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On your very first visit to Athens, you'll discover that this ancient seat of world culture has quite the new spring in its step; credit its fresh, bouncing vibe to its center-of-the-universe role as host of the 2004 Summer Olympics. Sure, a few years have gone by since then but the reverberations are still felt (and will be, we surmise, for a very, very long time to come). In a decade's worth of preparation for hosting the Olympics, city fathers (and mothers, too) spearheaded massive upgrades, repairs and refurbishments. Buildings that were once dingy dirty gray are being painted in cheerful shades of yellow, green and orange. Public squares have been pedestrianized (you won't recognize the now lovely Syntagma Square, with its lush trees and peaceful spots for repose; traffic used to course through this space). Sidewalks have been repaved and are now quite walkable (still narrow, though), and concrete stripping was inserted to assist the physically disabled.
There are new roads, the subways and trains are near-spotless, classic hotels like the Bretagne got major facelifts, and cafes are flourishing throughout the city. There are swank new digs for designer ateliers, ranging from Hermes to Dolce and Gabbana, in what recently were decrepit old buildings. And the arts and crafts scene is flourishing with fabulous original, largely Greek-owned boutiques and galleries.
But here's the thing that put joy in my step on a recent visit there (my first since the pre-Olympic era): In all its general zest for improvements, Athens has managed to retain the soul of its ancient heritage. It has held onto classic treasures, from antiquities to its Victorian-era food market. All are worth exploring.
The Grecian capital city has long been known for its role in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. as the seat of the world's art, culture and history, and so much of it is here, on display. This era is called the golden age, and the city's general spiffing up has included such storied monuments as the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the temple of Athena Nike and the Odeon of Herod Atticus, along with the very significant museums housing so many pieces of Athens' golden age. This idyllic time didn't last forever -- the Roman Empire gobbled the city up in 146 -- but no matter, now. The city, one of the world's most fascinating in both a historic and contemporary context, offers a marvelous opportunity to walk in the footsteps of ancient Grecian legends, while at the same time celebrating what, despite normal urban stresses, reflects a modern city with a sense of soul.
And lest you think that Athens is some kind of museum to ancient Greece, well, it's more than that. There is much history of the more recent era, which began when Greece became independent from the Turks in 1829. It has developed in spurts and starts ever since.
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Athens • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Zadar
"It's all Greek to me" is no cliche here! Though there's a fair amount of English spoken in Athens, it's a good idea to brush up on your pantomime skills before setting out.
Editor's note: When entering shops and restaurants, it's considered polite to say "kalimera" (kal-ee-meh-ra) for good morning, "kalispera" (kal-ee-speh-ra) for when it's not morning, and "efharisto" (ef-har-is-to) for thank you. For emergencies, the 24-hour toll-free number for English assistance is 112.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The national currency in Greece is the euro. ATM's are found everywhere, though currency exchange can be made in most banks and exchange establishments. Travelers' checks should be exchanged at banks or exchange establishments since very few businesses will accept them.
In Athens, a sales tax of 19 percent (VAT) is tacked on to almost every purchase; however, if you spend 117 euros or more at participating stores, you can get the VAT refunded (with some exceptions).
Editor's Note: Many ATM's in Greece require a PIN to be only four digits long, so plan ahead. Also, many European ATM's display only numerals on the keypad. For pin codes that include letters, commit to memory or jot down the translation to numbers.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the Port of Piraeus, about seven miles from Athens. An important port since antiquity, it's actually made up of three harbors: Megas Limani, where cruise ships come in; Zea Limani, where most of the ferries and hydrofoils come in from the islands; and Mikrolimano for the yachts.
The harbor is located right in the center of Piraeus, and frankly, the port-weary traveler will find plenty of low-key diversions. There are shops, some upscale boutiques and some offshoots of chains like Britain's Marks and Spencer. The Archaeological Museum of Piraeus is home to a collection of sculptured grave monuments and dedicatory reliefs from the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. and pottery from excavations in Piraeus, Salamis, Hellenistic, and neo-Attic relief plaques from a shipwreck from 2nd century A.C. One of its most important pieces is a bronze statue of Apollo from the 6th century B.C. (31, Ch. Trikoupi).
