48 hours in Athens

Visit Athens before the Olympian hordes arrive in August, says Frank Partridge, who communes with the gods at the Acropolis and finds new treasures along the recently mined vein of the city's metro system
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Time is running out to see the city before it undergoes a tourist invasion of Olympian proportions, with the Games in August and the Paralympics in September driving up prices and making hotel rooms extremely scarce. Athens has a lot of ground to make up, and earth to displace, to meet the deadline for the opening ceremony on 13 August. Visiting now has its drawbacks: the pile-drivers thud into action at 7.30 every morning. But there is a sense of excitement in the air - and benevolent spring temperatures make sightseeing less of a struggle than in the long, hot summer.

BEAM DOWN

The only no-frills airline is easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com), with two flights a day from Luton and one from Gatwick starting at around £100 return. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) has three flights a day from Heathrow, with fares from around £130. Similar fares are on offer from Hellas Jet (0870 751 7222; www.hellas-jet.com), from Gatwick and Heathrow, and from Heathrow with Olympic (0870 606 0640; www.olympicairlines.com). Olympic also flies twice a week from Manchester.

From the airport, bus E94 connects with the metro system at Ethniki Amyna station, while E95 terminates in the city centre near Syntagma Square . Both services run every 20 minutes, and should get you into town within an hour. Buy your ticket at the booth outside the arrivals hall for €2.90 (£2) - and you can use it to board any bus or metro service in the city for the next 24 hours. By taxi, the 20-mile journey costs around €30 (£21).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Athens, like Rome and Jerusalem, is a city of hills. The highest, Lykavittos , and the most photographed, the Acropolis , are handy orientation points. The main tourist office is next to the National Garden at 26 Vasilissis Amalias Avenue (00 30 210 331 0392). Out of season, the opening hours are 8am-2pm daily except Sunday. After Easter, the office will provide free street maps and information from 9am-6pm Monday to Friday and 10am-3pm on Saturday.

CHECK IN

If money's no object, the alpha and omega of Athenian hotels is the palatial Hotel Grande Bretagne towering over Syntagma Square (00 30 210 333 0000; www.grandebretagne.gr). But tradition, style and glamour don't come cheap: double rooms start at €380 (£266), with breakfast an extra €28 (£20) a head. If you head across Syntagma Square to the pedestrianised shopping street of Ermou , and take the third turning on the right to Hotel Cypria at 5 Diomias (00 30 210 323 8034), which is modern and mercifully quiet, with prices starting at €110 (£77) for a double, including breakfast. In economy class, Hotel Tempi at 29 Eolou (00 30 210 321 3175) has all the basics at remarkable prices. Spring rates for an air-conditioned double room start at €37 (£26), and although no food is provided, you can prepare your own in the communal kitchen. To stay near the Acropolis, the Divani Palace Acropolis Hotel at 19-25 Parthenonos (00 30 210 928 0100) is handily placed, with magnificent views from its room balconies and rooftop terrace. Deals are available outside the peak season, with double rooms from €170 (£120) per night, and breakfast an extra €18 (£12.50) per head.

TAKE A RIDE

The wonderful new metro system has uncovered and preserved layers of archaeological treasures deep in the soil. Some of these are displayed at the main stations, with detailed explanations in English, notably at Syntagma station , where you pass beneath the spectacular double-sided Metro Clock modern sculpture: a perfect blend of art and function. A single journey costs €0.70 (50p), while a day ticket for unlimited travel is €2.90 (£2).

TAKE A HIKE

Start at Monastiraki Square and walk under the red sign into the world's oldest flea market - open every day and always full of interest, if not bargain prices. Turn left at the end of the stalls, and left again into Adrianou. The entrance to the ancient Agora is on your right. While the Acropolis was devoted to heavenly matters, the Agora was the centre of worldly commerce and politics from the sixth century BC. Wander along undulating pathways among the profusion of excavated stones, and carry on to the western perimeter where you pass the multi-columned Temple of Hephaestus, built in the 5th century BC and much better preserved than the Acropolis. Emerge back into the contemporary bustle and return to Monastiraki along Areos.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The former Turkish quarter of Plaka is the obvious place to eat. Every square foot of pavement space along Kidathineon is taken up with tables and chairs. Near the Central Market , Diorofo at 77 Eolou has a lively café downstairs and an excellent restaurant upstairs. In Kolonaki, a branch of Café Everest on Tsakalof has a fine selection of open sandwiches and pastries from around €2 (£1.40).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

One downside of visiting pre-Olympic Athens is that its finest museum is closed for refurbishment. The National Archaeological Museum at 1 Tositsa (00 30 210 821 7717) contains a dizzying collection of finds from Neolithic to Roman times, but it is closed until summer. Instead, take the narrow street Eolou through Plaka as far as you can go, with the Acropolis directly in front of you, until you reach the marble, octagonal Tower of the Winds , designed by a Macedonian astronomer as a first-century weather station. It once served as a sundial, compass, clock and weather vane, and still discernible today are eight reliefs of flowing male figures at the top of each side, depicting the different winds and their particular attributes.

WINDOW SHOPPING

The best all-round shopping street is Ermou , conveniently central, mercifully free of cars, and aptly named for Hermes, the god of commerce.

The well-heeled Kolonaki district is the place to go for designer clothing and shoes. For handicrafts, antiques and jewellery, try Kidathineon or one of its equally mercantile neighbours.

AN APERITIF

Two carless, leafy side streets off Kolonaki Square have numerous options. On Tsokalof , try Caffe da Capo or Ciao; on parallel Millieni Street, enjoy the eccentric artefacts and live music at Jackson Hall to get you in the mood for the evening.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Not far from the flea market, busy Thanasis at Mitropoleos 69, (00 30 210 324 4705) serves the best souvlaki in town, reputedly. In the shadow of the Acropolis, on Mnisikleous, various establishments offer solid Greek fare. Nearby, Eden, at 12 Lyssiou (00 30 210 324 8858), is Greece's first vegetarian restaurant. It offers a fine range of fresh and organic dishes at excellent prices. A soya souvlaki or vegetable chilli, with a salad starter, dessert and a glass of organic wine costs around €15 (£10.50) a head.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The time to visit the ancient world's most important temple, the Acropolis , is as early as possible on a Sunday. The entrance is off Dionysiou Areopagitou. Opening hours are 8.30am-2.30pm. There's no charge on Sundays between 1 November and 31 March, but on every other day you have to buy a €12 (£8.50) ticket which provides admission to this and five other sites. It's hard not to gaze in wonder at this 25-century-old miracle.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Near the flea market and the ancient Agora, Café Monastiraki at Andrianou 18 has a tempting and intriguingly named selection of crêpes, ranging from The Ecologist (feta cheese-based), €5.50 (£3.85), to The Whole Family (with cheese, mushroom, sausage, egg and salad) for €10 (£7).

A WALK IN THE PARK

The National Garden used to be the royals' private retreat, but is now open and free to all, from dawn to dusk. There are 40 acres of flowers, shrubs, 7,000 trees, ornamental ponds, an aviary and a botanical museum, which is also free.

TAKE A VIEW

Amid the urban swirl of people and traffic, it's easy to forget that the centre of Athens is only seven miles from the coast. On a haze-free day the views of the Saronic Gulf are stunning from the 847-foot summit of Lykavittos . Even the mighty Acropolis is dwarfed. Take metro line 3 to Evangelismos , from where you have to tackle nearly 200 steps up Plutarhou. Level sections and some fine ceramic shops ease the burden. The final haul can be done on a funicular railway, which glides up the hill from 8.45am to 12.45am - closing half an hour earlier in winter - for a fare of €2 (£1.40) each way.

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