- A classic Greek beauty
- City life
- Modern civilisation
Centre of the ancient world, Athens is every bit as glorious and atmospheric as you'd imagine.
The Acropolis and the Parthenon may dominate its skyline, but the Greek capital certainly doesn't live in the past. With one of the Med's coolest and most vibrant urban centres, Athens is far more than an island-getaway gateway, and offers buzzing bars and restaurants on the same streets where chiton-clad philosophers laid down the foundations of modern civilisation. With more tourist attractions than you can shake a history textbook at, and beaches but a short drive away, there’s no shortage of things to see or do; add to that blue skies, hot sun and, best of all, terrific shopping, and you've got all the ingredients you need for a perfect ancient-city break.
The high-kicking, bekilted evzone guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are as much a symbol of Athens as Ionic columns and the Olympic flame. Catch these light infantrymen in full skirt-twirling action every Sunday at 11am, when they perform the ceremonial changing of the guard in traditional dress outside the Presidential mansion on Syntagma Square. They also change the guard hourly throughout the week, with a little less fanfare and slightly more restrained costumes. And remember, don't judge a book by its cover (or a soldier by his dress): these guys were traditionally the Greek military elite and could probably kill you with a just wave of their pom-pom-clad toes…
- On busy roads, you might have trouble hailing a cab: pick one up at a rank, it's usually quicker. Or ask your hotel to book one in advance – this is usually the best option.
- Tipping culture
- There's no expectation, but up to 10 per cent will be very much appreciated. No need to tip taxi drivers.
- Siesta and fiesta
- Many shops stay open 8am–9pm, but the traditional opening hours are 9am–2.30pm Mondays and Wednesdays; 9am–1.30pm and 5.30pm–8.30pm Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; and 9am–3pm Saturdays. From about 6pm, Athenians spend a couple of hours socialising (and smoking) over coffees. Dinner is a late affair, starting around 9pm. Athens is party central for most of the summer months, with partying kicking off late and ending in the early hours. Saturdays nights are particularly long and action-packed.
- Packing tips
- Sun hat and sandals for exploring the archaeological sites; grecian-style sundresses for day-to-night glamour.
- Recommended reads
- The Frogs, Lysistrata or any other play by Aristophanes; pioneering travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts; The Parthenon by Mary Beard provides one of the most engaging overviews of this incredible piece of ancient architecture.
- Athens is a cosmopolitan city with a thriving international restaurant scene. As in the rest of Greece, traditional cuisine centres on Mediterranean-style fresh fish and vegetables, grilled meats and salads, all made with lashings of locally produced olive oil. Dishes also draw on the cuisine of neighbouring countries, with influences from Turkey, the Balkans and the Middle East – try tapas-style mezze, flat breads and baklava pastries. Head to an ouzerie to sample the fearsomely strong Greek fire water, ouzo, with a snacking-portion selection of mezedes – we like Ouzadiko in Kolonaki, but so does most of Athens, so you'll need a reservation (+30 210 729 5484). If you're in the Plaka district, seek out Mesogaia (+30 210 322 9146), a fantastic little deli at 52 Nikis that stocks speciality produce from all over Greece.
- Euro (€).
- Time zone
- GMT +2.
- Dialling codes
- Country code for Greece: +30. Athens: 21.
- Do go/don't go
- After the Olympics, Athens has become a year-round city-break destination, but travel from March to November if you want guaranteed sunshine.
Don't go home without...
… a bagful of Korres toiletries. Sold in almost every high street chemist in Greece, these unctuous natural homoeopathic lotions and potions have pharmacy-chic packaging and cost much more back home (where you'll find them at the likes of Liberty and Ajune).