Athens: Exploring the streets, art and architecture of Greece's ancient capital

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The cradle of Western civilisation is as fascinating a city as it's ever been. Graham Turner and Chris Bourn explore the streets, art and architecture of Athens

Greece’s ancient capital may have dominated the headlines this year, but it’s worth remembering that Athens was shaping the fate of Europe thousands of years before the continent was a glint in Napoleon’s eye. From Persian hordes to Roman conquerors, the city and its culture have endured through worse calamities – and as the Eurozone crisis betrays the fragility of certain modern institutions, now is the perfect time to witness the real Athens, as solid as the rock of the Acropolis, as stoic as Zeno and his gang.

Even if you manage to see past its Classical-era underlay, wherever you look, Athens is threaded through with a sense of the venerable, the grandiose: icon-filled churches dating back to the dawn of Christianity sit proudly on the city’s streets; the first Olympic stadium of the modern era, the Panathenaic Stadium (Vasileos Konstantinou Avenue, +30 210 75 22 9846; panathenaicstadium.gr), built in 1896, is a marvel of marble and geometry; the clean neoclassical eminence of 19th century Athens – on spectacular show in and around the Academy of Athens (Leoforos Eleftheriou Venizelou 28,  +30 21 0366 4700; academyofathens.gr) and in the imposing Zappeion palace (National Gardens, +30 210 322 3509; zappeion.gr) is a tasteful complement to the crumbling columns of Pericles’s day.

Meanwhile, museums clutter the central districts. The National Archaeological Museum (28is Oktovriou 44, +30 21 3214 4890; namuseum.gr) houses countless relics and priceless artefacts, while this century’s Acropolis Museum (Dionysiou Areopagitou 15, +30 21 0900 09; theacropolismuseum.gr) competes with its own exhibits for visitor-jolting wow-factor – don’t miss the glass-floored courtyard that suspends you above an ancient excavation, or the stunning views from the fourth-floor gallery. 

Setting your sights high
Athens is a place that beautifully marries the Classical and the eclectic. Nowhere is this more evident than the Kunsthalle Athena art centre (28 Kerameikou Street, Kerameikos, Metaxourgeio, +30 697 438 7364; kunsthalleathena.org), which exhibits contemporary oeuvres in a charmingly rustic building enlivened with neoclassical touches.

The maze-like streets of Plaka are a joy to get lost in on a sun-drenched day and are home to some of the city’s finest neoclassical architecture. They also double up as a kind of art gallery, their walls adorned with all manner of diverting graffiti – a nuisance elsewhere, a visual feast here.

Part of Plaka, often unexplored due to the intimidating gradients of its streets, is the cluster of steep steps, alleyways and residences called Anafiotika. This tiny neighbourhood in the shadow of the Acropolis is an isle of tranquillity in the chaos, with winding, sun-dappled streets, picturesque gardens and a cute white-stoned chapel – a real haven where you’d least expect it.



Ancient Athens
Conveniently, most of the significant landmarks of ancient Athens are close to one another, connected by a pleasant pedestrian promenade dotted with shaded cafés. The best way to explore this most historic area of Athens is via the pedestrianised Unification of Archaeological Sites walkway, which leads you past the key places on every visitor’s itinerary. To discover the many fascinating neighbourhoods that have grown up around the Acropolis and its surrounding sites, just branch off the walkway wherever takes your fancy.

The first order of business, though, is to purchase your Acropolis ticket. For $104 it gives you four days’ re-entry to the Acropolis site, as well as to six other must-visits (see below for details). You can get hold of a ticket at any of these sites or at the main entrance to the Acropolis – at its western edge below the looming Propylaea gate. The Acropolis, or ‘high city’, and the area around it, as the oldest continuously populated parts of Athens, are layered with the remains of all the civilisations that have existed here. 

Where to eat
Greek coffee, meze, souvlaki, stifado, baklava – all these need to be sampled on any visit to Athens. Restaurants and cafés across the city sell all these and more, and the sheer range of options means that choosing the right place is critical.

Mpes Sto Psito (Peiraios 209, Tavros, +30 210 345 3400; fb.com/mpesstopsito) offers the best balance of value and flavour of just about any souvlaki joint in Athens. The only drawback is that the set-up is a bit on the takeaway side. If you’re looking for somewhere to sit down for a more leisurely meal, check out Santorinio’s (Dorieon 8, Petralona, +30 210 345 1629), which is much more akin to a traditional Greek taverna, serving up all the classics and coffee to perfection in cosy surrounds.

