Are you planning a cruise in the Mediterranean Sea? Sailing along sparkling deep turquoise waters between paradisiac islands on a Mediterranean cruise is the kind of stuff travel dreams are made of.
A popular stop for whimsical Mediterranean cruise ships is Athens’ Piraeus Harbour. Although your cruise company will have excursions available for purchase, it’s sometimes more fun (and much cheaper) to plan your own day out in Athens.
If you choose to go it alone, you’ll need to find activities that not only provide a taste of the city’s abundant history and culture, but are also timely, affordable, flexible, and interesting. Here are 5 out-of-the-ordinary activities that can easily slot in to your DIY Athens cruise shore excursions.
How to get from Piraeus to Athens (and the Acropolis) – Get-On-Get-Off Bus
Gray Line by Athens Open Tour’s Get-On-Get-Off Bus stops right at the Piraeus cruise terminals providing a simple yet thorough way to explore Athens in 1 day. Tickets can be purchased online with flexibility to choose the Athens line, Piraeus line, Riviera and Beaches line, or any combination of the three for either 24-hours, 48-hours, or 72-hours.
Tickets include headphones and audio commentary about the roads driven on, buildings passed, and general facts about the city. Even if you don’t do much getting on and getting off, the bus is a fun, low-effort way to experience Athens and get a taste of its history.
Note: Bus timetables differ between winter and summer months. Check the latest online timetable before your trip.
1. Get a local volunteer to show you around Athens
This is My Athens is an innovative and fun program that connects tourists with local volunteers for a 2-hour, free-of-charge walking tour. Savvy travellers can book a tour online by selecting your preferred date and time of day and advising a few of your interests. The program assigns you to a local volunteer who will get in touch to finalise the details like meeting point.
We were shown around Athens by local volunteer, Nicole, who took us for a walk through nearby neighbourhoods pointing out her favourite restaurants, bars, and coffee shops along the way. We stopped at a lesser-known lookout point, Strefi Hill, some of Athens’ most impressive examples of street art, and an exquisitely decorated Orthodox Church before having a coffee at Superfly Café (one of Nicole’s favourites), decked out in 80’s pop culture and video game memorabilia.
View of Athens from Strefi Hill
MJ is hiding in Athens too
Walking around with a local reveals a side of Athens tourists don’t usually get to see. For example, most tourists visit the front of the Panathenaic Stadium and pay a €5 entry fee, but Nicole took us around the back, where the locals go to jog or to simply sit and watch the sunset. Don’t tell the other tourists, but I think the views from the back of the stadium are even better than the ones inside!
Unlike many paid tours, a This is My Athens walking tour doesn’t aim to educate tourists in Athens’ history but simply present the city through the eyes of its locals. Some locals are history buffs, others are foodies, and others just genuinely love showing off their city, so your tour will be completely different depending on the guide you are assigned and your specific interests. That’s half the fun.
Whether you’ve attended a Greek wedding or simply watched Zorba the Greek or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you’ve probably seen traditional Greek dancers with huge smiles on their faces and wished you knew the steps to join in.
Greeking.Me’s Zorba Inside Me tour gives tourists the chance to learn a few traditional Greek dance moves before sharing a tasty meal at a nearby taverna.
Our group of 6 learnt 2 sets of basic dance steps which we practiced to traditional Greek music. Our instructor explained dance is very important in Greek culture with each island or region having its own dances or variations.
In Greece, dance is a very manly thing to do with the wealthiest and most noble men taking the lead. Our talented instructor showed off some very fancy kicks and jumps while the rest of us focused on not falling over or tripping each other up!
All that dancing worked up quite an appetite so we hungrily walked to a nearby taverna, Cave of Acropolis for a traditional Greek meal. We enjoyed dolmades (wrapped vine leaves), tzatziki, moussaka, and Greek salad as meze, followed by a choice of chicken or pork souvlaki then honey-topped Greek yoghurt for desert.
Our tour guide, Eleni
A live band was playing traditional Greek music at the taverna but I resisted the urge to get up and show off my new dance moves. I’m not sure if I unleashed my inner Zorba, but I had a great time experiencing this iconic slice of Greek culture and trying something new.
