Athens is best known for the Acropolis - the leveled hill serving as the platform for some of humanity's greatest artistic achievements; temples dedicated to the warrior goddess Athena. In spite of pushy early Christians, swords, cannons, bombs, negligence and theft, those temples are still standing on the sacred rock high above the modern city streets. The city is alive with yellow cabs and honking horns, leather vendors and leathery laturna organ players, gypsy balloon sellers, ancient theaters, modern theaters, snap-happy tourists, street performers in cobblestone squares, posh cafes, souvlaki stands, evzones, flower markets, fish and flea markets, sweeping views from hilltops, caves of furies, fruit vendors and tri-wheeled trucks driven by "paliotzis," the collector of old things ... weaving in and between the towers of white concrete and neoclassical facades.
Athenians are generous, helpful souls on one side, opinionated rebels on the other, but wholly colorful. They are famous throughout the world for their intellect and hospitality. They love to share their stories of heroism and tragedy while displaying their love of simple pleasures: good food from the earth and surrounding themselves with friends and family.
No one can wonder how Athens has attracted travelers for the last two millenniums, or why, in spite of every kind of trouble, she will continue to draw visitors throughout the next.
"Syntagma" is Greek for "constitution." It is the place where the citizens of the city stood outside of the palace and demanded their rights. Today, still, it is where all of the action is, always a buzz with taxis, shoppers, people sitting at cafes, and, yes, the occasional demonstration. Cross Amelias Avenue to watch the Evzones change post every hour on the hour. Feed the pigeons or dip into the National Garden for some shade. It is home to the magnificent Hotel Grand Bretagne other five star hotels and is the starting point of the pedestrian shopping district of Ermou Street. The Syntagma Metro station is like a museum, full of archeological treasures found during construction. It provides easy access to the Acropolis Metro station and the Panepistimiou station along the red line. The blue line takes you to the airport.
What once was called the "Turkish Quarter" is now affectionately titled "Plaka" and is the area for wandering amidst narrow cobblestone roads, low, hundred-year-old houses, pots of basil and rosemary, traditional Greek eateries or "tavernas" and more souvenir shops than you can shake a stick of souvlaki at.
Some areas of Plaka have been inhabited for thousands of years. Walk down Tripodon Street to see the Lysicrates monument and follow it to the Theater of Dionysus, one access point into the mighty Acropolis. Or head up toward Anafiotika to get lost in an island in the middle of the city. Plaka is pure romance.
Monastiraki, or "little Monastery" is a great place for people watching. The courtyard and narrow roads that lead to the Roman Agora are always full of street performers, artists and antique vendors. Go on Sundays for treasure hunting at Avyssinias Square, or just wander around the flea market any day of the week. Buy fresh fruit from the kiosk and enjoy it while gazing at the remains of Hadrian's Library or the Tower of the Winds. Jump on the Kifissia/Piraeus railway for a nostalgic train ride to the very north or very south of Athens, respectively.
Psirri, Thissio and Gazi
Psirri has been home to the free thinkers and Bohemians since the start of the 20th century, when sad-eyed Rembetika singers belted their woes to the accompaniment of a line of instrumentalists, all sitting in wooden chairs, while people smoked and drank beneath the stage. While it still holds a certain grungy appeal to the modern-day Bohemian, the streets are lined with trendy cafes and eateries that make it also palatable to more mainstream visitors, or even those with a dazzled eye pointed toward the "live for the day" world of the artists and non-conventionalists of Psirri.
Thissio, on the other hand, is a well-sculpted garden surrounding the Ancient Agora and is well known for its posh places to enjoy a beverage for a few hours with a view on the Acropolis. The expansive pedestrian road of Apostolou Pavlou (Apostle Paul) circles around until it connects with Aereopagitou, making for lovely strolls. The pedestrian road ends at the ancient cemetery of Keramikos. From here you can see some strange metal structures puncturing the sky. This is the wildly popular area of Gazi, named for the gas factory whose buildings are now used as edgy cafes, tavernas and art centers. Organized graffiti decorates the walls and beautiful people fill the tables.The cultural center of Technopolis is where you can spy up-and-coming Greek talent in every field.
