48 Hours In: Athens

With ancient wonders alongside modern sophistication, the Greek capital makes an ideal weekend escape



Click here for
48 Hours



In...Athens map

Travel essentials

Why go now?

A metamorphosis has taken place since the 2004 Olympics, with a noisy, polluted sprawl transformed into a vivacious and sophisticated urban centre. The locals are convinced their city is the new Barcelona for short-breakers. Airlines and hotels have plenty of space for those wishing to visit the Greek capital – Athenians are bewildered by the hostile press that portrays their country as a basket case. No signs of civil war will greet you, nor boarded-up shops or deserted café terraces. Indeed, now is an excellent time to discover the city many credit with the birth of civilisation, and which flourishes still.

Touch down

Aegean Airlines (0871 200 0040; aegeanair.com) offers two full-service flights a day from Heathrow, and is soon to merge with Olympic Air (020-8283 1980; olympicair.com) – which also flies from Heathrow, as does BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com). The only no-frills airline is easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com), twice daily from Gatwick plus Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from Manchester.

Metro line 3 – also known as the blue line – links the airport with Syntagma Square (1) in the city centre, taking about half an hour for a fare of €6. The airport bus X95 takes about an hour, costs only €3.20, and runs 24 hours a day.

Get your bearings

As you get to grips with the modern city, you simultaneously make the acquaintance of the ancient one. The core of the city encompasses the Ancient Agora (2) and Roman Agora (3), lying between the two unmistakable hills of the Acropolis (4) (literally "high city") and the conical Lykavittos (5) (which despite its daunting appearance, takes less than half-an-hour to climb).

Tourists gravitate to the souk-like lanes of the Plaka in the shadow of the Acropolis. The hand-out map from the Athens tourist organisation is more than adequate for independent exploration of up-and-coming neighbourhoods such as Thissio and Psiri. Pick one up from the Public Store (6) at Karageorgi Servias 1, Syntagma (00 30 210 3246210; breathtakingathens.com), open 9am-9pm weekdays, 9am-8pm Saturdays, closed Sundays.

Check in

The unpretentious, family-run Attalos Hotel (7) at 27 Athinas (00 30 210 321 2801; attaloshotel.com) near Monastiraki metro station (8) has 80 no-nonsense rooms costing €94 for a double, reducing to €80-€85 in July and August. The highlight here is the rooftop bar where you can survey the cityscape.

Five-star travellers should book into the gracious but unsnobbish King George Palace Hotel in Syntagma Square (1) (00 30 210 32 22 210; classicalhotels.com/kinggeorgepalace) where doubles from €231 include a glorious breakfast buffet.

Day one

Take a hike

The partial banishment of cars makes it both pleasurable and fascinating to cover the 3km distance on foot from Hadrian's Arch (9) to the marvellously intact Temple of Hephaistos (10), skirting the southern slopes of the Acropolis. This broad, cobbled pedestrian boulevard, known as the Unification of the Archaeological Sites, is especially enjoyable in the cool of the evening, when Greeks and foreigners share the vrathini volta ("evening promenade").

Lunch on the run

The Central Market (11) is a very lively place to eat, with plenty of fast, fresh food on offer. Ipiros is one of the many excellent options.

Window shopping

You can enjoy a fairly raucous shopping experience at the Central Market (11): butchers bustle around with shopping trolleys filled with sides of lamb, and skinned sheep's heads are displayed on marble slabs. A more practical gift for your loved ones would be a bag of tasty pistachios.

The shop at the Museum of Cycladic Art (12) stocks beautifully crafted reproductions of the Aegean's most ancient art objects, jewellery, pots, and figurines that are so stylised they are nearly abstract. The Museum is at 4 Neophytou Douka St (00 30 210 7228321; cycladic.gr) and is open 10am-5pm daily except Sunday and Tuesday.

Take a view

The elegant Roof Garden restaurant of the historic Grande Bretagne Hotel (13) offers an unparalleled night-time view of the Acropolis. The beautifully lit spectacle appears so close you feel you could reach out and touch it, and so magical that you must remind yourself that it is not a Hollywood set but buildings constructed nearly 2,500 years ago (00 30 210 333 0766; grandebretagne.gr).

An aperitif

The pedestrianised Iraklidon street – in hip and hopping Thissio – is lined with cafés and restaurants. Bohemians drawn to the idea of absinthe will make for the Apsenti Café (14) at number 19 (00 30 210 342 4224; apsenticafe.gr). A leafy courtyard is the best place to dare yourself to order the 70 per cent aquamarine poison. You could opt for a less-testing cocktail (all €8) or try a more appropriately local aperitif such as raki with honey.

