GOING AROUND IN ATHENS AND AROUND ATHENS
The Telegraph has written this excellent article about what one can do in Athens!
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Often referred to as the cradle of Western civilisation, Athens is a 2,500-year-old hotch-potch of concrete upon brick upon stone. Since 2004, the newly-inaugurated Archaeological Promenade, a 2.5-mile long, pedestrian-only, tree-lined walkway skirting the foot of the Acropolis and linking all the city’s major archaeological sites, has made the city centre infinitely more walkable and reduced the notorious traffic congestion and exhaust fumes.
But visitors don’t come here just for the ancient monuments. Despite the current economic crises, contemporary Athens boasts one of the most happening nightlife scenes in Europe, from the former industrial district of Gazi, now teeming with modern tavernas, slick bars and alternative clubs, to the sophisticated lounge-bars and fusion-food eateries of Kolonaki.
Athens is served by Piraeus, the largest passenger port in Europe. Some two million visitors pass through its gates each year, most of them travelling by the countless ferries, catamarans and hydrofoils that serve the Greek islands. The port has 11 modern berths for cruise ships; during the 2004 Olympics, the world’s largest cruise ship, the Queen Mary II, docked here and served as a floating hotel. Since then, the number of cruise ships passing through Piraeus has increased exponentially. In 2008, it was the world’s sixth most visited cruise home port, receiving 1.8 million passengers.
Piraeus is a major embarkation/disembarkation point for short cruises round the Greek Islands, and many companies include it as a port of call on their Mediterranean and world cruises. The main draw is the chance to explore the city’s splendid hilltop Acropolis, home to the majestic fifth-century BC Parthenon, and also to make excursions inland to the much-photographed archaeological site of Delphi.
When to go?
The Greek capital remains lively all through the year. For sightseeing, warm, sunny days make autumn or spring the best times to visit Athens; soaring temperatures from mid-June to late-August can be tiring. Between November and February the weather is unpredictable, ranging from crisp, bright days to rain and even occasional snow – the compensation being a relative scarcity of tourists.
British Airways (0844 493 0 787, www.britishairways.com) flies from Gatwick; ; Olympic Air (00 30 210 355 0500, www.olympicair.com) from both London Gatwick and Heathrow; and EasyJet (0905 821 8905, www.easyjet.com) from London Gatwick and Manchester. Flying time is around four hours from London, or 4hr 15min from Manchester.
Athens International Airport (www.aia.gr) lies 17 miles north-east of the city. The metro (www.amel.gr) runs direct to Syntagma and Monastiraki in the city centre (change at Monastiraki for Piraeus port) and tickets cost €8. In addition, airport buses, operated by Athens Urban Transport Organisation (www.oasa.gr), run to and from the city. Bus X95 runs to Syntagma Square in the city centre and bus X96 runs to Pireaus port. Tickets cost €5 and allow for 24 hours of unlimited travel on all forms of public transport (bus, tram and metro). Taxi services are also available – expect to pay around €30 (about £25) to the city centre or €35 to Piraeus port.
Cruise ships disembark passengers at the city’s port, Piraeus (www.olp.gr), which lies 7.5 miles from Athens city centre. Shuttle buses are laid on to ferry people the 20-30 minutes from the port to the city centre. Their frequency and cost depends on the cruise ship company involved. The metro (green line) also runs from Piraeus to Monastiraki, below the Acropolis – ticket €1.40 (110p) valid for 1hr 30min on all forms of public transport. Taxis are also available, charging around €12 (£10.30) to Monastiraki.
Athens’s city centre is a pleasure to explore on foot and most of the main attractions lie within walking distance of one another. If you decide to use the public transport system (including buses, trolley buses and the metro), you will find that it is cheap and efficient, though often crowded. Tickets cost €1.40 and are valid for 1hr 30min on all forms of public transport. They are sold in metro stations, at special booths near bus terminals and at some street kiosks (periptera), and must be validated at the beginning of your first journey. One-day tickets (also known as “airport tickets”) cost €5 and allow for 24 hours of unlimited travel on all forms of public transport in the city, plus one bus trip to or from the airport.
Having a car in Athens city centre is more of a bind than a convenience, as the roads are often congested and parking is difficult and expensive. Even if you travel out of the city, I’d take the bus or ferry – unless you are aiming for out-of-the-way spots. See www.travelsupermarket.com to compare car-hire prices.
Know before you go
British Embassy: 00 30 210 7272 600, Ploutarchou 1, Kolonaki.
Greek Emergency services: Dial 112.
Athens Tourist Office: 00 30 210 331 0392, www.breathtakingathens.com, Amalias 26 (near Syntagma Square).
