood and wonderful weekend market. We loved to take picnics to Lycabetus. What about you? ~T

      3. Lycabetus holds a very special place in my heart as my parents used to take me up with the teleferik [cable car] and have lunch with a beautiful view when i was a child [well, mainly it was that cable car for me – I would make them go up and down!!!]. The other spot for me was Plaka. My thesis was on the Tower of Winds so I spent many many joyful hours round there. Now we live in northern Athens [Marousi] in a quiet neighborhood [top floor apartment].

  12. Greece has long been on our list of places to explore. Your blog posts will be at our ready when it is time to move on to international travels. Thanks! 🙂

    1. One of the great things about Greece is that you can often find travel deals to the area – even for a short, exploratory journey to Athens or some of the islands. We always keep a list of the next islands we want to explore – usually based on recommendations from other bloggers! 🙂 Andrew Petcher has lots of excellent posts on Greece I highly recommend. ~Terri

      1. I are just taking some weekend trips, but the big news is that we are returning to India the end of December with 15 architecture students, if all goes as planned! We can hardly wait! What about you guys?

      2. That is so cool about your India trip in December! Do you know what areas you’ll be visiting? Lucky students to have you as a guide. This summer we’re visiting family and looking for some mountain (read “cooler”) camping. 🙂 ~T

      3. We are mostly in Ahmadabad in Gujarat where the university is. Wonderful architecture there. . . Le Corbusier, and Kahn. We will travel for 2 weeks to north to the “colored” cities, Delhi, and my fave Varanasi. Then another trip to the south. . . Chennai, Pondecherry…another fave, Kerala for the backwater boat rides, and Goa. I can’t wait ! Have you guys been to India?

      4. Wow! That’s a great trip! Yes, we were in India when we lived in London and it was quite an experience. We were in many of the areas you mention, but we missed Pondecherry which I understand is wonderful. ~T

      5. We felt right at home in the French colonial section from our other travels and the absolute best part was being blessed by an elephant with a trunk pat on the head!

        Life of Pi was filmed at least the beginning in Pondecherry!

      6. Sorry Anne, I meant that living in Georgia where summers are like a furnace, we are looking for cooler temperatures in the mountains. 🙂 Sorry for the confusion. ~T

      7. Never mind the bombs and wars….keep the tourists out!
        Since we only were in Athens and Mykonos, we felt that we had seen more Greek architecture in Sicily where there are temples on the beaches. . . Have you seen Sicily? Professor planned the trip from a book called the “Sicilian Carousel.” We spend 2 weeks traveling around that island.

      8. “Sicilian Carousel” by Lawrence Durrell , British writer. . . need I say more. . . perfect command of the King’s English ! He also wrote “Alexandria Quartet about the city in Egypt.

  13. I was so hoping to go to Greece this fall, but I won’t be able to after all. Your post made me wonder whether I’d love Athens or hate it? Now I’m more curious than ever. I’m already fascinated by the tidbit you’ve shared on voting. Can’t wait to read more.

    1. Thanks Juliann. And I was just talking with Marina (above) who lives in Athens and she says that the strikes are very rare these days. That must make everyone’s life a bit easier. Hope you get to go soon. ~Terri

  14. As someone who grew up with mandatory voting – I’m definitely on board. It helps protect not only the right to vote but the value of each vote. More countries should follow suit! But we don’t have to get political here 🙂 .

    Look forward to more stunning pictures and commentary.

    1. Thanks Bronwyn. I think mandatory voting is a fabulous concept that I can certainly support. It seems that voter apathy only leads to less competent and desirable candidates. Then you’re stuck with them. 🙂 ~Terri

  15. Terri & James, it would be interesting to see a list of all the places in which you’ve lived? How long were you in Athens?

    Athens was my first big solo adventure from Germany, and just last spring, Shawn and I returned there. Fitting that it was ten years later. The anticipation I felt to see the Parthenon again hadn’t diminished at all, and we spent a beautiful day strolling around the city and visiting the Acropolis Museum. A fascinating city indeed.

    1. We spent a month there Tricia. We had been to Athens before, but always wanted to have lots of time to really get to know the city. It met all our expectations and more. We rented a small but wonderful apartment in a neighborhood away from the tourist areas, so it was perfect. I think that it’s always better to have time for a culture to soak in slowly. ~James

  16. Having lost my handbag and passport at the Parthenon on the day we were due to fly home to England, it doesn’t rank up there with my favourites, James. 🙂 But the fault was all mine, and I did get it back many months later. I would have loved to see more, and in a decidedly more relaxed fashion, than those fraught 4/5 hours 🙂

    1. Oh my goodness Jo! This is the horror story that most travelers fear the most. Luckily, I’ve never had a major loss while traveling, but with all the moving about it would certainly be an easy thing to do. Losing a handbag or passport would be stressful enough, but to lose both would be very frightening indeed. I’m glad that you got your belongings back, and hopefully, you’ll have another opportunity to visit Athens. ~James

    1. I was fascinated by it too, Joanne. And I’ve learned from Bronwyn (above) that voting is also mandatory in Australia. How did I get to be this old and not know this! 🙂 And I agree with you – it instills civic responsibility. ~Terri

      1. Australia too?! Wow. Suddenly I feel like I’m in the land of slackers with a voting rate that can drop as low as the 30s for local officials.

  17. Long ago, as a teenager, I visited Athens. In 2008 I had a brief layover there. It was all I could do to prevent myself from grabbing a taxi and delaying my next flight! Looking forward to this series!

    1. Hi Joanie! I’m so glad that you stopped by. Athens is definitely worth a layover … or longer. I hope that next time you have the opportunity to see what Athens has to offer. 🙂 All the best, Terri

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