Difference between revisions of "Athens"
Revision as of 21:16, 1 October 2007
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.
Visitors today may be shocked to find a city nothing like they had imagined. A large, overwhelming proportion of the city and its nearest suburbs are subject to bad urban planning and unimaginative 1970s architecture. There are few green spaces in the central areas of the city, and the urban sprawl does an injustice to the city's glorious past.
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. With 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. Certain areas of the city center, such as Pláka and Thissio districts, retained their charming 19th century architecture but fell into decay, at least to some degree.
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 -as much as possible- undo the damages of recent decades. Over the course of the next 15 years, millions of euros 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.
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 Sights -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 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 program aims to help in Discovering Contemporary Architecture in Athens by means of multimedia presentation and guided walks.
The Athens Academy is a beautiful building on Panapestimiou Street, about a 10 minute walk from Syntagma. Next to the Academy is the University of Athens (its original location) and the National Library.
Spring and late autumn are the best times to visit Athens. Summer can be extremely hot and dry during heatwaves, but these rarely happen. Winter is definitely low season, being chilly 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.
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, on most sunny days the skies are 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.
Athens Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport is situated 27 km (17 miles) east of the city center, near the suburb of Spáta. This well-appointed airport opened in 2001, raising the comfort levels of travelling to Athens and Greece by a phenomenal degree, for travellers arriving from 'Euro-zone' countries. This means that you are going to need euro coins if you want a trolley for your luggage; trolleys are available at the airport 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. 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 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. 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 (Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania) so your best move will always be to ask on both the bus and the train companies about your available options.
Trains (OSE)  connect 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 to the south (pelloponisos) 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 €1 integrated (flat fare) ticket lets you travel on any means of transport — metro, suburban trains, trams, trolleybuses, buses — with unlimited transfers anywhere within Athens (except the airport line east of Doukissis Plakentias) 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 (as of January 2005) 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 group of 2 persons and €15 for a one-way trip for a group of 3 persons.
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, and forks at Neratziotissa west to 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 €0.50. Use the €3.20 ticket to travel to or from the Airport.
Nightbuses. As of March 2006 the nightbus routes are:
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.
Athens is certainly not the city to go around with a bicycle, as it has not 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 10 am to 3 pm all year round except for the rainy days. All you have to do is book 10 days in advance either by email ([email protected]) or phone (8011 19 19 00).
You can also rent a bike or join a conducted tour at http://www.pamevolta.gr
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:
Athens has a wide variety of accommodation options, from camping and hostels, right up to 5 star luxury hotels.
While generally a very safe city, Athens is home to several pickpockets. Traffic can be horrendous at times.
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 McDonald's, police stations, or banks 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 and catamaran or helicopter services also take you to the Greek Islands. Check  for timetables. Italy is easier approached by boat from Patras (take a train or a bus to Patras).
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.