Athens is a perfect city-break destination and the best possible starting point for your trip to Greece. It is in many regards a typical modern European city. Some describe it indeed 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. 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 real picture of what Greece and 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 Peloponnese or some isolated island of the Aegean.
Fascinating and multi-faceted, Athens impresses with its safety record and beautiful climate year long. Large but not huge, much greener than it used to be and with a reliable and extended transportation system, it calls for continuous observation and exploration. Hidden corners, gourmet tavernas, old shops, trendy boutiques and modern bars all wait to be discovered.
The city boasts an exuberant nightlife, which covers all kind of entertainment and styles, ranging from cultural spaces and events, to music clubs, hip DJ bars where to sip excellent cocktails, discos and nights.
Your journey should start from the fabulous ancient historical centre, where, thanks to an extensive 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 excellent dining opportunities, interesting souvenirs, 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, lovely squares, neoclassical architecture and a trendy shopping neighborhood by the name of Kolonaki. Worth a visit are Lycabettus hill that offers sweeping vistas of the city and quaint neighborhoods such as Pagkrati and bohemian areas like Exarchia.
The city’s broad cultural and leisure offering including state-of-the-art museums, art galleries, cinemas and urban cultural centers is constantly reshaping and increasing. It now features the new National Gallery, the National Museum of Contemporary Art, the new National Library and Opera House (SNFCC), and the Onassis Cultural Foundation, 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.
Apart from visiting the landmarks and set for basic sightseeing, it is just as rewarding the laid-back exploration of the different neighborhoods. Each zone of the city center and the wider metropolitan area has its history and vibe. Some are very old and other modern. Some are rather grungy and other polished. The urban anthropologist will be able to read in the architecture, the public areas, the people, the shops and also in the food stores their different background and stories, as well as the status of their inhabitants.
In Psyrri you will feel the atmosphere of an area once known for its petty criminals and destitute and will note many old workshops of small artisans that lived in humble houses nearby. While strolling in Pagkrati you will trace the legacy of the era when it hosted the wealthy Athenian middle class and prominent artists such as music composer Manos Chatzidakis. In some areas like Thiseio, Petralona or Metaxourgeio, you can still pretend to live in some era of late 19th or early 20th century (although the latter also appears decadent today). Green Kifisia in the north is the residential area favoured also by the Royal Family.
Piraeus, at the opposite, is the port and shouts out loud its popular and insular character. There you feel like you are with one foot in the mainland and with the other on some Greek island. Piraeus is one of the major Mediterranean and European ports and incredibly lively place. It is built on a peninsula with several small bays, that today are small ports and marinas. Mikrolimano, or Tourkolimano (small port or Turkish port) and Zeas are possibly the most characteristic. Several cafes and nice seafood restaurant are to be found along the coast. You may find all sort of places, from the creative cuisine eateries of Mikrolimano, to the posher aside the vintage places of Zeas to the more popular and budget tavernas of Peiraiki-Xatzikiriakeio Idryma (a navy cadets educational institute) and the main commercial port. The port of Piraeus is the last and first image that many tourists get when leaving or returning from a Greek island, and not a particularly alluring one. The facade does not do justice to this fascinating port town, now undergoing a major renovation process. The majestic and recently refurbished Theater, the central market with all sorts of fishes, spices and more, the archaeological museum, Veakio hill and several neoclassical and art nouveau buildings and elegant villas of Freattyda, the historic train station and picturesque cafe Belle Amie are some of some its highlights that you should not miss.
Nea Smyrni (Izmir), Nea Filadelfia and the coastal Palaio Faliro were developed by rich Greeks that came from Asia Minor early in the 20th century, as testified by some grand mansions, whereas Kallithea, Nea Ionia and Vyronas were largely inhabited by poor Greeks of the diaspora. Food traditions, though, are the same and do not speak the money language but that of memory instead, so be sure to find some great baklava, peynirli, ekmek or dondurma in each of those neighborhoods. There is a lot to discover in those cities within the City…