Telephone code: Dial 00 30 for Greece, if calling from the UK.
Time difference: +2 hours.
Flight time: London to Athens is 3 hours 50.
Five top sights
Rising above the concrete jungle that is modern Athens, the “sacred rock” (1) is crowned by three temples dating from the fifth century BC, attracting three million visitors per year. The obvious starting point for a first-time visit is the largest and most impressive temple, the Parthenon, supported by 46 Doric columns and considered classical architecture’s most influential building. Be sure to walk below the Acropolis at night, too, when it is at its most magnificent, bathed in golden floodlighting.
Address: Acropolis Hill, Plaka.
Opening times: Daily, 8am-8pm (summer); 8.30am-3pm (winter).
Admission: €12. Free on the first Sunday of every month, October-June. Also free on the night of the full moon in August.
New Acropolis Museum
Inaugurated in June 2009, this light, airy glass-and-concrete building (2) was designed by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi. Archaic and classical finds from the Acropolis site are displayed here – proud statues of the ancients and life-like stone carvings of animals. The top floor is devoted to the marble frieze that once ran around the top of the Parthenon. About half of the pieces are originals, while the remainder are white plaster copies. The missing pieces were removed by Lord Elgin in 1801 and are now in the British Museum in London. The Greeks have wanted them back for decades, and hope that this blatant presentation will finally convince the British to return them.
Address: Dionysiou Areopagitou 15, Makrigianni (on the edge of Plaka).
Contact: 00 30 210 9000 900, www.newacropolismuseum.gr
Opening times: Tue-Sun, 8am-8pm.
The new Acropolis Museum, inaugurated in 2009
Built into the hillside below the Acropolis, Plaka (3) is Athens's oldest residential quarter. Retaining a quaint village atmosphere, despite the hordes of tourists, its cobbled streets are lined with pastel-coloured neo-classical mansions, small hotels, souvenir shops and bustling tavernas. Notable sights include the Museum of Traditional Greek Instruments, the Museum of Greek Folk Art and the 12th-century Byzantine Little Mitropolis Church. Metro station: Monastiraki or Acropolis.
Housed in a neo-classical building with a lovely roof-terrace cafe, this museum (4) traces Greek art right up the 20th century. Sculpture, ceramics, jewellery, paintings, furniture and costumes are on display, but top pieces include the Thessaly Treasure (a hoard of gold filigree jewellery set with precious stones, dating from the second century BC), two early paintings by El Greco, and the reconstruction of two 18th-century, wood-panelled, Ottoman-inspired living rooms.
Address: Vassilissis Sofias and Koumbari 1, Kolonaki.
Contact: 00 30 210 367 1000, www.benaki.gr
Opening times: Mon, Wed, Fri and Sat, 9am-5pm; Thur, 9am-midnight; Sun, 9am-3pm.
Admission: €6 (free Thur).
See the whole of Athens in one go from the city’s highest vantage point (970ft) (5), capped by a tiny, whitewashed church, a restaurant and café. Nearby, carved into the rocks on the north-facing slope, Lycabettus Theatre stages open-air concerts, with recent performers including Placebo, Groove Armada and Rufus Wainwright. The steep path up zigzags through pinewoods and sub-tropical vegetation. Alternatively, catch the funicular from Ploutarchou Street in Kolonaki (every 30 minutes, 9am-3am).
Mt Lycabettus, the city’s highest vantage point
Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion
Built as a place of worship to the god of the sea, Poseidon, the fifth-century-BC Temple of Poseidon (00 30 22920 39363; daily, 9am-sunset; €4) stands on the southernmost point of Attica peninsula. Originally made up of 34 white marble Doric columns, 15 of which remain, it commands amazing views over the Aegean Sea, which are spectacular at sunset. The coastal road from Athens to Sounio (43 miles south-east of Athens) passes through the upmarket seaside suburbs of Glyfada, Vouliagmeni and Varkiza, and affords fine views over the Saronic Gulf.
Probably the most beautiful classical site in Greece, Delphi (00 30 22650 82312; daily, 7.30am-7.30pm summer; 8.30am-3pm winter; €9) was the home of the fabled Oracle which spoke its prophesies (with the help of trance-inducing leaves) through priestesses. Dating back beyond the eighth century BC, the site is built into a hillside 130 miles north-west of Athens and is scattered with ancient temples overlooking a gaping chasm. There’s also an excellent museum displaying bronze and marble sculptures. On the road back to Athens, about seven miles from Delphi, the mountain village of Arahova is an upmarket winter resort and a great place to shop for fluffy flokati rugs and locally-produced cheese.
