If you've experienced Athens only in the heat of August, be prepared for a pleasant surprise. By late autumn the Athenians have reclaimed the city for themselves: beachside clubs and open-air cinemas have been replaced by cosy winter tavernas and ouzeries. You'll still get your quota of sun - with crisp, bright days to light up the Parthenon - but take an umbrella; when it rains it's torrential. Go now and you'll see the first hatchings of Athens's plans for the 2004 Olympics.
Most scheduled flights between the UK and Greece operate between London (Heathrow, Gatwick or Luton) and Athens on British Airways (0345 222111), Cronus Air (0171-580 3500), easyJet (0870 6 000 000), Olympic Airways (0171-409 3400) and Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747). If you can book well ahead and avoid peak travel periods, easyJet fares this winter go as low as pounds 81. Athens's much-needed new airport will not open until 2001. A taxi from the airport to the centre should cost no more than 3,000dr (pounds 6), or there is a bus for 200dr that drops you at the central but distinctly unsavoury Omonia Square (1).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Central Athens is arranged in a triangle, with Omonia (1) and Syndagma (2) Squares and the Metro station of Monastiraki (3) at its three corners. South of here is the Acropolis (4) and the 19th-century village of Plaka (5). All the major museums are to the east of Syndagma except the Archaeological Museum (6), which is north of Omonia, on 28 Octovriou Street (commonly known as Patision). Athens's Metro is undergoing major extensions in preparation for the Olympics in 2004, with the first part scheduled to open on New Year's Eve, but until then trolleybuses are not difficult to use since they tend to go in straight lines. Tickets (120dr, 25p) must be bought from special kiosks and stamped in a machine on the bus itself. To find out what's on while you're in town, pick up a copy of Athens News (from kiosks, or free in some hotels), or The Athenian.
For pure nostalgia, you can't beat the Grande Bretagne (7) on Syndagma Square (00 30 1 330 0000) with its marble halls and "British-style" decor. You get personalised stationery and the list of favours that the concierge will perform includes bringing a typewriter to your room (no mention of IT facilities). Even if you don't stay here (rooms cost from about pounds 125), drop by for afternoon tea (3,000dr, pounds 6) and a respite from the strains of bouzouki music. Great value in winter (from 11,600dr, or about pounds 23, for a double room) is the Adonis (8) (3 Kodrou Street, 00 30 1 324 9737), tucked in a quiet area of Plaka near the Folk Art Museum. The manager, Spiros Dervos, is good on local information and the hotel has a rooftop bar (enclosed by glass in winter) that's open for breakfast and cocktails.
TAKE A RIDE
Hop on the funicular up Mount Lykabettos and see the city sprawling all around you, the chaotic result of two major influxes of population; in 1922 the city doubled in size as ethnic Greeks flooded in from Asia Minor, followed by further rapid growth in the Sixties and Seventies. Now half of Greece lives here, mostly in the acres of white apartment blocks that spread to the slopes of the surrounding hills, punctuated almost carelessly by the ruins of the ancient city. As for the future, the cranes and gaping holes of the new Metro system hint at local hopes for a modern, thoroughly European city. The funicular runs all day; it leaves from the top of Ploutarchou Street (9).
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
The Church of the Transfiguration (28) on Kydathinaion Street is an oasis of calm and cheerfulness in the heart of Plaka. Unlike most Byzantine churches, it has light streaming in from the yellow and clear glass windows, and even the custodians seem chirpier than in other places of worship. It was erected by Turkish converts to Christianity and restored by the Russian community in 1834, and its little garden is also a delight.
A WALK IN THE PARK
The National Gardens (27) were once the exclusive preserve of the royal family but are now open to all. Get lost among the 500 varieties of plants that are fed by a sixth-century-BC aqueduct. You'll come across terrapins sunning themselves, bits of an old Roman site, a rather sad zoo, lovers and elderly promenaders. In contrast to the Gardens' mazy ways, the Zappeion, at the south end, is a formal garden that fronts an exhibition hall. Go in to view the plans for the 2004 Olympics.
Breakfast is a concept the Greeks don't understand. Don't order it from a cafe: you'll be presented with a couple of canape-sized crispbreads. Your best bet is tyropittes (flaky, feta-filled pastries) and Ariston's (26) at 10 Voulis Street are unanimously voted the best in town. Problem number two: bakeries make tyropittes, cafes make coffee, so you have to have them separately. It's perfectly acceptable to eat in the street - other street fare includes koulouri (pretzels), roast chestnuts and bougatsa (flaky pastry with a sweet vanilla filling) but if you're feeling strong of stomach there is always the age-old hangover cure, patsas - stew of cow's feet and intestines - which can be savoured at Monastiri, inside the meat market in Monastiraki. It's open all night, so you could even round off Saturday night there in an attempt to stave off the inevitable.
SUNDAY MORNING, GO TO...
