Difference between revisions of "Athens"
Revision as of 03:24, 31 January 2009
Athens (Αθήνα, Athína), is the capital city of Greece with a metropolitan population of 3.7 million inhabitants. It is in many ways the birthplace of Classical Greece, and therefore of Western civilization.
The sprawling city is bounded on three sides by Mt Ymettos, Mt Parnitha and Mt Pendeli; whilst inside Athens are twelve hills [the seven historical are: Acropolis, Areopagus, Hill of Philopappus, Observatory Hill (Muses Hill), Pnyx, Lycabettus, Tourkovounia (Anchesmus)], the Acropolis and Lykavittos being the most prominent. These hills provide a refuge from the noise and commotion of the crowded city streets, offering amazing views down to Saronic Gulf, Athens' boundary with the Aegean Sea on its southern side. The streets of Athens (clearly signposted in Greek and English) now meld imperceptibly into Piraeus, the city's ancient (and still bustling) port.
Places of interest to travellers can be found within a relatively small area surrounding the city centre at Syntagma Square (Plateia Syntagmatos). This epicentre is surrounded by the districts of the Plaka to the south, Monastiraki to the west, Kolonaki to the east and Omonia to the north. Further afield is the port of Athens, the Piraeus.
The first pre-historic settlements was constructed in 3000 BC around the hill of Acropolis. The legend says that the King of Athens, Theseus unified the ten tribes of early Athens into one kingdom (c. 1230 BC). This process of synoikismos – bringing together in one home – created the largest and wealthiest state on the Greek mainland, but it also created a larger class of people excluded from political life by the nobility. By the 7th century BC, social unrest had become widespread, and the Areopagus appointed Draco to draft a strict new lawcode (hence "draconian"). When this failed, they appointed Solon, with a mandate to create a new constitution (594). This was the great beginning of a new social revolution, which was the result of the democracy under Clisthenes (508 BC). During the Middle Ages, Athens experienced a decline, but re-emerged under Byzantian rule. Athens was thriving and prosperous during the Crusades, actually benefitting from the Italian trade during this period. However, this fruitful period was shortlived, as Greece suffered badly under the Ottoman Empire, only to recover in the 19th century as the capital of independent Greece.
Athens hosted the 2004 Summer Olympic Games which, to the defiance of critics, were a spectacular success. While most of the sporting venues were located outside the city proper -in various locations throughout Attica- the entire urban area of Athens underwent major lasting changes that have improved the quality of life for visitors and residents alike. Aside from the excellent transportation infrastructure that was completed in time for the 2004 Olympics (from new freeways to light rail systems), the city's historic center underwent serious renovation. Most notable among the city's facelift projects are the Unification of Archaelogical Sites -which connects the city's classical-era ruins and monuments to each other through a network of pleasant pedestrianized streets- and the restoration of the picturesque neoclassical Thissio and Pláka districts.
Athens was just a small provincial village when it was chosen in the middle of the 19th century to serve as the national capital of the modern Greek State. Although it had a prestigious past, the city's political, economic, and cultural importance had declined over the centuries, leaving behind only its classical ruins as a reminder of better times. With the decision to move the national capital from Nafplio to Athens, architects and city planners were hired to build a new city next to the classical ruins, with grand neoclassical homes and public buildings, large city squares, green spaces, and wide avenues. The city regained its importance in Greek civilization, and by 1900 had evolved into a very attractive cosmopolitan city, with abundant neoclassical architecture harking to the nation's past.
The 20th century however, was not as kind to the city. The city suffered some damage during WWII, and suffered terrible urban planning in the decades that followed, as the nation rapidly industrialized and urbanized. In the 1960s and 1970s, countless 19th century neoclassical buildings were torn down to make way for massive concrete apartment blocks that characterize much of the downtown area until today. The city also expanded outward through rash development, particularly towards the west, as its population grew by absorbing job-seekers from the provinces. With the onset of the automobile, public officials reduced the city's public transportation services without foreseeing the traffic gridlock and smog that would menace the city by the 1980s.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the city's reality led to a rude awakening among local and national officials and, coupled with the country's newfound remarkable prosperity, large scale projects began to slowly regenerate the city and undo some of the damages of recent decades. Over the course of the next 15 years, money was poured into new transportation infrastructure projects, the restoration of surviving neoclassical buildings, the gentrification of the city's historical center and the renovation of many former industrial areas and the city's coastline. The restoration of charming neoclassical buildings in the city's historical center has been accompanied by the construction of attractive post-modern buildings in newer districts; both of which have begun to improve the aesthetic essence of the city. Athens today is ever evolving, forging a brand new identity for the 21st century.
