Gone are the days when Athens was regarded as no more than a quick stopover for visitors eager to reach their island paradise.
Despite–or perhaps because of–the financial crisis, the Greek capital has carved out for itself a highly contemporary, sophisticated and exciting identity, offering residents and visitors alike a multitude of immersive reasons to stay on and explore it in depth.
With a wide array of exquisite gastronomic, cultural, sportive and social experiences in and around the town centre, the friendly, multicultural, 24/7 city is on many levels on a par with the world’s top destinations, while just half an hour from central Athens you can discover lush green spots on mountains like Parnitha and Hymmitos, as well as lovely coastal areas in the southern suburbs.
Athens is cheap to navigate by taxi, safe to walk around and has one of the world’s best metro networks, so there’s no reason why you can’t get to see everything you desire within even a few days.
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Gone are the days when Athens was regarded as no more than a quick stopover for visitors eager to reach their island paradise.
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Drinkers too can today celebrate the safe landing of fabulous cocktails in Athens, often also made using Greek spirits and liqueurs like mastiha, ouzo or raki, or infused or distilled with Greek flavours, by skilled mixologists.
Meanwhile, cool and elegant wine bars serving labels from around the country by the bottle or glass and accompanied by tasty finger foods are a widespread trend that attests to the success story that is the new Greek wine as it gains momentum worldwide.
- Homemade-style, yet beautifully presented Greek products made by small producers. Think gold-leaf honey, olive oils and hand-picked organic herbal teas, sold at an increasing number of traditional stores.
- Vegan/vegetarian restaurants, juice-bars and organic groceries, part of a health food scene that has recently blossomed in Athens.
The other high point of the city, Lycabettus Hill, atop which you can spot the whitewashed chapel of St. George, is another great zone to run or hike, offering stunning vistas of the city (if you prefer to rest your legs, there is also a cable-car from Kolonaki that takes you to the top).
For less hilly trails, urban runners enjoy the track right behind the marble Panathenaic Stadium, as well as the wonderfully peaceful and large National Gardens and Zappeio nearby.
Just around half an hour’s drive out of the city centre are verdant and huge Mount Parnitha (up the national road to the north) and Mount Hymmitos to the southeast, both rich in flora and fauna and offering a great array of trails for all challenge levels of hiking and running, as well as caving, off-road biking and mountain-climbing.
Sea-sports lovers, meanwhile, can head toward the southern areas of Vouliagmeni, Glyfada, Varkiza and Kavouri, where many organized beaches rent out water-sports equipment, boats, scuba gear and surf boards, while in the east of Athens, Rafina is also a popular surfing and kite surfing hotspot.
- The Athens Marathon, taking place annually in early November, and the ultra-marathon Spartathlon, setting off from Athens to Sparta on the last weekend in September. Both classic races welcome runners from around the globe.
- Outdoor personal fitness training, group cycling events, Segway tours, golf, horse-riding, scuba-diving, sailing and more. All can be easily organized for a one-day (or more) individual or group experience.
A fascinating aspect of simply strolling through Athens today is how elements of its multi-layered history (starting at around 7000BC) are placidly stated, de-facto, by evidence of glimmering ruins strewn along streets of historic neighbourhoods like Plaka, Monastraki and Thisseio, or archaeological digs going on in random parts of town.
The city features buildings from Roman times, the Ottoman occupation, the Byzantine era, the 19th century, the 50s and 60s blocks as well as some eye-catching contemporary structures, all muddled together across the city.
When it comes to learning about local culture itself, there is nothing more rewarding and educational than immersing oneself in the ways of the locals – for example, sitting out at busy cafes for hours on end to watch the world go by; visiting the “bouzoukia” for a loud whisky-drinking and carnation-throwing night; seeing a traditional dance performance on Philopappou Hill; watching an opera under the stars in the Odeon of Herod Atticus or a movie in a jasmine-scented, open-air cinema.
