Athens

Athens is Europe’s oldest capital. It has been inhabited since at least 1,300 BC, and its fortunes have varied hugely until the present day. It grew into the greatest centre of classical Greece, sank into the status of a Roman backwater, declined into a mere muddy village through centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule, only reviving after 1834, when it became the capital of the modern Greek state. Now, in the early 21st century, even the great Pericles would be amazed at the size and sheer bustling life of modern Athens.
A key recent date was 2004, when Athens hosted the XXVIII Olympic Games. For months beforehand, the city had been spruced up with new roads, a glittering new airport, one of the cleanest and fastest Metro services in Europe, and new coats of pains on whatever charming neoclassical mansions had survived the concrete onslaught of the late 20th century.
In June 2009 the New Acropolis Museum was opened, adding immeasurably to Athens’ attraction as a serious cultural destination (see separate story). Perhaps the most spectacular sight from the museum is the ageless Acropolis, now in the midst of a massive restoration project designed to keep its venerable marble columns upright for as long as possible.
For a panoramic view of the city, though, take the short cable car up Mount Lykavittos, the conical height that thrusts above the Kolonaki district – or, if you’re young and healthy, walk up the steep winding path. On top, in the small courtyard of Saint George’s church, lean over the parapet and see the panorama of Athens stretch out at your feet, from the hills to the east, north and west, and the shimmering Saronic Gulf spreading out to the south.

Start with that absolute viewing necessity, the Acropolis. It can be reached by taking Metro Line 2 (red) and alighting at Akropoli station. Athens sightseeing bus number 400 also passes the district. The Metro station has the additional benefit of housing replicas of the Elgin Marbles in its spacious hallways, as well as collections of ceramics and coins discovered when the station was being dug in the mid-1990s.
Emerging from the station escalator, turn left a few yards and then left again, and you’re on Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, with the great bulk of the Acropolis rising on your right. Walk straight up the gently rising street, passing the new Acropolis Museum and neoclassical mansions on the left. Across the street, under the Acropolis walls, are the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus, where the great plays of classical antiquity were staged. A few minutes later the restored 2nd century BC Herod Atticus Theatre appears on the right. This theatre is heavily used in summer, thanks to its excellent acoustics.
This street was pedestrianzed as part of a move to unify central Athens’ main archaeological sites to render them traffic-free and more accessible to tourists on foot. The result is Europe’s largest archaeological park. The route up to the Acropolis is well-marked.
At the start of the stone-flagged main path, the road comes to the top of the rise, with a view of Philopappus Hill to the left and the tiny restored church of Aghios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris hidden away amongst the pine trees.
The Acropolis path winds up to the Propylaea, the great marble gateway to the Acropolis precinct, and past the Erechtheion and up to the great Parthenon itself, the Temple to Athene. A huge restoration and repair project has been underway for about twenty years, so the temple itself has been roped off. On the way back down, turn right and pass the flat rock where the ancient Athenians held their assemblies and Saint Paul later preached. Walk through the remains of the Agora, or ancient Athenian civic centre and main place of business. Outside this precinct is the old and picturesque district of Plaka, Athens’ old town, under the northern wall of the Acropolis and rich in Byzantine churches and Ottoman-era crumbling houses.
Again, cramming Athens into just two days is pushing things a bit, yet it’s still possible. Okay, so you’ve spent the first day on the Acropolis, in Plaka, and in the bustling tavern and bar district called Monastiraki. Now what?
On the second day, visit the National Archaeological Museum, the largest such museum in Greece. Here are housed the cream of archaeological findings, such as the frescoes of Thera, numberless statues from the archaic and classical ages, the treasure of the Mycenaean kings and a great many other treasures of Greek civilization. The museum is just ten minutes’ walk from central Omonia Square, or one stop on Metro Line 1 (green) from Omonia to Victoria Square. You need at least two hours to get the best out of this remarkable museum.
Oh, now we’re getting ambitious. Two days are the basic amount of time in which to experience ancient Greece. Now it’s the turn of modern Athens. Start the third day with a visit to the National Art Gallery on Vassilissis Sophias Avenue next door to the Athens Hilton. It’s a brisk fifteen-minute walk from Syntagma Square, or one stop (Syntagma-Evangelismos) on Metro Line 3 (blue), or three stops by yellow trolley bus. The National Art Gallery houses Greece’s premier collection of modern Greek pictorial art. From time to time it hosts major collections from foreign museums, one of the most notable being masterpieces by the Cretan-born Renaissance painter El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). Back at Syntagma there’s tram Line 4 (Aristotle) and Line 5 (Plato) which offer a quiet and leisurely electric ride on rails to the Peace and Freindship Stadium at Neo Faliro and the seaside suburb of Glyfada respectively. Summer evenings in Glyfada are raucous with endless cafes, bars, fish taverns and the sea to dip in whenever one likes.
Plaka is the oldest quarter of Athens, arguably the oldest continuously-inhabited district in Europe, as there is evidence of prehistoric, Neolithic, archaic, classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman dwellings almost everywhere one looks. Today it’s distinctive for its old churches and a former mosque in what used to be a Turkish bath and the expanse of the Roman Agora. Amid the jumble of trinket and souvenir shops, there are alleyways with genuine tavernas where a glass of local red wine comes in handy after a morning of shopping and gawking. And here are a few more museums to try (if you’re not too inebriated by now):