3. See ancient inventions in action at Museum of Ancient Greek Technology
I discovered a hidden gem in Athens: the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology. Unlike most Athenian museums, this museum doesn’t showcase marble, bronze, and gold discoveries from archaeological excavations, but recreated inventions from the ancient Greek world. Exhibits include strategy games, construction equipment, weapons of war, and musical instruments that were constructed from scratch by Kostas Kotsanas after decades of researching ancient Greek contributions to technology and science. Origins of the reconstructed inventions range from 2,000 BC to the end of ancient Greek era.
I visited the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology on a tour through SpecialTy Tours Greece. We started with a short museum tour, seeing amazing inventions like a robot that mixes water with wine, an automatic alarm clock, a catapult, a mini cinema, encryption devices, long-distance communication tools, and automatically opening doors. If this museum is anything to go by, the ancient Greeks were quite obsessed with war and wine!
The first wine-pouring robot
An automated mini cinema, complete with sound effects
This is not a museum where you can look but not touch as many exhibits require interaction. We got to lift a limestone block with an ancient pulley system, activate the first security alarm, shoot an arrow from a catapult, and play the Enneas, an ancient (but much trickier) version of tic-tac-toe.
Next it’s time for a workshop to either play an ancient Greek strategy game or make an ancient Greek calculating mechanism, depending on your chosen tour. The strategy game workshop involves solving Archimedes’ “ostomachion”, an ancient puzzle with 14 geometric shapes that fit together to form a square in over 500 ways. It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle that requires creativity and a little mathematics. Don’t worry if you can’t solve all 500 combinations, you get to take an ostomachion home and keep practicing.
The calculating mechanism workshop involves creating a mini-Antikythera mechanism from a flat-pack kit. The Antikythera mechanism was an ancient form of calendar used to predict astronomical positions, eclipses, astrological events, and four-year cyclic events like the Olympic games. The museum has full-sized and giant recreations of the Antikythera mechanism so you can see it in action before getting to work.
It’s then time for a change of scenery with a short walk to the National Gardens, a flourishing oasis in the often-chaotic city of Athens. I’d visited the National Gardens before but found this experience much more enjoyable with our guide, Konstantina, who knew her way around the 15.5 hectares of gardens.
Konstantina, our guide
Ancient Roman mosaics
Konstantina filled us in on the gardens’ history before showing us some hidden “surprises” within the gardens like a mosaic, once part of a Roman bath house, a popular lookout point, and various ancient column ruins scattered throughout the complex.
4. Design your own Greek food & wine tour
A visit to Athens is incomplete without attempting to eat your body weight in amazingly delicious Greek cuisine. One of my favourite ways to uncover Athens’ best food is on Greekality’s Food and Wine tour. This tour is completely customisable to the tastes, preferences, and dietary requirements of each private group. You can pretty much design your own tour itinerary, but your guide might sneak in a few surprises to awaken your tastebuds to flavours you might not expect to enjoy.
My tour focused on pairing Greek wines with fresh, local produce like salads and charcuterie boards, but other options can include visiting delis to try cheeses and meats or even a few traditional Greek dishes at a restaurant or two.
The tour lasts around 3 hours with a flexible start time, making it the perfect fit for your Athens cruise shore excursions.
5. Take a self-guided audio tour with Clio Muse
The final option for your Athens cruise shore excursions is a self-guided audio tour by Clio Muse. Tours range from free to €17.99 and run through a smartphone app meaning you can play it in your own time, as long as you’ve pre-downloaded the audio files. Each tour includes a series of audio files and map of stops at which to play them.
Armed with a set of wireless headphones, I tried the Birth of Democracy tour, which started at the Ancient Agora and told stories of historical characters significant in the foundation of the first democracy. Although the stories were interesting and educational, they didn’t explain the specific sites I was seeing while following the map. I thought the audio-tour could have easily been listened to at home on the couch and didn’t find it as relevant as I would have liked. However, I haven’t tried the other tours in Athens on Clio Muse. I really like the concept and see it has a lot of potential.
Tip: Some tour stops like the ancient agora require tickets which much be purchased online or at the door for an additional cost.
The Bottom Line
Athens is a popular stop for many Mediterranean cruise ships, but your time in Athens doesn’t have to be dependent on inflexible cruise line shore excursions. Take a look at a broader range of activities like get-on-get-off bus tours, walking tours, museum visits, food tours, and Greek dancing lessons which can be time-flexible and budget-friendly. And perhaps your dreams will come true in Athens.
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