Raise your eyes nearly anywhere in Athens and you’re likely to be stopped in your tracks by the sight of the Acropolis, where Pericles rose to the heights of power and creative achievement, with the construction of the Parthenon and Propylaea. After a time-trip to the golden age of Greece, explore modern Athens’s patchwork of neighborhoods to get a sense of the history of this gregarious city, its people, and what lies beyond the ubiquitous modern concrete facades. Take in a twilight view from Athenians’ favorite “violet-crowned” aerie, Mt. Lycabettus, and drink in the twinkling lights of the metropolis that is home to more than 4 million souls, still growing and still counting.
Although Athens covers a huge area, the major landmarks of the ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods are conveniently close to the modern city center. You can easily walk from the Acropolis to many other key sites, taking time to browse in shops and relax in cafés and tavernas along the way. The center of modern Athens is small, stretching from the Acropolis in the southwest to Mt. Lycabettus in the northeast, crowned by the small white chapel of Ayios Georgios. The layout is simple: three parallel streets—Stadiou, Eleftheriou Venizelou (familiarly known as Panepistimiou), and Akadimias—link two main squares, Syntagma (Constitution) and Omonia (Concord). Try to detour off this beaten tourist track: seeing the Athenian butchers in the Central Market sleeping on their cold marble slabs during the heat of the afternoon siesta may give you more of a feel for the city than seeing scores of toppled columns.
From many quarters of the city you can glimpse “the glory that was Greece” in the form of the Acropolis looming above the horizon, but only by actually climbing that rocky precipice can you feel the impact of the ancient settlement. The Acropolis and Filopappou, two craggy hills sitting side by side; the ancient Agora (marketplace); and Kerameikos, the first cemetery, form the core of ancient and Roman Athens. Preparations for the 2004 Olympics made these more accessible: Along the Unification of Archaeological Sites promenade, you can follow stone-paved, tree-lined walkways from site to site, undisturbed by traffic. Cars have also been banned or reduced in other streets in the historical center. In the National Archaeological Museum, vast numbers of artifacts illustrate the many millennia of Greek civilization; smaller museums such as the Goulandris Cycladic and Greek Ancient Art Museum and the Byzantine Museum illuminate the history of particular regions or periods.
Athens may seem like one huge city, but it is really a conglomeration of neighborhoods with distinctive characters. The Eastern influences that prevailed during the 400-year rule of the Ottoman Empire are still evident in Monastiraki, the bazaar area near the foot of the Acropolis. On the northern slope of the Acropolis, stroll through Plaka (if possible by moonlight), an area of tranquil streets lined with renovated mansions, to get the flavor of the 19th-century’s gracious lifestyle. The narrow lanes of Anafiotika, a section of Plaka, thread past tiny churches and small, color-washed houses with wooden upper stories, recalling a Cycladic island village. In this maze of winding streets, vestiges of the older city are everywhere: crumbling stairways lined with festive tavernas; dank cellars filled with wine vats; occasionally a court or diminutive garden, enclosed within high walls and filled with magnolia trees and the flaming trumpet-shape flowers of hibiscus bushes.
Formerly run-down old quarters, such as Thission and Psirri, popular nightlife areas filled with bars and mezedopoleia (similar to tapas bars), are now in the process of gentrification, although they still retain much of their original charm, as does the colorful produce and meat market on Athinas. The area around Syntagma Square, the tourist hub, and Omonia Square, the commercial heart of the city about 1 km (½ mi) northwest, is distinctly European, having been designed by the court architects of King Otho, a Bavarian, in the 19th century. The chic shops and bistros of ritzy Kolonaki, the most modern neighborhood downtown, nestle at the foot of Mt. Lycabettus, Athens’s highest hill (909 feet). Each of Athens’s outlying suburbs has a distinctive character: in the north is wealthy, tree-lined Kifissia, once a summer resort for aristocratic Athenians, and in the south and southeast lie Kalamaki, Glyfada, and Vouliagmeni, with their sandy beaches, seaside bars, and lively summer nightlife. Just beyond the city’s southern fringes is Piraeus, a bustling port city of waterside fish tavernas and Saronic Gulf views.
Athens Restaurant Reviews
Whether you sample octopus and ouzo near the sea, roasted goat in a 100-year-old taverna, or cutting-edge cuisine in a trendy restaurant, dining in the city is just as relaxing as it is elsewhere in Greece: waiters never rush you, reservations are often unnecessary, and no matter how crowded, the establishment can always make room for another table.
Athens’s dining scene is experiencing a renaissance, with a particular focus on the intense flavors of regional Greek cooking. Quality has improved, both in preparation and presentation. International options such as classic Italian and French still abound—and a recent Greek fascination with all things Japanese means that sushi is served in every happening bar in town—but today, traditional and nouvelle Greek are the leading contenders for the Athenian palate.
The most exciting new, upscale restaurants are contemporary playgrounds for innovative chefs offering a sophisticated mélange of dishes that pay homage to Greek cooking fused with other cuisines. Some of these have also incorporated sleek design, late-night hours, DJs, and adjoining lounges full of beautiful people, forming all-in-one bar-restaurants, renowned for both star Greek chefs and glitterati customers.