Delphi, 130 miles north-west of Athens
From May 24 to September 18, every evening (Wed-Fri 9:30pm; Sat-Sun 8:15pm) except Mon and Tue, the Dora Stratou Greek Dance Theatre performs traditional Greek dances dressed in regional folk costumes in an open-air theatre on Philopappos, close to the Acropolis. www.grdance.org
The annual Athens Festival, running from June through to September, sees open-air evening performances of world-class theatre, opera, music and dance at the second-century Odeon of Herodes Atticus, carved into the rocks below the Acropolis. The 2011 line-up includes the Bolshoi Opera performing Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegine and Sadler’s Wells of London performing Sylvie Guillem’s ‘6000 Miles Away’. www.greekfestival.gr
In August, the night of the full moon sees the Acropolis and several other city centre archaeological sites remaining open until 1am with free admission.
On November 13, the Athens Marathon re-enacts the original 26-mile running race from the coastal town of Marathon to the Panathenaic Stadium in central Athens. The 2010 event, which took place 2,500 years after the original marathon, was won by Kenyan Raymond Bett. www.athensclassicmarathon.gr
Widely acknowledged as the finest seafood restaurant in Athens, Varoulko (1) is a magnet for foodies who flock here to savour chef-owner Lefteris Lazarou’s Michelin-starred goodies. To try a range of his creations, opt for the degustation menu, which might include bream fillet sautéed on fine slices of bread, served with smoked aubergine mousse, or grouper rissoles with barbecue sauce. Let the sommelier advise you on the wines. The chic wood-and-glass dining room sports blue Perspex details and white table linens; in summer, diners move on to the Acropolis-view roof terrace.
Address: Pireos 80, Gazi.
Contact: 00 30 210 522-8400, www.varoulko.gr
Opening times: Tue-Sat, 8pm onwards.
Payment type: Cards accepted.
One of the few restaurants in touristy Plaka to be patronised by Athenians, Psarras (2) has been serving up authentic Greek cooking since 1898. As romantic as it gets, it has wooden tables arranged on mulberry-shaded whitewashed steps leading up to the Acropolis, and former guests have included Brigitte Bardot. There’s live music every evening except Tuesdays.
Address: Erechtheous 16 & Erotokritou 12, Plaka.
Contact: 00 30 210 321 8733, www.psaras-taverna.gr
Opening times: Daily, 11am-midnight.
Payment type: Cards accepted.
On a small square, where antique-shop owners restore wooden furniture during the day, this informal eatery (3) does delicious Greek dishes with influences from Anatolia – think lamb or chicken flavoured with cumin and fresh mint. The old-fashioned ground-floor dining room has floral wallpaper and marbletop tables, while there's a romantic roof terrace up top with fantasic Acropolis views. The place also stages live music.
Address: Avissinia Square, Monastiraki.
Contact: 00 30 210 32 17 047, www.avissinia.gr
Opening times: Daily, 11am-midnight.
Payment type: Cards accepted.
Tzitzikas i Mermigas
One block down from Syntagma Square, the “Grasshopper and Ant” (4) serves modern Greek taverna fare. There are a few unusual and truly delicious dishes, such as the chicken in a creamy mastiha sauce [AP1] (flavoured with mastic, a type of aromatic tree resin)[AP2] , which is most people’s favourite. Each table has a little drawer, where you’ll find your cutlery. There’s slight feeling that the waiters are looking for a fast turnover, but it’s still a great choice.
Address: Mitropoleos 12-14, Syntagma.
Contact: 00 30 210 324 7607.
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 12 noon-midnight; Sun, 12 noon-5pm.
Payment type: Cards accepted.
In hip Gazi, this unpretentious place (5) specialises in no-frills seafood, just as Greeks would eat it at home. The menu is ever-changing, depending on the best cheap fresh fish on the market: think charcoal-grilled sardines (after which the restaurant is named) or bakaliaros (fried cod), served in a minimal-chic setting with background jazz. Round off with mastiha, a spirit made with resinous sap (see above) from the island of Chios.
Address: Persefonis 15, Gazi.
Contact: 00 30 210 347 8050, www.sardelles.gr
Opening times: Daily, 12 noon-midnight.
Reservations: Recommended at weekends.
Payment type: Cards accepted.
On the top floor of the Hilton Hotel, with views of the floodlit Acropolis rising above the city rooftops, this see-and-be-seen bar (2) serves pricey cocktails named after the stars, such as Jupiter (gin, Champagne, cucumber and mint), plus finger food. There’s a lovely open-air terrace with a wooden deck and potted olive trees, and occasional celebrity DJ’s playing lounge and electro.
