Sights in ancient Greece, and especially Athens, take on a larger importance than in most other places in the world. They are histories of democracy, Western civilization and philosophy firsthand. You can't help but walk around the Parthenon and the rest of the Acropolis and dream about the great ones who have come before you and whose footsteps you're in.
Athens is a must-see on any European tour. The ancient and modern merge in this city in ways that are fascinating and sometimes overwhelming. Pollution wreathes the golden stones of the Acropolis and obscures views of the Saronic Gulf. Cars bleat and belch among ranks of concrete high-rises.
But then you turn down a cobbled lane and discover vine-swathed tavernas, tortoises trundling through ancient ruins and bazaars teeming with dusty treasures. Or perhaps you will encounter a sleek cafe, art gallery or an outdoor cinema that serves ouzo under the stars. Greece's capital has been reinventing itself, and the results could not be more charming.
The metro routes are extensive, and the stations dazzle with marble and antiquities. Congested downtown streets have been turned into pedestrian walkways, greatly reducing Athens' notorious smog and noise. Hotels, museums and archaeological sites have been revamped. Gentrified districts—such as Gazi—host cafes, clubs and chic restaurants, which even boast smoke-free sections.
The years since 2010 brought Greece's most severe economic crisis of modern times, together with harsh austerity measures, social unrest and even talk of defaulting and leaving the Eurozone, the 17-nation group of EU countries that use the euro as their common currency. Yet there is a built-in certainty that Greece will ride this storm as it has many others. Greeks are proud of their Olympic history, their renovated capital city and—most of all—their proven ability to surmount obstacles.
Despite the media images of frequent demonstrations and protest marches, some of which have become violent and lead to scuffles with the police, Athens should remain firmly on the travel map, prized for both its ancient charms and its modern makeover.
Athens sits in a basin in southeastern Greece, closed in by the mountains of Pendeli, Parnitha, Imitos and Egaleo and opening toward the Saronic Gulf to the west.
The Acropolis remains the city's massive, gracious centerpiece. The Plaka area, or Old Athens, lies directly below, and its labyrinth of walkways acts almost as a shield, protecting the sacred hill from the modern city. At the outskirts of the Plaka, to the northeast, is Syntagma Square. The city's business center—with its offices, stores and hotels—begins there as one corner of the commercial triangle (the downtown pedestrian zone). The other two corners of the triangle are roughly Omonia Square (a somewhat seedy neighborhood) and Monastiraki Square (site of the famous flea market). Ermou Street, the "base" of the triangle, is one of the city's main shopping concourses. Beyond Syntagma lies Kolonaki, an up-market residential district and home to chic boutiques and several foreign embassies, behind which rises Athens' highest peak, Lykavittos Hill.
Most of the major archaeological sites and museums are within a 2.5-mi/4-km radius of Syntagma Square. The neighborhoods of Psiri, Thissio, Kerameikos, Metaxourgeio and Gazi to the north and west of the Acropolis have been transformed into trendy entertainment areas with traditional tavernas, elegant restaurants, fashionable nightspots and art galleries. Farther north along Kifissias Avenue are the upper-class residential suburbs and upscale commercial areas such as Psychico, Filothei, Maroussi, Kifissia and Ekali—favorite locations for foreign embassies, consulates and companies, and for private schools and colleges.
The city extends southwest to the coast, encompassing the sprawling port of Piraeus, and to its south, the upper-class coastal suburbs and beaches of Faliro, Kalamaki, Glyfada, Voula and Vouliagmeni. Just off this coast, 30 minutes to two hours away by ferry, catamaran or hovercraft, are the nearby islands of the Saronic Gulf: Aegina, Poros, Hydra and Spetses.
Once a fortified village entirely contained atop the Acropolis, Athens grew into one of the most powerful city-states in the ancient world. As a successful trading city with its own port, it became Greece's leading metropolis. The fifth century BC ushered in Athens' Golden Age, the classical period that has had such a profound effect on the development of Western thought. The city's government evolved into the world's first democracy. Its leaders rebuilt the city's monuments in marble—the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Odeon. Socrates and then Plato shaped the world of philosophy. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes wrote their seminal dramatic works and saw them performed.
Athens' Golden Age was influential but short-lived. The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) against rival Sparta was disastrous. Soon, the powerful Greek city-states fell apart and into the hands of Philip of Macedon, then to his son Alexander the Great. The three centuries following Alexander the Great's death are known as the Hellenistic period, when the arts, literature and science flourished. The Roman Empire took control in 146 BC, but Athens was highly respected and was treated well. Integration into the Byzantine Empire was more radical. Venetians ruled in the 13th century, and the Turks took over in 1453, holding power in Greece until the 19th century.
Greece became an independent country in 1829, and Athens was named the capital in 1833. It was the seat of monarchies and democracies and the scene of uprisings and civil war in the 20th century, as the country struggled to join the ranks of developing nations. Since the country's bid for economic and political stability, the city has become a popular destination, both for its historic sites and its proximity to the Greek islands.