Sunday is market day in Monastiraki (3) and the domain of the true bargain- hunter. Handcarts are piled high with books, records, cow-bells and palaiodzidika ("old stuff") and haggling is obligatory. If you prefer a more spiritual Sunday, go along to the cathedral (25) (Mitropoleos) and watch the procession of priests and the great and good file in for an incense-rich mass. The area around the cathedral is also a good place to find ecclesiastical souvenirs - icons, taper-like candles and even the brocade used to make priests' robes are sold from tiny shops around the square.
Get a step ahead of the guidebooks and head for Psirri (24), where bars, restaurants and fringe theatres are springing up among derelict warehouses. It's safer now than it once was, but walking past the empty buildings is still a bit scary. Emvros, in a ramshackle 19th-century building (4-5 Plateia Agion Anargiron, 00 30 1 321 3285) has the best-looking waiters in town and serves unusual regional dishes: pork with chestnuts, cuttlefish in red wine, courgette patties. After dinner head to the Astron bar on Taki Street; it should be just hotting up to the sounds of drum'n'bass and hip hop. Otherwise, a place always lauded by critics is Gherofinikas, at 10 Pindharou Street in Kolonaki (00 30 1 363 6710). Remember to book.
One of the prettiest bijou bars is Brettos (22), on Kydathenaion Street in Plaka, with floor-to-ceiling liquor bottles. Here, tsipouro and other sharpeners are dispensed by a man like an apothecary. If you want sophistication, dress like Austin Powers and take the lift to the Hilton's Galaxy Bar (23) (46 Vas Sofias Street). Its shockingly Seventies interior is the perfect setting for a dry Martini as you gaze at the Athens skyline.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Ouzeries are a lunch-time institution - the food comes fast but you can sit around for hours talking, as most Athenians do. Apotsos (10), inside the arcade at 10 Panepistimiou, is a legend in its own lunch time - it's been going since 1900. Athinaikon (11) (2 Themistokleous Street, at the top of Panepistimiou) is another ouzerie in the grand tradition - chequerboard floor, marble-topped tables - and a favourite midday hang-out of journalists, lawyers and the like. If you're near Monastiraki go to Y Oreia Ellas (12), a little gem upstairs in the arcade, where traditional crafts are sold at 59 Mitropoleos. Shoppers in Kolonaki stop off at the cosy To Ouzadiko (13) in the atrium of the Lemos Centre (25 Karneadou Street). It's slightly more expensive, but the food is excellent. Order a selection of mezedes such as octopus, saganaki (fried cheese), gigantes (big beans), fried aubergine and dolmas. You don't have to drink ouzo, of course, but if you want to try the Greek firewater, To Ouzadiko has more than 200 different kinds to choose from.
Of Athens's many museums, the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art (14), at 4 Neofytou Doukas street (00 30 1 722 8321), is everybody's favourite. Minimalist, in keeping with the pared-down nature of the Cyclades' mysterious marble figures, it has a second floor devoted to classical painted vessels and a stylish cafe serving Italianate snacks. (Open till 4pm weekdays and 3pm on Saturdays, closed Sunday and Tuesday, 1,000dr - pounds 2). Modern art in Athens suffers from the sheer magnitude of classical antiquities on offer, but if you've had your fill of pouting Olympians, head to Nea Psychico, where the Deste Center for Contemporary Art (15), at 8 Omirou Street (00 30 1 672 9460), heralds 21st-century Athens. Housed in a converted paper warehouse by the New York architect Christian Hubert, it is art gallery, performing arts centre, multimedia station (it has its own Internet cafe) and shop. What's more, while most museums close in the early afternoon, this one is open until midnight on weekdays (until 4pm on Saturdays, free) so you can do that late-night art thing. It's a little way out: take the 013 trolleybus from Panepistimiou and ask someone to wake you up when you get there.
TAKE A BREAK
Marvel at the array of goodies on offer at a zacharoplasteion (literally, "sweet-maker"). These are the only establishments that are open all day, every day, proving the vital roles that cakes and liquor play in Athens life - baclava is just the tip of the iceberg. Many have cafe tables inside but Zonars (16), at 9 Panepistimiou, is the king of them all and a great place for people-watching.
TAKE A HIKE
... through the ancient city. Start from the Temple of Olympian Zeus (17) and pass through Hadrian's Arch, which marks the boundary of Theseus's Athens and Hadrian's new town to the east. Enter the site south of the Acropolis from Dionyssiou Areopagitou Street (18) and imagine the dramas of the Golden Age performed in the Theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herod Atticus (19) (which is now used for the Athens Festival). Climb the hill and approach the Parthenon from its western side. Turn right when you come out and meander through the Anafiotika, a village built under the Acropolis by 19th-century immigrants from the tiny island of Anafi, still amazingly reminiscent of an island settlement. Head through the Plaka past Hadrian's library to Adrianou Street and enter the Ancient Agora (20). If you have the stamina, don't miss the Kerameikos (21) to the north, cemetery of the ancient Athenians. Go early, though; some sites close at 3pm.