Athens is a perfect city-break destination and the best possbile starting point for your trip to Greece. It is in many regards a typical modern European city. Some describe it as “Berlin of the South” for its restless urban character and vibrant youth, others as the most “American” of all European capitals for the sense of liberty that it conveys. At the same time, Athens bears evident the traces of its varied history, from Antiquity all the way to the Ottoman Era, while at the same time retaining its Middle Eastern and Balkan flair. This is a melting pot that provides a true picture of what Greece an Greeks are like. Αs a matter of fact, most of Athenians still preserve strong ties with their places of origin, be it some remote village in Epirus (Northern Greece) or Peloponese or some isolated island of the Aegean.
Fascinating and multi-faceted, Athens impresses with its safety record and wonderful climate yearlong. Large but not huge, much greener than it used to be and with a reliable and extended transportation system, it calls for endless observation and exploration. Hidden corners, gourmet tavernas, old shops, trendy boutiques and modern bars all wait to be discovered.
Your journey should start from the amazing ancient historical centre, where, thanks to an extended pedestrian zone, you can stroll around the Acropolis, the ancient Agora, open-air theatres and other monuments in total relax. With the Parthenon and the Acropolis Museum as its most prominent landmarks, this area also features great dining opportunities, interesting souvenir and local designers’ shops. If you move towards the old city’s shopping area, dotted with small Byzantine orthodox churches, and to the city’s food market you may also make some encounters that will colour your day.
Modern Athens boasts the Parliament at Syntagma Square, the lush National Gardens, the Panathenaic Stadium that hosted the first Olympic Games of the modern era, as well as great museums, nice squares, neoclassical architecture and a trendy shopping neighborhood by the name of Kolonaki. Definitely worth a visit are Lycabettus hill that offers sweeping vistas of the city and quaint neighborhoods such as Pagrati and bohemian areas like Exarchia.
The city’s wide cultural and leisure offering including state-of-the-art museums, art galleries, cinemas and cultural urban centers is constantly reshaping and increasing. In the next couple of years the new National Gallery, the National Museum of Contemporary Art, a new National Library and Opera House will open to public, while a large chunk of the city’s coast is being refurbished and large downtown avenues transformed to pedestrian walks with new squares and parks.
Other museums you should not miss are the National Archaeological Museum, of course, the Benaki Museum, the Cycladic Art Museum and the Byzantine and Christian Art Museum. Finally it’s worth mentioning the Byzantine monasteries, situated on the city mountain rises of Hymettus and Penteli, and in Dafni as well as the huge greenery on the hillside of Mount Parnitha, north of Athens.
…or Athens Riviera, is a superb coast with plenty inlets, bays and beaches that stretches along the Saronic Gulf for some 70 kms, from the Piraeus port and the quaint suburb of Faliro to the southernmost point, which is Cape Sounio. It has SW orientation, which means that it is characterized by many wonderful sunsets, as here the sun shines bright 300 days a year.
Cosmopolitan Faliro and Glyfada both feature nice promenades by the sea, marinas, traditional taverns aside modern restaurants and bars, playgrounds, as well as enticing shopping areas and vibrant nightlife. Faliro is also home to some exquisite patisseries while Glyfada hosts Archelon, a Sea Turtles Protection Society.
Heading further towards the South, the urban settlements get spearer. Vouliagmeni, for instance, consists of an enchanting series of bays, peninsulas and beaches amidst pine greenery. There you can enjoy relaxing moments bathing in its calm waters next to some Ancient sites – such as the Apollo Temple – , or visit the astonishing natural lake of Vouliagmeni, which lies “sunk” (Vouliagméni meaning sunk) in the remains of a huge limestone cave fed by lukewarm springs of thermal waters. Or simply, sip a signature cocktail, taste an ice cream or have a dinner in one of its many top-notch seafood restaurants.
Varkiza is the next seatown you encounter and its great sandy beach within its large bay with South orientation makes it just as delightful. Thanks to the security of its setting, many professional athletes but simple Athenians as well train or practice their favorite water sport here.
Further down the coastal road you drop into several wonderful creeks and beaches, among which picturesque Agios Nikolaos, with its strip of sand connecting the land to a small rocky peninsula with the small white chapel of Agios Nikolaos, dedicated to the saint who protects the seamen and mariners. The area is ideal also for diving, thanks to the clear and safe waters and underwater attractions such as shipwrecks, cars and planes lying on the sea bottom, caves, reefs and sea life.
The southern you get the most secluded beaches you can find. After the sea villages of Saronida and Fokea, the last 20 kms before reaching Cape Sounio are dotted with secret coves, nice sandy shores and islets. You can enjoy rejuvenating swims in the crystal clear sea of Legrena before making your way to Sounio and the jaw-dropping Temple of Poseidon, dating back to the 5th AC century. There you can admire perhaps the most beautiful sunset in the whole area, and then taste some special sea dishes in a local tavern, sipping a glass of ouzo.
Few kms north of Sounio, on the western coast of Attica region, lies the small town of Lavrio. Once an important industrial center famous for its mines since Ancient times, Lavrio is today a pacific holiday resort with a nice marina and some nice fish restaurants.
Mesogea, which means “middle land” in Greek, is the inland of Attica region. The first significant settlements date back to the Aecheans and the Mycheneans and relishes of the past are scattered across its territory. Once a mainly rural area with many plantations (grapes, figs, pistachio nuts, olives, tomatoes etc. ) throughout its fertile plain and livestock (especially sheeps), today is partly incorporated to Athens city. It is a very sunny, warm and dry area, with the average annual temperature hovering around 18-20 degrees Cº.
Relevant points of historic, archeological and symbolic interest include:
The area was well known in the Golden Era of Athens for its superb wine. The same grape varieties (e.g. Savvatiano), along new ones can still be found today, with several wineries producing exquisite wines with remarkable taste such as famous retsina. You may also want to try the top class figs and pistachio of Markopoulo, the olive oil or typical bread rusks. Finally, the region is home to some skilled craftsmen and artisans mainly working the clay and the marble.
If you are passionate about nature and sports, you will certainly enjoy a horseride among the wineyards and the pistachio camps, or a trekking or bicycle tour in the pine-covered hills of Sounio National Park.
Some small, charming islands can be reached within an hour or little more from the Greek capital.
A ferry connects in no more than one hour the port of Piraeus to Egina island. A holiday resort for many Athenians, Egina features some beautiful beaches, the Ancient Temple of Aphaia, as well as some exquisite world-renowned pistachios and nice seafood. It is particularly worth riding its coastal road on a bicycle, so as to explore it in full tranquility. Right next to Egina stands small Agkistri, which is characterized by its pine forests and its clear waters.
Kea, or Tzia, is the first Cycladic island you encounter, only 20 kms far from Cape Sounio. It features a charming chora, Ioulida, a Temple dedicated to Athena Karthaia and quaint shores that make it a popular destination among Athenians, yachters and tourists. It also boasts a large oak forest, the last as big preserved in the Cyclades! Haze the exquisitely crafted lodgings, taste its renowned thyme honey, its delicious grilled meat and cheer with a glass of wine on the shore at Vourkari.
Petalioi islands, stretching between the east coast of Attica and the south tip of the island Eubea, are reached from Porto Rafti. Mainly uninhabitated, they provide the perfect setting for dives and swims in perfect solitude.