Athens used to be just a place to fly into. People would stop off to see the Acropolis, stay in a cheap hotel for the night, then catch a ferry to one of Greece’s stunning islands; somewhere like Mykonos, Crete, or Santorini. But that was then.
Fast forward a few decades, and the city is now a first-choice destination for visitors to Greece. There’s plenty that makes Athens worth visiting: It’s relatively cheap among European capitals, the food is delicious, and the history is awe-inspiring. But it’s also worth doing a little research before you arrive, to discover the ins and outs of travel here and see is Athens safe for travelers in 2022.
The short answer is yes, but there are caveats. Although some travel blogs like to present Greece’s first city as a den of vice and corruption, it’s easy enough to stay safe in Athens. Still, it’s worth bearing in mind that this is one of the largest cities in southern Europe, and a lived-in and gritty town with lots of people and a whole patchwork of different areas, some less savory than others. Let’s dig a little deeper…
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Is Athens safe to travel to in 2022?
Yes! Athens is visited by a whopping 6.3 million travelers every year. That places it in the top 50 most-visited cities on the planet. Stats like that can’t lie. Things simply wouldn’t be this way if the town was overly dangerous. To put it another way – you don’t get 6.3 million people flocking into Tijuana or Caracas, eh?
The stats bear it out, too. Numbeo – a travel-stat collation site – lists Athens at 101 on the overall global crime index for major cities. Now, if you believe that, it makes the home of the soaring Acropolis and the Temple of Olympian Zeus safer than Philadelphia, safer than Cleveland, safer than Houston, not to mention safer than other European travel hotspots like Naples and Nice.
On top of all that, the US State Department lists Greece as a Level 1 travel advisory (that’s the least worrying level, just in case you were wondering), while the UK Foreign Office has no serious restrictions on travel to the city, but does note the high possibility of strikes that can impact the smooth running of municipal services in the town. That’s it.
Of course, this is all a general overview. Dig down and the picture gets a little more nuanced. There are crime issues in Athens just as there are in all major metropolises. Things have been up and down since the financial crash of 2008, which hit Greece very hard. There are some neighborhoods that you’ll probably want to avoid and also some regular tourist scams worth knowing about. Let’s focus in on all that…
Common tourist scams in Athens
Scams against tourists are relatively common in Athens. They’re among the sort of petty crime that’s most likely to have a negative impact on your trip. Prevention by being aware is the key to avoid these, but if you’re caught up in one then be sure to contact the local tourist police. Here’s a look at some of the most common scams that go on in the city:
- The Athenian nun scam – Cashing in (literally) on Athens’ religious zeal is a group of skilled pickpockets who dress as nuns. These “women of God” will amble towards you with an apologetic smile and offer you a small cross for luck, which they will then pin to your t-shirt. Of course, the cross is just a misdirect. They’re really after your wallet, purse, or phone. Avoid these approaches at all costs. A stern “no” is usually enough.
- The fake tourist scam – Small groups of thieves posing as tourists spend the whole day riding the trains in from Athens Airport. Seemingly excited about their trip, they’ll start up a conversation with you, but what they’re really doing is getting you to lower your guard. Their priority is to get useful information from you, such as which hotel you’re staying in or what you do for a living. That way, they can gauge how wealthy you might be, and decide whether to follow you or not. Sometimes they will resort to “Plan B” and simply try to steal your suitcase from the train platform.
- Drink purchase scam – A common scam that happens right across Europe, this happens when someone – usually a female – approaches a person in a bar and asks for a drink. When the bill comes the price of said beverage runs into the thousands of euros.
- What’s the time scam – A scam that used to be common in the rougher parts of Athens but also in the tourist areas involved someone asking the time. When the unsuspecting victim pulls out their phone to check, the assailant grabs the device and runs. This has become less common thanks to better mobile phone tracking capabilities in the last couple of years, but does still happen from time to time.
Is Athens safe to live in?
There are thousands upon thousands of expats currently living and working in the sprawling city of Athens. In fact, the Greek capital has risen to become something of a hub for digital nomad workers in the post-pandemic age – remote-worker destination aggregator NomadList ranks it as the 44th most popular destination out of 318 in Europe! They also give the city an overall “very safe” rating.
That’s pretty good, and it’s true that Athens isn’t a popular spot for expats for nothing. It offers a high quality of life, good cost-of-living to earnings ratios, and that enthralling cultural side. But it’s not without its issues for those looking to relocate long term…
For starters, there are certain areas that you’ll want to avoid. Most expats look to live in the southern parts of the city, often closer to the beaches of the Athenian Riviera around Vouliagmeni and Glyfada. They quickly learn to avoid Omonoia, Exarchia, and the rundown port areas of Piraeus among others.
Generally, though, crime ratings for this city are better than many places in the USA and it’s generally considered a safe place to live. That said, those looking to buy property, sort residency visas, and other official things should be wary of the bureaucracy and corruption that’s rife in the Greek system (more on that later). It can prove a nightmare in the relocation process and you’ll need bags and bags of patience!
