Athens (Αθήνα, Athína, ) is the capital city of Greece with a metropolitan population of 3.7 million inhabitants. In many ways the birthplace of Classical Greece, and therefore of Western civilization.....
Athens is big, brash and frenetic, but has a wonderful charm all of its own. All too often tourists' perceptions are clouded by the fact that they overnight in Athens on their way to or from the Greek islands, and so the extent of their Athens experience amounts to a quick view of the mostly grotty town of Piraeus, a cheap hotel, and maybe the Acropolis in scorching summer heat if they're lucky. Athens, however, has a lot more to offer....
Given that the Olympic Games took place in Athens in August 2004, much work was done in the months and years running up to the Games in order to brighten up Athens and give it a more efficient infrastructure. There were protests and some resentment of the cost and subsequent debt incurred.
Athens displays a bewildering mix of architectural styles from across the centuries and under many influences, making it a fascinating place to visit. A European Union-sponsored aims to help in Discovering Contemporary Architecture in Athens by means of multimedia presentation and guided walks.
Spring and late autumn are the best times to visit Athens. Summer can be extremely hot, compounded by humidity.... but you can be lucky! Winter is definitely low season, being somewhat chilly with the occasional rainy day, but also an ideal time to save money while enjoying the city without countless other travellers and tourists.
Athens has something of a reputation for being Europe's smog capital, the most polluted city on the continent.... While this was once true (and the memory dies hard), it is now quite undeserved. For the last decade or more, massive clean ups have been in force, older vehicles and buses were withdrawn from the roads, industries were moved out of the city centre and the Metro has been expanded. Whilst peak hour can still be a bit smoggy on the main roads, most days the skies are clear and azure blue.
The sprawling city is bounded on three sides by Mt Hymettos, Mt Parnitha and Mt Pendeli; whilst inside Athens are eight hills (one more than Rome!), 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.
Most things 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....
Syntagma Square (Plateia Syntagmatos) - dominated by the old Royal Palace, Syntagma Square is the business district of Athens, complete with major hotels, banks, restaurants and airline offices
the Plaka - just below the Acropolis, tourist central and full of special charm, the Plaka is the old Turkish quarter and the core of contemporary Athens
the Acropolis - the ancient "high city" of Athens, crowned by marble temples sacred to the city's goddess Athena
Kolonaki - a high class residential area with many cafes, boutiques and galleries
Psiri - up and coming, full of stylish cafés, bars and small shops
Omonia - a somewhat seedy district, sometimes notorious for pickpockets and prostitutes (be careful here!), Omonia is nonetheless an important transport hub, especially for buses
the Piraeus - the ancient port of Athens, still bustling with trade and transport connections - ferries to the Aegean islands depart from here....
Athens International Airport (Eleftherios Venizelos) is situated 27 km (17 miles) east of the city center at Spata. This well-appointed airport opened in 2001, raising the comfort levels of travelling to Athens and Greece by a phenomenal degree.
Athens airport is a major hub in the Aegean, Balkan and East Mediterranean regions. 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
by metro to the city centre for €6 (be prepared to spend up to 20 minutes for change from metro to railway: metro is not going end-to-end)
by suburban railway to Larissis Railway Station for €6
by bus: E92 to Kifissia, E93 to Kifissos Coach Station, E94 to Ethniki Amyna metro station, E95 to Syntagma Square, E96 to Piraeus and E97 to Dafni metro station for €2.90. It takes 50min to 1.5hrs depending on traffic.
by taxi for €15-20
It is advisable to grab a free copy of city transport map in the airport -- in the city, it helps a lot.
If you stay in Athens for a short time, consider leaving most luggage in a baggage storage. It is run by Pacific Travel, is located in the end of left-hand wing, arrivals level. Storage time differentiates between 6 / 12 / 18 / 24 / 36 hours, then x24hr; sizes vary to Small, Medium and Large. The only inconvenience is that same queue is for collecting and for leaving -- allow extra time before your flight. No automatic lockers found in the airport.
By regional coach
Regional coaches (KTEL) connect Athens to other cities in Greece.
Trains (OSE) connect Athens to other cities in Greece.
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. There are three lines:
Line Μ1-ISAP: Piraeus - Kifissia connects the port of Piraeus and the northern suburbs of Athens via the city centre.
Line M2: Agios Antonios - Agios Dimitrios connects western and southern Athens.
Line M3: Monastiraki – International Airport connects the city centre with the northern suburbs (Halandri and Doukissis Plakentias stations) and the International Airport.
The standard metro fare (as of January 2005) is €0.70 for trips between all stations expept the Airport. 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 group of 2 persons and €15 for a one-way trip for a group of 3 persons.
A day ticket of €2.90 will let you use all modes of transport and includes one trip to or from the Airport by bus only. A weekly ticket of €10 will let you use all modes of transport between all stations except the Airport.
The new combined ticket, introduced December 2004, costs €1 and is valid for all modes of transport for 1.5 hours between all stations except the Airport.
By suburban rail
The Suburban Railway (Proastiakos) began being built in 2002 and finished in 2004, starts from Larissis Station (OSE Main Line station and Metro station) and terminates at the International Airport (Eleftherios Venizelos).
The new Athens Tram connects the city centre with the southern suburbs and has connections with the Metro lines. There are two tram lines:
Line 1 (T1): Syntagma – Neos Kosmos – Palaio Faliro – Glyfada connects the city centre with the coastal zone.