Greek Children’s Museum
Address: Kydathinaion 14, Entrance: Free
Hours: Tuesday to Friday 1000 to 1400, Saturday and Sunday 1000 to 1500. Closed on Mondays and public holidays.
Tel-fax: 0030 210 3312995, 0030 210 3312996
Web: www.hcm.gr

National Art Gallery
Address: Vasileos Konstantinou 50, Athens 11528, Ticket entrance, free for children under 12
Hours: Daily 0900-1500, Tuesdays closed
Tel: 0030 210 7235937-8, 0030 210 7235857
Fax: 0030 210 7224889, 0030 210 7224689
Web: www.nationalgallery.gr
The National Art Gallery was established in 1900 as a basic repository for major works of modern Greek pictorial art as it has evolved through the 180 or so years of Greek independence as a European state. The National Gallery collection numbers about 10,000, including not only paintings but also sculptures, etchings, miniatures and period furniture. The Gallery regularly hosts major thematic exhibitions with material borrowed from leading museums around the world.

“Greek World” Cultural Centre
Address: Pireos 254, Tavros, Ticket entrance (prices vary according to the exhibition)
Summer hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday 0900-1600, Wednesday
0900-2100, Sunday 1000-1500. Closed Saturdays.
Winter hours: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday 0900-1400, Wednesday and Friday
0900-2100, Saturday 1100-1600, Sunday 1000-1600.
Summer hours apply from mid-June to mid-October
Tel: 0030 210 4835300
Web: www.fhw.gr

The ancient and the modern merge in the more than 150 museums dispersed throughout the greater Athens area and its nearby islands, exhibiting artefacts ranging from classical sculpture to the most intricate pieces of folk art. Here are the must-sees:

New Acropolis Museum
15 Dionysiou Areopagitou, Tel: +30 210 9000901. www.theacropolismuseum.gr

National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Add: 1 Tositsa St., (entry from 44 Patision St.), Tel: +30 210 8217724

Museum of the Ancient Agora (Stoa of Attalos)
Tel: +30 210 3210185

National Historical Museum
Add: 13 Stadiou St. (Old Parliament Building), Tel: +30 210 3237617, +30 210 3237315
Web: www.nhmuseum.gr

Museum of Cycladic Art
Add: 4 Neophytou Douka St., Tel +30 210 7228321-3. Web: www.cycladic-m.gr

Numismatic Museum
Add: 12 El. Venizelou Ave., Tel: +30 210 3643774, +30 210 3612190, +30 210 3612519

National Museum of Contemporary Art
Add: Kallirrois Ave. & Am. Frantzi St. (Former FIX Factory), Tel: +30 210 9242111-2
Web: www.emst.gr

Theatre Museum
Add: 50 Akadimias St., Tel: +30 210 3629430, 210 3637453. Web: www.theatremuseum.gr

Frissiras Museum
Add: 3-7 Monis Asteriou St, Plaka (at the junction of Kydathineon St.), Τel: +30 210 3234678,
+30 210 3316027. Web: www.frissirasmuseum.com

Byzantine and Christian Museum
Add: 22 Vasilissis Sophias Ave., Tel: +30 210 7211027, +30 210 7232178

Hellenic War Museum
Add: 2 Rizari St. & Vassilissis Sophias Ave., Tel: +30 210 7290543-4, +30 210 7215035, +30 210 7244464

Benaki Museum
Add: 1 Koumbari St. & Vasssilissis Sophias Ave. (Main Building), Tel: +30 210 3671000
Web: www.benaki.gr

