Named after Athena, the goddess of wisdom, Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world -- built around its namesake deity's temple, the Parthenon, which still stands today.
But Athens feels far from an ancient city. While it has done an excellent job at preserving sites like the Acropolis (where the Parthenon is located) and Greek Orthodox churches, it has evolved into a hip and modern metropolis and homeport for ships sailing the Greek Islands. The city's recently overhauled Metro system also provides a cheap, safe and easy way to get around for sightseeing if you have extra time before or after your cruise.
Aside from major landmarks, even once-dingy neighborhoods like Plaka and Thissio have been restored, boasting fresh pastel-colored painted facades and chic restaurants, bars and shops.
Syntagma Square -- Athens' central square -- also has been reborn as a tree-filled haven from which to take in the city's gorgeous neoclassical Parliament building and catch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Yes, that means you get to watch those men in frilly skirts, elaborate waistcoats and bobbled shoes do their high-kicking thing.)
Athens, once (in some parts, still) one of the most frenetic and traffic-polluted cities in the world, now owns a real buzz and is well worth spending a few days in if your cruise starts or ends there.
Steep sales tax can tack on 25 percent to the cost of your purchases. The value-added tax is called FPA in Greece. Non-EU citizens may be able to reclaim some of this when you leave the country; the bad news is that this takes ages and is barely worth the bother unless you've bought something mega-expensive. Look for shop window signs saying, "VAT Refund" or "Tax Free Shopping Network," and be prepared to produce your passport to get a VAT refund form.
Afternoon siestas affect both shop and museum opening hours. Might as well do as the locals do and head for a snooze between 2 and 5:30 p.m.; after that, the city comes to life again.
The euro is the currency in Greece. ATMs are easy to find. They are located in banks, on the streets and in some hotels and restaurants. Currency can be exchanged in most banks and at currency-exchange services.
ATMs can sometimes run out of cash on weekends. Carry enough cash for emergencies.
The old saying, "It's all Greek to me" can ring all too true in Athens. The Greek capital is not quite as tourist-aware as the islands, and English is less commonly spoken. So, if you're staying in the city, it's a good idea to take a good phrasebook or language app along. Here are a few basics to help.
Good morning/Good day: Kalimera /Kalispera
My name is: Me lene
Thank you: efcharisto
Do you speak English?: Milate Anglika?
How much is this?: Posa kostizi afto?
Where's the bathroom?: pu ine i tualetta?
In an emergency, dial 112 for toll-free, English-speaking assistance, or 171 to contact the (English-speaking) tourist police. Other emergency numbers worth knowing: 100 for police, 199 for fire and 166 for ambulance.