Spring and late autumn are the best times to visit Athens. Summer can be extremely hot and dry during heatwaves, but this rarely happens. Winter is definitely low season, with the occasional rainy or snowy day, but also an ideal time to save money while enjoying the city without countless other travellers and tourists.
Whilst peak hour can still be a bit smoggy on the main roads, on most sunny days the skies are azure blue. The main bad impression of the pollution of Athens is given because Athens is enclosed by mountains and a basin is created which does not let the smog leave.
The new Athens Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport  27 km (17 miles) east of the city center, near the suburb of Spáta, opened in 2001 as part of the infrastructure improvements in preparation for the Olympics and is now one of the more attractive and efficient major European airports, though some old Athenian hands say they miss the "Port Said" atmosphere of the old Hellenikon. The airport has excellent public transit connections to the city (see below) and the usual array of food stands, duty-free shops, and other airport services.
There is a Tourist information station in Arrivals that will have the latest literature put out by the Tourist Information Department; this is useful for getting information of arranged local festivities in Athens and Attica. They will also have a printed brochure of Ferry information from Piraeus and other Attica ports.
There is also a small museum on the top floor that has an interesting history on Athens as well as a space put aside for temporary exhibits.
You are going to need euro coins if you want a trolley for your luggage; trolleys are available at the airport, you will find them in the baggage hall on arrival and they use coins the same way supermarket trolleys do. You insert your coin, and you get it back by placing the trolley back to its original position- so, be advised, and make sure you carry the correct currency. Athens airport is a major hub in the Aegean, Balkan and East Mediterranean regions. Continental, Delta and Olympic maintain non-stop flights from North America, while a large number of European carriers fly direct into Athens.
From the airport you can reach the city:
It is advisable to grab a free copy of city transport map in the airport – in the city it is extremely helpful.
If you stay in Athens for a short time, consider leaving part of your luggage in a baggage storage. It is run by Pacific Travel , and is located in the end of left-hand wing, arrivals level. Storage time differentiates between 6 to 36 hours and sizes vary from small to large. The only inconvenience is that the same queue is used for collecting and for leaving – allow extra time before your flight. No automatic lockers can be found in the airport.
By regional coach
Regional coaches (KTEL) connect Athens to other cities in Greece. The fleet of buses has recently been upgraded, which makes the journey pleasant and safe. For some destinations one can also use the buses of the railroad company (OSE, see next paragraph) that might be international, but can also be used for in-country transport. At times there are collaborations with companies from adjacent countries such as Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania, so your best move will always be to ask on both the bus and the train companies about your available options.
The national rail service, OSE,  connects Athens to other cities in Greece -however, do not expect the diversity and complexity of railroads you usually find in other European countries; the national railroad system is poor in Greece, in effect having only two train lines. One goes south to the Pelopponese and the other to the north, connecting Athens with the second major city in Greece, Thessaloniki. From there the line continues further to the north and all the way to the east, passing through many other cities of northern Greece and eventually reaching Istanbul. Be advised that there are two kinds of train you can use; normal, slow, type of train equipped with beds, and the so called new 'Intercity' type which is more expensive because of a 'quality supplement fee' that grows with distance. For example, travelling from Athens to Thessaloniki by the 'Intercity' type will save you one hour at most, but the ticket will be almost double the price. 'Intercity' tends to be more reliable, yet more 'bumpy' than the normal train.
Public transport in Athens has improved by leaps and bounds in the last ten years. The simple €1 ticket lets you travel on any means of transport — metro, suburban trains, trams, trolleybuses, buses — with unlimited transfers anywhere within Athens (except the metro airport line east of Doukissis Plakentias and the airport buses) for 90 minutes, and you can also get a €3 ticket valid for 24 hours or a €10 weekly ticket.
The new Athens Metro system , opened in 2001 and currently being extended, is a wonder to behold, and puts many better-known metro systems to shame. Many metro stations resemble museums as they exhibit artifacts found during excavations for the system (i.e. Syntagma). Greeks are very proud about the new subway system, so do not even think about littering and by all means avoid any urge for graffiti- you will be intercepted by security at once. You are also not allowed to consume food or drink in the subway system. There are three lines:
Validate your ticket at the validation machines upon entering the station. The standard metro fare is €0.80 for trips between all stations except the Airport line, east of Doukissis Plakentias. The standard fare to or from the Airport is €6, €10 for a return trip within 48 hours, €10 for a one-way trip for a 2-person group and €15 for a one-way trip for a 3-person group.
