Athens

The cradle of Western civilisation offers a breathtaking glimpse into antiquity, but the modern city is equally full of intriguing distractions, says Simon Calder
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The Independent Travel

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Why go now?

A city drenched in millennia of history has been comprehensively revived in the new millennium. Today the city is welcoming, accessible and full of energy, making an autumn visit a real pleasure.

Touch down

British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) and Olympic Airlines (0871 2000 500; www.olympicairlines.com), the Greek national carrier, both fly several times a day between Heathrow and Athens. Aegean Airlines (0871 200 0040; www. aegeanair.com) flies twice daily from Stansted, and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies from both Luton and Gatwick.

Athens' elegant and efficient airport is 17km east of the centre. The fastest way into the heart of the city is on the shiny new Metro, which takes around 30 minutes to reach Syntagma Square (1) and Monastiraki (2) – two of the key points in Athens. If you arrive in the evening, emerging from Monastiraki station to see the Parthenon (3) towering above the city is stunning. A one-way ticket costs €6 (£5), but only €5 (£4.15) if two or three people travel together. The ticket is valid for free transfers within 90 minutes across the Metro system – and on buses and trams.

Alternatively, bus X95 runs to Syntagma Square for €3.20 (£2.60), around the clock (handy for very early or late flights). The journey takes 40 minutes in light traffic and provides an introduction to the sprawling suburbs that are at odds with the historic core of Athens.

Get your bearings

Together with Syntagma Square (1) and Monastiraki (2), Omonia Square (4) is the third point of the triangle at the heart of modern Athens. But visitors will be lured south of here into Plaka, the jumble of streets in the skirts of the towering Acropolis. Further east, the regenerated areas of Thissio and Gazi are now firmly on the map. The three-line Metro is supplemented by trams running south and west from Syntagma Square and Monastiraki, and hundreds of buses. An €0.80 (£0.65) ticket allows changes within 90 minutes.

Check in

The first boutique hotel in Athens was the dazzling Fresh (5) at 26 Sofokleous Street (00 30 210 524 8511; www.freshhotel.gr), which feels like walking into a breeze of bright, light pinks and blues. A well-appointed double room costs €150 (£125), including breakfast. The only drawback is the location, which is not the most salubrious in the city.

A cheaper and more mainstream option nearby is the Polis Grand Hotel (6) on the corner of 28 Oktovriou and Veranzerou Street (00 30 210 524 3156; www.polisgrandhotel.gr) where the rack rate is €135 (£115) including breakfast and Wi-Fi – but specials are often available, either direct or through hotel reservation websites.

On a budget? John's Place (7) is a handsome, welcoming guest house with an extremely central location at Patrou 5 (00 30 210 322 9719). A huge, high-ceilinged double without bathroom or breakfast costs €60 (£50).

Cultural morning

The key to enjoying the treasures of antiquity: arrive early. Get to the Acropolis gates (8) shortly before opening time at 8am. Pay the admission fee of €12 (£10; the same ticket gets you into the Agora, the Theatre of Dionysos and the Temple of Olympian Zeus). Climb quickly to the ancient city on the hill; for an hour or so, you can enjoy the crowning classical Greek creation of the Parthenon (3), building work permitting, in relative solitude. By 9.30am, when the crowds are thick on the ground, you should descend to Acropolis Metro station (9). This is the unlikely venue for key missing elements of the Parthenon: a replica of the Elgin Marbles is in the station hall, while a terracotta frieze decorates the platforms. And alongside, the astonishing New Acropolis Museum (10) is offering free tours of the ground floor from 10am to noon every day until the official opening.

Lunch on the run

Around the new museum dozens of restaurants are aimed squarely at tourists. Instead, cut across to the Central Market (11), where meat eaters feast on freshly cooked flesh; Ipiros is one of many excellent options.

Window shopping

The main shopping street is Ermou. Even if you're not retail-minded, you should at least be startled by the contrast between the 11th-century Byzantine church, Kapnikarea (12), which stands halfway along, surrounded by 21st-century trappings of materialism.