There are plenty of tavernas -- and here's a tip: the further from the harbor you get, the better they are. Try some of the cafes along Demosthenous. Locals rave about Varoulko (dinner only) at 14, Deligeorgi, going so far as to say it's the best seafood in all of Athens. It must be, because he's the only chef in town with a Michelin star. For another fun excursion head for Mikrolimano "Little Harbor" -- a charming crescent of a marina lined with waterfront seafood shacks; totally great atmosphere, but beware: Taxi drivers are paid a commission to direct you to particular restaurants where they then charge you exorbitant prices. Two restaurants we've heard fair pricing and good food reports about are Fish Taverna Botsaris and Argos.
Hint: Make sure you know prices before ordering at tavernas near the harbor. If the check seems high, insist on a receipt, or at worse, phone the tourist police at 171 (actually, they serve as interpreters who will help you with just about anything you need).
The best way from Piraeus to the center of Athens is to take a quick taxi ride to the train station at Piraeus (about 5 euros, max). The station operates on the green line; take it to Monastiraki, then change to Syntagma (the blue line). Cost is about 70 cents (euro). It takes about the same amount of time as if you cabbed it in. A key tip: when using mass transit, you must validate your ticket in the orange canceling machines. Keep your ticket until you reach your destination, as inspectors at random check that you have it. They are strict about fining offenders, including tourists. Driving in Athens is not recommended unless you have nerves of steel.
Otherwise, if you opt for taxi transport, prepare to be fleeced ... unless of course you are, um, prepared. While taxi fares are posted at the port terminal (by destination they range from about eight to 12 euros into various points in Athens), the ever-so-charming drivers will try to convince you that the fares are per person (they're not!). Coming back to Piraeus from Athens (we were in Syntagma Square), the driver tried to tell me the fare was a flat 35 euros (admittedly it was rush hour but I'm not an idiot -- Piraeus is just seven miles away). I protested, cited the price stated at the terminal, and he balked, I picked up my cell phone and told him I'd have to check ... and he "all of a sudden" became more agreeable and proposed a fare of 15 euros. That seemed fair and, believe it or not, he wanted to shake hands on it (and so we did)! Tip: If there's no meter, keep your cell phone handy; my service gave me a number (1404) to call with questions. If there is a meter, make sure that the number one vs. number two is what shows up (#2 is for post-midnight, double-the-fare trips; if you're traveling any other time you should not pay this).
Editor's strong hint: Keep your cell phone handy and do not hesitate to call the numbers we've provided if you feel something is amiss. Better yet, do it in front of the taxi driver.... Also, taxis operate unofficially on the jitney system, indicating willingness to pick up others by blinking their headlights or simply slowing down. You'll need to shout out your destination as the driver cruises by (or others may shout out a direct destination and you will wind up sharing a cab). And one more thing: Locals don't tip drivers, but do round up to the next convenient euro. Once you're in Athens, you'll find it a wonderfully walk-able city.
Watch Out For
In Athens and Piraeus particularly, purse snatching and wallet picking are common; this is one place where a secret stash of travelers' checks (even for committed ATM users) is a good safety net. Also, siestas -- beginning at 2 or 3 p.m. -- are still fairly common and shoppers, particularly, should be aware that many shops (except for the most touristy) will open from 9:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., close for siesta, then reopen for a couple of hours at 5:30 p.m. Times vary, however. Museum-goers should know that many museums are closed on Mondays and operating hours can vary with no advance notice.
Designer olive oil and locally made organic honey are wonderful gifts, as is a bottle of ouzo, the licorice-flavored liquor that's a Greek treasure (at 92 proof, it's not for the faint of heart).
Understand that Athens is a city of neighborhoods all pretty much centered around the Acropolis and the Parthenon. Start at Syntagma Square, and from there, wander into its neighborhoods -- of particular interest to visitors are Plaka, Kolonaki, Athens Central and Varvakios.
In a nutshell, the center of Athens is host not only to the city's most ancient treasures but also very much part of its contemporary life -- with locals thronging its shops and restaurants. (The University of Athens is located there, as well.)
The Acropolis. At 2,400 years old, the Parthenon is the largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece, and it's the only one built completely (apart from its wooden roof) of Pentelic marble. Built to house the giant statue of Athena commissioned by Pericles, it also served as the treasury for the tribute money that had been moved from Delos. Hint: Arrive here when it opens at 8 a.m., and you'll have it to yourself. The Theatre of Dionysos is the second theater erected on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis -- the first was made of timber in the 6th century B.C. Reconstructed in stone and marble by Lycurgus between 342 and 326 B.C., the seating capacity was 17,000. Of the original 64 tiers of seats, about 20 tiers still survive. The Roman Forum (Agora) was the happening place back in the day where one could hear Socrates expounding his philosophy, or St. Paul converting the market goers to Christianity. And the Temple of Hephaestus, on the western edge of the Agora, dates from 449 B.C. and is the best-preserved Doric temple in Greece. To the northeast of the temple are the foundations of the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, one of the places where Socrates spoke to the masses.
