Travel: How to get the best out of Athens - A wonderful place to escape from: Hot, fume-filled and noisy, Athens is a city to see quickly. But there are compensations, says Simon Calder

ATHENS is served by dozens of flights from the UK every week, but most passengers are bound for nearby islands. The city oppresses the senses with heat, noise and fumes. Leave as soon as you've done the sights; the rest of Greece is much more rewarding than its capital suggests.

Getting there: Bargains should be available through the summer, although fares are bound to rise when the school holidays begin. This time last summer I booked a flight from Manchester through Thomson (081-200 8733) for pounds 89 return, but a more realistic figure this year from most UK airports would be pounds 139. Try for seat-only deals from operators such as Unijet (0444 458181) and Falcon (061-745 7000). Virgin's new scheduled flights from Gatwick are about pounds 200 return.

Getting your bearings: Athens airport is horribly confusing. Olympic Airways uses the west terminal for both international and domestic services, while other airlines use the east terminal. The two terminals are miles apart by road. Bus 19 links them in about 20 minutes, and also runs to the port at Piraeus for travellers heading straight for a ferry.

To get from the east terminal to the city centre, take bus A or B. Bus A continues to the bus station that serves the Peloponnese and northern Greece. Bus B calls at both railway stations and ends up at the city's other bus depot - for travellers to Delphi. The west terminal has a parallel network, with buses also named A and B, but distinguished by an oblique stroke through the letter.

Getting around: Public transport is cheap and frequent, with a standard flat fare of about 25p. The single underground line makes a useful spine through the city, connecting central Athens - Syntagma and Omonia squares, for example - with Piraeus. The bus network is less user-friendly: destinations are marked only in Greek and tickets must be bought in advance at tobacco kiosks. A three-mile taxi ride in light traffic should cost about pounds 2, but delays due to congestion can increase fares dramatically.

Accommodation: If you want to book in advance, the Greek National Tourist Office (address below) issues a comprehensive list of hotels. If paying only pounds 5 per person for city-centre accommodation appeals, try George's Guest House, 46 Nikis Street (322 6474 - for code see further information below). At this price you don't get soap or towels let alone an en-suite bath. Around Omonia Square, try the El Greco at 65 Athinas Street (324 4554; fax 324 4597), or Hotel Omonia on the square itself (523 7210; fax 522 5779); each is pounds 20 for a double with bathroom.

Seeing the sights: Acropolis translates as 'High Town'. This ancient city is perched above the centre of Athens, a heroic antidote to the disagreeable modernity below. It loses much of its majesty, however, if a thousand tourists are crawling all over it. Be first in the queue when it opens at 8am, and you can have the centre of the ancient world to yourself.

The National Archaeological Museum has one of the world's greatest collections, but you can see the highlights in a 20- minute tour.

Eating and drinking: The right time to drink ouzo is early evening. This aniseed aperitif is intended merely to wash down hors-d'oeuvres. A pleasant place to sip and snack is Kolonaki Square, a busy plaza north-east of Syntagma. The greatest concentration of restaurants is in the Plaka, a warren of streets on the northern slopes of the Acropolis. The culinary epicentre is Filomousou Etaireneias Square, full of restaurants packed with tourists. Reject any establishment where a waiter accosts you; two places which do not are To Kosmikon and the neighbouring Plaka Villege (sic).

Breaking away: Getting out of the capital needs planning. By air, you could connect straight to a domestic flight by booking in advance with Olympic Airways (071-409 3400). A one-way flight between Athens and the island of Santorini, for example, costs about pounds 40.

Before buying a boat ticket, go to the tourist office on Syntagma Square and ask for the list of departures from Piraeus. Individual agencies will not provide a complete picture of sailings. A deck-class ticket to Mykonos might cost pounds 7, and with a berth in a cabin pounds 15. You can double your speed by paying a premium fare to ride on a Flying Dolphin. These Russian-built hydrofoils zip around the Aegean, operating an airline-style timetable.

Compared with boats and planes, trains in Greece are slow and unreliable. One line rumbles north towards Thessaloniki, while the other winds around the top of the Peloponnese.

Buses are faster and more reliable. To Delphi, for example, four departures a day take you straight to the ruins in three hours for pounds 4.

The mainland: To rush straight off to the islands is to miss a lot. In particular, try to see two splendid archaeological sites. Delphi makes a good day trip from Athens, or could form part of a circuit of the mainland. To the ancient world it was the sanctuary of Apollo, son of Zeus. The word of the Oracle ( priestess of the sanctuary) was seen as stemming from Apollo himself. The ruins are atmospheric, and the setting - above a river gorge - breathtaking. Epidavros, in the Peloponnese, is another extensive religious site, centred on a 1,600-year-old theatre. The acoustics are superb, as you will hear if a pal stands centre stage and whispers to you high up in the auditorium.

Good guides: The best general guidebook is Greece: the Rough Guide ( pounds 9.95). The Michelin Green Guide ( pounds 6.95) is strong on history and has excellent maps.

Further information: National Tourism Organisation of Greece, 4 Conduit Street, London W1R 0DJ (071-734 5997). The dialling code for Athens and Piraeus from the UK is 010 30 1.

(Photograph omitted)

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