Traditional restaurants serve cuisine a little closer to what a Greek grandmother would make, but more formal, and with a wider selection than the neighborhood tavernas. Truly authentic tavernas have wicker chairs that inevitably pinch your bottom, checkered tablecloths covered with butcher paper, wobbly tables that need coins under one leg, and wine drawn from the barrel and served in small metal carafes. The popular hybrid—the modern taverna—serves traditional fare in more stylish surrounds; most are in the up-and-coming industrial-cum-artsy districts. If a place looks inviting and is filled with Greeks, give it a try. Mezedopoleia, sometimes called ouzeri, serve plates of appetizers—basically Levantine tapas—to feast on while sipping ouzo, though many now serve barrel and bottled wine as well.
In the last three weeks of August, when the city empties out and most residents head for the seaside, more than 75% of the restaurants and tavernas popular among the locals close, though bar-restaurants may reopen in different summer locations by the sea. Hotel restaurants, seafood restaurants in Piraeus, and tavernas in Plaka usually remain open. Most places serve lunch from about noon to 4 (and sometimes as late as 6) and dinner from about 9 to at least midnight.
Athens Hotel Reviews
As a result of the 2004 Olympics, Athens’s hotels have risen both in quality and number of rooms. Nearly every hotel in town underwent a renovation before the games, with luxury hotels paying serious attention to style and design and many adding spas, pools, and gyms. Concept hotels like the Semiramis in Kifissia and Periscope in Kolonaki have not escaped the notice of the international media. Athens’s budget hotels—once little better than dorms—now often have air-conditioning and television, along with prettier public spaces. Perhaps best of all is the increase in the number of good-quality, middle-rank family hotels, of which there was long a shortage.
The most convenient hotels for tourists are in the city center. Some of the older hotels in Plaka and near Omonia Square are comfortable and clean, their charm inherent in their age. But along with charm may come leaking plumbing, sagging mattresses, and other lapses in the details—take a good look at the room. The thick stone walls of neoclassical buildings keep them cool in summer, but few of the budget hotels have central heating, and it can be devilishly cold in winter. A buffet breakfast is often served for a few euros extra: cold cuts and cheese, even poached eggs and other meat, but nothing cooked to order.
Athenians take their amusement seriously: ancient Greek tragedies play in quarried amphitheaters; mega rock concerts ring out from huge halls; the latest nightclubs pound with the swaying bodies of the seriously chill; and gallery shows shine in renovated warehouses. Music is a big part of the scene. Many bars, tavernas, and clubs have live performances, in addition to the full schedule of festivals that bring international acts to the larger concert venues. Several of the former industrial districts are enjoying a renaissance, and large spaces have filled up with galleries, restaurants, and theaters—providing one-stop shopping for an evening’s entertainment. June through September, the action moves outdoors: nightclubs open in seaside locations; movies are shown in garden theaters; and opera, ballet, and theater are staged in amphitheaters under the stars.
The Greek weekly Athinorama covers current performances, gallery openings, and films, as do the English-language newspapers Athens News, published Friday, and Kathimerini, inserted in the International Herald Tribune, available Monday through Saturday. The monthly English-language magazine Insider has features and listings on entertainment in Athens, with a focus on the arts. Odyssey, a glossy bimonthly magazine, also publishes an annual summer guide published in late June and sold at newsstands around Athens with the season’s top performances and exhibitions.
For serious retail therapy, most natives head to the shopping streets that branch off central Syntagma and Kolonaki squares. Syntagma is the starting point for popular Ermou, a pedestrian zone where large, international brands like Espirit and Marks & Spencer’s have edged out small, independent retailers. You’ll find local shops on streets parallel and perpendicular to Ermou: Mitropoleos, Voulis, Nikis, Perikleous, and Praxitelous among them. Poke around here for real bargains, like strings of freshwater pearls, loose semiprecious stones, or made-to-fit hats.
Much ritzier is the Kolonaki quarter, with boutiques and designer shops on fashionable streets like Anagnostopoulou, Tsakalof, Skoufa, Solonos, and Kanari. Voukourestiou, the link between Kolonaki and Syntagma, is where you’ll find Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren, and similar brands. In Monastiraki, coppersmiths have their shops on Ifestou. You can pick up copper wine jugs, candlesticks, cookware, and more for next to nothing. The flea market centered on Pandrossou and Ifestou operates on Sunday mornings and has practically everything, from secondhand guitars to Russian vodka. No matter how low the price, always bargain.
Two 2005 changes are transforming the city’s retail scene: a law setting uniform shop hours (9 AM to 9 PM on weekdays and 9 AM to 6 PM on Saturday) and the arrival of shopping malls. Citylink, near Syntagma, is home to upscale boutiques like Ferragamo and Bally and the sprawling Attica department store. Three suburban megamalls are set to open in Maroussi, Piraeus, and Spata (near the airport) by the end of 2006.
Regardless, the souvenir shops in Plaka are usually open from early morning until the last tourist leaves. Originally set up by the government to provide employment for veterans, the sidewalk kiosks called periptera are the Greek version of a convenience store. Many of them have public phones, some metered for long-distance calls. Those in central squares are often open until very late and occasionally are open around the clock.