The Iconic Destination Rick Steves Originally Wrote Off As A 'Big Ugly City'

Even the best writers and critics sometimes get it wrong. It's inevitable, especially when it comes to things that people feel passionately about but are very subjective, such as food, movies, and travel. The late Roger Ebert, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, missed the point on some classic films, including "A Clockwork Orange," "Brazil," and "Blue Velvet." Similarly, Rick Steves, the beloved travel author who has been documenting his European travels for half a century, occasionally writes off places before he gets a better look. One example is Athens, a destination that he once dismissed as a big, ugly, and touristy city with a few historic sights but not much else. He curtly wrote on his website: "The joy of Greece is outside of Athens. See Athens' museums and scram."

Athens doesn't seem to get much love for a city with such an incredible history and reputation as the cradle of Western Civilization. It rarely troubles lists of the best European cities to visit. If it does, it is usually only because it is home to the world-famous Parthenon. It certainly isn't mentioned in the same gushing tones as usual suspects like Paris, Venice, Barcelona, London, or Istanbul. Unfortunately, many people don't stick around the Greek capital for much more than visiting the Acropolis or using it as a gateway to vacation hotspots in Greece. Luckily, Rick Steves revised his opinion to give us a better taste of the city.

Rick Steves finds the real Athens

Rick Steve generally tends toward good humor and humility, so it is no surprise that he was gracious enough to walk back his previous diss on Athens after further visits. Per his website, he writes that the epiphany came when venturing into "offbeat neighborhoods just outside the tourist-packed core." Maybe we can be a little critical on this point, as most discerning travelers know that this is usually the case in any city that draws millions of visitors every year. 

Unsurprisingly, Steves enjoyed it more when he realized that real Athenians don't tend to hang out at museums or the Acropolis. He namechecks Exarchia, an old neighborhood with a bohemian vibe, thanks to its abundance of students from the nearby universities. There are plenty of narrow streets to explore, and its youthful energy means a fine choice of cafes and bars, some of which serve up regular live music along with the cheap snacks and drinks. It's also great for shoppers, with bric-a-brac stores and boutiques selling vintage and second-hand goods.

Steves also recommends the Psyrri District. Just 15 minutes down the hill from the Parthenon, it is another neighborhood that attracts hip and creative types. Check out the district's street art as you stroll from one cafe or taverna to the next. As Steves also notes, it's a little more touristy than Exarchia and gets pretty lively at night.

Rick Steves' favorite place for a snack in Athens

Greek cuisine is regarded as some of the best in the world, and Rick Steves was understandably enamored with the many delectable treats the country has to offer. As a seasoned traveler, he recognizes the important link between eating like locals and getting an authentic experience. He's a big fan of Greek mezedes (who isn't?), and out of all the places in Athens where you can get a plate of delicious appetizers, his pick is Karayiannis Ouzo Bar near the Central Market. It's a bare-bones ouzeri where you can shoulder up to the small counter with the regulars and enjoy some super-fresh keftedes sourced from the nearby stall, washed down with a drop of ouzo, of course.

The Central Market is a vivid and bustling place where many locals head to stock up on their fresh meat and fish, often cut to order while they wait. There are a few other places to eat in and around the market worth checking out. Aris is a small family-run taverna that makes the most of the market's produce, serving up simple grilled platters with a side or two. To sample patsas, a traditional Greek offal soup that won't be to everyone's taste, head to Epirus Taverna, a small worker's restaurant wedged between the butcher's stalls. It may seem modest, but you know it's authentic and great quality; even the late Anthony Bourdain once feasted on the home-cooked meals here.