By suburban rail
The Suburban Railway  (Proastiakos) is a new addition to Athens's network. The main line starts from Piraeus, passes through the main line train station of Larissis in Athens, and forks at Neratziotissa west to Kiato and Corinth and east towards the Airport.
The new Athens Tram  connects the city centre with the southern suburbs and has connections with the metro lines. There are three tram lines:
A single ticket costs 60 cents.
Athens is served by a network of diesel buses, natural gas buses and electric trolley buses run by the Athens Urban Transport Organisation . A standard bus ticket costs €0.80(It is called the Integrated ticket and costs 0.80 cents for multiple trips within 90 minutes , its color is dark orange and availble in most of the kiosks) . Use the €3.20 ticket to travel to or from the Airport. If you tend to stay here for a while (more than a week) then a weekly pass for €10 is the most economical. It lets you get unlimited rides on almost all public transit (bus, tram, train, subway) for 7 days. After first use, you only need to validate once. Be aware that buses do not stop at bus stops, unless you signal the driver by raising your arm.
Nightbuses. As of March 2006 the nightbus routes are:
Please be advised that at the airport are a multitude of Maps for public transport, especially the busses, tram and trolleys that cover the whole of Athens and parts of Attica like Sunio and other ports.
These maps can be found in display stands and they are Blue and marked with big Numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 in different colours.
Canary yellow taxis are a common sight in Athens and are a reasonably priced way of getting around (if you can avoid the traffic jams). The starting fee is €1, after which the meter ticks up at €0.34/km ("rate 1") or €0.64/km ("rate 2"), with a minimum fare of €2.65. Rate 1 applies through Athens city limits, including the airport, while rate 2 applies outside the city and from midnight to 5 AM. Legal surcharges apply for calling a cab by radio (€1.60), trips to or from the airport (€3.20) and heavy bags (€0.32). Tipping is not necessary, although it's common to round up to the nearest full euro.
Taxi fare fraud is not as widespread as it used to be, but it still happens, so insist on the meter and make sure the rate is correct. If you feel you have been overcharged, ask for a receipt (they are obliged to give one) and take the plate number, then phone the tourist police to report the driver on 171.
Be aware that the taxi drivers rarely obey all of the rules of the road. Expect that if you are leaving Athens on an early flight, that the driver will likely drive aggressively to get you there as quickly as possible.
Expect to share the ride during rush hours if you can find one and at night after the Metro has shutdown. Strikes by cabbies and public transit are common so be prepare and watch the local news.
Athens is certainly not the city to go around with a bicycle, as it does not have any bicycle lanes and the car drivers tend to drive quite aggressively. Nevertheless (or maybe because of this) riding a bicycle in Athens has become lately some sort of a political (counter-)action, especially by young people with an alternative lifestyle. In general, tourists not familiar with the terrible Athenian traffic are not advised to use a bicycle as a principal means of transport. Small rides are safe though in the long network of pedestrian streets around the Historical Centre of the city and can be quite enjoyable indeed.
The initiative My City with a Bike  taken by the General Secretariat for The Youth  and several NGO's offers free conducted tours with free bikes every Saturday and Sunday from 10AM to 3PM all year round except for the rainy days. All you have to do is book 10 days in advance either by email (email@example.com) or phone (8011 19 19 00).
Athens offers some of the best and worst urban walking in Europe. Several major streets have been recently pedestrianized, and a mostly car-free archeological walk has been implemented connecting the Acropolis and nearby sites. Pleasant walking can also be had in Plaka, especially its upper reaches, and in much of Kolonaki, and the National Garden can provide a welcome respite from the heat and noise of the city center. On the other hand, Athens' horrendous traffic can make crossing the street in many areas a hair-raising proposition, and even walking down many major streets can be an unpleasant experience of noise and pollution. Cars and motorbikes parked blocking the sidewalks (illegal but ubiquitous) can also make a stroll difficult. Fortunately, much of the traffic-plagued area of the city can be avoided by judicious use of the new Metro, which goes most places a visitor would want to see or to walk around in.
You can now visit the Acropolis, walk along the picturesque streets of Plaka or the hills around the Acropolis at your own pace, with i Pod Pocket tours audioguides . It’s informative and fun! They are available for rent at Athens Hilton Hotel, Sofitel Athens Airport, King George Palace and Baby Grand Hotel.
