Athens is probably one of the most provocative cities in the world. Visitors and locals alike either worship it or ignore it, love or hate it. Everyone says how chaotic the city is, but at the same time there is order in chaos. Some only every see the airport in Athens, while on the way to the islands. Others just want to be in an Athens café all day drinking frappé and in an Athens taverna all night drinking ouzo and listening to rembetika, the Greek blues. Some praise it as the mythical and glorious birthplace of Western civilization, others criticize it for being an unorganized and polluted city. With such mixed reviews of this ancient city, one can only really only do one thing: and that is to visit it and see for oneself.
Nothing beats walking along Athenian streets with the ever-present Acropolis hovering over the city like a secret from the past. The Acropolis and the Parthenon temple stand symbolically above the modern city as a message of Athenian glory and decline. This is the essence of Athens. This is what makes Athens a most exasperating and exhilarating city for those who live there and those to travel there.
Athens sits in the Attica Basin and is enclosed by the mountains of Ymittos, Pendeli and Parnitha, and the Saronic Gulf is to the south-west. Because of its geographical position, Athens enjoyed excellent weather all year round, with mild to chilly winters and hot, dry summers. It is close to one of Europe's busiest ports, Piraeus and boasts a state-of-the-art airport, the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport.
Athens is a sprawling modern city that enjoyed an excellent make-over to get ready for the 2004 Olympic Games. It has varied architecture, from ancient ruins, to Neo-classical, to contemporary features. Athens has so many different characteristics it is difficult to describe it. In the historic neighbourhoods of Plaka, Thission and Psirri you can see dilapidated and forgotten buildings next to beautifully renovated and preserved mansions. In the commercial areas you can see big department stores next to small, family-owned shops. In the past, Athens was the political, social and cultural centre of the world, today Athens is the political, social, administrative, cultural and financial centre of Greece.
It's not surprising that Athens is a city with so many aspects and contradictions. When a city as ancient as this one has been through so many periods and civilizations it retains a mark from each era and that adds to the complete puzzle of the modern city. In fact, people have inhabited Athens since the Neolithic Age. Athens rose to its most glorious period during the fifth century. This period of Classical Greece was when democracy, philosophy, architecture and culture was born. But then Athens went through a period of decline as other, more powerful civilizations emerged and claimed it - the Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans. But in 1834, Athens became the capital of the modern Greek state. And modern history began.
Modern Athens is busy, cosmopolitan, and very European. It is also quite easy to navigate. Everything begins in Syntagma (or Constitution) Square. Here are the buildings of the parliament and the ministries. A good landmark to note is the M of the McDonald's at Syntagma as most Athenians will use this as a central meeting point. Standing with your back to Syntagma, the Acropolis and the old town of Plaka, Monastiraki and Thisseion are straight ahead and a little to the left. Lykavittos Hill is the highest peak behind you to the right, but before that is the stylish Kolonaki neighbourhood. The Panathinaiko Stadium, which was the home to the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, is to your left. To your right the city is organized along three parallel roads, Stadiou, Panepistimiou and Akadimias.
Not far from the city centre are the southern seaside neighbourhoods of Faliro, Glyfada, Voula and Vouliagmeni and to the north are the classy, upper-class neighbourhoods of Marousi, Melissia, Vrilissia and Kifissia.
Apart from the city's famous historical gems - the Acropolis, the Agora, temples to the gods, arches to Roman conquerors - the city is just as famous for its night-life. Athenians boast that they have the best night-life in the world and that they are the best party goers. In fact, as far as entertainment goes, this city has everything from classical music concerts to bouzoukia clubs. If it's clubbing you desire, you will head to the Glyfada Strip, which is south and seaside; if it is rock you will head to Exarcheia; for traditional Greek music the historic neighbourhoods of Plaka and Psirri are the place to be. In other suburbs you will find Cuban clubs and funky bars that play electronica music. If it is high culture you desire then a concert at the Athens Concert Hall is for you. Athens has something for everyone.
Athenians are also great eaters and as far as food goes you will find everything from greasy-but-tasty take-out to high cuisine. In Plaka you will find all the traditional fare, including moussaka, souvlaki, Greek salads and feta topped with plentiful olive oil and oregano. You will also find restaurants that prepare foods according to ancient Greek recipes, such as those described by the ancient culinary expert, Archestratus. You will also find everything in international cuisine from Japanese and Thai restaurants to Mexican and Cuban.
Most travellers arrive in Athens hoping to see the ancient, glorious city, but soon find themselves enchanted by the modern city and all its achievements. Museums are numerous and scattered around the city showing off the age-old history of Greece, but it is also the contemporary art museums that are especially interesting to view. Athens blends the past and present together like no other city.
After the 2004 Olympic Games, Athens has become a much friendlier city, especially for pedestrians as numerous roads have been pedestrianized, including the area around the Acropolis from Dionysiou Areopagitoy Street through to Thission and Keramikos. The old town of Plaka is also largely blocked off from traffic and the busy shopping street of Ermou is also for pedestrians only.
When you arrive in Athens by air you will land at the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport, which is south-east of the city centre and easily accessible via taxi, bus transfer or the Athens Metro. You can choose to stay in the midst of all the Athenian chaos or stay further out of the city, while still remaining in the Attica periphery. The southern neighbourhoods with their endless beaches are a particularly good choice, because there you can enjoy a resort-style holiday with easy access to the best part of this bustling, historic city.