A delightful way to discover the historical wealth surrounding Athens is by taking half or full-day trips to historical towns and sites that should not be missed. South of Attica is the picturesque seaside town of Epidaurus, where you can swim, dine and visit the famous ancient amphitheatre known for its astounding acoustics, where exciting performances of the Athens Festival are hosted throughout summer.
Or head deeper toward the Peloponnese, crossing the Corinth Canal and then hiking up Acrocorinth, after which you can visit the nearby site of ancient Mycenae, the kingdom of mythical Agamemnon.
Around 180km northwest of Athens is Arachova, a popular skiing location, and a little further on, the impressive ancient site of Delphi, known in ancient times for the Delphic Oracle. At this stupendous site spread above the valley, you can admire the 4th Century BC Temple of Apollo with its famous Adyton, where Pythia delivered her oracles, and the Archaeological Museum.
- The Acropolis Museum, which showcases finds from sanctuaries and settlements that were on the Acropolis. Its ascending glass floor is created to reflect the slopes of the ancient rock. See its stunning gallery of statues, each with its own tale, and enjoy the shop and restaurant.
- Other must-see museums for gaining a good sense of Athens, like the Benaki Museum, Archaeological Museum and Cycladic Art Museum. Also, don’t overlook the smaller folklore museums such as the Museum of Traditional Instruments.
- The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) is a multifunctional and environmentally sustainable education, arts, and recreation destination designed by the internationally renowned architect Renzo Piano. It includes the new state-of-the-art facilities of the National Library of Greece, the Greek National Opera and the Stavros Niarchos Park, covering an area of 210,000 sqm.
One of the most significant cultural and environmental projects ever undertaken in Greece, it regenerates the surrounding urban fabric, enriching the local communities and the image of the city as a whole.
- Out-of-the-box guided tours putting a fresh perspective on the city’s culture and history. Examples are insider-led tours of food markets, urban graffiti hotspots or literary landmarks.
Cape Sounion, for an exceptional day trip just 70km from Athens. Perched majestically at the edge of the sea, the Temple of Poseidon (built in 444BC) is the second most-photographed temple after the Parthenon, especially at sunset. There are tavernas and beaches nearby. Don’t miss Lord Byron’s graffiti – his name engraved on a column.
Starting with the centre of town, there are the beautiful National Gardens, where over 500 species of plants, trees and animals live.
Commissioned by Queen Amalia in the early 19th century, the gardens were created as a wonderful place for repose and recreation; ponds, endless meandering walkways, small lakes, beautifully shaded areas, open lawns scattered with ancient ruins as well as a botanical museum all await your exploration.
Within the heart of the city too is Lycabettus Hill, which takes no longer than 40 minutes to walk up. A manmade cornucopia (it was treeless until 1880) of pine, cypress, eucalyptus, olive, carob and fig trees, it is covered with wild flowers and aromatic herbs like lavender, rosemary, sage and thyme, and is also home to an impressive array of reptiles, birds, bats and other wildlife.
If you’re eager to hike through its wonderful nature you can stay at Flabouri or Bafi refuges and participate in a whole host of treks, runs and other activities that include exploring the mountain and its many faces at length.
Massive Mount Hymmitos is another nearby nature-lover’s delight, with over 100 bird species, several mammals, reptiles, bats and amphibians. Its flora is abundant, with some 600 species, of which 44 are orchids and 34 are indigenous Greek plants.
Trees such as oaks, arbutus, wild olive, carob and pine live in its highest parts. Hymmitos is also a centre for apiculture, and is well known for its honey.
- The Tatoi Estate. The glorious former home of the Greek Royal Family, located on a southeast-facing slope of Mount Panitha, offers a reviving and elegant green escape from the concrete of the city. The 10,000-acre expanse includes various derelict yet beautiful buildings, including the palace itself, scattered among lively nature: oak, Aleppo pine, and Arbutus, olive, plane and strawberry trees abound.
