Whether you plan to use Athens as a base for further travels around Greece or intend to stay there briefly en route to the Greek islands, you won't regret your stay. I've been traveling solo to Greece for twenty-odd years, and I feel Athens is one of the safest and most affordable cities in the world. Some Greeks say that the recent influx of Balkan refugees has increased crime, but even so, I wander alone around Athens without worry.
The most dangerous things are the traffic, the electrical voltage (220V), and the uneven pavements. Visitors soon learn to dodge bumpers like a local, but you do have to be wary of the city's ferocious drivers who roar down the sidewalks without concern for pedestrians, especially those on motor bikes known as pakakias.
Yes, Athens has grown into a sprawling urban monster. Yes, I still sometimes feel overwhelmed by the noise, the crowds, and the oppressive heat in summer. But then I have only to sit at my favorite spot on the stone wall just below the Acropolis to know that I'll always come back here. Looking down over the red-tiled rooftops of Plaka, listening to the pulse of the city, I realize that Athens has captured my heart. Athens is alive and timeless.
If you've never been, I can assure you of an unforgettable experience. And trust me, you won't feel lonely. The Greeks are friendly, hospitable and helpful folk. Although most everyone knows a little English, a smattering of Greek will be useful if you roam beyond the main tourist areas. I suggest you try to learn the Greek alphabet and a few words beforehand. Also, take along a Greek/English dictionary.
Bring a few drachma (Dr) with you for a cab or some other immediate expense. Cab fares from the airport vary from day to night. I recently paid 1500 Dr (C$7.00; US$4) in the morning, plus a 500 Dr tip. After midnight expect high rates, about (C$25; US$17) to downtown Athens. There is also an airport bus that will take you right to Syntagma or Omonia Squares, in the city center, for about $2.00.
For first-time visitors, I recommend finding lodgings in the old but lively Plaka district, or in nearby Makriani or Koukaki districts, from which you can get around on foot to most attractions. Hotels in and around Plaka range from expensive to budget. All rates are cheaper off-season.
In Plaka I recommend the Hotel Byron (19 Vironos Street, 105 58 Athens; Tel. +30-01-325-3554) or any of the small hotels on Iperídou, a quiet pedestrian only street, such as the Neféli Hotel (16 Iperídou Street, 105 58 Athens; Tel. +30-01-325-3554). Also in this price range you could try either the Akropolis House, the Adonis, or the Kouros, all on Kodrou Street right off Kidathineon Street. There is also a popular hostel, right in the heart of Plaka Square, called the Student Travelers Inn (16 Kidathineon Street. Tel. +30-01-324-4808).
Athens lures foreign travelers like me with it's unique history. Rising from the maze of narrow streets and modern buildings, the Acropolis is the most visited of the city's eight prominent hills. Everyone must see the famous antiquities atop the Acropolis (1,500 Dr, includes Acropolis Museum). The entrance, at Beule Gate, is an uphill walk from Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, a major road that skirts the south side of the Acropolis. The climb is worth the effort. This limestone plateau was used as a fortress by the Mycenaeans and later, in the time of Perikles (5th century BC), was crowned with magnificent temples, including the ingeniously designed Parthenon, dedicated to Athena Parthénos, patron goddess of Athens. There is nothing more awe-inspiring than the sight of the Parthenon bathed in sunlight or flooded with golden lights in the evening. It is truly Athens' crown jewel.
To the west of the Acropolis, with a view that sweeps from the Salamis Gulf to the Argolic Hills, is the Hill of the Muses, also known as Philopappou Hill. From here you are almost at eye-level with the Acropolis and you have a breathtaking view of the Parthenon. Below, the city stretches out for miles around, extending to the mountains of Parnas and Hymettus. At the crest of the hill you see a monument commemorating Philopappou, a prince of Syria who was exiled to Athens by the Romans and died there in AD 116. Not even such great heroes as Perikles were given this honor.
Access the trails and footpaths of Philopappou from Dionysiou Areopagitou Street. Opposite the tea pavilion and the rustic chapel of Agiou Dimitrou, flagstone footpaths lined with wild flowers wind up through the pine groves. Doves coo sleepily in the trees. Philopappou is a place to meditate and contemplate the marvels of this grand old city. The downward trail leads to the Pnyx, the meeting place of the Assembly where such great orators as Demosthenes and Themistocles addressed the citizens of Athens. In the evening, you can come here to watch the spectacular Sound and Light Show, which tells the history of the city.
