One of my favorite activities while in Athens was simply wandering around the streets, up and down the alleyways. There were very few grand boulevards or wide avenues, and this was fantastic to me. Every corner led to a mystery - eclectic bookshops, smokey cafes, crumbling ruins.
Athens is full of crisscrossing narrow alleyways. The residential neighborhoods contain historic buildings with pale, pastel facades, intricately wrung iron balconies, and delicate vines and flowers. These idyllic sights are juxtaposed with colorful graffiti of varying degrees of artistic technique, seemingly indiscriminate in their placement. A gorgeous centuries-old church is as good as a crumbling stonewall in a parking lot.
It was only after visiting Rome that I realized that Athens is a bit more run-down and smaller in scale compared to some of the other grand capitals of Europe. It's a different sort of beauty - a raw, gritty, worn, and unpretentious charm pervades the city. This is the real Athens, very little of it molded or curated especially for tourists - and I like it.
Somehow, it's all the more gorgeous and satisfying to know that all of this is built for itself, not for the eyes of others or the glossy covers of travel brochures.
Graffiti was everywhere - homes, street signs, businesses, churches, offices. There were amazing murals and smart designs right next to crude language and messy scrawls. Though sometimes the street art seemed to take away from the beautiful buildings, they also added an interesting layer of color and political commentary to the built environment.
Athens is also quite a hilly city, as there are seven major hills within the metropolitan area, so the changes in elevation added another interesting visual dimension. The metro stations are a bit more far apart than some other cities I've visited, which makes walking a great choice of transportation.
Of course, walking is the best way to see a city in my opinion. Only through walking do you get the glimpses of the everyday, the little details that make up the lives of the people around you, like the cats stretching in the patch of sunlight, the old neighbors chatting over a cup of coffee, and the heavenly smell of fresh bread drifting from the local bakery. Even in the chill of late February, there was also something interesting happening in the streets.