Want a city break that offers shopping, entertainment and history? With a nearby coastline offering sun, sea and relaxation? Then try Athens.
Once the jewel of the classical world, modern Athens has thrown off its reputation as pollution riddled eyesore to become a chic and revitalized modern metropolis, where ancient and modern coexist in perfect harmony. With so much to see, it’s hard to know where to start but these are my recommendations.
The Metro The preparations for the 2004 Olympics meant the expansion of Athens’s metro system. Archaeological investigation has been essential and the finds have turned the new metros stations into attractions in their own right.
Clean, aesthetically pleasing and as yet free from graffiti and buskers, each has a unique display of the archaeological finds discovered during their construction. The station of Monastiraki is particularly unique. Commuters literally walk over history. A clear, Perspex floor has been set over a Roman sewer, workshops and an ancient river bed that had not seen the light of day for at least a couple of thousand years.
The Acropolis Don’t just head for the Parthenon. There is so much more to the Acropolis than the ancient temple of Athena. Approach the Propylaia from its south eastern side and you will ascend through shady olive groves, passing the remains of the ancient sanctuaries to Dionysus and Asclepius, where sacred plays and ceremonies took place at the festivals of the gods.
Try visiting at night. The whole area around the base of the rock has been tastefully pedestrianized, making it safe and pleasant to walk about. In the evening, there are concerts in the ancient Theatre of Herodias Atticus. With the floodlit Parthenon in the background, olive trees about you and crickets in the background you’ll never enjoy a more atmospheric night out.
Plaka Old and exotic, Plaka is a warren of narrow allies at the base of the acropolis, incorporating the Roman forum. But Plaka offers something more than ancient sightseeing. In places, its small booth like shops in narrow streets conjure images of an eastern bazaar; unsurprising since Plaka is built on a Turkish plan. There are standard tourist souvenir shops but also stores selling antiques and curios. A reputable flea market is held around Monastiraki Square on Sunday’s.
The area has many distinct neoclassical buildings. Until recently, many were in a bad state of decay but renovation is occurring and they are slowly returning to them to their former glory. Many surround small squares which are the perfect places to take a break and soak up the atmosphere or to enjoy a snack under a shady tree.
Ancient Athens Visit the Agora, Athens’s ancient market place and the hub of political and philosophical life. The reconstructed stoa of Attalos housing the site’s museum is an almost faithful reproduction of the original. All it lacks is the original colour that adorned all classical buildings. The Agora is also home of the best preserved Doric temple in the Greek world, the Temple of Hephaestus which overlooks the site from its western corner.
Most neglected of all Athens’s attractions is Keramikos. Situated on the edge of Plaka, just a short walk from the acropolis and Agora, this site was often overlooked because of its peripheral position. Athens’s revitalization has seen the area opened up and improved. The site includes the ancient Athenian cemetery, the ancient city gates by which the Eleusinian and Panathenaic processions used to enter the city and the long walls’ which ran to Piraeus.
Don’t forget the museums. For a whistle-stop tour of Greek history, try the national museum. Easily taking up an afternoon, it’s worth a visit if only to view the treasure of Mycenae with the famous golden mask of Agamemnon.
The National Gardens Need to escape the bustle and heat of the city? Then head for the National Gardens. Rather like an inner city version of Kew Gardens, they were originally the palace gardens designed by the last Queen of Greece. Irrigation provided by the remains of an old Roman aqueduct ensures that the gardens, a lush tangle of trees and shrubs from across the globe, remains verdant even in the heat of summer. It’s a perfect place to sit out the heat of the day or just roam and relax.
The Aegean You don’t have to go to the islands to enjoy the sea. Athens is only a short distance from the Aegean, the sea which derives its name from Aegeus, a legendary King of Athens. Between the city and Sounion is a whole swath of coast that offers beaches for all tastes. Voula is fairly well developed but commercial, with a variety of nearby bars, restaurants and generally eateries as well as plenty to entertain the children.
If you want more evocative surroundings, it’s worth heading further down the coast. The two hour journey to Sounion is well worth the effort. Small beaches set in small coves nestle at the base of the promontory that is home to the spectacular temple of Poseidon. What could be better than to end your day floating in the tranquil, blue waters, with the ancient ruins of the sea god within clear view?