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Athens is a must-see destination on any European vacation. The capital and largest city in Greece, it’s also been the center of Greek civilization for 4,000 years. Athens may be an ancient city, but it has a contemporary atmosphere with an active restaurant, bar and nightlife scene.
The Mediterranean climate of Athens makes for hot and dry summers (with an average temperature of 92 degrees in July) and mild winters with moderate rainfall (with an average temperature of 48 degrees in January). Since it can be very hot and dry in the summer and occasionally rainy or snow in the winter, the best times of the year to visit Athens are spring and late fall. The winter, however, is the low season for tourism, so travelers may find the city to be less busy with tourists then.
Since Greece is part of the European Union, the official currency of Athens is the Euro. U.S. currency can easily be exchanged for Euros at banks, post offices, travel bureaus and foreign exchange offices in Athens. If travelers don’t want to exchange their currency, almost all hotels, shops and restaurants accept credit cards.
Athens is a world center for archaeological research, making it an ideal vacation destination for any history buffs. It is home to one of the most important international archaeological museums, the National Archeological Museum. Its collection of artifacts covers a period of time of more than 5,000 years. The Acropolis, a hilltop citadel that includes ancient monuments like the Parthenon, is also located in Athens. A visit to the Ancient Agora allows visitors to enjoy a beautiful view of the Acropolis as well as the Temple of Hephaestus, the best-preserved ancient Greek temple. The Acropolis is also listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it’s the most complete collection of Ancient Greek monuments still existing. It truly is a necessary place to visit when in Athens.
Though history is big in Athens, there are other aspects to the city to appeal to other travelers. Athens has been slowly reinventing itself by turning congested downtown streets into pedestrian walkways; revamping hotels, museums and archeological sites; building the state-of-the-art Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport; and expanding the Athens Metro system.
The city's culinary scene is bustling and ever-evolving. Travelers can find many types of food and restaurants, from tavernas serving traditional Greek cuisine to modern and award-winning restaurants. There are many wine and cocktail bars serving wines and other beverages from all over the world.
Sights in ancient Greece, and especially Athens, take on a larger importance than in most other places in the world. They are histories of democracy, Western civilization and philosophy firsthand. You can't help but walk around the Parthenon and the rest of the Acropolis and dream about the great ones who have come before you and whose footsteps you're in.
Athens is a must-see on any European tour. The ancient and modern merge in this city in ways that are fascinating and sometimes overwhelming. Pollution wreathes the golden stones of the Acropolis and obscures views of the Saronic Gulf. Cars bleat and belch among ranks of concrete high-rises.
But then you turn down a cobbled lane and discover vine-swathed tavernas, tortoises trundling through ancient ruins and bazaars teeming with dusty treasures. Or perhaps you will encounter a sleek cafe, art gallery or an outdoor cinema that serves ouzo under the stars. Greece's capital has been reinventing itself, and the results could not be more charming.
The metro routes are extensive, and the stations dazzle with marble and antiquities. Congested downtown streets have been turned into pedestrian walkways, greatly reducing Athens' notorious smog and noise. Hotels, museums and archaeological sites have been revamped. Gentrified districts—such as Gazi—host cafes, clubs and chic restaurants, which even boast smoke-free sections.
The years since 2010 brought Greece's most severe economic crisis of modern times, together with harsh austerity measures, social unrest and even talk of defaulting and leaving the Eurozone, the 17-nation group of EU countries that use the euro as their common currency. Yet there is a built-in certainty that Greece will ride this storm as it has many others. Greeks are proud of their Olympic history, their renovated capital city and—most of all—their proven ability to surmount obstacles.
Despite the media images of frequent demonstrations and protest marches, some of which have become violent and lead to scuffles with the police, Athens should remain firmly on the travel map, prized for both its ancient charms and its modern makeover.
Sights—The Acropolis; the ancient Agora (marketplace); the Temple of Olympian Zeus; the changing of the evzone guards outside Parliament in Syntagma Square; Lykavittos Hill; a day trip to Cape Sounion for the sunset; a one-day cruise around the Saronic Islands.
Museums—The Acropolis Museum; the Museum of the Ancient Agora of Athens; the Benaki Museum; the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic and Ancient Greek Art; the National Archaeological Museum.