Take a hike

This stroll can fill an afternoon. It carves through Athens, modern and ancient, ending up at the city's current cutting edge. From the Kapnikarea (12), go east along Ermou and turn right at Marks & Spencer. This takes you to the Metropolitan Cathedral, currently shrouded in scaffolding. Keep heading south and you will find your way to Agias Filotheis (note the elegant gallery at number 47, guarded by a mosaic of peacocks). At the end of the street, bear right onto Flessa, which bends around into Lissiou. The Cafe Melina (13) at the corner of Erehthros celebrates the former culture minister, Melina Mercouri, who created the European Capital of Culture idea.

Continue through the foothills of the Acropolis and you reach a gate (14) that leads through to a path that threads past the structures of the Agora. At the far end, bear right onto the blissfully traffic-free Apostolou Pavlou. This leads to the neighbourhood of Thissio, whose main thoroughfare – Iraklidon – is lined with bars and restaurants. It reaches a slightly untidy conclusion; keep going under the bridge towards the power station-turned-exhibition space known as Technopolis (15).

An aperitif

Just beyond Technopolis (15), the Gazi area is now thick with places to drink and eat; Soho and Del Sol (16) are two of the tempting options.

Dining with the locals

The Butcher Shop (17) at 19 Persefonis in Gazi (00 30 210 341 3440) offers succulent lamb, beef and pork with a number of Greek regional specialities. Book in advance for weekend evenings, and expect to pay around €30 (£25) for a good feed, including a glass or two of wine. If €10 (£8.40) is more your sort of bill, aim for Iroon Square at the heart of trendy Psiri. Just north, opposite a patisserie, is the Thira (18), a restaurant whose name appears only in Greek. The decor is rooted in the 1930s, and the food good and cheap.

Sunday morning: go to church

Look, another 11th-century Byzantine church: this one, perched prettily in Plaka, is Agios Nikolaou Rangavas (19) (00 30 210 231 2313). Get there between 8am and noon to gasp at the ambience and richness of the decoration.

Out to brunch

Pay at least one visit to Cafe Avissinia (20), on Avissinia Square in Monastiraki (00 30 210 321 7047). This institution (open 11am-1am daily except Mondays) offers a colourful setting in which to enjoy the signature starters: aubergine, taramasalata and marinated whitebait should be enough for most people for brunch, though superb meat and fish dishes are available for lunch or dinner.

Take a ride

The train from Monastiraki (2) to Piraeus is fast and frequent (€0.80/£0.65), and transports you to a handsome station: gateway to the busiest port in the Mediterranean. It's a rough-around-the-edges place, but there are great cafés – and ships setting sail to the four corners of the Greek islands.

A walk in the park

Back in Athens proper, explore the open space that spreads south and east from Syntagma Square (1). On the east side, every hour on the hour, an entertaining changing-of-the-guard ceremony takes place. Beyond it, the National Gardens (open sunrise to sunset) provides a couple of essential square kilometres of lungs for the city. Note the impressive Zapio (21), a palace created by a rich Romanian, and the statue of Byron (22) – the poet is revered for his part in the independence struggle.

Icing on the cake

The National Archaeological Museum (23) is a long way north along 28 Okrovriou (00 30 210 821 7724; www. culture.gr), but well worth the effort for an astonishing collection of ancient art from several millennia. It opens 8am-7.30pm daily (from 1pm on Mondays), admission €7 (£6). Pay particular attention to room 15 – dominated by a massive bronze sculpture of Poseidon from 460BC, frozen in the act of hurling a trident; it was discovered in the sea off Cape Artemision, close to Athens. Continue clockwise to room 21. It is dominated by a horse and child jockey in bronze, also dragged from the sea. Go in the direction the horse is pointing. Towards the far end is an exquisite gold mask of a king, believed to be Agamemnon, dating from the 16th century BC; one last, ancient face of Athens.

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