- The mini oases in central Athens: gorgeous greenery with ancient rocks at the Acropolis and its thereabouts (Philopappou and Pnyx hills), Strefi Hill near Exarcheia and Ardittou Hill behind the marble Panathenaic Stadium.
- Syngrou Forest between the northern suburbs of Maroussi and Kifissia. This 950-hectare, mainly pine forest, expanse is an important “lung” for the area, and can be visited freely. It houses an agricultural school which carries on various activities within the forest.
- Lake Vouliagmeni. A great place for a swim year-round as its temperature remains at around 22-24 degrees Celsius. It contains a mixture of lake and sea water and has a continuous inflow of water from hot springs, which are considered curative. The clean, crystalline lake has a massive and complex system of underwater caves that progress inside the mountain and are unexplored beyond 3,123m, as it has so far proven impossible to venture further. You can also enjoy coffee or food there from morning to night and deck-chairs with umbrellas are available.
- The Diomides Botanical Garden. Over 500 species of flora to be enjoyed in a vast expanse of 186 hectares. Enjoy discovering a plethora of medicinal, historic and ornamental plants, a greenhouse and nursery and a wonderful herbarium with over 19,000 samples of dried plants.
- Sounio National Park in southern Attica. Although known mainly for its mesmerizing Temple of Poseidon, Sounio also is home to a forest that is alive with hundreds of plant and animal species, including rare orchids, birds of prey, wrasse fish and land tortoises. The forest has been designated a Natura 2000 National Park. The area is also rich in mineral ores (256 types), mined there since antiquity.
Gardens of Athens where you can sip your coffee – the Numismatic and Cycladic Museum gardens, the Athens Concert Hall garden and the cafe in Eleftherias Park are some great spots.
In the Greek capital you can enjoy staying out from the bright, sunny morning until the early hours on any day of the week, rubbing shoulders with modish personalities, intellectuals and trendsetters at gourmet restaurants, exhibition openings and cutting-edge bars, or at central multi-spaces that host live DJ nights, film screenings and video art.
You can head to newly-popular designer bars and ethnic food restaurants behind Syntagma Square or glamorous clubs in Kolonaki.
Or head to grungy-hip Metaxourgeio and Psyrri to people-watch, admire wall after wall featuring impressive graffiti art, sip raki and sample neo-Greek style meze.
Or hang back in the most ’anarchic’ Athenian neighbourhood of Exarchia. Although lacking an edge, touristy Plaka and Acropolis also have a fair share of perfectly pleasant hang-outs to choose from, though they are busier with tourists than trendy locals.
- High-fashion shopping. Leave behind the high-street throngs on Ermou Street and walk up pedestrian Voukourestiou Street into glamorous Kolonaki with its designer boutiques. Make sure you stop for a cappuccino in the main square to see and be seen.
- Up-and-coming Koukaki, right under the Acropolis. Rated by Airbnb among the top neighbourhoods to visit in 2016, it has become a new trendy hangout exuding old-fashioned charm and understated glamour.
- All day-all night Syntagma Square and its surrounding streets. Bars, cafes, museums, shops and restaurants can keep you happily enjoying this area without ever feeling amiss.
Agias Eirinis Square in Monastiraki, and Gazi, the most gay-friendly areas, featuring great nightlife and a plethora of good food choices.
The northern and southern suburbs. The Athens Riviera to the south of the centre (most of it reachable via tram) offers great opportunities for a swim, cocktail or a bite to eat by the sea, shopping or a leisurely stroll along the seafront promenade. To the north, visit Kifissia for high-end shopping in a refreshing leafy suburb with a pretty park.
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Athens is located in Attica, a peninsula jutting into the Aegean Sea in a south-easterly direction.
The city on the northwest corner is surrounded by three mountains, Parnitha to the north, Penteli to the northeast and Hymmitos to the southeast. To the west is the sea and one of the largest ports in Europe, the port of Piraeus. Looking at a map of Greece, Athens is pretty much in the middle of the country.