Museums and Galleries
Because of its antiquity and influence, Athens is full of museums and galleries. The major ones are the National Archeological Museum near Omonia, the New Acropolis Museum by the Acropolis, the Benaki and Cycladic Art Museums in Kolonaki, the Agora Museum near Monastiraki, and the Kanellopoulos and Folk Art Museums in Plaka. Details of these and others will be found in the district sections.
Although a huge city, Athens has relatively few shopping malls or large department stores; the small, family run shop still conquers all. Souvenirs are of course available everywhere that tourists go. Other shopping opportunities are antiques, museum reproductions, embroideries and other folk art goods, and Greek food and drink products. Here is an overview of the Athens shopping scene; detailed listings will be found on the relevant district pages:
Athens has a wide variety of accommodation options, from camping and hostels, right up to 5 star luxury hotels. For listings of specific hotels, see the individual district sections.
While Athens is generally a very safe city, there have been reports of pickpockets on the Metro and in other crowded areas. Street crime is rare; when it happens, it's most commonly purse-snatching from women walking away from banks and ATM machines.
The friendly stranger bar scam has been reported from areas of central Athens frequented by travelers, including Omonia, Syntagma, and Plaka. Recently there have been some reports of fraud. The usual scenario is that someone will stop you and ask for directions. A couple of other guys show up claiming to be police, showing a badge (must be fake). They ask if you were getting drugs from the other guy and then will ask for your passport and wallet for verification. When you are busy trying to convince them that your passport is valid, one of them sneaks out some money from your wallet.
Another danger recently (September 2008) reported is posed by pickpocket gangs working buses used by tourists. This has been especially reported by travelers boarding the Airport Express Bus in Piraeus. As the bus is boarding, a large group traveling together (who are reported often to be of various nationalities other than Greek) will divide itself in two, with half of them going on board and then stopping in the aisle to cause a jam-up among passengers trying to board through the door behind them, the other half then offering to help the jammed passengers lift their luggage on board. Just before the bus leaves, the half of this group on the bus gets off, and joining the other half outside the door, they all quickly disperse. What has happened, of course, is that the passengers who were being "helped" with their luggage by some of this group were being pick-pocketed by others. The theft is particularly effective because it's directed at travelers who are leaving the country, and are not likely to report it -- many victims don't realize they've been robbed until they get to the airport or even until after they get on the plane. Some travelers have claimed that certain bus drivers are party to these crimes by neglecting to open the rear door of the bus for boarding passengers, thus ensuring a tighter and more confused crowd of jammed passengers trying to board through the center door, which makes the criminals' job easier.
Athenians hold negative perceptions for the areas from Omonoia Square to Karaiskaki Square and the area near Larissis train station (in the western areas of the city proper) and they will advise you to avoid these areas late at night. The National Garden in Athens and the back streets of Piraeus are probably also places where its unwise to wander around late at night. More recently, Sofokleous Street (a major street south of Omonia), especially the western part near Pireos Street, has gotten a reputation for crime and drugs; some Athenians will advise you to avoid it even during the daytime.
Special care should be taken in crossing streets in Athens' chaotic traffic, even if you have the walk light.
Athens is one of the most political cities in Europe. Demonstrations and riots are common and accepted as part of everyday life and democracy by most Athenians. Keep abreast of news of demonstrations, and avoid them if you don't want to run the risk of being arrested or tear-gassed.
Anarchist and leftist groups often target police, government, and corporate targets during the night. It is unlikely that tourists would be hurt, as the anarchists usually take care to only damage property as opposed to people. Nonetheless, parking by a McDonald's, police station, or bank could get your car damaged.
Piraeus, the harbour of Athens, and Rafina (on the east coast of Attica) are the departure points for a large number of ferry services to the Greek Islands and other destinations in the eastern Mediterranean, including ports in Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Israel and Cyprus. Fast hydrofoil, catamaran or helicopter services also take you to the Greek Islands. Italy is easily approached by boat from Patras (take a train or a bus to Patras).
The port of Lavrion in southern Attica is being increasingly developed as a ferry port, especially for Cyclades routes.
Day trips to the Corinth Canal, the theatre at Epidaurus and to the ancient sites of Olympia, Delphi and Mycenae are easy with a rental car. Other towns along the Peloponnese such as Nafplion are charming and worthwhile.