On the drive in from the airport, through the patchwork quilt of orange-red soil and small farms spreading out to the east of Athens, my driver is in conversational mood. There are significant World Cup qualification matches on the evening horizon for both Greece and England, and, briefly, he dips into that reliable staple of all taxi exchanges: football. But, really, he doesn’t want to chatter about sport. He wants to discuss history.
“I have been to London twice,” he begins, in an accent as thick as hummus. “I went to your British Museum, because I wanted to say hello to our Acropolis Marbles.” He places firm emphasis on the two possessive pronouns, and his choice of ‘Acropolis’ — where an outsider might use the name of Lord Elgin, the ‘collector’ of antiquities who pried many of the decorative slabs from the side of the Parthenon in 1801 and removed them to the UK — is deliberate. And so we roll into town, mulling a subject of two centuries’ controversy.
No other city — with the exceptions, perhaps, of Rome and Cusco — is defined by its past quite as starkly as the Greek capital. Turn almost any corner and you trip over an ancient remnant — a tumbled pillar, a fallen statue. In fact, so rich is Athens in relics that it seems bored by their presence. Witness the second-century Arch of Hadrian, casually ignored by the traffic roaring past it on Amalias Avenue; the miniscule gap separating the above-ground section of the metro — where it cuts through the Monastiraki district — from a dusty collection of foundation stones. Although Athens owes much of its growth to the past two centuries of rampant development, its place in world history was assured long before. And if it’s now a little rusty in places, a little tattered at the edges, a middle-aged man gone to seed, it can still gesture at that symbol of civilisation, the Parthenon — ever visible on its hilltop — and retort: “Yes, but in my youth, I did that.”
This is not to suggest the city does not have a more modern story. Recent years have been tricky, bedevilled by Greece’s struggle at the sharp end of Europe’s financial crisis. Reminders of this issue, which caused civil unrest in the capital, are daubed across many walls in bright and often inventive swooshes of graffiti. But the anger that dominated 2010 and 2011 has — to a certain extent — dissipated, replaced by a begrudging acceptance of hard times and a determination to carry on regardless that makes itself felt in the busy restaurants of Psiri, the lively bars of Thissio and the ringing cash tills of genteel Kolonaki.
True, in some ways, Athens is a tale of two cities — the above three areas are very different, in vibe and look, to central Plaka and Monastiraki, which are swamped by the tourist trade. Yet as a destination, it comes together as a glorious whole — still, at heart, the playground of Zeus, Apollo, Athena and Dionysos, but ready to party in the now as well as the then.
Much as it has done for three millennia, Athens revolves around the Acropolis. A stroll up from the official entrance — on the cobbled promenade of Dionysiou Areopagitou — takes me past the Theatre of Dionysos, whose noble curves of seating have been a fixture here since the fourth century BC. Then the slope stiffens, demanding energetic footsteps to reach the top, where the Parthenon preens in the sunlight. Completed in 432BC as a temple to the city’s guardian goddess Athena, it has suffered hugely in the interim (through war as much as Elgin’s magpie touch) — but its relative disrepair somehow only adds to its magnificence.
Immediately to the south, the Acropolis Museum is a state-of-the-art facility that loudly shouts its desire to reclaim the city’s lost treasures. Opened in 2009 in a feast of glass and sharp angles, its upper gallery is given over to the yellow, sun-baked Parthenon friezes that stayed in situ — with pale recreations used to fill the gaps left by the London expats.
Should you wish to dip further into antiquity, the options are many. The Temple of Olympian Zeus, a relic of the sixth century BC, awaits east of the Acropolis, still mighty even though little but its southeast corner remains. Beyond, the smooth white tiers of the Panathenaic Stadium conjure up images of chariot racing, despite the fact the restoration work which saw the arena used in the 1896 and 2004 Olympics is clearly evident. Elsewhere, in the northerly district of Exarcheia, the National Archaeological Museum does Ancient Greece in detail.