Memorable Meals—The spectacular view of the Acropolis and the creative cuisine at Orizontes Lykavittou; the mind-boggling variety of traditional Greek dishes served at Eleas Gi; modern Greek taverna fare in trendy Gazi; rooftop dining in Thissio; award-winning seafood specialties at Varoulko.
Late Night—Rebetiko music at Stoa Athanaton; outdoor cinemas during summer; Greek and international jazz and blues at Half Note Jazz Club; live acts at Gazarte; bars and clubs in the Agia Eirini neighborhood; open-air summer dance clubs by the sea; an Athens and Epidaurus Festival performance in the ancient Odeon of Herod Atticus.
Walks—Through the Plaka (Old Athens) and the flea market in the Monastiraki area; along the traffic-free "archaeological promenade" Apostolou Pavlou in Thissio.
Especially for Kids—The virtual-reality presentations at the Hellenic Cosmos (adults will love it, too); the bird collection at the Attica Zoological Park; the Hellenic Children's Museum in the Plaka.
Athens sits in a basin in southeastern Greece, closed in by the mountains of Pendeli, Parnitha, Imitos and Egaleo and opening toward the Saronic Gulf to the west.
The Acropolis remains the city's massive, gracious centerpiece. The Plaka area, or Old Athens, lies directly below, and its labyrinth of walkways acts almost as a shield, protecting the sacred hill from the modern city. At the outskirts of the Plaka, to the northeast, is Syntagma Square. The city's business center—with its offices, stores and hotels—begins there as one corner of the commercial triangle (the downtown pedestrian zone). The other two corners of the triangle are roughly Omonia Square (a somewhat seedy neighborhood) and Monastiraki Square (site of the famous flea market). Ermou Street, the "base" of the triangle, is one of the city's main shopping concourses. Beyond Syntagma lies Kolonaki, an up-market residential district and home to chic boutiques and several foreign embassies, behind which rises Athens' highest peak, Lykavittos Hill.
Most of the major archaeological sites and museums are within a 2.5-mi/4-km radius of Syntagma Square. The neighborhoods of Psiri, Thissio, Kerameikos, Metaxourgeio and Gazi to the north and west of the Acropolis have been transformed into trendy entertainment areas with traditional tavernas, elegant restaurants, fashionable nightspots and art galleries. Farther north along Kifissias Avenue are the upper-class residential suburbs and upscale commercial areas such as Psychico, Filothei, Maroussi, Kifissia and Ekali—favorite locations for foreign embassies, consulates and companies, and for private schools and colleges.
The city extends southwest to the coast, encompassing the sprawling port of Piraeus, and to its south, the upper-class coastal suburbs and beaches of Faliro, Kalamaki, Glyfada, Voula and Vouliagmeni. Just off this coast, 30 minutes to two hours away by ferry, catamaran or hovercraft, are the nearby islands of the Saronic Gulf: Aegina, Poros, Hydra and Spetses.
Once a fortified village entirely contained atop the Acropolis, Athens grew into one of the most powerful city-states in the ancient world. As a successful trading city with its own port, it became Greece's leading metropolis. The fifth century BC ushered in Athens' Golden Age, the classical period that has had such a profound effect on the development of Western thought. The city's government evolved into the world's first democracy. Its leaders rebuilt the city's monuments in marble—the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Odeon. Socrates and then Plato shaped the world of philosophy. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes wrote their seminal dramatic works and saw them performed.
Athens' Golden Age was influential but short-lived. The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) against rival Sparta was disastrous. Soon, the powerful Greek city-states fell apart and into the hands of Philip of Macedon, then to his son Alexander the Great. The three centuries following Alexander the Great's death are known as the Hellenistic period, when the arts, literature and science flourished. The Roman Empire took control in 146 BC, but Athens was highly respected and was treated well. Integration into the Byzantine Empire was more radical. Venetians ruled in the 13th century, and the Turks took over in 1453, holding power in Greece until the 19th century.
Greece became an independent country in 1829, and Athens was named the capital in 1833. It was the seat of monarchies and democracies and the scene of uprisings and civil war in the 20th century, as the country struggled to join the ranks of developing nations. Since the country's bid for economic and political stability, the city has become a popular destination, both for its historic sites and its proximity to the Greek islands.
