It's no wonder that all roads lead to the fascinating and maddening metropolis of Athens. Lift your eyes 200 feet above the city to the Parthenon, its honey-color marble columns rising from a massive limestone base, and you behold architectural perfection that has not been surpassed in 2,500 years. But, today, this shrine of classical form dominates a 21st-century boomtown. To experience Athens—Athína in Greek—fully is to understand the essence of Greece: ancient monuments surviving in a sea of cement, startling beauty amid the squalor, tradition juxtaposed with modernity. Locals depend on humor and flexibility to deal with the chaos; you should do the same. The rewards are immense. Although Athens covers a huge area, the major landmarks of the ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods are 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. 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. 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 Museum of Cycladic Art Museum and the Byzantine and Christian 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-shaped flowers of hibiscus bushes. Formerly run-down old quarters, such as Thission, Gazi 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 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 Glyfada, Voula, 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.
Doesn't anybody eat at home anymore? When you're on vacation, travelers don't have much choice in the matter, but these days—even in the throes of the current economic crisis—Athenians are going out to restaurants in record numbers. And it's easy for visitors to the capitol to become a part of the clatter, chatter, and song, especially at the city's neighborhood tavernas.
These Athenian landmarks were famous for their wicker chairs that inevitably pinched your bottom, checkered tablecloths covered with butcher paper, wobbly tables that needed coins under one leg, and wine drawn from the barrel and served in small metal carafes. Today, some of their clientele have moved up to a popular new restaurant hybrid: the "neo-taverna," which serves traditional fare in surroundings that are more stylish than the usual tavern decor of island posters and wooden figurines; most are located in the up-and-coming industrial-cum-arty districts of central Athens, such as Gazi and Metaxourgeio. At the same time, enduring in popularity are the traditional magereika ("cookeries"): humble, no-frills eateries where the food, usually displayed behind glass windows, is cooked Grandma's style—it's simple, honest, time-tested, filling comfort (note that some of the best, like Anthos at 10 Kolokotroni street and Doris at Praxitelous 30, are only open for lunch). Even local fast-food chain Goody's has been influenced by this style of cooking and offers a seasonal selection of dishes and salads that emulate home cooking.
Trends? Athens's got ’em. On the one hand, there is a marked return to Greek regional cooking, especially Cretan cuisine, widely regarded as one of the healthiest versions of the olive oil–rich Mediterranean diet. On the other hand, Athenians are increasingly eager to explore international flavors. With many groundbreaking chefs obsessed with modern nouveau cuisine, there was, for a while, a real danger of some loss of tradition. Since then, things have stabilized. What saved the day were Greek ingredients: fresh out of the garden and right off the boat, they inspired chefs to get reacquainted with their culinary roots. A whole constellation of hip, all-in-one bar-restaurants have emerged, revolving around star chefs and glitterati customers. Sleek interior designs, very late-night hours, dedicated DJs, and adjoining lounges full of beautiful people have become Athenian recipes for success.
But some things remain eternal. Athenian dining is seasonal. In August, when residents scatter to the hills and seaside, many restaurants and tavernas close, with the hippest bar-restaurants reopening at choice seaside positions. And visitors remain shocked by how late Greeks dine. It's normal (even on a weekday) to show up for a meal at 9 or 10 and to leave long after midnight, only to head off for drinks. Hotel restaurants, Piraeus seafood places, and Plaka tavernas keep very late hours. Most places serve lunch from about noon to 4 (and sometimes as late as 6) and dinner from about 8 or 9 until at least midnight. When in Athens, don't hesitate to adopt this Zorbaesque lifestyle. Eat, drink, party, and enjoy life—knowing full well that, as a traveler, there can always be a siesta at your disposal the next day.
Greeks pride themselves for their "philoxenia," or hospitability. Even in antiquity, many of them referred to Zeus as Xenios Zeus—the God in charge of protecting travelers. Today, Greek philoxenia is alive and well in the capital city, whether displayed in the kindness of strangers you ask for directions or in the thoroughness of your hotel receptionist's care. With 20% of the small country's GDP derived from tourism, philoxenia isn't optional.
The city is full of hotels, many of which were built in Greek tourism's heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. In the years prior to the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, financial incentives were provided to hoteliers to upgrade and renovate their facilities, to the effect that many hotels—such as the Athens Hilton—completely renovated themselves inside and out as they increased their range of services.
But if prices have increased since then, all kinds of accommodation are happily available at all price levels. In Athens you can find everything from boutique hotels dreamed up by prestigious designers and decorated by well-known artists to no-fuss youth hostels that for decades have served the backpacking crowds on their way to Mykonos and Santorini. Athens's budget hotels—once little better than dorms—now usually have air-conditioning and television, along with prettier public spaces. In the post-Olympics years, there was a notable increase in the number of good-quality, middle-rank family hotels. At the same time, the city's classic luxury hotels, such as the Grande Bretagne, have introduced modern perks like up-to-date spa therapies.
The most convenient hotels for travelers are in the heart of 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, or other lapses in the details—take a good look at the room before you register. The thick stone walls of neoclassic buildings keep them cool in summer, but few of the budget hotels have central heating, and it can be devilishly cold in winter.
From ancient Greek tragedies in quarried amphitheaters to the chicest dance clubs, Athens rocks at night. 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. 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 in late June, 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 Zara, Sephora, H & M, Massimo Dutti, Mothercare, Replay, Benetton, 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. Keep one rule in mind: always bargain!
Center of Hellenic Tradition
The Center is an outlet for quality handicrafts—ceramics, weavings, sheep bells, wood carvings, prints, and old paintings. Take a break from shopping in the center's quiet and quaint I Oraia Ellas café, to enjoy a salad or mezedes in clear view of the Parthenon. Upstairs is an art gallery hosting temporary exhibitions of Greek art.
Natural beauty products blended in traditional recipes using Greek herbs and flowers have graced the bathroom shelves of celebrities like Rihanna and Angelina Jolie but in Athens they are available at most pharmacies for regular-folk prices. For the largest selection of basil-lemon shower gel, coriander body lotion, olive-stone face scrub, and wild-rose eye cream, go to the original Korres pharmacy (behind the Panathenaic Stadium). Not surprisingly, Korres also maintains a traditional laboratory for herbal preparations such as tinctures, oils, capsules, and teas.
Iconographer Aristides Makos creates beautiful hand-painted, gold-leaf icons on wood and stone. His slightly cluttered shop also sells beautiful handmade model ships and made-to-order items.