There are, of course, plenty of sights from more recent epochs. The National Garden is a leafy joy, home to lofty palm trees and a statue of Lord Byron, swooning onto the breast of a female figure who represents Greece — a tribute to the poet’s unlikely role in the military campaign to free the country from Ottoman control in 1824, which cost him his life. Then there’s Lycabettus Hill, which rises north east of the centre. The path to the summit is lined with broad cacti, onto whose leaves Athenian lovers have carved their names, and at the summit you’ll find the Chapel of St George’s and a lovely restaurant, Orizontes, which delivers widescreen views.
The Acropolis also dominates the Athenian retail scene — on the basis that the closer you are to it, the greater the chance of someone selling you a plaster-cast deity or a gaudy T-shirt. The souvenir stalls are particularly common in Plaka (north east of the Acropolis) and Monastiraki (directly to the north), though there are diamonds in this mountain of flotsam. In the former you’ll find The Greek Shop, selling thick olive oils on the pedestrianised Adrianou Street; in the latter are Mikos, a design outlet specialising in chic soft furnishings, and The Athens Gallery, which displays works by leading Greek artists.
There are further surprises, too. Ambling west on the Flea Market corridor of Ifaistou Street, which links Monastiraki and Thissio, I stumble into the graffiti-daubed side-alley of Normanou. Here, several second-hand stores revel in idiosyncracy. Palaiopoleia displays discarded bicycles, vintage brownie-box cameras, a forgotten jukebox and — for some reason — a lone petrol pump, while Theotokis is awash with drachma notes and sepia snapshots of the city.
Athens’s main commercial drag is Ermou Street, which flows one mile west out of the central Syntagma Square. There are dabs of originality here — inviting deli Matsouka, where the sign above the door declares it’s been selling its Grecian wines, candied fruits and dried figs since 1959; trendy On Line, where necklaces of vinyl records hang in the window as a backdrop to the feminine fashions. But if the global brand names dotting the rest of Ermou seem too obvious, sashay to Kolonaki, the stylish district which gilds the southern portions of Lycabettus Hill. Its elegance is exemplified by jeweller Gavello, with its heavy gem earrings, and the decor of Box Architects, whose office is replete with lights in myriad shapes: perfect spheres, green alien twists, tapering wood creations.
The beware-the-Parthenon rule also applies to restaurants — although again, there are exceptions. Makrigianni, a busy street flanking the Acropolis Museum, raises itself above the culinary mediocrity with a line of unfussy but alluring eateries. When I sit down at Yard Cafe — amused by the sign over the bar which reads ‘We are happy every hour’ — I’m treated to pork fillet with fresh figs for €12 (£10), an icy tankard of local Mythos beer (€4/£3) and a swirl of accents featuring Greek alongside American and Italian.
Elsewhere, much as one glance at Medusa turned Greek warriors to stone, it’s best to avoid eye contact with the determined waiters at the west end of Mitropoleos where it hits Monastiraki Square, lest you find you have inadvertently ordered six courses from a menu of pictures. But flit a block south to the less cluttered plaza of Palea Agora, and you’ll find more discreet hotspots, such as Terina, with its lamb souvlaki for €14 (£12).
Athenians eat north of Ermou, in bohemian Psiri. Aisopou may resemble a dingy back-street, but it’s home to Gostijo, a kosher restaurant specialising in Mediterranean Jewish cuisine (including stifado — beef casserole with aubergine and onions — for €15/£13). Then there’s colourful Oineas, where spirit bottles are arranged beautifully behind its bar as it serves grilled octopus for €9.50 (£8). Or you can try Miaouli Street, Psiri’s most popular thoroughfare, where merry urbanites pull up chairs at the likes of Liosporos jazz cafe — whose soutzoukakia (lamb and beef meatballs) is fine value at €5.50 (£4.50).
“You should have been here yesterday night when the band was playing,” says Stephen Drapaniotis as he pours me a pint. “There was barely any space in here, right up to 2am.”
Metamatic:taf is hardly empty some 16 hours later, and it’s still early in the evening. A young crowd is sipping post-work refreshments in what is one of Athens’ best watering holes — a courtyard complex that’s part exhibition space, part bar. It’s certainly different. Three image-flashing TVs greet guests at the door, contemporary artworks are displayed in upper rooms, and the beers are on tap. Yet this is another of Normanou Street’s little peculiarities — the venue seems, at first glimpse, to be a run-down building.