If you’re in the market for something a bit edgier, you’ll no doubt be spending a lot of time in the Exarthia district. While you’re there, drop into Zachari & Alati (Valtetsiou 47, Exarthia, +30 210 380 1253; fb.com/zaxalat.bistrotbar) for a bite to eat: it wonderfully mixes the electric energy of the area with homely Greek cuisine and could easily be your first and last stop of the night. If all this sounds a little too homely and you fancy going up-market, while also trying the Greeks’ famed take on seafood, then a visit to Varoulko Seaside (Pireos 80, Kerameikou. +30 210 522 8400; varoulko.gr) is essential. This Michelin-starred restaurant is widely recognised as Athens’s best spot for fish at the higher end of the scale.

Where to go out
If you want to go out like a local (and trust us, you do) then it’s all about taking your time, being comfortable and engaging with the company you’re in. Few places in Athens allow you to do this like Play (Agiou Ioannou, 23 Ayía Paraskeví, Attiki, +30 21 0608 3988). Here, the menu of board games is more extensive than the drinks list; local musicians, artists and students congregate nightly to sip wine, beer or tsipourou brandy with the friendly (and largely English-speaking) staff, who are on hand to help you pick a game and explain the rules.

Once both body and mind have been stimulated, the Intrepid Fox (Triptolemou 30, Gazi, Kerameikou. +30 21 0346 6055; fb.com/intrepidfoxathens) should be your next stop. It’s probably the friendliest rock bar you’ll visit, and doubles up as a tattoo studio where you can get a permanent reminder of your visit, should you wish. For those who like their drinks creative (and expensive), the city has a vibrant cocktail scene courtesy of some excellent mixologists. Situated bang in the middle of Athens’s busiest tourist spot, Monastiraki Square, A for Athens (Miaouli 2-4, Monastiraki. +30 21 0324 4244; fb.com/AforAthensCocktailBar) is nothing short of formidable in terms of both tipples and views on offer. If you want something with a bit more character, The Gin Joint (Christou Lada 1, +30 21 0321 8646; theginjoint.gr) is a worthy option.

If your feet start to itch, the city boasts some stylish clubs. Cubanita (Karaiskaki 28, Psiri, +30 21 0331 4605; cubanita.gr) delivers liveliness in spades, with a participatory environment and authentic Cuban music. If you’re looking for straight up glitzy surrounds, banging DJs and mainstream hits, then Barouge (Andronikou 4 & Tzaferi, Gazi, +30 694 537 1194) will be your final stop of the evening.

Finally, for an altogether sweatier, more deafening night out, one of Athens’s smallest but best-loved rock clubs is An Club (Solomou 13-15, Exarchia, +30 210 330 5056; anclub.gr), set right in the heart of rocker-packed Exarchia. This is a great place to catch local metal acts as they blast their first riffs on their way towards stardom.

Where to stay
Budget: Jason Inn
The Jason Inn borders happening Thissio and Psyrri, with good access to the districts’ excellent restaurants and bars. It’s also handy for the ancient sites and the old central market. With standard-issue, albeit pleasant rooms, an inviting rooftop garden restaurant and staff who ‘get’ travellers, the Jason Inn is good value for money. Jason Inn, 12 Agion Asomaton, 10553 Psyrri, +30 210 325 1106. Doubles from $620 per night.

Mid-range: New Hotel
Neatly triangulated between the stately bustle of Syntagma Square, the cobbled tourist arteries of Plaka and the shady oasis of the National Gardens, New Hotel is the ideal eyrie from which to swoop and explore the ancient heart of the city. The hotel opened in 2011 to much design-trade fanfare, with carpentry offcuts where the wallpaper should be and diverting room interiors torn from Euclid’s Geometry: Plan B scrapbook. The overall effect is as boutique as boutique can be – but with any hints at pretentiousness breezed away by the cheeky atmosphere and extremely hospitable staff. New Hotel, 16 Filellinon Street, 10557 Syntagma Square, +30 210 327 3000. Doubles from $1,130 per night.

Quintessentially Athens: Semiramis
The Semiramis exists far, far away from the Athens of the popular imagination in every sense. First, it’s at a respectable physical distance from the hoi polloi of the tourist  area, in the well-appointed northern suburb of Kifissia, some seven miles from central Athens. Secondly, created by American design superstar Karim Rashid, the its brazen colour scheme of hot pink-verses-the-rest-of-the-spectrum is a glorification of all things modern and minimal. The Semiramis a perfect playpen for hot creatives and transnational beautiful people and a whole lot of fun for the rest of us. Semiramis, 48 Charilaou Trikoupi Street, 14562 Kefalari, Kifissia, +30 210 628 4400. Doubles from $860 per night.

How to get there
Swiss Air (swiss.com) fly to Athens, via Zurich, from $5,719 (inc tax) return. 

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