The time has finally come to plan your next trip. You dig up your piggy bank – yes, they do exist still – with all those extra annoying coins that you gathered over the year, throw in a few extra dollars left over from saving, and you sit right down to plan your next travel adventure to Europe.
You’ve narrowed it down – for history’s sake – to Athens and Rome, the two ancient cities where gods, kings, poets, and artists prevailed … and now you’re stuck.
When it comes down to choosing between two of the world’s most popular destinations, it’s hard to make up your mind – ideally both would be your best bet. But what if you had to select one? Are you a Rome or and Athens type of person?
‘Rome is Rome’
Out of courtesy (trying to be as unbiased as possible) I will begin today’s post with Rome. And in the words of famous actor – a part Italian himself – Robert De Niro: “Italy has Changed. But Rome is Rome”. That said, the best way to describe “the Rome experience” as a traveler is… “in love”. Setting foot in the city of Rome is like instantly feeling “in love”, infatuated, willing to just roam around without a care in the world, knowing some how – as when we are in love – that all things will magically fall into place.
Athens ‘Ablaze with Light’
In the words of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Let there be light! Said Liberty, And like the sunrise from the sea, Athens arose!” What more can I say about the Greek capital and my hometown. Unlike Rome, in Athens you do not feel enamoured, you feel revived, restored, rejuvenated as if born again, connected with grace. As American writer Henry Miller so poignantly put it: “Athens swims in an electric effluvia which comes directly from heaven… every window is ablaze with light”.
So it’s really a matter of where you are at right now in your life and what you need the most . However, as it is my job to offer some travel insight besides the inspiration, I list below 7 travel differences between Rome and Athens: two of the world’s most beautiful ancient cities.
1. The Size
Though city proper and metropolitan Rome are larger in size than Athens, the population density is smaller compared to Athens, which means that inhabitants are spread out. And though this is good in terms of park and living space for locals, it is probably of little importance for the traveler as Rome is considered one of the first cities in the world to suffer from the so-called phenomenon of over-tourism. Which takes me to my next point.
Athens – Rome: 0-0
2. The Crowds
It goes without saying that Rome is a living museum, everything is beautiful and functionally unified. Pedestrian walkways connect one site with the next allowing you to literally travel through time and through history and art. And due to the fact that Rome has been a tourist spot way before Athens could even imagine itself as being one – thanks in great part to its famous offspring, its fantastic music, and its fabulous food – the crowds are massive. I would strongly advise against visiting Rome in the summer: too crowded, too hot, too loud. Athens, on the other hand, is only now beginning to emerge as a popular city break destination. Though more densely populated, there is still room to roam the city without feeling overwhelmed by the throngs of yearning tourists, the buses, and the boisterous travelers.
3. The Sites
“Rome – the city of visible history,” said British writer George Eliot and that’s exactly what it is. The modern-day Romans have beautifully and successfully integrated – and highlighted – their significant history into their lives today, giving prominence to their cultural heritage (and much less so to modern-day needs). Rome also has more museums that Athens. I would easily describe Rome as an open-air museum that invites you to chose the dimension of time and space that suits your soul. Is it art? Is it archaeology? Mythology? Is it the Vatican and the Catholic tales?
Athens, on the other hand, has only now begun to respect its cultural and historical legacy. For decades, the ancient remnants of the past were more trouble for the Athenians than they were worth and terrible tales of building over ancient finds in the Greek capital are sadly many and true. It wasn’t until recently with the 2004 Olympics and on the proposal of the late Culture Minister Melina Mercouri, that the city moved ahead and began to unify its archaeological sites starting with the pedestrian walkway under and around the Acropolis. It still has a long way to go, but the first stone has been laid. That said, the Athens experience is all about discovering. And in all fairness, I am still wonderfully surprised when I turn a corner only to come across just one more ancient chapel nonchalantly ‘mingling’ with modern towers.
4. Proximity to the Beach
The nearest beach to Rome – should you manage to visit and see all the wonders the eternal city beholds and need to go for a swim – is about 25 minutes away, Ostia beach. In Athens also you can be on the beach in 25 minutes in Palio Faliro or 35 minutes in Rafina. However, even the Romans suggest you go a bit further if you want cleaner waters. To this I will add that if there is one thing Athens can rightfully boast about, it’s also the quick and easy access to the islands. There are at least two islands – Aegina and Agistri – that you can get to in under an hour and three in under two hours. Imagine that!
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5. The Food
Yes, Italy is famous across the globe for its food, and its wines. And yes pizza is Italian – though I would warn my American friends to forget about American-style pizza, and if you’re coming from Chicago, leave the food porn dreams of deep dish behind you. The food in Rome is more of a back-to-basics, simplified version of all you know about Italian cuisine. So if you’re seeking to experience the pizza, the mozzarella di bufala, the crispy creme-filled canolli, and the pasta lust – do it from Napoli onwards. One thing Rome excels at is of course gelato or ice cream! And that in itself is a strong advantage against any player.
In Athens, meanwhile, eating out has become a whole new experience in itself for both locals and travelers. Not only are younger generations of top-notch chefs doing their thing with everything from new age food trucks to Michelen-star inspired Greek cuisine, but thanks to the inflows of refugees seeking a new life in Greece, tiny restaurants serving everything from Georgian and Pakistani to Egyptian and Ethiopian cuisines have mushroomed across town. At a first glance, they may not seem fancy but they do serve the most genuine versions of their native cuisines. As for sweets, expect to be in tempted at every turn. There are literally dozens of pastry and sweets shops offering the most imaginative desserts.
To this I would like to add that besides the vast variety of eateries, restaurants and cuisines in Athens compared to Rome, Athenians also eat fairly late. Normal dinner time is at around 10pm with food available until 4 or 5am on weekends.
Athens-Rome: 1-1 (for the gelato)
I personally vouch for the safety in Athens. As an avid walker, I’ve treaded the city in the wee hours with little fear. However, like all large cities, make sure you’re money, passport and ID are in your pocket, cameras or personal items safely tucked away in your bag, and if you do decide to walk late at night stick to central thoroughfares. Again, as in other European cites, pickpockets are mostly “active” in the metro and where there are a lot of tourists. This, I would say, also applies for the most part in Rome too, as long as you stay on central roads and in well-lit areas.
7. The Prices
*Ηave in mind that prices have changed or are changing due to the Russia-Ukraine war
Overall, Rome is more expensive compared to Athens. According to Numbeo, an inexpensive meal in Rome comes to 15 euros compared to 10 euros in Athens, while a three-course meal for two at an average mid-range eatery in Rome costs about 55 euros against 38 euros in Athens. (*Have in mind that 1 euro is equal to 1.11 US dollar on Jan 31 2020.)
Water is way cheaper in Athens with the small bottle selling (by law) for 50 cents compared to anywhere from 99 cents to 2.50 euros in Rome.
Locally produced beer at a supermarket in Rome goes for 1.02 euros (0.5 liter draught) compared to the more expensive 1.64 euros in Athens and if its craft beer made in Greece it get even more expensive.
A cappuccino coffee is much more expensive in Athens at 3.16 euros compared to Rome’s 1.27 euros.
Soft drinks are more or less the same with a 0.33 liter bottle of Coke going for 1.88 euros in Rome compared to 1.56 euros in Athens.
As for wine, a mid-range bottle at the supermarket sells for 6 euros in Rome against 7.50 euros in Athens.
Tickets for mass transportation are nearly the same with a 10 cent difference: Rome at 1.50 euros and Athens at 1.40 euros.
Taxis start off with a set rate at 4 euros in Rome and 3.50 euros in Athens but with a much higher charge per km in Rome at 1.41 euros against 68 cents in Athens to 1.19 euros beyond city limits.
Rent for one month for a one-bedroom apartment in the center of Rome costs about 983 euros compared to against 379 euros in central Athens. As for an average hotel room, in Rome it would cost you around 83 dollars per night compared to 64 dollars. So overall, Rome is more expensive.
Maria’s Travel Tidbits and Tips
✓When to visit: Athens from March to June and again end of October onwards. The same applies for Rome. November and December are also good months. Of course, if you don’t mind the heat, Athens in August is beautifully quiet as traditionally Athenians leave en masse for their summer holidays.
✓How long? You can “do” central Athens in a three-day city break but I would recommend staying longer if you want to really get the feel of the wider Athens area.
✓Have patience and be polite… There are way more (willing) English speakers in Athens than in Rome. The vast majority of Athenians speak fluent English. Of course, the Romans do find inventive ways to communicate. So be patient and have a sense of humor. It goes a long way.
✓ Settle down… in a wide array of hotels for every wallet. As of late, many popular hotel chains have opened up in the city center as well as dozens of wonderfully designed boutique hotels. There is also a large range of pretty cool Airbnbs in the Greek capital.
✓ Indulge in … Athenian street food: souvlaki and kebab from Thanassis at Monastiraki, “ouzaki” by the sea, cheese pie (“tyropita”) from the Ariston bakery, and for the vegans out there, Athens is blooming!
For the sweet tooth: traditional yogurt with honey, vanilla and chocolate pudding and “galaktoboureko” (custard pie) at Stani off Omonia Square, or soft serve ice cream at Krinos on Aiolou St.
✓ Don’t forget to buy… most definitely Masticha liqueur (which is meant to be drunk in shots cold); Greek wines, particularly Attica varieties Moschofilero and Savvatiano, Attica honey, extra virgin olive oil, Kalamata olives, and Greek sesame seed-and-honey sweets called “pasteli”.
✓ Truth or dare… make sure to set aside a day for a trip to the nearby island of Aegina and Agistri. You could do this either by ferry (1 hour ride) or by rented yacht from the Alimos Marina.
- And I conclude this post with the wise words of American poet Henry David Thoreau:
“Such is beauty ever – neither here nor there, now nor then – neither in Rome nor in Athens, but wherever there is a soul to admire.”Henry David Thoreau
♫ For the potential Athenian in you, I’ve selected a vintage song by Greek pop singer Bessy Argyraki about Athens, its light and aura.
♫For the potential Roman in you, “Sott’er celo de Roma” (An Evening in Roma) sung in 1957 by Teddy Reno, who “sees himself dreamily and vibrant in the center of Rome”.