Beside the Pnyx is Mouseion Hill. Themistocles' Long Wall ran south from here and commanded the road to the port of Piraeus.
Opposite the Pnyx is the Hill of the Nymphs, the site of the Observatory.
Walking back around the base of Philopappou, you turn up past Areopagitou Street, go along the path below the Acropolis and come to the stone-cut steps leading up to the Areopagos. This Hill of Ares was the seat of the Supreme Court of ancient Athens. Kings of Mycenaean rule are buried in long tombs along its flank. The Apostle Paul came here in the year AD 50, and nearby is the little basilica dedicated to St Dionysus the Areopagite, one of Paul's first converts.
Follow the lower path, below the Areopagos' north side, to the Agora, the market place and social hub of ancient Athens where Socrates might have been found arguing philosophy with followers. As you retrace your walk to the footpath, Peripates, that circles the Acropolis, you can stop at one of the tavernas for a refreshing frappé.
Continue on a little farther, and you come to the narrow cobble streets of Anafiotika, a little village clustered just under the north flank of the Acropolis. It will give you a hint of what island villages are like. This one was a settlement of people from the tiny island of Anafi who were displaced by an earthquake many years ago.
Women Alone: Keep to paths where there are other people, and if you hear a strange hissing sound in the bushes, ignore it. There are no snakes in Athens, but there are sometimes human pests. Generally, they are a nuisance rather than a danger.
There are dozens of museums in Athens. I like to choose one each trip, otherwise I am inundated with information and go cross-eyed viewing ancient treasures. A must-see is the exceptional National Archaeological Museum (44 Patissíon Street), a 10-minute walk north of Omonia Square.
The small Acropolis Museum is a favorite of mine as is the private collection at the Kanellopoulos Museum in Plaka. Also in Plaka are the Greek Folk Art Museum (17 Kidathineon Street), and the Museum of Musical Instruments (1-3 Diogenous Street, Free).
A new museum showing the restorations of the Acropolis temples is located at the corner of Makrigiani next to the Acropolis Metro station.
If it's Byzantine or Cycladic art that interests, look for museums in the Kolonaki district.
You are sure to get lost in the labyrinth of streets that hug the Acropolis, but don't worry, that is just part of the fun.
On Adrianou Street the hawkers offer you deals on anything from museum copy painted vases to T-shirts. Look before you buy. Sometimes you can swing a deal, although most prices are set. Farther along, down in the Monastiraki Flea Market, you can buy everything from herbs to hammocks. Wandering here is an interesting diversion, especially on a Sunday when there are so many street vendors you can imagine you're in a Turkish souk. In fact, this area used to be Turkish during the Ottoman occupation several hundred years ago, and the newly renovated Monastiraki landmark, now a museum, is actually an old mosque.
Just northwest of Monastiraki, many abandoned warehouses and shops between Ermou and Athinas Streets have been transformed into cafés, galleries and restaurants. Similar businesses are establishing west of Thissiou, in Gazi, once known only for its gasworks, and Rouf known for its fruit and vegetable markets.
When you tire of wandering around Plaka, find a table under the shade trees at the Diogenes Taverna in Plateia Lysikrati, just behind the monument of Lysikratou, which was once the poet Lord Byron's hang-out.
On Sundays, rest your feet awhile and take a ride on the little train that winds through the streets of Plaka. Rides last 40 minutes and leave from Palaia Agora square from 9am to 9pm.
On a Friday morning, head south from the Acropolis and saunter around the street market in Koukaki for a slice of local life, and pick up a few vegetables and fruit, top quality, real cheap. To get there take the #5, #1 or #22 trolley down Veikou Street to Olympiou. Or, walk down Veikou from Makrigiani. The market is on the side street that intersects Veikou. You can buy anything here from kitchen utensils to fresh eggs.
Dining out is a pleasant evening pastime for Athenians and tourists alike. A late dinner - about 9pm - is the norm. Hang out in Plaka Square at the tourist tavernas or head for the back streets where locals go in the cool of the evenings to eat and chat.
The popular tavernas are great for people-watching, and there is often live bouzouki music. You are likely to be invited to join a party of other tourists or locals. The Mnisikleous Taverna (Lisiou Street. Plaka) has live rembetika (Greek soul music).
Men Alone: Beware of friendly bar girls. You may be stuck with a much bigger bill than you imagined.