Other key historic sites include the Agora Market (Tuesday - Sunday, 8:30 a.m. - 2:45 p.m.), which was the centerpiece of ancient Athens' city life; today it is a mix of ruins and museums. The National Archeological Museum (Patission 28, Monday, 12:30 - 7 p.m.; Tuesday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 7 p.m.; Saturday - Sunday, 8:30 a.m. - 7 p.m.) is an Athens showplace. It is known for its premier collection of art from eras such as the Minoan, Cycladic and Mycenaean, among others. Check out Ermou Street (off of Syntagma Square), an outdoor, car-free walkway that's lined with Greek and European shops. Next is the Paddas building (Venizelov at Voukourestiou streets) that's housed in an ancient building that's been gorgeously refurbished. Beyond Cartier and Dolce and Gabbana, favorites included Folli Follie, a Greek chain of boutiques selling fabulously whimsical handbags, and Balli for Cuban cigars. It also hosts Attica, the Macy's of Greece and a good place to pick up any essentials you have forgotten to pack.
The oldest part of Athens (save for the Acropolis!) is the Plaka, a neighborhood of many identities. Centrally located, its winding and narrow streets are lined with houses and shops that date back to the 5th century B.C. During the last 170 years, Athens has been forever changing. Currently, many buildings are in the process of refurbishment and are painted in colorful shades. Cafes and restaurants abound -- many are quite touristic tavernas, but are great stops for a quick refueling. There are shops scattered throughout that pretty much sell the same type of contemporary gear you'll find elsewhere.
Shoppers often find it interesting to wander on the outskirts of Plaka and browse in its antique shops (look for Karaeskaki Street) in an area called Psiri; don't miss the antique-laden square, chock-full of dealers selling new, old and custom-designed furniture and tchotchkes by day. By late evening, the old buildings turn into restaurants, where bouzouki music fills the nights.
The Byzantine and Christian Museum is in an 1848 Ilisia mansion that once belonged to the Duchess of Placentia. The collections show the course of Greek art from the 4th to the 19th centuries. One of the most important exhibits here is the sculptural group, showing Orpheus from the 4th century. (Open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Wednesday hours extended to 7 p.m. Closed Mondays. ,Vassilissis Sofias, Kolonaki.)
The Benaki Museum is housed in founder Emmanuel Benaki's neo-Classical mansion. Its collections include icons, Greek costumes and a room from an 18th-century northern Greek house. A rooftop cafe serves light lunch, and there's a Thursday evening buffet when museum stays open until midnight. (Open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. Koumbari, Kolonaki.)
The Museum of Cycladic Art, located two blocks from Byzantine Museum and War Museum, is dedicated to the promotion and study of the ancient and pre-historic Greek art of the Cycladic Islands -- Nicholas and Dolly Goulandris' personal collection. (Open Monday - Friday: 10 a.m. - 4 p.m., Saturday: 10 a.m. - 3p.m.; closed Sunday and Tuesdays. 4 Neophytou Douka Str., Kolonaki.)
In ancient times, pine-covered slopes jam-packed with wolves surrounded Lykavetos. These days, there are no wolves, but it does offer the finest panoramic views in Athens including the surrounding mountains and the islands of Salamis and Aegina. You can walk the path to the summit from the top of Loukianou or take the funicular from the top of Ploutarhou. This is the place for the Chapel of Agios Giorgios -- at night, it takes on a fairy tale aura from the dramatic backlighting.
Shopping. Simply wandering the narrow streets will yield bountiful finds, but Skoufa offers some lovely shops, such as Fresh Line (#10), which sells a colossal sweep of soaps sliced from big blocks as though they were cheese (the strawberries-and-cream soap contains real berries, and soap for sensitive skin is made with vanilla, milk and rice). There are numerous clothing boutiques on the same block, but the best shopping results from simply wandering around the narrow neighborhood streets. We also found a fabulous Beautyworks (Kapsali & Neofytou Douka) which sells Kiehl's beauty products and lovely English Penhaligon bath suds and lotions. Keep an eye out for utterly unique galleries and boutiques.