An exceptional collection of privately run museums can all be found along V. Sophias Avenue amidst the embassy buildings and various official ministries. The eclectic Benaki Museum shows off iconic pieces to represent several periods of Greek history spanning 8,000 years. The Museum of Cycladic Art displays all of the neolithic artwork of the Cycladic islands. The Byzantine Museum presents the riches and religious art associated with medieval Greece, and the nearby War Museum gives a detailed history of the country through artifacts of warfare from ancient until modern times. A vast collection of art acquired from Greek collectors and by Greek artists is at the National Art Gallery.
The streets around Kolonaki Square feature the most elegant boutiques in Athens. The square itself (officially named Filikis Eterias) is the favorite meeting place of celebrities and beautiful people. They can be seen hanging out at any of Kolonaki's numerous cafés after a shopping spree or in the excellent gourmet restaurants and chic bars at night. Kolonaki lies on the slopes of Lykavittos Hill, the city's best vantage point.
The scenery changes just a few blocks away from elegant Kolonaki. The area around Exarhion Square is dominated by rock music bars, jazz clubs and traditional tavernas which are frequented by students and intellectuals. This area should be avoided during city-wide demonstrations due to its active involvement in politics, but otherwise is a distinctly "Athens" neighborhood where you can see how the locals live.
Panepistimiou and Stadiou Streets
These two streets connect Syntagma Square with Omonia Square. In addition to shops and restaurants, they feature some of the city's most beautiful 19th-century buildings. Among them is the so-called Panepistimiou Street (officially named El. Venizelou Street), along with the university and National Library. The historic Iliou Melathron Mansion now houses the Numismatic Museum; the home has been beautifully restored and is worth a trip. Cut past Attica department store (back toward Syntagma), and you'll come upon the National History Museum, located in the old parliament building on Stadiou and Voulis.
Omonia is considered part of "downtown" Athens where the locals go to buy common household goods and clothing and pay less. It is now home to the majority of the immigrant population of Athens and has seen a rise in crime, particularly petty theft and recreational drug use. A surge of modern hoteliers with an emphasis on design has hit Omonia and could breathe new life into a logistically well-located base for the city center.
Patission Street (officially named 28 Oktovriou Street) is one of the city's major thoroughfares. At No. 42 is the majestic Technical University, a splendid example of 19th-century architecture. Next door is the National Archaeological Museum, one of the world's greatest museums, housing an outstanding collection of ancient Greek art. Many fine boutiques can be found further north, past Kodringtonos Street. The best place to rest after a shopping spree is in any one of the numerous cafés and tavernas of the Fokionos Negri pedestrian zone in Kypseli.
Piraeus - the port town of Athens - is located on a peninsula, 10 kilometers southwest of central Athens. It features a busy commercial port and a Sunday flea market in the streets near the metro station. The most picturesque part of Piraeus is the Mikrolimano fishing harbor, with its row of traditional fish restaurants. Other good places for eating fish are the numerous seafood eateries along Akti Themistokleous Street, on the peninsula's eastern coast. Traces of the area's 2,500-year old history can be found at the Piraeus Archaeological Museum.
Glyfada and Vouliagmeni
The city's southern suburbs are located along the Apollo Coast and feature a string of beaches as well as numerous restaurants and nightclubs. One of these suburbs, Glyfada, boasts a golf course, an excellent shopping area on Metaxa Street and elegant restaurants and bars. Further south lies the exclusive resort town of Vouliagmeni renowned for its luxurious hotels, sophisticated restaurants and sailing clubs. The resort also features excellent beaches and water sports facilities at the Astir Beach Club.
An urban retreat for the wealthy since the times of Herodes Atticus (the mega-millionaire of ancient times responsible for the Kalimarmara Stadium and the Herodus Atticus Theater), Kifissia is a shady, upscale neighborhood full of elegant hotels, restaurants, and elite businesses. Kolokotroni Street and Argiropoulou Street are good destinations for serious shoppers, as they're lined with boutiques from the biggest names in fashion and luxury. The Pentelikon hotel is an elegant place to stay to experience it, but the Semiramis Hotel, designed by Karim Rashid and part of the Design Hotel group, is a better choice for an appreciator of modern art and design.