Archaeological Museum of Kerameikos
Address: 148 Ermou St., Tel: +30 210 3463552

Museum of Greek Folk Art
Add: 17 Kydathinaion St., Plaka, Tel.: +30 210 3229031

Goulandris Natural History Museum
Add: 13 Levidou St., Kifissia, Tel.: +30 210 8015870. Web: www.gnhm.gr

Gaia Centre
Add: 100 Othonos St., Kifissia, Tel: +30 210 8015870. Web: www.gnhm.gr

Planetarium
Add: Syngrou 387, Old Faliron, Τel.: +30 210 9469641, 210 9469600. Web: www.eugenfound.edu.gr

The greatest and finest sanctuary of ancient Athens, dedicated primarily to its patron, the goddess Athena, dominates the centre of the modern city from the rocky crag known as the Acropolis. The most celebrated myths of ancient Athens, its greatest religious festivals, earliest cults and several decisive events in the city’s history are all connected to this sacred precinct. The monuments of the Acropolis stand in harmony with their natural setting. These unique masterpieces of ancient architecture combine different orders and styles of Classical art in a most innovative manner and have influenced art and culture for many centuries. The Acropolis of the fifth century BC is the most accurate reflection of the splendour, power and wealth of Athens at its greatest peak, the golden age of Perikles.

Parthenon
The Parthenon, dedicated by the Athenians to Athena Parthenos, the patron of their city, is the most magnificent creation of Athenian democracy at the height of its power. It is also the finest monument on the Acropolis in terms of both conception and execution.

Erechtheion
The elegant building known as the Erechtheion, on the north side of the sacred rock of the Acropolis, was erected in 421-406 BC as a replacement of an earlier temple dedicated to Athena Polias, the so-called ”Old temple”.

Propylaea
The Propylaia of the Athenian Acropolis were built on the west side of the hill, where the gate of the Mycenaean fortification once stood. The first propylon, or gate, was constructed in the age of Peisistratos (mid-sixth century BC), after the Acropolis had become a sanctuary dedicated to Athena.

Temple of Athena Nike
The temple of Athena Nike stands at the southeast edge of the sacred rock atop a bastion, which in Mycenaean times protected the entrance to the Acropolis. The Classical temple, designed by architect Kallikrates and built in 426-421 BC, succeeded earlier temples also dedicated to Athena Nike.

