Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009


Athens' naming rights were won, legend says, when Athena trumped Poseidon's proffered well with a gift of an olive tree. The city's devotion was worth winning. Always famously lively, Athens is again at the cultural fore. Since its pre-Olympics revamp, the city has gone on re-creating itself. For visitors, there are plenty of novel pleasures: explore up-and-coming neighborhoods, find a few new galleries and bars, or mix with the city's cinephiles. That said, Athens' classic attractions have not faded. When the sun hits the Acropolis' high, stony hill, many other cities are left in the shade.

1. The Ancient Agora

Of all Athens' ruins, the famed marketplace of Agora makes the most fitting start to your sightseeing — it stands testament to Athens' status as a cradle of Western civilization. It was, in Socrates and Plato's day, the heart of public life, and among the site's extensive excavations you'll find temples, a concert hall and long, colonnaded arcades. Smaller finds, housed in the museum, tel: (30-210) 321 0185, are no less fascinating — settlement here spans five millenniums. Entry ($18) covers two days' admission to Acropolis hill sites.

2. Anafiotika

For its size, Athens is remarkably low-rise. A good way to get a feel for life at street level is to stroll through Anafiotika, a 19th century neighborhood on the northern slopes of the Acropolis hill, beside the entrance to the Agora. The masons who built it hailed from the island of Anafi, and were brought here by King Otto I to build his palace. Nestled above Plaka, Athens' center, and bustling Monastiraki, the old bazaar, Anafiotika seems far removed. There, bougainvilleas splash whitewashed walls and cats stalk sunny paths, evoking the island life the masons left behind.

3. The Acropolis

Literally "high city," the Acropolis, tel: (30-210) 923 8175, is Greece's great marvel. Ascend through the olive groves of the lower slopes to reach the marble crown, before passing through the Propylaia gateway. You'll see the Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion and the Parthenon along with numerous fragments arranged for reassembly. The state's grand plan is to put right centuries of sackings, lootings and decay.

4. Acropolis Museum Restaurant

An archaeological museum might seem an unlikely lunch spot, but the menu at the new Acropolis Museum, tel: (30-210) 900 0901, is made to tempt grown-up Athenians back to the mound and offers absurdly good value. Start with smoked trout, then try the salad of spinach, basil and Lefkada salami, followed by custard pie (about $18 in total). Afterward, tour the state-of-the-art Bernard Tschumi building. The argument that Athens can't adequately house the Elgin Marbles has been given a handsome answer.

5. Byzantino

In Plaka's narrow streets, stores foist all manner of souvenirs on tourists — from fishermen's sweaters to jewelry. Much of the latter is mass-produced, but not that at Byzantino, tel: (30-210) 324 6605. Its exquisite handmade "museum-copy" jewelry — replicating ancient Greek pieces — is made in the Athens workshop of this family-run business. Uniquely Greek, Byzantino jewels were worn at Sydney's and Athens' Olympic ceremonies.

6. Benaki Museum, Pireos Street Annex

The once industrial Rouf area has undergone significant regeneration. In 2004, the Benaki Museum opened its new annex here, tel: (30-210) 345 3111. As Athens' window on contemporary art and design, this outpost is well worth a visit.

7. Mount Lycabettus

Twilight is the best time to venture up this abrupt peak. At 745 ft. (277 m), Lycabettus stands high above Athens, commanding a clear view across the Attica basin and the Aegean. Facing the viewing platform is Agios Georgios, the tiny white-stuccoed chapel of St. George. There is also a superb café, although prices match the altitude. To get there, hike up the path that starts at the end of Aristippou Street in Kolonaki and winds upwards. Or you can opt for the funicular ($8.20), which leaves from Ploutarchou and Aristippou Streets.

8. Thiseion Cinema

So great is the Athenian ardor for film, there's hardly a walled garden in town that isn't now used as an open-air movie house. One in particular oozes charm: the Thiseion, tel: (30-210) 347 0980, on the south side of the Acropolis. Classic Hollywood flicks are popular, and these (like all non-Greek films) are shown with subtitles rather than dubbed.

9. Gazi

This old gasworks precinct has supplanted Psiri as Athens' coolest nightspot, but don't come only for bar life. Around the metro at Kerameikos cluster countless eateries, music venues and art spaces. Dominating the skyline is the gasworks turned Technopolis, a vast mixed-use cultural center. For serious victuals, try the Butcher Shop, tel: (30-210) 341 3440, a stylish psistaria (roast house) that serves free-pasture boar ($22). Afterward, find a stool in the rooftop bar at industrial-chic Gazarte, tel: (30-210) 346 0347.

10. Monastiraki Flea Market

On Sunday morning, make your way to the flea market at Avissynias Square for a jumble of curios, from books to paintings, clothes to trinkets. Afterward, cross Athinas Street to Psiri, where interlocking streets secret away a wealth of galleries and vintage stores. Lunch at the proud old Oraia Penteli Café-Restaurant, tel: (30-210) 321 8627, is a perfect end to the outing.