Photo by Alya Al Zaabi

J-Term 2023: Exploring Athens Outside of the Academic Setting

A student's guide to hidden gems in Athens that you must see, despite your packed academic schedules.

Feb 12, 2023

After our first day in Athens, we quickly learned that there would not be much time for us to explore the city because of our packed schedule. However, that did not stop us from exploring Lycabettus Hill (where our hotel was located) and the area surrounding it. Our mornings would begin around 6 a.m. when we would go out in five-degree weather to catch the sunrise on our way to breakfast. The contrast between the weather in Greece and in Abu Dhabi was stark — everyday I would be thrilled by the cold air that would suddenly fill my lungs.
We usually spent our early mornings visiting new cafes and bakeries, which helped me discover my new favorite coffee shop, Cultivos. The barista was extremely welcoming and it was the first time I ever tasted coffee that good! A simple warm cappuccino packed with foam completely changed coffee for me (for context: I don’t like coffee so the fact that I liked the taste of it was huge for me). I went back to Cultivos many times after, and since leaving Athens I miss the not-too-sweet, yet perfect-amount-of-bitter coffee.
Photo by Alreem Al Qubaisi
On our second day in Greece, my friends and I decided to wake up early and get coffee and hot chocolate at a famous spot in Athens called Carpo. The place had been frequently documented on TikTok, and on a busy day, the line for coffee would go down the side of the shop. It was unusual how the scent of chocolate overtook the shop instead of the coffee.
Between scheduled visits to NYU Athens and other places, we managed to visit various places such as tea and herb shops, as well as spice and candy shops. Many of these niche item sellers were local family-owned businesses.
Photo by Alya Al Zaabi
My friends and I walked into a cute and cozy tea shop with dark shelves lined with various types of tea from floor to ceiling. The owner was very sweet and the shop was filled with a fresh herbal scent of dried flowers and tea. Another cozy shop we found was a spice and candy seller not too far from the tea shop. The scent of spices was overwhelmingly powerful, you could smell it even outside the shop. The entry into these shops was a nice change of scenery from the frequented malls and “perfect” shops we were used to.
Photo by Alya Al Zaabi
After completing our research projects, we were given a rest day where we visited the Acropolis and took a guided tour to learn more about Greek history (with some mythology thrown in as well). This day truly made me feel like a tourist, as I admired old Greek architecture and photographed beautiful scenery.
Photo by Alya Al Zaabi
On the same day, we visited the Athens Flea Market and got to experience the congested streets on a weekend. On our way to the flea market, we also came across historical landmarks: the Tower of the Winds and the Fethiye Mosque Museum.
Photo by Alya Al Zaabi
I also met some adorably friendly cats who went in and out the fences of the Tower of the Winds monument.
Photo by Alya Al Zaabi
Something I found surprising was the number of orange trees you could find on a street at a time. There were so many orange trees planted on the sidewalks of almost every street we crossed.
Photo by Alya Al Zaabi
On the last day of our J-term, we decided at the last minute to go to Carpo again. We walked in the streets that had become so familiar to us, and to my surprise, we found a bookstore that I had never seen before. I loved it, and it was the perfect place to be right before we were supposed to leave for the airport.
Photo by Alya Al Zaabi
The location of our hotel was perfect, putting us right in the heart of Athens where we could explore the city through walks. Also, since our hotel was on a hill, the views were absolutely beautiful. In the mornings we would go up to the balcony of the St. Lycabettus Hotel restaurant, where we could see the Acropolis and the entirety of Athens from a high viewpoint. Looking back, I wish I would have taken more sunset photographs because the sunsets in Greece were unbelievable: the sky would be painted in bright reds, oranges, and pinks which would eventually fade into purples and finally the color of the deep night sky.
Photo by Alya Al Zaabi
I am so glad I took advantage of every free moment we had outside of our scheduled J-term visits, for it allowed me to explore areas we would not have been able to visit with the class. The entire trip felt like a fever dream that will forever be engraved in my memories.
Alya Al Zaabi is a Columnist. Email her at
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