Line 2 (T2): Peace and Friendship Stadium – Palaio Faliro – Helliniko connects Faliro Olympic Complex with Helliniko Olympic Complex.
Athens is served by a network of diesel buses and electric trolley buses run by the Athens Urban Transport Organisation. A standard bus ticket costs €0.45. Use the €2.90 day ticket to travel to or from the Airport.
Nightbuses were first introduced in Athens during the Olympic Games in 2004. As of January 2005 the nightbus routes are:
Expect to pay about 20 euro by taxi during the day, and 30-35 euro after midnight and before 5am. Note that taxi meters in Athens have two rates - rate 1 applies from 5am till midnight, and rate 2, the double rate, from midnight to 5am. Taxi fare fraud is not as widespread as it used to be, but it still happens, so 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.
At first glance, Athens seems entirely to be composed of nasty, four to six storey concrete buildings, lacking character and badly in need of a lick of paint, but look beyond that and you will find little gems tucked in amongst the grey. The areas at the foot of the Acropolis, Anafiotika, Plaka, Monastiraki and Thiseio are home to may wonderful neoclassical buildings, trendy and traditional cafes and shops, narrow winding streets, and incredible views of the Acropolis. Little Greek Orthodox churches are tucked in amongst the concrete, often in the most unexpected places. These are usually beautifully decorated with icons and brass fixtures inside, but make sure you're appropriately dressed (no short sleeves or bare legs is a good rule of thumb, as a mark of respect).
For the best views of Athens, take the funicular railway from the top of Ploutarchou Street in Kolonaki (make sure to wear flat shoes, and bring lots of water!) and see the whole city, the port of Piraeus and the island of Aegina from the top of Lycavittos Hill. Have a drink at the cafe there, and pay a visit to the chapel of St George.
If you're lucky enough to be in Athens for the Easter Weekend, you'll see the spectacular sight of hundreds of people making their candlelit way down the hill on Easter Saturday night as part of the Easter Vigil procession.
the Acropolis - the ancient fortified town of Athens, dating back to the Late Bronze Age, now the site of the best buildings of the Greek Classical age: the Parthenon, the Erectheion, the Temple of Athena Nike.....
Museums and Galleries
Given its antiquity and influence, Athens is full of museums and galleries. Here are a selection of 'must-sees' - district articles will hold additional possibilities....
Acropolis Museum - newly renovated for the Olympics and a hoped-for return of the Elgin Marbles....
National Archaeological Museum of Athens - Greece's best repository of archaeological finds.
Kolonaki is Posh Central. Come here for first hand experience of the sport of "people watching" and marvel at the spectacle of elegantly dressed people of all ages lounging in the cafes on the main square, sipping Frappé and gossiping. Here is where you'll find your designer goodies, should you be so inclined.
Shopping addicts will love Kolonaki, or for a more reasonable price tag, Ermou Street, beside Syntagma Square. Turn right off Ermou at the MAC makeup shop and you'll find yourself on Aghiou Markou and other small streets which are home to incredibly cheap shoes, bags, jewellery, gifts, homewares, and so on.
Psyrri is the up-and-coming social hub of Athens. Situated in the "warehouse" district, beside Monastiraki metro station, it's home to many of Athens' more funky restaurants, and a great number of good tavernas and bars. The place buzzes on a Saturday night, well into the small hours.
Greeks love to socialise, and Athens buzzes long after its other European counterparts have conked out. 10 pm is the earliest most Greeks will consider going to eat out, and clubbers start to get ready at about midnight. Note that many Athens clubs relocate to the beach during the summer months. Cafes spill onto the streets and the sound of lively conversation is everywhere in the evenings.
Athens has a wide variety of accommodation options, from camping and hostels, right up to 5 star luxury hotels.
If you are on a budget, a good hotel in the center is the Hotel Plaka, in the heart of the tourist district. Do book well in advance though as it is deservedly very popular.
Luxury hotels include the Grande Bretagne and the Hilton, both of which were extensively refurbished last year.
When everything is overbooked in advance, consider BestWestern chain (www.bestwestern.com). The chain operates in growing economies (like Armenia or Eastern Europe): seriously refurbishes interior of hotels built dozens year ago, introduces western management -- and then sells it to US/Canadian/Australian travellers. This results in low rates and a good service. Booking: Normally, BestWestern hotels should be booked via chain's web site -- and they send detailed email confirming booking (but not take prepayment -- only take credit card details for guarantee purposes). Hotels themselves accept direct contact for booking, but can't give detailed written confirmation of booking you may need for visa arrangement.
Zinon Good choice if you don't plan to leave your room in evenings: it's Omonia, it's quite dirty and the only shops you'll find nearby are run by Russian families (and yes, they sell variety of Russian foods). Internet connection is declared to work for every room. It's WiFi with good strength but VERY unstable, breaking for 2 minutes every 10 minutes. Besides, there's a LAN outlet in every room, not tried -- and not supported, according to reception. Single €60, double €80 (breakfast included).
Marina Hotel, 13 Voulgari Str, +30 21 05237832, fax +30 21 05229109, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.marinahotel.gr, www.marinahotel-athens.com. Reservations are processed awfully (eg: for request to book 3 rooms, they confirmed 2: "that's all we have"); emails in English are responded irregularly; English over phone is very low as well. Single €49, double €59.
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 and catamaran services also take you to the Greek Islands.