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The ancient capital of Greece and, to all intents and purposes, the whole of western civilisation is, in one word, complex. Does it get crowded? Yes. Noisy? Very. Burning hot? Sometimes. Will it still make you never want to leave? You bet. Birthplace of an entire encyclopedia of household names from Plato and Socrates to Tommy Lee and Arianna Huffington, not to mention the word ‘encyclopedia’ itself, Greece’s largest metropolis overpromises and overdelivers. With more than 3,000 years of recorded history, the cultural and political impact the city has had on the Roman Empire, the European continent and world history in general is almost impossible to grasp. Yet Athens is far from being some dusty old museum-town. Europe’s oldest capital is full of vim and vigour as well as boundless creativity that sweeps through its bustling streets, family-run tavernas, hipster hangouts and jungle of a shopping scene.
The first thing to know about the brief history of Athens is that there’s no such thing as the brief history of Athens. The city started out as a Neolithic settlement that was inhabited as early as 7,000 BC. Thanks to the development of its seaport, classical Athens had a meteoric rise to fame as a powerful city-state. It peaked under the 5th-century reign of Pericles, which saw the construction of many of the city’s trademark temples, including the Parthenon, and the flourishing of the arts, theatre and philosophy. Today, Athens’ defiant spirit takes pride in the past and welcomes the future, and never forgets to take a siga, siga (‘slowly, slowly’) approach to life.
Make Greece’s sacred rock, the Acropolis of Athens, the starting point of discovering the many wonders of the ancient world. First a military fortress during the Neolithic period, then a place for worship dedicated to Athena in Mycenaean times, the site was revamped into its current form by the ‘first citizen’ of democratic Athens, Pericles. The ancient citadel houses three famous temples, the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Nike. The most iconic, of course, is the Parthenon, Greece’s largest Doric temple made of Pentelic marble in honour of the city’s guardian goddess. Fun fact: its columns were designed to create the optical illusion of a purely rectilinear construction. In fact, the temple does not have a single straight line. The National Archaeological Museum houses the world’s premier collection of Greek antiquities, including some 11,000 artefacts from the beginning of prehistory to late antiquity. A true gem of the permanent exhibition is the Mask of Agamemnon, declared the ‘Mona Lisa of prehistory’ by contemporary historian of science Cathy Gere. The Little Metropolis, or Agios Eleftherios Church, is a bite-size nod to Byzantine-era Athens in the middle of the city’s busiest shopping artery, Ermou Street. Speaking of small churches: perched atop the highest of Athens' seven hills, Lycabettus, the snow-white Chapel of Agios Georgios rewards visitors with a stunning 360-degree view of Athena’s favourite city.
Athenians’ no-nonsense attitude toward food is to keep things simple, fresh, tasty and most importantly, shareable. Horiatiki salad is a true embodiment of this philosophy. Eaten as a main dish or appetiser, this vitamin-heavy mix of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, peppers, feta cheese and juicy olives is the all-star of Greek tables. Don’t miss it. Light, rich and super-healthy, fish soups are made around town with seasonal fish and veggies, and are an absolute must-try for seafood enthusiasts. Pastitsio is comfort food at its Greekest: it’s essentially seasoned ground beef layered with pasta and thick béchamel sauce, baked to delicious, crispy perfection. Want to get a taste of local cuisine and Greek family lunches all at once? Klimataria is big on both. This family-run taverna hasn’t changed much since it first opened in 1927, much to the delight of the flocks of locals and tourists who raid its tables in search of authentic Greek flavours and music. For a truly unforgettable dining experience, book a table at Orizontes and enjoy one of the most show-stopping panoramas you’ll ever see. Sitting on top of the Lycabettus Hill, the restaurant is equally praised for its view and food. If you need a quick bite but refuse to compromise on authenticity, head to O Kostas in Plaka. Their souvlaki has been the alpha and omega of Athenian street food since the grandfather of owner Kostas Lavidas opened his joint in the 1950s.
Shopping in Athens could easily pass as an Olympic sport. The city centre is essentially one huge open-air market that caters to all needs, tastes and budgets. Ermou Street stretches between the Kerameikos archaeological site and Syntagma Square and consistently ranks among the top five most expensive shopping streets in Europe and in the top ten worldwide. At the end of Ermou, you’ll bump right into Monastiraki, Athens’ sprawling bazaar, overflowing with a sea of stalls that sell everything under the hot Greek sun. Booked your Athens trip for the weekend? Make sure to check the Monastiraki flea market, too. It’s the place to be on a Sunday for locals and tourists alike. Whether you’re looking to party like there is or there is no tomorrow, Plaka, aka the Neighbourhood of the Gods, is where you want to get things cracking. This neat, cobblestoned historic district has strong village vibes during the day but turns into a beehive of activity by night, with restaurants, pubs and cafés brimming with people and personality. Recently voted the sixth best bar in the world, all-day cocktail bar The Clumsies draws in constant crowds of cocktail geeks and enthusiasts. A celebration of Greece’s six-plus millennia in wine-making, Oinoscent on Voulis Street stocks some 700 wines from all across the globe, curated by expert sommeliers. Want to live Athens nightlife to the fullest? Head to the Athens Riviera’s legendary Island Club & Restaurant.
If you need one more reason to fall in love with the Greek capital, here it is: a refreshing dip in the big blue Aegean Sea is a short tram ride away at all times. You’re welcome. Attica’s coastline is dotted with so many beaches from lively and laid-back to serene and luxurious that it’ll make your head spin. Can’t wait for a splash or seaside stroll to wind down? Get off the tram at Edem, the closest beach to central Athens, stretching between the districts of Palio Faliro and Alimos. Leaning toward the pricier end of the scale, Astir Vouliagmeni is all about comfort and pampering, with comfy sun loungers available for pre-booking and with free Wi-Fi across the beach. Varkiza’s Yabanaki is a relaxed private beach club some 40 minutes from Athens’ boiling city centre and an absolute family favourite.
Athens Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport (ATH) airport is located 27 kilometres east of Athens’ city centre, bordering the suburb of Spáta. A railway station is immediately adjacent to the airport terminal, with metro line no. 3 and suburban railway service Proastiakos heading right into the city. Bus line no. X93, X95, X96 and X97 also connect the airport directly with the capital. Taxi and car rental options are available.
Athens has a hot-summer Mediterranean climate, essentially dividing its weather into two seasons: scorching, dry summers and mild winters with the occasional rainfall. July and August are the driest months with daily average temperatures in the high 30s and can bring severe heat waves. The best time to schedule your Athens city break for is spring or autumn. Or, if you want to beat the crowds and have the Acropolis all to yourself (sort of), winter months.