Dining with the locals

In the moderately upmarket neighbourhood of Pagrati (less than half-an-hour's walk from Syntagma) the restaurants are populated exclusively by locals. Ep' Avli (15) at 14 Archimedous, just beyond the Marble Stadium (16), is located in a lovely old mansion with a roof terrace. The name means "mansion", though without the apostrophe it means "humble yard", an intentional pun. Traditional Greek dishes are served with a modern twist: the chunky fava are topped with capers, the slow-cooked lamb baked in paper is flavoured subtly with garlic and mint. The prices are gratifyingly reasonable: appetisers cost €3.50-€6, mains €8-€11, the total will be no more than €20 per person including copious jug wine. As with many Greek restaurants, a complimentary pudding to share is brought to the table, but seldom is it as heavenly as the luscious orange cake on offer here. Although the menu is only in Greek, the charming young owners speak English.

Finding a place in the Plaka – among the locals – is a challenge. The Psara Taverna (17) is tucked away off the steps leading from the Acropolis (16 Erechtheos & Erotokritou Street; 00 30 210 321 8733; psaras-taverna.gr/en) with a courtyard for dining al fresco. Ordering is easy: just ask for a selection of meze (the aubergine croquettes are delicious).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The name of the 12th- century Byzantine gem just south of the Mitropoleos Cathedral is almost longer than the church itself. Panagia Gorgoepikoos-Agios Eleftherios (18) – the latter is the patron saint of freedom, which is particularly apt for striking Greeks at the moment – is a cruciform church built using marble rescued from earlier buildings. The exterior reliefs depict scenes from a folk bestiary: cat biting dog and bird overpowering hare. Sunday services begin at 7am and last until 10.30am. If you arrive when the liturgy is being chanted by a presiding priest accompanied by two of his colleagues, be sure to take one of the 20 seats and prepare to be intoxicated by the complex rhythms and Eastern-sounding harmonies as well as by the incense.

Out to brunch

The Benaki Museum (19) has a stylish café upstairs. From its outdoor terrace adorned with flowering tropical plants and lime trees in huge terracotta pots, you can look over the National Gardens to the Acropolis. It is open from 9am on Sundays for excellent coffee and an enticing menu, including smoked salmon and goats cheese sandwiches. You needn't pay the museum admission charge of €6 if you tell them you are just going to the café, though exploring the varied collection from prehistoric tools to 19th-century traditional costumes is worthwhile.

A walk in the park

While multitudes swarm over the Acropolis, the neglected tree-covered hill opposite is covered with a maze of footpaths. Few signposts help you to find your way on the Hill of the Muses, now known as Philopappos Hill (20), named for the 2nd century AD Syrian prince who was a benefactor of Athens and whose imposing mausoleum crowns the summit. Much of the climb is shaded by pine trees, with a view of the Acropolis and Lykavittos Hills, and of the sea to the west, the reward. Descend past the ruins of ancient dwellings to the Hill of Pnyx (21) where the democratic assembly convened in the 5th century BC.

Cultural afternoon

On the eve of its first birthday, the breathtaking new Acropolis Museum (22) retains its buzz. The striking building reveals remnants of the ancient city in situ under transparent floors. The top floor mirrors the dimensions and orientation of the Parthenon, which is clearly visible up the hill. The western side is the best preserved, with dramatic scenes of mounted Amazons attacking Greeks. Many sections are conspicuous by their absence, having been spirited away by Lord Elgin at the beginning of the 19th century. This unmissable museum is open 8am-8pm every day except Monday (00 30 210 900 0901; theacropolismuseum.gr); €5.

Take a ride

The Athens Coastal Tram links the city centre with the beach suburbs of Glyfada and Voula. For €1, travel on a hi-tech tram for an hour; tickets can easily be purchased from machines at city stops such as Syntagma. At the coast, walk to fish tavernas and beaches – though the swimming is better further south at Varkiza and beyond – via bus 149 from Glyfada Square (your ticket remains valid for 90 minutes from the time of purchase).

The icing on the cake

Within commuting distance of Athens is the island of Aegina in the Saronic Gulf, connected by ferries that take an hour and the Flying Dolphin hydrofoil that cuts that time in half. Both depart frequently from Port Gate E8 in Piraeus. It is also possible also to charter a skippered yacht from Alimos marina south of Athens to circumnavigate the island and have a go at sailing yourself; expect to pay about €800 for up to six people, for example from Friends on Board (Matsan-gos@agendaworld.gr).

Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor