Athens is big, brash, sprawling 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 will be taking place in Athens in August 2004, much work has been done in recent months and years in order to brighten up Athens and give it a more efficient infrastructure. The new 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 artefacts found during excavations for the system. A new tram line is under construction, and Athens International Airport has won awards since its opening in 2001.
At first glance, Athens seems entirely to be comprised 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 Arcopolis.
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.
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.
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.
Athens airport is 38km from the city centre. 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, as 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.
You can also get into the city by taking the E95 bus to the city centre (Syntagma Square) or the E94 to Ethniki Amyna metro station. Works for the Olympics mean that the entire city is something of a construction site at the moment, so do expect traffic delays.
If you are on a budget, a good hotel in the centre 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.
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.
Greeks love to socialise, and Athens buzzes long after its other European counterparts have conked out. Ten pm is the earliest most Greeks will 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.