Corruption in Athens
There’s no hiding from the fact that Greece, at many levels, is a corrupt country. A recent confidential survey found that 7% of public officials admitted to accepting fakelaki (a slang word for “small envelope”. AKA: bribes), but some estimations put the number closer to 40% in reality. On top of that, leading economists and experts have said that corruption in Greece was among the leading causes of the Greek financial crash of 2007-2008, so there’s no denying that it has extreme real-life consequences on the streets.
Athens, as the epicenter of the Greek political system, is by definition the epicenter of Greek corruption. What’s more, the raw effects of corruption – homelessness, crime, drug crime – are felt more keenly in the blocks of the big city than they are in the idyllic isles of the Aegean. You only need to head to districts like Exarcheia and Omonia to see that.
On the flip side, political and systemic corruption of this kind isn’t really the sort of thing that makes an impact on tourism. Travelers brought 31.8 billion euros into the Greek economy in 2019 and the powers that be are constantly looking to push that number up. A conscious effort is being made to ringfence visitors to the Acropolis and the Plaka from the less-than-savoury behaviour that plagues the government and other institutions here.
Is Athens safe from pickpockets?
Petty theft and pickpocketing are the most significant crimes that tourists face, and there are certain areas where it’s rife. Another thing to watch out for is the laiki, or farmer’s market. This draws enormous crowds, and it’s pretty easy to get caught in a crush of people, which is a pickpocket’s dream. It’s held in a different neighborhood each day, so just find out where that day’s laiki is, then avoid it!
The Greeks just love their political protests, and they can spring up at a moment’s notice, especially at Syntagma Square. Some protests get pretty rowdy, with attacks against police and damage to property. Pickpockets, however, rush towards these protests, knowing there’s always a few panicky tourists far too distracted to worry about their wallets. For those reasons we’d advise you to keep clear of the Parliament Building, which is where the protests, and occasional riots, mainly occur.
Is Athens safe for solo female travelers?
In general, yes. It’s a sad fact of life that women traveling solo in any country are already aware that they need to take extra precautions. But so long as you maintain your usual levels of awareness, Athens is considered just as safe as most large European cities for a lady traveling solo.
The rate of domestic violence against women in Greece is low, and falling year on year, which is always a good indicator. On top of that, the the Greeks are, at heart, a very warm and friendly people, even if many of the men you meet in Athens will probably come on a bit too strong. Their Mediterranean charm might seem tempting, but a lot are known as kamaki (literally a harpoon used to catch a fish), who are serial flirters.
A bit of flirting at a bar is fine, but be aware that some clubs and bars in Athens, particularly around Glyfada Square, are fronts for organized crime. Police are bribed to turn a blind eye towards crimes that go on in those clubs, including spiked drinks that often lead to far more serious sexual crimes. The solution is quite simple: don’t go to any bars in Glyfada or the rougher parts of the city. If you’re looking to party, there are plenty of great clubs in the Gazi and Monastiraki neighborhoods. Or simply take a ferry to Mykonos or Kos, and party on the beach until sun up!
Is it safe to use public transport in Athens?
According to the official Athens transport website, the city offers “a large, modern mass transit system to serve the needs of residents and visitors.” To be fair, they’re mostly right: public transport in Athens is affordable, reliable and covers the entire city. Travel is sold in blocks of time (90 minutes for €1.40), and you can use trams, buses and trolleybuses, and the Metro all on the same ticket.
However, once again, pickpocketing is a significant problem. The same website states, “due to several cases of pickpocketing inside the Metro system […] you are advised to be constantly aware of your belongings and your pockets, especially in central stations and inside trains.”
More worrying is the quality of driving in Athens. Greece has one of the highest rates of road accidents for any European city, and safety measures like seatbelts and bike helmets are regularly ignored. Motorbikes often take shortcuts across pavements (sidewalks), and red traffic lights are seen more as a polite request than a legal requirement. So be alert, and always use subways or an underpass to cross roads if you have the option.
Is the tap water safe to drink in Athens?
The official answer is yes, and a 2011 report presented to the International Conference for Environmental Science found that “the finished water meets the existing sanitary regulations in EEC countries.” However, well aware that figures in official reports can be changed with a few fakelaki bribes, most Athenians are wary. So that begs the question: is Athens safe when it comes to drinking water from the tap?
In truth, there are three different reservoir sources for tap water in Athens, and the water quality from each varies tremendously. In addition, roughly half of the pipes carrying water around Athens are made of asbestos, which is now a banned material as it contains elements that may cause cancer. Well over 4,000 miles of pipe needs to be replaced before the water can be guaranteed free of carcinogens.
The takeaway from this is clear: the water in Athens might be OK to drink, but why take the chance? Bottled water is available at every convenience store. It’s cheap and it’s usually super-cold from the fridge (a gift in the hot Greek summer sun). We’d say avoid buying from the roadside guys who keep bottles in a cooler (half the time this is just tap water, kept enticingly cold by packing the cooler with ice). Instead, use the major chain supermarkets or buy at your hotel.