The neighborhood surrounding the Kotsa Plaza is a "locals" part of the city -- it's also the sight of some ancient ruins, such as coffins, which were dug up by developers by mistake. The developers were then required to stop digging, but the coffins were just left there. The plaza itself has lovely, lush gardens.
Food enthusiasts should check out the central market area of Athens. Primary fascinations include a sprawling food market, where the stalls of meat wrap around the outside (and if you've never seen a lamb with its head still on or a rabbit with its head off but bobtail protruding, well, it'll make you a vegetarian in a heartbeat!). The market, which is huge, also features seafood, such as squid in all its glory (a Grecian pal told me you just boil it in its own juices and serve), organic honey, small-batch olive oil and chickens (with heads and beaks still on). Fruits and vegetables are displayed by vendors in another building across the street. An intriguing conundrum to this seemingly Victorian-era place is the flat-screen televisions, courtesy of the Korean LG, that hang off the ceiling and are tuned to Greek news channels.
Beyond the food market are numerous places to shop for those in search of flea market type stuff -- cheap T-shirts, etc. There's even a shop that sells pet chipmunks (the babies are darling and quite energetic!).
Been There, Done That
Head to Corinth, located 55 miles from Athens. Corinth was a significant gateway to the Peloponnese; there's a more modern city and an ancient city (the latter is the one to explore). Take note of the Corinth Canal -- some smaller cruise ships still transit through there. Other sites to see include the Archeological Museum (Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. - 3 p.m.), which features Corinthian artifacts. Ancient Corinth has some surviving structures, including the Temple of Apollo and the Roman Agora.
Sounion, about 45 miles from Athens, is home to the majestic (and classical) Temple of Poseidon, open daily from 10 a.m. until sunset.
Astir Beach, about 40 minutes from Athens, fronts the Aegean Sea on what is dubbed the "Aegean Riviera."
Take the Flying Dolphin from Piraeus to the picturesque island of Hydra; it's a 90-minute ride each way.
For taverna-style dining, head to Plaka; admittedly touristy, some good choices include Epato (134 Adrianou Str.) or Taverna Zorbas (15 Lissiou Str.). Eden (Misicleos at Lissiou) is a good vegetarian option. Dioyenis adds a quiet intimate flare tucked in between houses and walkways at: 1 Lisikratous Plateia, Plaka (tel.; 210-322-4845) for upscale traditional Greek cuisine and niceties without upscale price ... a Greek style to remember.
In central Athens, Ideal (46 Panepistimiou Street) is the place where the local hoi polloi lunch; on our visit, my Grecian pal pointed out such celebrities as an actress in a comedy sitcom, a bank president, a famous Bouzouki singer and a newscaster. The food is a mixture of Greek specialties (the meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce zinged with ouzo were delicious, as are the grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice) and "continental" ones (pasta carbonara). For reservations, you'll want to send an email: email@example.com.
Snack food, a variety of sodas, water and fresh orange juice are available at the Acropolis located in front of the ticket office prior to entrance into the site. Water and such cannot be purchased once inside; however, books and postcards are available to purchase at the front entrance next to the theater and at the small museum.
On a Shoestring: The Hotel Cecil has a terrific location near Plaka and clean, stylish rooms.
Great Atmosphere: The AVA Hotel Athens has a fantastic location in the Plaka; even better, the 24-room hotel's rates are moderate, rooms are well appointed, suites have verandahs and accommodations at the front of the hotel have views of the Acropolis. Plus, Plaka is a great neighborhood -- centrally located and full of cafes.
Total Splurge: Athens' most famous grand hotel, the Grande Bretagne, has been gorgeously refurbished; ask for a balcony with a view of the Parthenon. The hotel is Old World style and features a terrific rooftop restaurant, workout facilities and grand decor.
Middle of the Road: Many cruise lines use the Athenaeum Inter-Continental Athens as a pre- or post-cruise stay option. I found it disappointing because it's impersonally modern and the location is not great -- the center of the city is a cab ride away. But it has spacious rooms and a top-floor cocktail lounge with a fabulous view of the city -- plus, it has a pool. More central, and thus more preferable, is the Athens Hilton.
Staying in Touch
C@fe 4U, 44, lppokrtous, Athens
Carousel Cybercafe, 32, Eftixidou, Athens
Netmania, 135, Vassileos Pavlou, Piraeus
Surf In Internet Cafe, 42-44, Polytexneiou, Piraeus
For More Information
On the Web: www.greektourism.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
The Independent Traveler: Athens Exchange
--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor