How Athens Taught Me to Travel Differently

Plopping down onto the bed in my Athens hotel room, I burst into tears and announced that I wanted to turn right around and head back home.

“I hate Athens!” I pouted like a tantruming child.  “I’m phoning my mom and telling her I’m coming home!”

Was Athens was really that bad?  So bad that a girl who loves travel more than anything, who spends her days dreaming of all the ancient sites she wants to visit, would hate a place after being there for less than an hour?

Well…yes and no.

travelyesplease.com | How Athens Taught Me to Travel Differently

Lykavittos Hill

When I arrived in Athens, I’ll admit, I was emotional.  A terrible journey consisting of a four hour delayed flight from Edmonton, being left on the tarmac in Montreal in a over-crowded, sweltering bus, then finally flying 9 1/2 hours without a wink of sleep, left me exhausted, hungry and unhappy.

Athens didn’t have a chance.

All I saw was an Athens that was dirty, vandalized and polluted.  Old dilapidated buildings- they didn’t charm me or leave me wondering what their history was.  Graffiti tags lining the streets- I didn’t see the art, instead I questioned my safety.

travelyesplease.com | How Athens Taught Me to Travel Differently

I was disappointed.  Where were the grand temples?  The historical buildings?  The delightful sidewalk cafes?

Athens was failing me.

Or…was I failing Athens?

I made a quick judgment of a city I hadn’t even really set foot in yet.  All I had seen of Athens thus far was from the window of a bus shuttling us from the airport.

Back in the hotel room, I calmed down, got some food and realized I was rash in my decision to dislike Athens.  Tomorrow would be better, I hoped.

And it was…for the most part.

travelyesplease.com | How Athens Taught Me to Travel Differently

Temple of Olympian Zeus as seen from the Acropolis.

The next day, we went out and saw the main attractions- The Acropolis, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the Ancient Agora.  They were incredible and interesting, yet I was still feeling underwhelmed.

Why?  Why am I not enthralled like I normally am? I wondered.

Finally it hit me.  I kept comparing Athens to Rome (which I had visited a year prior).

Rome had amazed me, captivated me for the entire week I was there.  Coming to Athens, I thought the two cities would be very similar.  After all, the Roman Empire was heavily influenced by classical Greek culture.  The Romans also adopted a lot of Greek architectural theories.

The two cities were similar in this sense- the architecture and the history behind the ancient sites were equally enjoyable.  But there was just so much more in Rome- I needed a week to do the city justice.  All of the ancient sites in Athens I saw in one day.  I also found the ruins in Rome to be better preserved, more intact, than those in Athens.

All of this should have been expected though- Rome was a sprawling Empire, Athens was a city-state. Plus, Athens’ glory days occurred much earlier in history that Rome’s did, so of course it’s less likely that its buildings would be unscathed by the passing of time.

Instead of appreciating Athens for what it is, I walked around feeling let down by what I expected it to be, what I wanted it to be.

travelyesplease.com | How Athens Taught Me to Travel Differently

The Ancient Agora with the Acropolis towering above.

Midway through my first day in Athens, I realized that if I didn’t let go of my expectations, I would have a miserable time.  So I decided to give Athens a fair chance.  Once I did that, I came to enjoy the city.  Athens has one of the most significant ancient monuments in the Western world- the incredible Acropolis.  Athens is also home to one of the world’s greatest museums- The National Archaeological Museum, which houses the most important finds from Greece’s archaeological sites.  And it does have those atmospheric restaurants with the outdoor seating I love so much.

travelyesplease.com | How Athens Taught Me to Travel Differently

My visit to Athens taught me a few things about travel and helped me come up with some “rules” that I try to stick to when visiting a new destination:

  1. Don’t be quick to judge.  Give each place a minimum of 24 hours before forming an opinion.  Base that opinion on actually having gone out exploring- seeing the sights, participating in some activities and interacting with the locals.
  2. Don’t compare.  Each place is unique and incredible in its own way.  By comparing one destination to another you will not be able to accept and appreciate a place for what it is.  Save the comparisons for when you get home.
  3. Keep your expectations in check.  This one is hard for me.  I always have high expectations, even very specific expectations, about what a place will be like.  The problem with that is, it can lead to disappointment.  There is nothing wrong with expecting your vacation to be the most amazing time, because it should be.  I just try and refrain from having very lofty and specific expectations so that I don’t feel too let down if a place doesn’t live up to my imagination.
  4. Don’t dwell on what you can’t control.  This is another one that is really hard for me.  Delayed flights, lost luggage, jet lag are all a pain to deal with, but don’t let it get the best of you. Getting worked up about things that are out of your hands will bring a negativity to your vacation that can be hard to shake off.

Athens was not my most favourite place I’ve visited by any means, and I still wish I had spent only one or two days there instead of three (I could have used that extra time in Santorini).  However, I departed with an improved attitude and a new way of exploring the world.  How could I possibly dislike a place that has taught me so much?

I can’t.

Have you ever been disappointed in a destination?  Feel free to tell me about it in the comment section.

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By Rhonda Krause
Liz smith - June 18, 2013 - 7:33 pm

Great read. I agree, I’ve had some of those moments myself. The first I visited Venice I was immediately impressed – but after a day, I fell in love and discovered the real city. Been back 3 times since. Things aren’t always what we expect, but sometimes it’s a good thing.

Edsel Sismar - December 3, 2013 - 4:14 pm

Oh my god! Just look at that beautiful and amazing photos of Athens, I really wanted to visit Athens so bad! But I just couldn’t I don’t have the opportunity. Oh well just watching these beautiful and wonderful places in Athens makes me feel I visited the place without stepping foot. Great post by the way.

Meg - November 14, 2014 - 1:57 pm

I was disappointed in Amsterdam, initially. Your article totally rang true for me – the crying in the hotel room bit. But you’re right, you’ve got to get out there, give it time, and at least see the things you went there to see. Otherwise, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot – maybe I won’t ever be back to Amsterdam in my lifetime, but at least I saw the Rembrandts, the tulips, the Delft china, the pancakes, etc.

Rhonda Krause - November 14, 2014 - 5:07 pm

Oh good, I’m glad I’m not the only one! I think most places are worth visiting at least once. Even if it’s not what you expected, you still need to make the best of it. As soon as I let go of my preconceived notions, and just accepted Athens for what it was, I had a much better time!

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