A trip to Athens must start with a visit to the Acropolis. The site, one of the earliest settlements in Greece and the center of Greek genius during the Golden Age, never fails to impress. Exploring it is awe-inspiring for first-time and repeat visitors alike. Among the structures to admire on the Acropolis are the Parthenon, the small Ionian temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion Temple. Nearby, the ultramodern Acropolis Museum displays portable objects removed from the site since 1834. The Elgin Marbles, the most famous artifacts from the Parthenon, remain in London despite Greek pleas to return them.
An archaeological park surrounds the Acropolis, so take time to appreciate the ruins you'll pass on your climb, including the amphitheaters on the south slope. And be sure to pause to take in the various views of the city.
From the Acropolis, you need walk only a couple miles/kilometers in any direction to see most of the major archaeological sites and museums in Athens. Start by taking a trip to the top of the Hill of Philopappou for a great view of the city. From there, head north to the Agora, which was the center of ancient Athens' city life. Nearby you will find the Roman Forum and the graceful Tower of the Winds. Continue east through the frenetic-yet-delightful Plaka neighborhood to Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Zeus. Watch the skirted soldiers (called Evzones) perform a changing-of-the-guard ceremony in front of the Parliament in Syntagma Square. Afterward, relax at the Zappeion, a beautiful garden with shaded benches.
Make time to see some of the city's many wonderful museums. The best are the Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum, filled with an unsurpassed collection of Greek art and artifacts.
If you aren't planning to visit any of the Greek isles on your trip, spend a day at one of the numerous beach clubs in the city's southern suburbs. These clubs have sandy beaches, watersports facilities and a range of other amenities.
Before you set out to see all you can, pick up a free map from the Greek National Tourist Organization at its information center opposite the Acropolis Museum at Dionysiou Areopagitou Street.
Take advantage of the bargain-priced 30 euro multipass that covers entry to the Acropolis, the Agora of Athens, Temple of Olympian Zeus, Roman Forum, Theater of Dionysus, Hadrian's Library and the Kerameikos cemetery.
Start with dinner and then hit the clubs. Or begin with a couple of drinks and then make your way to one of the many bouzouktsidika
(clubs specializing in music played on the bouzouki, an instrument similar to the mandolin). Either way, the city is sure to keep you entertained until the early hours.
Most bars open around 10 pm, but the action doesn't start until after midnight and goes on until 3 or 4 am. Some clubs and bars stay open until 6 am. In summer, it seems as if everyone is out on the town, making the most of the carefree days. Suburbs such as Glyfada and Kifissia are especially popular and provide a cool respite from the city.
Whether dining at a neighborhood taverna or an elegant restaurant, Greeks take their time over food. The cuisine is delightfully uncomplicated and quite different from what's served in Greek or Cypriot restaurants abroad. Much of the cooking relies on simple seasonings of fresh meat and vegetables.
For breakfast, Greeks rarely eat more than bread or bakery-fresh tiropites (flaky cheese-filled pastries). Lunch is served in the late afternoon, generally between 2 and 4 pm, and dinner around 10 or 11 pm. To stave off hunger between meals, they enjoy snacking on souvlaki (garlic-marinated lamb kebabs) or tiropites bought from a street vendor.
It's common to make a lunch of mezedes, or hors d'oeuvres. Typical dishes include fried meatballs, squash balls, octopus, shrimp, squid, cheese, olives, stuffed grape leaves, tzatziki (garlicky yogurt and cucumbers), eggplant dip, small sausages and giant beans. You can find mezedes at an ouzeri (a bar serving ouzo) or at a mezedopolio (a bar serving locally produced wine or beer).
If you're having a full meal, make sure it includes one of the following local specialties: moussaka (lamb and eggplant in bechamel sauce), kebabs, pastitsio (lamb or goat meat with macaroni and tomatoes), stifado (braised beef with onions), paithakia (grilled lamb or goat chops), melitzanosalata (eggplant salad), revithia soupa (chickpea soup), spanakopita (spinach pie), chtapodi (octopus salad) or tiropita (cheese pie). Don't leave Greece without trying baklava and other pastries made from phyllo dough, nuts and honey. Strong Greek coffee (similar to Turkish coffee—but don't tell that to the Greeks) is usually quite good. Ask for it sketo (black), metrio (semisweet) or glyko (sweet).
The traditional alcoholic drinks of Greece are quite distinctive and pack a strong punch. Ouzo, the popular aperitif, is anise-flavored and turns cloudy when mixed with water, as is often done. Metaxa, a brandy, is graded in quality and priced according to stars, with three being the cheapest. Retsina is an acquired taste (imagine a pine tree marinated in wine). Mavrodaphne is extremely sweet—it's more like a dessert wine.
There has been a renaissance of the age-old Greek wine-making tradition. The introduction of new vines and the use of better techniques have resulted in some excellent reds and whites on par with the world's best wines.
When selecting a restaurant, know that estiatorion are the more expensive conventional restaurants; tavernas are informal, family-run establishments; psistaria offer mostly grilled meats; and psarotaverna specialize in seafood dishes. Many restaurants close during the summer months or move to another location, usually by the sea.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 15 euros; $$ = 15 euros-30 euros; $$$ = 31 euros-50 euros; and $$$$ = more than 50 euros.
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