Modern Athens is something of a wayward prince. The city has a heritage that is respected and envied worldwide, but it doesn’t always behave with a befitting grace. Visitors expecting a giant museum to walk through, pristinely preserved for the day-tripper’s sensitive eye and bathed in calm reverence, are in for a mighty shock.
The ancient treasures — the Parthenon-topped Acropolis, the Agora and the numerous ruins — have an unsulliable majesty. Anyone with even a thimbleful of interest in history should immediately notice they’ve landed in a heritage honeypot.
But the temples and amphitheatres are just the tip of this fascinating city. Athens is a sprawl; past population explosions have seen a hasty spread of concrete and a fair few of the modern buildings look in worse shape than the ruins.
Greece’s well-documented financial problems haven’t helped, either. Protests have regularly turned the once-majestic Syntagma Square into a demonstration zone, museums have to close off floors because there isn’t funding for staff to run them, and public transport is subject to strike action.
But it’s often when you’re walking down a street that looks like it needs a darned good wash that you see something that sticks with you long after the Parthenon memories have faded. Those who grow to love Athens love it not for its postcard shots, but for its complexities. The chattering-class cafe scene of Kolonaki rubs up alongside edgy-meets-boho Exharia; touristy Monastiraki stares out at seedy Omonia.
The willingness of its residents to talk to outsiders shines through. Park yourself in a bar, and you’ll get a passionate analysis on the problems facing the country, Europe and the world at large over a tall glass.
And that somehow sums up the city’s character; delve in and Athens becomes thoroughly absorbing.
See & do
The Parthenon: Mesmerising ancient construction and clumsy modern scaffolding give differing perspectives on the still-mighty symbol of democracy. A wander around its edges reveals a crumbling old hero that’s just about holding on. The Parthenon is the figurehead of the Acropolis, but the hill is a combo package of temples, theatres and gateways. www.athenswalkingtours.com
Acropolis Museum: Signposting around the area is sparse so head to this excellent museum, opened in 2009, containing numerous treasures from the Acropolis and insight into its history. The highlight is the top floor where the Parthenon’s 525ft frieze has been reconstructed alongside its pediments and metopes. www.theacropolismuseum.gr
The Agora: More than just a marketplace, the Agora was Ancient Athens’ equivalent of Rome’s Forum — the centre of public life. It’s now a giant field scattered with ruins, an 11th-century Byzantine church and the updated take on the Panathenaic Way. Despite the crowds, there’s always somewhere in the Agora you can find peace.
Glyfada: Central Athens tends to empty out on summer weekends, with the exodus heading 10 miles south to the coast. Glyfada is the main resort area, where it’s as much about the socialising as the sunbathing.
Lykavittos Hill: For exceptional views over the city, the energetic, or perhaps foolhardy, hike up Lykavittos Hill; the sane take the funicular railway. The Chapel of Agios Georgios and the summer concerts are the bonus attractions here.
National Archaeological Museum: Budget cuts have hit Greece’s top museum hard, with chunks of the collection closed off. But what remains on display is still priceless. Mycenaean treasures, room after room of sculptures and a wealth of ancient pottery are among the major draws. www.namuseum.gr
Olympic complex: Tours of the 2004 Olympic complex are available to pre-organised groups only. But the Aquatic Centre and Tennis Centre are open to all. The Panathenaic Stadium from the 1896 Olympics is arguably more impressive. www.oaka.com.gr
Style city: If austerity ever takes hold in Kolonaki, then Greece is truly in dire straits. This chi-chi district has long been the place where ladies with expensive handbags and designer sunglasses mooch around high-end boutiques. The major streets — Solonos and Skoufa — hog most of the limelight, but it’s worth nipping down the smaller side streets to find oddities such as candelabra shops and unusual toy stores.
Designer thrills: Running to the north-east of Syntagma, Stadiou is where most of the expensive designer labels such as Hermes and Dolce & Gabbana congregate. But it’s also home to a few impressively high-quality jewellers.
To market: Monastiraki Flea Market is where the locals tend to shop, but it’s all about fruit, veg and hanging meat. In the pedestrianised streets to the west of Plateia Monastirakiou, leather goods, trinkets, clothing and souvenir tat rub shoulders, but it’s the browsing experience that counts more than what you buy.
