A decade ago, Athens wasn’t exactly top of tourists’ bucket-lists. The Greek capital was in turmoil, with strikes, demonstrations and firework-riddled riots staged in protest at the hard-hitting austerity measures brought in to tackle the country’s chronic debt crisis. Yet while Greece’s problems haven’t completely gone away – its unemployment rate is still the highest in the euro zone – the economy has shown green shoots of recovery, boosted by tourism, which is booming. Greece now welcomes about 33 million international visitors annually – up from 18 million in 2008 – and you only have to see the queues snaking up the Acropolis to realise what a popular destination it has become.
My advice: if you want to visit Athens’ ancient hilltop citadel – a UNESCO World Heritage site billed as the birthplace of Western civilisation – without feeling too hot, claustrophobic and hemmed in by hordes of other people, and their cameras and selfie sticks, forgo your lie-in and get there early. The gates open at 8am and you should ideally be there by then, preferably with a skip-the-line ticket and a guide who’ll fill you in on the Acropolis’ engrossing history and all the myths and legends swirling around its sun-baked ruins (you can book group tours through the ticket office or private licensed guides online or at hotels and travel agencies).
The Parthenon is the top draw at the Acropolis’ rocky, uneven summit. Dating back to the 5th century BC, this temple was dedicated to the goddess Athena and is the symbol of Athens’ golden age. While restoration to replace its missing and damaged pieces is a painstaking, ongoing project, its existing white marble columns still have a mesmerising quality. In better condition is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a restored stone theatre completed in 161 AD – when the Romans ruled Athens. Perched on the Acropolis’ south-west slope, it has staged open-air performances from Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti in the past and regularly pulls crowds for its high-season (May-October) comedy, music and drama shows.
Another perk of scaling the Acropolis is the panoramas. Almost half of Greece’s near-11 million population live in Athens’ vast metropolitan sprawl, which is dramatically wedged between craggy mountains and the Aegean Sea. It looks like a knotted concrete jungle from up here, dominated by the polykatoikia (20th-century apartment blocks in which most Athenians reside), but down at street level you’ll find a cornucopia of adjoining, amble-friendly neighbourhoods with their own personalities and attractions.
Take Plaka, for example. Fanning out from the foot of the Acropolis, this is the city’s oldest continuously inhabited district. About 3000 BC, a settlement of 5000 people flourished here and a century back, it was a desirable neighbourhood for the Athenian elite, whose handsome neoclassical mansions still catch the eye. Some Plaka properties have been converted into gift stores, cafes and eateries close to the new Acropolis Museum, which showcases ancient archaeological finds excavated from the local area. This striking contemporary landmark was unveiled in 2009 – at the start of “The Crisis”, as Greeks call their country’s near-descent into bankruptcy.
While Greece’s lingering recession froze wages and cut pensions – the average monthly salary, about €800 ($1300), has barely changed in a decade – the people have retained their affection for shopping and socialising and eating and drinking out. Although Greek speakers do hang out in Plaka, you’re just as likely to hear English, Mandarin, Italian, Spanish, Arabic and a host of other languages. It’s very much tourist central here – chatty proprietors will try to entice you into their souvenir shops and gyros joints; vendors will look to sell you roasted nuts from their carts – but if you walk a few hundred metres north, there’s a more local vibe, with Athenians of all ages mingling in the labyrinth of back-streets of the neighbouring Monastiraki and Psirri districts.
Ermou Street, a long, bustling, pedestrianised stretch lined with multi-national brands, throngs with fashion-conscious folk armed with bags of shopping. There are funkier boutiques and cuter concept stores, stocked with leather sandals, ceramics and quirky jewellery, in the quieter, nearby alleys, arcades and passageways, and you may also stumble across flea markets for browsing and buying bric-a-brac and antiques.
Don’t be surprised if you spend half your time taking pictures. Athens is wonderfully photogenic. One moment you’ll be admiring Greco-Roman ruins and Medieval Byzantine churches; the next, colourful street art will steal your attention. Murals have mushroomed across Athens in recent years, caking crumbling building walls, utility boxes and shop shutters with everything from bizarre graffiti tags to modern takes on Greek mythology and anti-austerity politics. You can book street art-themed tours, which point out the best examples and reveal how “The Crisis” has affected day-to-day life and got Athenians’ creative juices flowing.
As you potter around, night or day, various places will tempt you with refreshments: French bistros and sushi joints, trendy cafes and rooftop cocktail bars, and traditional Greek kafenion (coffeehouses) and family-run delis and tavernas, where you can savour grilled fish and seafood, meatballs and souvlaki, or mezze, comprising cured meats and cheeses, with ouzo (that potent Greek spirit) and wines reared in the vineyards near Athens. Some venues, like Oinopoleion – a Psirri wine taverna, founded in 1928 – have backyard terraces and “secret gardens”. Others have tables and chairs spilling out onto squares and pavements, shaded by awnings, with palm trees and plants adding to the scenic settings, and live musicians, strumming guitars and bouzoukis, fuelling the convivial atmosphere.
Having previously visited Athens in the pre-Crisis days, I was slightly apprehensive about the kind of city I’d find on my return, but I’m pleasantly surprised. As buzzing and life-affirming as ever, it’s an invigorating place to spend a few days before taking a ferry to one of those gorgeous Greek islands.
Take me there
Fly: Flight Centre has return fares to Athens from $1159 (ex-Melb), $1177 (ex-Syd) and $1179 (ex-Bris).
Stay: New Hotel, one of Athens’ newest, most stylish and centrally located hotels, has low-season double room rates from €165 ($267).
Tours: Sign up for a walking tour to learn about Athens’ absorbing history and thriving street-art scene. Tours are free, but you’re expected to tip the guides.
Explore more: visitgreece.gr