Landing at Athens International Airport, you can reach central Athens by Metro (Line 3, blue), Proastiakos suburban railway, bus or taxi. Once having sampled the musts of Athens, described above, the city can be used as a jumping-off point for destinations within a few hours’ drive, such as the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, Delphi, Corinth, and the islands of Aigina, Angistri, Poros, Hydra and Spetses, all just a few hours away by fast ferry or hydrofoil.
Intercity buses are frequent for trips to all the towns of mainland Greece and the Peloponnese, from the two main bus stations at Kifissos Avenue and Liosion Avenue. From Piraeus port there are daily sailings to the major islands, also served by daily flights from the airport. An intercity train service departs from Larissis Station in Athens for major towns such as Thessaloniki, Larissa and Patra.
The sea shore on either side of the greater Athens peninsula is full of stunning sandy and pebbly beaches, where you can take advantage of the many water sport facilities offered. Most organized beaches provide for activities such as, volleyball, tennis and basketball, as well as waterslides, water tubes, and canoes. Several beaches also offer waterskiing and windsurfing lessons by qualified experts. They also provide changing rooms, umbrellas and deck chairs, playgrounds and eating areas. If you are a sports buff you may wish to watch the professional beach volleyball games often held at the Schinia, Palio Faliro and Palaia Fokia beaches.
Some of the main beaches in the greater Athens area are: Alepochori, Alimos, Avlaki, Anavissos, Halkoutsi, Glyfada, Kavouri, Kinetta, Lagonisi, Legraina, Loutsa, Mati, Megara, Nea Makri, Oropos, Porto Rafti, Rafina, Schinia, Sounion, Varkiza, Voula and Vouliagmeni. The beneficial waters of Vouliagmeni Lake are ideal for a relaxing swim. The lake is believed to have therapeutic value from the minerals in the water.
If you are interested in taking scuba diving or sailing lessons, you can ask for information at one of the schools dotted along the coastal areas. Sailing and motor yacht charter agencies can be easily found in Piraeus and in the southern seaside districts of Attica.
Mount Parnitha, Mount Ymittos and Mount Penteli are bursting with infinite types of flora and fauna as well as footpaths and caves for exploration, making them ideal spots for hikers and trekkers. For winter sports, skiers and snowboarders can head to Mount Parnassos overlooking Delphi, just a three-hour drive from Athens. The first-rate ski slopes are perfect for either beginners or professionals, while equipment can be rented from the many shops on the way to the ski resort. In the Glyfada area, golfers can enjoy the wonderful 18-hole, par-72 Glyfada Golf Course, surrounded by pine trees and offering a view of the Saronic Gulf islands.
Thousands of restaurants, tavernas and “ouzeries” are dotted all over the city, so there will be no difficulty in finding something to satisfy your appetite and budget. Meals in the smarter establishments are often accompanied by music or dancing and it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the people at the next table. There is an abundance of restaurants in Athens which serve all types of international cuisine, from Japanese to Lebanese, Russian to Mexican. Even so, while in Athens it’s best to go native with the local delicacies at the traditional tavernas, or with the more creative versions of classic Greek dishes prepared by imaginative chefs at the gourmet restaurants. For a good recommendation, it’s best to find a resident of the area or ask the hotel concierge where the good dining places are.
Athens has a large number of nightclubs, too. Some feature live Greek music, others air the latest international hits and attract the city’s clubbers. The areas where one can find these bars and clubs near the center of the city are: Syntagma Square, Thissio, Psiri, Monastiraki, Plaka, Gazi, Kolonaki and Exarchia.
Athens’ main shopping districts are concentrated around Omonia and Syntagma Squares. Ermou Street is probably the busiest of them all, a compulsive shopper’s paradise. Literally hundreds of people shop daily on Ermou and its neighbouring streets. The street is pedestrianized, which is a further boon to shoppers, and street buskers are there to entertain you while you splurge. At the bottom end of Ermou Street is Monastiraki, the old bazaar quarter, the centre of myriad souvenir shops and home of the famous (or infamous) Flea Market, packed on Sundays. Kolonaki, north of Syntagma Square, clings to the slope of steep Lykavittos hill. It is the poshest commercial area in Athens, packed with designer boutiques, high-class delicatessens and pastry shops. Other streets in Athens, such as Patission, Aghiou Meletiou, Stadiou and Panepistimiou also burst with shops of all kinds. The best shopping therapy in Athens is done on foot, combining trade and tourism at the same time.
Better known simply as the Athens Zoo, this is sprawled over 27 acres of land near Spata, at the north end of Athens International Airport, about a half-hour drive from the inner suburbs. The zoo contains 300 species of birds, 30 species of snake and about 35 species of mammal. It’s well-organized and clean, and fascinating hours can be spent there, as long as one has walking shoes, a hat (in summer) and a carriage for small children. If the children get too bored, there’s always a playground to occupy their limited attention spans, and bars and cafes for adults similarly afflicted.
Originally an ornithological park, the Attica Zoological Park opened in 2000. In 2001 the World of Serpents was added, featuring animals such as boa constrictors and alligators, and in summer 2002 the Greek Wild Life section was added, featuring rare species in Greece, such as the brown bear, the wolf, the lynx, the wild cat and the otter. In February 2003 came the next expansion, that of the African Savannah. Giraffes, zebras, antelopes, jaguars and snow leopards were added. In June of that year a primates section was added, with chimpanzees and gorillas. In December 2004 came a consignment of tigers and ocelots. The African section was expanded with hippopotami, African dingoes and alligators. Finally, in early 2005 the Monkeys’ Forest was opened, offering the opportunity of close contact with the apes.

Address: Thesi Yalou Spata
Tel: +30 210 6634724
Web: www.atticapark.gr
Hours: Daily from 09.00 to sunset

Getting there:
Public transport
Bus 319 from the National Defence Ministry
Driving from Attica Highway
Exit 18 for Spata (from airport)
Exit 16Ρ for Rafina (towards airport)
End of Attica Highway, towards Rafina, from Ymittos Ring Road.

Useful Information

Recommended website: Breathtaking Athens

Greek National Tourism Organization: Tel: +30 210 8707000. www.visitgreece.gr

Hellenic Association of Tourism and Travel Agencies: Tel: +30 210 9223522. www.hatta.gr

Greek Tourism Businesses’ Association: Tel: +30 210 3217165, +30 210 3217167. www.sete.gr

Hotel Chamber of Greece: Tel: +30 210 3310022-26. www.grhotels.gr

Athens-Attica Hotel Association: Tel: +30 210 3235485. www.all-athens-hotels.com