Athens Revived and Revisited
Athens revived holds a certain attraction felt nowhere else, and if you haven’t been there in the past few years, you are in for a wonderful surprise
Exciting and exasperating, worldly and oh so hot, Athens is a city that attacks the senses and stirs the spirit as only the cradle of Western Civilization can. Homeland to gods, goddesses and some of the world’s greatest philosophers and writers, Athens also boasts ancient temples like the Acropolis and its iconic Parthenon and glorious parks and beaches. But best of all it has the Athenians, who welcome progress, feed on the latest trends and, true to their hedonistic roots, party with Olympian stamina all night, every night.
Things to Do
While you’ll be itching to see the Acropolis, majestically crowned by the Parthenon, take a siga, siga (slowly, slowly) approach to sightseeing – this city is too hot to hurry. Go on an architectural dig in the strikingly contemporary Acropolis Museum, then explore the ancient Agorá’s marketplace, where Socrates made public speeches and democracy was born. For cool respite from the midday sun head to the greenery of the National Gardens and for legendary sunsets the peak of Lycabettus Mountain.
Shopping:Style-conscious Athenians browse for high-street fashion and lingerie along pedestrian-friendly Ermou and for couture and designer jewelry in Kolonaki before brunch on Kolonaki Square. Skip the tourist kitsch in Plaka and Monastiraki in favor of poet/shoemaker Stavros Melissonos’ handmade leather sandals, whose mythology-inspired footwear has graced the feet of John Lennon and Sophia Loren. It’s all early morning action in the 19th-century glass-and-steel Central Market, where stalls are laden with fresh fruit, nuts and mounds of Aegean seafood.
Nightlife and Entertainment: Zorba the dancer, Eros the lover, Dionysos god of wine – Athens is every bit as hedonistic as its mythology suggests. Workshops in the pulsating Psirri district have been converted into tavernas and clubs where DJs spin everything from rock to Middle Eastern music. Make for Kolonaki for fashionable lounge bars and born-again industrial zone Gazi for an alternative vibe. Summer means beach to Athenians – dress up for seafront cocktails and dancing in Glyfada and Voula.
Restaurants and Dining: Whether it’s creative Mediterranean cuisine in Michelin-starred Spondi or a take-out souvlaki (spit-roasted meat with garlicky cucumber sauce) good food is taken for granted in epicurean Athens. Views of the illuminated Acropolis distract you from the menu in historic Plaka and Monastiraki, where tavernas dish up Greek classics like moussaka and slow-cooked lamb kleftiko. Venture to the much-photographed Microlimano harbor for fresh fish by the water’s edge, and Kolonaki’s design focused restaurants for a cosmopolitan feel.
It’s likely that you’ll arrive in Athens in the afternoon, groggy and disoriented after a long flight. The ride into town from the airport is unlikely to help your spirits. You’ll whiz along an efficient but anonymous highway that could be anywhere, before being fed into Athens’s ferocious traffic; or you’ll be underground in the Metro, itching to get to your hotel just so you can finally take a shower and wash the flight away. Somewhere, you know, not far away, must be the blue Aegean and the lofty Acropolis. But where?
When you get to your hotel, jump in the shower, take a nap, and then set off for an evening stroll through elegant Syntagma (Constitution) Square past the House of Parliament. Take a few minutes to explore Syntagma’s handsome marble Metro station, with its display of finds from the excavations here. Sit on a bench or at one of the cafes and have a cup of coffee or a snack as you take in the city, its citizens, and your surroundings. If it’s too warm out, escape into the shade of the National Gardens – it’s all too easy to overlook this oasis of calm and cool in the heart of Athens. You’ll discover shady benches; a small cafe; the excellent Aigli restaurant in the adjacent, wider, and more formal Zappeion Gardens; and lots of opportunities to watch Greek families out for a stroll. Keep an eye out for the newly found and shockingly well-preserved Roman Baths (another important discovery during the Metro’s construction), have a seat and linger by the Zappeion’s handsome fountain for a while, and then head into the Plaka, the old neighborhood on the slopes of the Acropolis that has more restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops than private homes.
If you get off the Plaka’s main drags, Kidathineon and Adrianou, and follow one of the streets such as Thespidos that runs up the slope of the Acropolis, you’ll find yourself in Anafiotika. This Plaka district, built in the 19th century by immigrants from the Cycladic island of Anafi, retains much of its old village character.
From time to time as you stroll, look up: You’re bound to see the Acropolis, perhaps floodlit — the best reminder of why you came. French designer Pierre Bideau has radically and brilliantly altered the lighting of the Acropolis and many other key monuments across the city, so be sure to admire his work.
After you have had your first Greek meal, take a little stroll on the Archaeological Promenade, stop by Thisio (at the grand cafe/bar/restaurant Athinaion Politeia, a grand 19th-c. building) for a glass of wine with an excellent view of the floodlit Acropolis, and slowly head back to your hotel and get a good night’s rest so that you’ll be ready for
your first real day in Athens.