Like a local
Traffic dodging: Crossing some of Athens’ major streets can be a time-consuming and occasionally hair-raising challenge. Skip it by walking through the heart of the city unimpeded along the 1.9-mile promenade, linking Dionysiou Areopagitou and Monastiraki. Many of the major sights are on the way.
Public transport: A single integrated transport ticket — valid on buses, trams, the Metro and suburban railway lines — costs from £1.22. It’s valid for 90 minutes, but can be stretched longer if you hop on for a final trip just before the 90 minutes is up. Validate again before boarding, and the ticket is good until the end of the journey. www.oasa.gr
Time to dine: Greeks tend to eat late and restaurants often won’t start to fill up until 10pm. Some venues won’t be open in the early evening, but those that are often offer good-value, fixed-price menus before the masses arrive. If you’re going to splash out on a meal, the best value will usually be at lunchtime or before 8 or 9pm.
Athens is blessed with a good collection of character-packed hotels, prepared to deviate from the bland, chain-style norm. Financial problems and oversupply keep prices pleasingly low, too.
£ Chic Hotel
It’s in the increasingly iffy Omonia area, but Chic Hotel has a design focus and an array of gadgetry that elevates it way above most budget hotels. Free wi-fi, a flatscreen TV and variable colour lighting are part of the package. www.chichotel.gr
££ Diamond Hotel
Centrally located with razzle-dazzle attitude shining through the shimmering furnishings, the Diamond Hotel pulls off the tastefully glam look with aplomb. www.athensdiamondhotel.com
In the northern suburb of Kifisia, the Semiramis is many things, but cowardly isn’t one of them with bright pinks and possibly the world’s most psychedelic pool. Just about everything is remote-controlled at this luxury bolthole. www.yeshotels.gr
Did you know? While digging out the new Metro system, ancient artefacts were discovered. Many were either incorporated in the design or put on display — turning the Metro stations into mini museums. The Syntagma and Monastiraki stations are two of the best examples.
You won’t go hungry in Athens, and if you’re into big plates of grilled meat then it may be the closest you get to heaven. Oven-baked dishes in the traditional tavernas are a reliable mainstay, while hip restaurants offering twists on home-cooked dishes have been popping up in swathes.
While it has something of a production-line feel to the service, the souvlaki (skewered meat and veg) has such melt-in-the-mouth qualities, it really doesn’t matter. T: 00 30 210 324 4705.
££ To Kafenio
Arguably the best of the old-school tavernas, its signature dish is the meatballs, and justifiably so, while there’s also a commitment to small wine-makers. www.tokafeneio.gr
This smart number manages to hit the right balance between Michelin star-quality seafood and a very relaxed vibe. Acropolis views from the terrace are a beautiful bonus. www.varoulko.gr
Even with the economy in a bad way, it seems as though the one thing Athenians are not prepared to cut back on is going out. Hit Kolonaki for cafes, Gazi for hard partying and Psiri for the gentrified version.
Nixon: This bar-cum-restaurant-cum-cinema is gorgeously atmospheric, with good wine and a decent cocktail list. www.nixon.gr
Booze Cooperativa: Attracting iPad-clutching chess players by day, wacky haircuts and bedroom DJs by night, this hot spot embraces a rebel vibe that extends to the wall of cigarette fug — the smoking ban is flouted here with bravado. www.boozecooperativa.com
The Half Note Jazz Club: This intimate venue has a long-standing reputation for great acts from Europe and the US, and reverential audiences. Be sure to reserve a table, as it’s regularly a standing affair for those that don’t. www.halfnote.gr
Aegean Airlines and British Airways fly regularly to Athens from Heathrow, while EasyJet offers routes from Gatwick and Manchester. www.aegeanair.com
Average flight time: 4h.
Despite Athens being an ungainly sprawl, most of the areas of interest are easily walkable. Otherwise, the Metro system is excellent, providing workers aren’t on strike, while light rail and buses fill in the gaps.
Taxis are relatively inexpensive, but Athenian cab drivers aren’t renowned for their honesty. If the meter is ‘broken’, walk away and take the next taxi.
When to go
Midsummer can be brutally hot in Athens; winter isn’t particularly cold, but downpours are regular. The best times to aim for are March to May and September to November, when the weather’s bearable.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.12.
International dial code: 00 30.
The Athens city code is 210.
Time difference: GMT +2.
How to do it
A three-night city break, staying at the Diamond Hotel and flying with EasyJet from Gatwick Airport, costs from £187 per person with Ebookers. www.ebookers.com
Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)