For cheap eats (main courses 1,450 Dr; C$5; US$3) you have souvlaki shops around Monastiraki Square. At Syntagma Square there is a good deli-style café called Neon. Nearby stand the ubiquitous Golden Arches. At this McDonald's you may enjoy a cold beer with a Big Mac that seems to taste better than the ones at home. It's close to the National Bank and the main Post Office, so it's a good place to meet friends.
At the expensive end of the spectrum (main courses 3,500-10,000 Dr; C$13-35; US$9-25) are upscale restaurants such as the Daphne (4 Lysikratou in Plaka Tel. +30-(0)1-322-7971). I've heard the food and service here deserve the cost on a splurge occasion.
Athenians take refuge from the midday sun, and most shops and business close for siesta between 1 and 4pm. Then everyone comes out for a cool evening volta (stroll).
You might join local families on the leafy paths of the National Gardens between Syntagma Square and Hadrian's Arch.
Summer visitors must attend at least one performance at the open air theater of Herod Atticus (known as the Herodian), just behind and below the southeast flank of the Acropolis. Whether you see one of the classic Greek tragedies performed, or attend a music event, it is well worth the ticket price in a range of approximately $15-50 to sit on those curved stone benches (cushions provided) and watch a performance in this original venue.
Another way to get a taste of the Greek culture is to attend a performance of the Dora Stratou Dance Theater, an ensemble of dancers, musicians and folk singers who perform nightly, May through September, at a garden theater on Philopappou Hill.
One of the delights of Athenian evenings is to sit under a starry sky in view of the flood-lit Parthenon, sip beer and munch popcorn while watching a movie (in English). My favorite is the Cine Paris right in Plaka Square.
For a change from the touristy Plaka, go to the district of Kolonaki, northeast of Syntagma Square, on the slope of Mount Lykebettus (Likavitós) where Athen's chic crowd gathers to lounge at the cafés and bars or shop at upscale boutiques. Hikers may walk up the mountain from Dexameni Square, or there is a funicular ride (500 Dr) from the top of Ploutarchou Street. Sunsets are spectacular, and there are performances at the Likavitós Theater in summer.
If city din gets on your nerves, hop a boat to the islands of Hydra, Poros, or Aegina. Tickets can be purchased at any travel shop, or go direct to the port at Piraeus.
I like to take the two and a half hour trip to Aegina (1400 Dr; C$7; US$3.50 one-way). On hot days I rent a chair and umbrella at the Hotel Brown (1,500 Dr) for the whole day. Here, the Kabourina Taverna is my favorite eatery. I sit in the shade across from the beach and enjoy a delicious meal of fresh calamari and horiatiki (Greek salad) and a carafe of wine for about C$15.
Another pleasant diversion is to get bus and theater tickets (ticket office is in a little mall at 4 Stadiou Street near Syntagma Square) and attend a performance at the ancient Theater of Epidauros. The trip takes two hours, and buses transport you back to Athens after the performance. Watching an ancient tragedy or comedy performed in this natural setting is a lasting thrill.
To see the magnificent coastline of Attica, (also a good way to choose a beach for a future getaway), take the bus down to Cape Sounion. The sight of the Temple of Poseidon will inspire photographers.
Eleuphsis is a fascinating ancient site where ritual "Mysteries" were held. Local buses run there frequently from a station near Monastiraki Square. There's a beach, so take a picnic lunch and make a day of it.
The sites of Corinth and Delphi can also be visited in a day by bus. These are both must-sees for anyone interested in scenic historical sites. As a bonus, on the trip to Corinth, you'll see the amazing Corinthian Canal, a narrow slice of water-way where ships navigate between the Gulf of Corinth and the Aegean Sea.
Various buses go to the beaches around the Attica peninsula. Most of them leave from around the Zappeion, which is next to the National Gardens just southeast of Syntagma Square. Trolley #10 to Paleo Faliron, will take you directly to a beach, just a block from the end of the line. I find this is the easiest, though not the most scenic beach to get to in a hurry.
Most of the beaches around Attica are free, but there are some operated by the GNTO that charge a fee, such as those at Voula and Vouliagmeni. On most beaches it's okay to go topless (even seniors). There's a nude beach at Varkiza, but beware of the voyeurs and weirdos who frequent it.
Greeks usually head for the beach either early morning or late afternoon because the sun is deadly, even on overcast days. You need sunscreen, drinking waer, and a hat.
That is my favorite city in brief. How about discovering for yourself.