The first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, saw 14 nations competing. All 245 athletes were male.
Greece is one of only two countries to have competed in every modern Olympic Games. The other is Australia.
The ubiquitous tomato was only introduced to Greece, in Athens, in 1818.
Greeks are the biggest cheese-eaters in Europe—and most of the cheese they eat is feta.
Cruise ships moor in the terminal at the port of Piraeus, approximately 6 mi/10 km southwest of Athens' city center. With 11 berths, the terminal can accommodate even the largest vessels. http://www.olp.gr.
Internal shuttle buses deliver passengers from the individual berths to the international-passengers terminal, where facilities include duty-free shops, exchange offices and a bank, and parking for as many as 60 buses, plus a heliport. Metro Line 1 connects Monastiraki and Omonia Square in central Athens with the harbor, and taxis are cheap and readily available.
Located 70 mi/115 km east of Atlanta, Athens, Georgia, provides a good study in how the New South coexists with the Old South.
Athens has been the home of the University of Georgia, the first land-grant university in the U.S., since the school was chartered in 1785. A visit to the campus is worth your time. Begin at the University of Georgia Visitors Center, Four Towers Building, Campus Station Road, in Athens. Phone 706-542-0842. http://www.uga.edu/visit/reserve_tour.php.
The campus includes Sanford Stadium, where UGA fans cheer for the Georgia Bulldogs football team, which is spelled and pronounced "DAWGS." This is well-demonstrated during football season as fans yell, in unison, "Go You Hairy DAWGS!" or "Hunker Down Hairy DAWGS!" The Bulldogs are former national champions and (many times) Southeastern Conference Champions.
The UGA campus includes the State Botanical Garden, where your family can enjoy a stroll along 5 mi/8 km of wooded, floral trails and more than 300 acres/120 hectares of grounds on the Middle Oconee River.
Although some of the country's botanical gardens are boring, stuffy places to take the family, the gorgelike ravines and spring-fed streams of this garden include plenty of wide open spaces where children can run, skip, hop, jump, and whoop and holler to their hearts' content. The collection of plants includes local, tropical and semitropical plants. If you do take kids, make sure they see the interesting garden of medicinal plants. An especially nice rose garden blooms May-November.
A lively music scene (supported by students from the University of Georgia) flourishes in the bars, clubs and coffeehouses of the restored downtown (it brought the world such bands as R.E.M. and the B-52s). The city celebrates local music and art each June at AthFest. http://www.athfest.com.
You don't have to look far to find the Old South in Athens: It's evident in the many Greek Revival homes and buildings that dot the city. The best example is the circa 1845 Taylor-Grady House. Its 13 columns were meant to symbolize the original U.S. colonies.
The University of Georgia, across the street from downtown, boasts a number of these Greek Revival buildings, including Demosthenian Hall and the president's house. The university is also the home of the Georgia Museum of Art, whose collection emphasizes Italian Renaissance and 19th- and 20th-century American paintings.
Among the city's off-campus sights is the Church-Waddel-Brumby House, the oldest house in the city, now serving as the visitors center.
Before leaving town, take a look at the unusual double-barreled cannon at City Hall: It was designed to fire two cannon balls connected by a chain, but it was only tested once. That firing is said to have killed an innocent cow and destroyed a chimney.
Also in the isn't-that-just-nuts? department, Athens is home to "The Tree That Owns Itself." In gratitude to a white oak that had provided good shade, a property owner deeded possession of a small chunk of land to the tree. Though the original oak was destroyed in a storm in 1942, possession of the parcel passed to its offspring (an acorn), which has grown into another upstanding property owner.
Rabbittown is an unincorporated hamlet a few miles/kilometers from Gainesville (40 mi/65 km northwest of Athens). There, on an otherwise unremarkable dirt road, sits the home of R.A. Miller. Though not a household name in the world of high art, the elderly former minister has gained a cult following over the years for his makeshift sculptures cobbled together from scrap metal, engine parts and other pieces of the world's flotsam and jetsam. These peek out from every nook of his property, like a junkyard brought to life. As one might expect from a onetime man of the cloth, Miller often adorns his sculptures with religious messages.
More information on Athens, UGA and the surrounding area is available from the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau. Phone 706-357-4430. http://www.visitathensga.com.
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