Published: Verve Magazine, Travel, March 2008
On her wanderings in the Greek capital, Sitanshi Talati-Parikh zeroes in onto 12 hotspots in Athens
1. Sunbathe in Plaka
How does one describe the ultimate tourist spot in Athens? Commercial, crowded, pricey, but a lot of fun! In the warm sunny weather, there is nothing like sitting back in one of the courtyard cafés that dot the area, watching the crowds go by, gawping at the local architecture (with some ancient Greek and Roman ruins and several Byzantine churches scattered around), dawdling over lunch or sipping a cappuccino fréddo (Greek iced coffee) and feeling the tourist buzz settle somewhere within you.
2. Party at Psiri
Psiri is the village to Plaka’s Manhattan, though in a microcosmic scale. Psiri is a small bohemian area just off Plaka, where boutique hotels happily co-exist with graffiti-ridden walls, bands play at night and ouzeries (local taverns), especially those at Platia Iroon, spring to life with the onset of the locals. As music throbs through the narrow streets, I am taken aback as the hardware and supply stores from the day convert into makeshift taverns by night, where you’re likely to spot the bloke from the block lounging, smoking or grilling an octopus.
3. Sing a song at Syntagma
Syntagma sings a completely different tune, with the change of guard – who stand under the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As the sun’s rays mark time, the stiff-lipped guards unflinchingly swing into their hourly change. Try as I did to stand uncomfortably close while taking a picture, I couldn’t for the life of me, sense even the bat of an eyelid.
4. Taste Adrianou
One of the exits from the famed Acropolis winds its way into the lively Adrianou Street, where street lamps play peekaboo with the tea lights flickering on the myriad tables that line this street. Chairs practically touch each other at some of the most charming outdoor family dining restaurants in the city (names that are truly Greek to me), replete with charismatic musicians. Hang around long enough to witness wedding merriment in one of the delightful restaurants.
5. Get high
The Acropolis literally means ‘high city’. Packed into the admission price of the Acropolis of Athens, you can visit the Parthenon (a symbol of Greek democracy and one of the world’s most famous cultural monuments), the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Theatre of Dionysious, Hadrian’s Library and the Ancient Agora, amongst others. The steep walk up leaves you breathless, but reliving history and checking out the magnificent view simply takes your breath away.
6. Scale new heights
Standing atop the Acropolis, facing the city, I stare at the green mountain rising from the midst of a sea of buildings, I wonder if it is worth my while to climb it after a truly long day. Later, as I reach atop Mt. Lycabettus (aboard a funny little train), I feel no regret, as a spectacular view unfolds before me, and I feel awash with a sense of depth. A nice café and amphitheatre (great shows held in the summer) make for a good break from the regular city spots.
7. Unravel history
Not surprisingly, Athens has over 130 museums, so either one has to make a judicious choice or move there permanently to explore them all! The first private museum, Benaki (housing the vast collection of Antonis Benakis), the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the National Archaeological Museum and the National Art Gallery are my picks.
8. Knock on Heaven’s door
The 12th century Church of Agios Eleftherios in Plaka is one of the most remarkable examples of Byzantine architecture. Also in Plaka is Agios Nikolaos Rangavas (part of the palace of the Rangavas family). The little 11th century Church of Kapnikarea bang in the middle of Ermou’s shopping street and the Church of Agii Theodori in Syntagma are worth checking out, for their lovely friezes and distinctive architecture.
9. To market, to market…
The famous flea market of Athens in Monastiraki Square is where a decidedly odd selection of items turns up on display. There isn’t much that can’t be found here (especially during the Sunday sales) – vintage vinyl and rare CDs, funky t-shirts, cheap jewellery, wrought iron items and Africans bootlegging DVDs.
10. Rock in style
The annual Hellenic festival runs from May through October, with an action-packed line-up of international music, dance and theatre, generally in one of the three places: the Athens festival at Odeon of Herodes Atticus by the floodlit Acropolis, a Greek drama festival at the Ancient Theatre of Epidavros, and the Musical July at the 4th century BC Little Theatre of Ancient Epidavros. From the international Rockwave Festival, to the August Moon Festival, from Jazz to Electronica, Athens is buzzing with live activity in the midst of history. In the summer, outdoor cinemas located in gardens and on rooftops, with modern sound systems, throw open their doors; bringing to the audience a movie by the moonlight with a glass of wine and a view of the Acropolis to boot. A movie date doesn’t get more romantic than that.
11. Splurge at Ermou
August-September is great sale time; it’s when the post-summer tourists have left and the bargains kick in. This is the perfect time to land up at Ermou Street to catch a neat deal with some excellent Italian leather and soft Greek cotton. Here, fake goods line the pavements in front of designer stores. For curios, walk the bylanes of Adrianou, that offer everything from memorabilia and paintings to make-your-own beaded jewellery. A little tram conveniently shuttles between Adrianou and Ermou via the market.
12. Ride the coast
It’s easy to forget that Athens is actually a coastal hub, with easy access to some great and well-organised beaches. Sparkling new resorts and spas (including those reminiscent of an ancient Roman Bath) have sprung up in the Athenian Riviera to cater to the well-heeled Athenians ready to take a break from city life. Or, about an hour away from the city, you could spend the afternoon by the busy port of Piraeus, buzzing with activity, dotted with gusty white sails and enormous steamers. Inhabited since 26th century BC, the name Piraeus roughly translates as ‘the place over the passage’, and is known to have been home to some famous local sportsmen, artistes and politicians. And what better high than to jump onto a ferry and zip off to a remote Greek island. Just on a lark!