Born and raised in a small village in Zeeland, The Netherlands, I did not see many places before my 18th birthday. My whole world back then expanded within a circle of 25km.
As the change of jobs made me have to travel a lot, my perspective changed and the importance of good wayfinding became clear. The average business traveler though has it easy. In terms of signage and wayfinding airports are usually extremely clear and from then on there are just taxis, hotels, and customers.
Trying to bring a little adventure, I choose to go alternative as much as possible but always in time for business, of course! Public transportation, rental cars, and a lot of walking/jogging are my favorite means of discovering cities around the world.
So, I imagined that Athens, home to almost 4 million people, wouldn’t be so much different and that I could leave my GPS at home. I thought I got this…My initial strategy was simple: to discover the large roads and railways quite well. For me, this always works fine as I (mentally) slice the city map into smaller pieces and I get to know the city parts (and stations) in a logical order.
What I greatly underestimated was the language though. Although when it comes to roads, railways, and metro everything is written in Greek AND English, the actual names did not “stick” in my mind.Names like Metaxourghio (Μεταξουργείο), Panepistimio (Πανεπιστήμιο), Panepistimioupoli (Πανεπιστημιούπολη) and Ano Ilioupoli (΄Ανω Ηλιούπολη) are very long words and sound very similar when people speak fast.
I had to take notes and ask for directions several times and of course, my pronunciation was hilarious.
When I got my first level of alignment in place, it was time to go further into smaller city regions and suburbs, in order to get a basic “mental map” and “feel” of the city.
This was where the trouble started. No more English road names, most neighborhoods looked the same to me and there are so many 3-4 story-high buildings, that there can be no sufficient landmarks or special features that are easy to memorize.
When driving a car towards the suburbs or outskirts of the city, the road signage deteriorates, because a lot of signs are damaged or very old. Sometimes you see the sign at the last minute, as it is strangely placed behind traffic lights or trees!
If you rely on public transportation in order to move around the city, you realize that signage at bus stops is useless. Rarely up-to-date, or just missing and wherever it was digital, it wasn’t always working properly. And… no English anymore.
With COVID screens and a large distance between the traveler and the bus driver, it was also hard to communicate even though everybody speaks English. It has been challenging, to say the least.Walking huge distances and experiencing the city eventually shapes your mental map of the city. Very small details, trees, houses, small artwork, and even potholes get into your memories. People I met at a certain place, shops/cafes I sat down at, bought something, or had lunch became my own experience-landmarks.
This experience proved the importance of landmarks and easy-to-recognize features in regions (both outdoor and indoor) which is a key element in understanding and creating mental maps of complex areas.
Although digital tools have become essential to find our way in large cities, they do not make the city “yours”. They serve as a virtual travel experience and when you have “routed” yourself to your destination, it’s time to go offline and into the real world. Otherwise, a world of beauty will pass by without you noticing it.
So. Should you avoid Athens? Of course not! When visiting as a tourist everything is super clear and easy. Inside the amazing ancient city center, wayfinding is almost not necessary because the area is quite small, and landmarks are inevitable.
My recommendation is to start your discovery of Athens by going up at Lycabettus Hill for the breathtaking view and to get a real birds-eye view of the city. This is much better than any map. From then onwards, you will absolutely enjoy all the obvious essential sights and museums, amazing food, and culture.