It’s also proof that if you want nightlife in Athens, you must search for it. Thissio lies on the northwest flank of the Acropolis, yet does so with more authenticity than its neighbours: more local, more intriguing. The defiantly slanted Iraklidon Street is a case in point — narrow, (mostly) car-free, and lined with bars where the clientele is so predominantly Greek that backgammon boards perch on outdoor tables as a matter of course. There are 10 or so bars here, located on the ground floors of apartment blocks — Space By Avli with its cocktails and cool ambience; Stavlos with its stone-walled interior.
Start the night here. End it on Kolokotroni, the east-west avenue that shadows Ermou, two blocks to the north. The atmosphere here in the small hours is noisily exuberant, as party-goers spill out of establishments. Fat metal chicken sculptures hang from the ceiling of Booze Cooperativa, The Bank Job occupies half of a structure that, in day hours, offers financial services, and the Drunk Sinatra bistro has a name to be cherished.
Most of Athens’ core districts provide suitable venues for sleeping. Plaka steps away from its image as a tourist trap with the Hermes Hotel, a boutique three-star with 45 rooms and a sense of refuge from the tour groups. Similarly, the mid-range Hotel Plaka (closer to Monastiraki than its name suggests) offers a calm roof terrace bar in a superb location.
Elsewhere the St George Lycabettus Hotel sits on the slopes of Lycabettus Hill, slotting into the upmarket ambience of Kolonaki with its art gallery and spa.
But it’s not the most prominent five-star in the city. That accolade falls to the Hotel Grande Bretagne, a proud dame who has held her position at the northeast corner of Syntagma Square since 1878. Inside, Alexander’s Bar salutes Macedonian soldier-king Alexander The Great with a giant tapestry in his honour — and a cocktail list almost as impressive as his fourth century BC conquests.
My trip takes me next door, to the equally splendid King George hotel. Another king is honoured at the seventh-floor restaurant, Tudor Hall, where an oil-painting of George I, who ruled Britain from 1714-1727, stares down at diners. His gaze does not quite take in the long windows to his right, through which Athens’ craggy emblem can be seen. As always, the Acropolis has the final word.
Direct flights to Athens are offered by British Airways (Heathrow), EasyJet (Edinburgh, Manchester, Gatwick), Aegean Airlines (Gatwick, Heathrow) and Olympic Air (Heathrow).
ba.com easyjet.com en.aegeanair.com olympicair.com
Average flight time: 3.5h
Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport lies 17 miles east of the city. Metro Line 3 runs to the centre in 40 minutes (€8/£6.70). Bus X95 heads to Syntagma Square in one hour (€5/£4.20). Taxis take 45 minutes and cost around €35 (£29) during the day and closer to €50 (£42) after midnight. Athens has three metro lines, three tram lines and plentiful buses — all accessible via single tickets from €1.40 (£1.20). A 24-hour network ticket costs from €4 (£3.35), with a three-day tourist transport ticket (which covers journeys to the airport) from €20 (£17). stasy.gr ametro.gr oasa.gr
When to go
Athens enjoys the standard European seasons, but the city can become unbearably hot during the height of summer in July and August, when temperatures regularly top the 30C mark. Winters tend to be short, but the best times to visit are spring and autumn, when the city is comfortably but not overly hot.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.19.
International dialling code: 00 30 210.
Time difference: GMT+2.
The Acropolis and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. odysseus.culture.gr
Acropolis Museum. theacropolismuseum.gr
Panathenaic Stadium. panathenaicstadium.gr
National Archaeological Museum. namuseum.gr
Space by Avli. facebook.com/s.b.avli
Booze Cooperativa. T: 00 30 21 0324 0944
The Bank Job. thebankjob.gr
Drunk Sinatra. facebook.com/drunk.sinatra.bistro
How to do it
Kirker Holidays offers three-night breaks at the King George hotel from £649 per person, including return flights, private airport transfers, B&B accommodation and tickets to the Acropolis Museum. kirkerholidays.com
Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)