Is Athens safe at night?
Every major city has its “no-go” areas, and Athens is no different. At night, we’d advise you to steer clear of the Monastiraki, Omonia, Psyrri, and Mextaxourghio neighborhoods. These areas are particularly dicey after midnight, but best avoided altogether unless you’re going for a specific reason.
Most of the nightclubs around Glyfada Square are controlled by organized crime, and illegal drugs are openly sold in certain venues. Although prostitution has been legal in Athens since 2010, there are still many illicit brothels (usually advertised as “studios”) throughout the city. The area around Omonia Square is notorious for these, and a lot of the doormen (allegedly) carry handguns.
The nightlife hub of Exarcheia might also sound tempting for those on the hunt for rock bars and alt nightclubs, but it’s not the place to flash expensive phones. It’s also known for open drug use and political instability.
Neighborhoods to avoid in Athens
As with all cities in the world, there are two sides to Athens. Most visitors will choose to stay in one of just a handful of areas. They include the Plaka, the most touristy part of the capital that resembles the look and feel of a traditional Greek village, and Monastiraki, a bustling metro interchange that’s got good walking access to the old sights and the new town. We also like areas such as Koukaki (the hipster district just below the Acropolis) and Kolonaki (the place to go for deluxe hotels and living).
There are also some parts of town that you’ll want to be sure to avoid. They include:
- Exarcheia – Exarcheia is a tricky one. Sometimes it’s a downright enthralling, gritty, and edgy art hub with a truly rebellious character. Other times, it’s really unpleasant to be in. Basically, this is the hotbed of Athens’ fringe political movements and there’s a big presence of anarchists around. If you do go to sample the upcoming bars and vintage stores be certain to have your wits about you! Exarcheia is always more dangerous at night, when we’ve even witnessed open drug use on the squares.
- Omonia – Omonia Square sort of marks the northern edge of the Athenian downtown. It’s forever pulsing with traffic, which is reason enough to steer clear if you ask us. Recently, it’s also become something of a hotbed for petty crime and homelessness.
- Pireaus – We’d love to tell you that Athens’s ancient port is a wonderful part of the city, replete with old monuments and seafood tavernas. It’s not, though. It’s a raucous, semi-industrial mass of harbors and streets that’s not all that pleasant to be in. Pickpockets and taxi scams are also particularly common in the area.
- Vathi – Not all that bad, though there are heightened crime rates in this part of the new town. The main thing about Vathi is that workshops and repair shops open onto the street, lending it a bit of an industrial air.
Top 7 Athens safety tips (plus one top tourist hack!)
- Take out a travel insurance policy. The number of people who go on vacation without travel insurance is staggering, and they only have themselves to blame when something valuable goes missing.
- Get yourself a money belt. OK, they might not be the coolest fashion accessory, but it’s been proven they’re the best way to keep cash and credit cards safe from pickpockets. Some of them are so secure that they come with $750 theft insurance included!
- Avoid conspicuous signs of wealth, and that includes taking pictures with your expensive phone. If you plan to be in Athens for a while, it might be worth using a cheap phone that you can afford to lose.
- Only ever use licensed, metered taxis, and double-check the route using a map app on your phone. If the taxi goes too far off course, then invent an excuse, pay what’s on the meter, and find a different taxi.
- The Greeks drink frappé like water, which is fine because they’re used to it (and they invented it!) But it’s very strong, and more than one might give you the shakes. As for too much Retsina: we’ll let you decide for yourself if the guaranteed headache is worth it!
- Don’t buy counterfeit goods, such as sports shoes or handbags, from the sidewalk sellers. Buying anything from these ‘street hawkers’ is against the law, and you could be fined or even arrested.
- There’s been an increase in card skimming at ATMs throughout Athens, and it’s hard to tell which machines remain unaffected. Be smart and only use ATMs in reputable hotels or banks that require card entry.
(And here’s the hack…) At the end of a metro trip, put on some “obvious” headphones. You don’t have to listen to anything, but you’ll stop the constant barrage of drivers shouting “Taxi, Taxi, Taxi!” at you as soon as you walk out of the station. Try it once, and you’ll thank us!
So, is Athens safe to visit? Our conclusion
The general answer is yes. Over 6.3 million people come to see the ancient treasures and taste their way through the plate-smashing tavernas of this bucket-list city each year. The vast majority of those trips happen without a single hitch, making Athens pretty safe for visitors. On top of that, the town is ranked as safer than many cities in the USA and there are no lasting FCO or State Department warnings in place.
We would say that there are certain tourist scams in Athens to know about, and some neighborhoods that are probably worth avoiding all together. You should also be extra vigilant against pickpockets and petty crime here, as that tends to be the major worry for travelers to the home of the Acropolis.