ATHENS -- For all the talk that this city is hustling to be ready
to host this summer's Olympic Games, much progress has been made,
not only in constructing athletic venues but in upgrading and
revitalizing transport, accommodations, monuments and even entire
districts -- improvements that should benefit visitors for years to
Nikos Dimadis, president of the Greek National Tourism
Organization, said preparation for the Olympics coincided "with an
effort already under way to move into a new phase in our tourism
development" and "permitted very important improvements in the
tourism infrastructure of Athens."
These massive investments come as Greece enjoys record economic
growth, at a rate of 4.5% last year -- among the highest in the
During a recent visit, I took a day to explore the increasingly
prosperous city center both on foot and via subway, visiting
must-see historic highlights and well-trodden tourist traps as well
as up-and-coming or reborn neighborhoods.
Planes, trains, autos
Of course, my trip began well outside the city center, at
state-of-the-art Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, which opened in
March 2001 to much acclaim.
Arrival was a breeze, but getting to the city center via public
transportation remained complicated; although a high-speed train
link to the airport is under construction, it's not likely to be
completed before 2005.
So, I hopped an express bus for a half-hour ride to the Ethniki
Amyna station of Athens' efficient and modern Metro system, via
several miles' worth of the 130-plus miles of roadways paved for
the Summer Games.
Ethniki Amyna, a show-stopper of a subway station, boasts an
underground "field" of olive-tree sculptures, a commemoration of an
olive grove felled during construction.
Other stations on the metro's three train lines boast even more
For example, those at Evangelismos, Daphni and Syntagma -- where
I changed trains for my hotel -- boast exhibits of artifacts
unearthed during construction. Some even expose ancient burial
chambers -- complete with human remains.
New digs out of old digs
From Syntagma, it was two stops to my hotel, the Titania (see
room key, below), a grey, "modernist" behemoth that -- like much of
modern-day Athens -- was built five decades ago without so much as
a nod to the city's history.
But the Titania and other properties, such as the Hotel Grande
Bretagne on Constitution Square, have gotten much-needed,
multimillion-dollar retrofits, again in anticipation of the
The 321-room Grande Bretagne reopened last year after $85
million in improvements that resulted in new guest quarters and
restaurants, a fitness center and health spa, and a rooftop pool
The hotel is across the square from Parliament, where, in true
tourist form, I watched the hourly changing of the skirted, male
A short walk away, through the touristy but atmospheric Plaka
area, stands the Parthenon, still holding court atop the
Perpetually under renovation, the Acropolis offers breathtaking
views of both its temples and the city sprawled below. Be sure to
visit the often-overlooked Theater of Dionysus on the southeastern
slope of the hill.
Spiraling down the Acropolis via Apostolou Pavlou (St. Paul's
Road), I was surprised by very upmarket cafes and restaurants in
Psiri, a working-class neighborhood that transforms itself each
evening into a trendy dining and drinking hot spot.
Many of the charming buildings housing Psiri's eateries are
being restored, in contrast to the gritty, run-down reality of much
of Athens. Head there at night for a break from the touristy aura
(and prices) in Plaka.
I stopped for an espresso within view of the ancient Agora
marketplace and its Temple of Hephaestus before pushing my way
through the Athens Flea Market and past the spice and nut stalls
that line Athinos Avenue to the more authentic Varvakios Agora
meat, vegetable and fish markets.
There, visitors can jostle amid the hustle-and-bustle of actual
Athenians as they haggle for ingredients for that night's moussaka
For more information on Athens, contact the Greek National
in New York at (212) 421-5777 or www.greektourism.com. Or contact the American Hellenic
Tour Operators Association at (201) 963-9004 or www.ahtoa.com.
To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].
Room key: TITANIA HOTEL
Address: 52 Panepistimiou Ave., Athens, Greece 10678
Phone: (011) 30-210 332-6200
Fax: (011) 30-210 383-0497
Reservations: (011) 30-210 332-6217
Manager: Nikolos Spiridonos
Rates: From about $157-$328, per night, for
Facilities: The Olive Garden, Vergina, Brasserie
Review: Built in the 1960's as a tourist-class
hotel, the Titania -- more popular with Greeks than U.S. tourists,
who account for only 5% of guests -- completed two years of
renovations this February to raise itself to "four-star" status, up
from two, in preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games. The new,
sparkling lobby and ground-floor brasserie are now world-class,
stylish meeting points for Athenians and visitors alike, but the
rooms, suites and hallways- while clean and updated -- are still
more "tourist" than "class." Selling points: The city center
location (near Omonia), its views of the Acropolis, and dinners at
the rooftop Olive Garden.