Address: 46 Vassilissis Sofias Avenue
Contact: 0030 210 7281402; www.hiltonathens.gr
Opening times: Sun-Thu 6pm-3am, Fri-Sat 6om-4am.
In the Grande Bretagne (see Hotels), Alexander's (3) is old-fashioned and sophisticated, like something from a black-and-white film set, with a vast 18th-century tapestry hung above the wooden bar, and occasional live music. It offers an impressive selection of cognacs and malt whiskies, plus classic cocktails. The signature drink is Mandarin Napoleon Select, combining Dubonnet Rouge, Grand Marnier, gin and essential oil of Sicilian tangerines.
Address: Syntagma Square.
Contact: 00 30 210 333 0787, www.grandebretagne.gr
Opening times: Daily, 8am-midnight.
The Art Foundation (TAF) (4) combines contemporary art with drinks in a lovely courtyard garden. Tumbledown 19th-century outbuildings host exhibitions of painting, sculpture and photography, while the central courtyard is one of the city's coolest bars, with chill-out music and subtle lighting.
Address: Normanou 5, Monastiraki.
Contact: 00 30 210 323 8757, www.theartfoundation.gr
Opening times: Daily, 7pm-3am.
Opened in summer 2010, this funky open-plan bar-restaurant (5) has an industrial-chic interior with polished concrete floors, long wooden tables and benches, and Charles Eames chairs. It serves an unusual selection of Asian dishes, such as samosas, prawn dumplings and a delicious green Thai chicken curry, plus wicked cocktails – the house speciality is Soul Julep. In summer, tables spill out into a leafy courtyard garden. Great music too.
Address: Konstantinopoleos 46, Gazi.
Contact: 00 30 210 341 0418.
Opening times: Tue-Sun, 9pm-3am.
Many popular venues are in Gazi, west of the city centre
With a ‘chic-and-glamorous’ dress code, this mega club and summer bar-restaurant (6) combines tables in a leafy walled garden serving creative Mediterranean cuisine and exotic cocktails, plus a dance space with two stages and guest DJ’s. It’s popular with Athenian socialites and Greek celebrities – expect strict face control on the door.
Address: Andronikou & Tzaferi 11, Gazi
Contact: 0030 210 3422606 and 3422886; www.mercedes-club.gr
Opening times: Open daily 10pm onwards
In summer, several glamorous clubs set up along the coast, the most celebrated being Island. Stunningly beautiful, its décor – a sea-view terrace with lots of minimalist white and flickering candlelit lamps – is inspired by the Cyclades. The restaurant serves creative Mediterranean cuisine plus sushi, and there's a lounge area with finely carved Indian furniture and scatter cushions. Music ranges from ambient and oriental ethnic to mainstream.
Address: Varkiza (17 miles south-east of the city centre, on the coastal road to Sounio).
Contact: 00 30 210 965 3563, www.islandclubrestaurant.gr
Opening times: June-September daily, 8pm-3am.
Serious shoppers should head for posh Kolonaki, where designer names such as Armani, Bulgari and Versace line the streets of Anagnostopoulou, Milioni, Tsalkof and Voukourestiou. If expensive jewellery is your thing, call at Elena Votsi (Xanthou 7) for chunky, one-off gold pieces set with large coloured stones.
In contrast, high-street favourites such as Zara, Mango and even good old Marks & Spencer line pedestrian-only Ermou, running from Syntagma Square down to Monastiraki.
The usual tourist tat can be found in pretty Plaka – look out for fluffy flokati rugs, religious icons and shockingly expensive antiques. More affordable gifts include handmade leather sandals from Stavros Melissinos (Agias Theklas 2) in Psirri. Also known as the Poet Sandalmaker, Stavros has been crafting footwear since 1954, with former customers including the Beatles. Close by, Bahar (Evripidou 31) is a great place to buy dried herbs and traditional Greek mountain tea. For herb-scented toiletries with funky Greek writing on the bottles, visit the Korres pharmacy (Erastosthenous and Ivikou) in Pangrati, where this internationally recognised company was born. In a similar vein, Mastiha Shop (Panepsitimou & Kreizotou) near Syntagma specialises in therapeutic potions containing mastic from the island of Chios.
Also try to visit the 19th century, iron-and-glass Central Market (Sofokleous and Evripidou) near Omonia, where stallholders vie for shoppers’ attention between mounds of silver-scaled fish, blood-splattered carcasses, and piles of rosy apples and dried figs. Equally chaotic is Monastriki Flea Market, a Sunday-morning venture with locals hawking old books, pirate videos and if you’re lucky, some genuine antiques.