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With over 3,400 years of recorded history, Athens is widely regarded as one of the oldest cities in the world, and is sometimes referred to as the ‘cradle of civilisation’. In 1834, it became the capital of an independent Greece and today has blossomed into a cutting-edge metropolis where the classic and the contemporary collide.
The magnificent Acropolis, an ancient citadel that sits atop a rocky hill, dominates the city’s landscape, housing many ancient structures of architectural or historic significance. Chief among these is the iconic Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena, patron of the city. A pedestrian-only archaeological promenade links the Acropolis to all the city’s major archaeological sites.
Despite its abundant heritage landmarks, Athens retains a vibrant, youthful energy, boasting some of the world’s leading museums and art galleries, a number of important educational institutions and an impressive cultural heritage – put simply, culture vultures are sure to be dazzled. It also has a lively nightlife, with chic bars and urban cafés popping up in ever-increasing numbers.
The best times to visit are in spring or autumn, when the temperatures are still warm enough for outdoor excursions but provide a more comfortable setting for sightseeing treks and history tours.
There are plenty of high-end hotels in Athens’s urban centre. The picturesque Plaka neighbourhood is the most popular for travellers and offers accommodation at a variable range of price points. It’s also packed with affordable restaurants and quirky shops selling locally crafted knick-knacks. Most of the high-end hotels are located around the central Syntagma Square. If you’re looking for a more laid-back vibe, Makrygianni and Koukaki, located south of the Acropolis, have a range of reasonably priced hotels in quieter neighbourhoods.
July and August are the peak months for visitors to Athens, so booking well in advance is essential if you want to ensure the best prices and enjoy the widest possible availability.
You could also find a hotel in Thessaloniki, known for its myriad heritage attractions, and instead visit Athens on a fun-filled day trip.
Hotels in Athens have improved significantly since the 2004 Olympics, and today comprise a wide assortment of options, from purpose-built resorts and apart-hotels to cosy B&Bs and guesthouses.
The 5-star King George Hotel, a former royal residence, was converted to a boutique hotel in 1936 and achieved immediate popularity for its balcony views of Syntagma Square, the Greek Parliament and the Parthenon. Its penthouse suite is a particular highlight, with its lavish infinity pool and unobstructed view of the Acropolis. Past VIP guests here have included Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe.
Apart-hotels are a cost-saving option for families and friends holidaying together, since you’ll enjoy the freedom to whip up dinner in a private modern kitchen. The MET34 Athens Hotel in the city centre offers a complimentary breakfast, so your morning boost is already taken care of, and the nearby fresh-food markets supply savoury ingredients for a possible foray into Greek-style cooking.
If a hearty breakfast is at the top of your wish list, you could also opt for a B&B – tastefully decorated rooms and affordable rates are also big pluses for the holidaymaker who wants more for less.
The iconic Acropolis is an elevated, flat-topped rock with several monuments and ruins from between 510 and 400 BCE, including the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechteion, dedicated to Erechtheus, the mythical king of Athena and other Greek gods.
Located in the Makriyianni neighbourhood, the Acropolis Museum houses various archaeological findings from the Acropolis, and is the perfect complement to a visit to the ruins. The museum has glass floors through which visitors can see the ruins on the floors underneath.
Walking through the labyrinth of narrow streets in the beautiful neighbourhood of Plaka is a trip back in time. You will encounter ancient monuments and buildings from the Ottoman and Neoclassical periods, along with an assortment of fascinating museums and galleries. Its tavernas, cafés and bars are popular with visitors, while its souvenir shops sell traditional Greek products that make fabulous mementos.
Agoras in ancient Greece were open areas where people assembled for a variety of purposes – political, military and commercial gatherings, to name but a few – and are a symbol of classical Athenian democracy. The Ancient Agora is the most popular due to its historical significance. Socrates lectured from this spot, and it was here that Saint Paul sought out converts for Christianity. Nestled within the Ancient Agora is one of Athens’ best preserved ruins, the Temple of Hephaestus, built between 460 and 420 BCE.
In the Athens’ Museum Mile area lies the Benaki Museum, a must-see for art enthusiasts thanks to its comprehensive collection of Greek art, from the prehistoric to the modern age. Housed in contemporary and historic buildings the centre’s permanent exhibits are open to the public for free on Thursdays. Also interesting is the small Museum of Cycladic Art founded in 1986 to display Dolly and Nicholas Goulandris’s collection of prehistoric Aegean (Cycladic) and Cypriot artefacts.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, on the southern slope of the Acropolis, is a restored outdoor stone auditorium constructed in 161 CE. It was originally a venue for music concerts, with capacity for 5,000 spectators. Today, it’s used as a site for theatre, music and art festivals, including the Athens Festival, which runs from May to October.
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