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You can’t help seeing this one – the Acropolis and the Parthenon dominate the city, but chances are you’ll prefer to take a much closer look. Take a moment to go over to the Pnyx hill, where you can sit on the same time-smoothed marble stones the ancient Athenians did, and walk around the base of the Acropolis to see the ancient caves, carved stone steps, and other less popular artifacts in a green park-like atmosphere. The Hephaestion or Thiseion is often seen in the distance from the Acropolis, but less often visited. You want to go to the Agora (which is on the multiple entry ticket for the Acropolis and related monuments – if you have the time, select that ticket option at the kiosk.) There is a worthwhile museum in the reconstructed Agora building, and the Hephaistion is at the rear of the site. It’s the most completely preserved temple in Greece, and will give you a much better idea of the way the rest of the less well-preserved monuments looked in their heyday.
In the heart of Athens, I like the Great Metropolitan church and its companion, the “Little Metropolis”, a smaller edifice built from the stones of a temple which stood on the same site. But keep an eye open – you’ll find architectural gems everywhere in Athens. Some office buildings are even built around old chapels, which are carefully preserved and always have a few candles lit inside.
Ermou Street is one quick way of spending money on clothes, and it’s easy to wander there from Syntagma Square or the nearby Acropolis and Plaka district. Prices vary; the Hondo Center is an upscale department store but beware of the prices on international brands – depending on the Euro exchange rate, you may not be doing yourself any favors on price. While I prefer smaller shops, Athens also has several major shopping malls and if you want to re-outfit yourself – for example, in the face of permanently lost luggage when you don’t want just tourist t-shirts, if you need to replace eyeglasses, or even placate a surly teen with a taste of home – you may find the Athens Metro Mall handy. The five-story mall offers dozens of stores, including some international chains, plus restaurants and movie theaters.
Athens is host to many fine restaurants and a more than equal number of inexpensive and fun tavernas. On the upscale side, Spondi offers unusual presentations of local and international ingredients, sometimes featuring one particular item in a variety of ways for a special tasting menu. In the Plaka area, the Platanias (Plane Tree) taverna has kept generations of Athenians and tourists happy and content in its tree-shaded courtyard. Want to have an evening out that feels like it is in the Greek islands? Get over to Microlimano at Piraeus – the entire small harbor is edged with tavernas. Most of them offer fresh fish, but the Vosporos Grill Restaurant specializes in grilled meats and other delights. Plous Podilatou offers house-cured smoked salmon as an appetizer and a menu of fresh fish of fish and meat dishes which changes seasonally.
Athens offers all kinds of accommodations, from very inexpensive hostels and small hotels to more luxurious accommodations. For that last-night-in-Greece, I like the Hotel Intercontinental or the Athens Ledra Marriott. Depending on your flight plans, a night spent right at the Sofitel located at the airport can ease travel stresses. From personal experience, I can attest that a night at the airport itself is doable in a crisis of either budget or of time.
Athens has become much more pedestrian-friendly in recent years – before, it was practically pedestrian-antagonistic. An effort to connect the major archaeological sites by broad pathways makes getting between the monuments a breeze. But if you are traveling on foot in the peak months of July and August, you’ll hold up to the heat better with regular applications of the beloved frappe, a cold coffee drink served at numerous sidewalk cafes.
The classic trip from Athens is a visit to Cape Sounion, about an hour’s drive away. There, visitors gasp over the columns of the Temple of Poseidon, best seen at sunset but always worth a peek. Eleusis is often skipped because it is located in a now-industrial area of Greece, but this extensive site once dedicated to the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone is still evocative. It’s easy to get to from the main highway and makes for a nice afternoon. The “ring road” – a group of reasonably good roads roughly circling the Peloponnesian Peninsula is easy to access from Athens and puts many more sites within range of a day trip, including Mycenae, Epidaurus, Tiryns, and Corinth; choose a couple of sites for your visit or break it up with an overnight in Nafplion. You can also drive along the northern edge of the Peloponnese peninsula and then cut across the Rio-Antirio bridge to get within striking distance of Delphi, but make it an overnight there if you do. The restaurants and shops will keep you happy all evening.
The music scene in Athens is lively in all directions. The National Opera offers free performances in the foyer of the Olympia Theater on Sundays at 6pm. Nightclubs open around 11pm and go on until morning.
During times of strikes and protests, the Syntagma Square area is often involved. Strikes and protests are usually announced ahead of time and your hotel keeper or taxi driver will know what areas to avoid.