A thens knows a thing or two about standing up for itself. You need only look at the incredible array of historical sites to know a bit about the character of this great city. And that's why, at a time when Greece has become a byword for financial trouble in Europe, that the capital still packs plenty of punch. From the main shopping thoroughfare to the quaint town squares around which hordes of young and excitable locals pack out the coolest food and beverage venues, it is a city bursting with life. And if that's not your bag, there are stretches of rugged coastline to explore, relax on, or simply take in while enjoying freshly-prepared seafood and other tasty morsels.
Monastiraki Flea Market
While high street brands have moved into the older buildings on the main pedestrianised street of Ermou – none more so than H&M, which has turned a four-storey townhouse into an utterly modern retail haven – the real fun in shopping in Athens comes in Monastiraki where the flea market is a veritable feast of trinkets, tat and randomness. Fighting through the crowds from the station of the same name, you’ll have to scurry a little deeper to find something of real value, although if antiques, furniture and homely things are your bag, head for Brachera, an end-point square where the highest concentration of “quality” outlets are found. The rest is hit and miss, but an experience nonetheless, and once you’ve worn yourself out deflecting the main market vendors who attempt to coax you into their store, there are some excellent eateries both in the market – Avissinia Café among them – or one street back on Adrianou, where you’ll find quaint terrace seating and a lively atmosphere at night.
Okay, so you already know all about the hill-top ruins, once the seat of power for the civilised world. But these are genuinely one of those “seeing is believing” tourist attractions that, regardless of how many photos you’ve seen, still delivers a Herculean punch of wow factor. And even if imposing ancient citadels aren’t your thing, the knockout view from the top is worth the trek. The name itself – translated as “highest point” – is given to a multitude of structures, all in varying degrees of decay, the most famous of which is the theatrical Parthenon. Take time to stroll around the acres of public gardens on the hillside, separating the ruins from the rest of the city, which at night gives the illusion that the illuminated structures are floating.
Tailor Made Coffee House
Even if you took the bar away from the side wall of Tailor Made – not to mention the patrons drinking mixed beverages – and found yourself left with the chemistry-lab-style coffee offering, the place would still have a party-like buzz. Athens’ coolest kids flock here for both the exquisite coffee – ethically sourced from all over the world, and roasted and brewed in every which way imaginable – and the vibe. In the corners, single desks with plug sockets host eager entrepreneurs working the next big start-up, while outside the crowd spills out onto Platia Agias Irinis. All the wares used are for sale, too, so save some space in your luggage for the hipster-approved grinders and presses.
Where to stay
The large cobbled streets of Plaka are a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, but a world away in terms of the experience. Life is just taken at a different pace here, and nothing sums that up more than the terrace at Plaka Hotel. The rooms are fairly standard (but always well maintained), but with the boutiques and quaint dining options all within easy reach, having this highly-rated spot as a base would be a smart move regardless of the length of stay.
Hotel Grande Bretagne
For something a little more classical, this multi-award-winning, five-star hotel in Athens’ upmarket theatre district is worth considering. The décor is elaborate and teetering on the edge of being outdated, but being housed in a dominant, two-century old building in view of Parliament and Syntagma Square means it fits right in. The spa, fitness centre and regal communal areas make for wonderful places to stop by before or after heading out into the rest of the city. The Theatro Vretania and Pallas Theatre, with their assortment of European restaurants and high-end boutique shops, are both just a hop, skip and a jump away.
Athens International welcomes daily flights from all over the GCC. Emirates flies once a day from Dubai, while Qatar Airways offer three services throughout the day from Doha. From Abu Dhabi, Etihad Airways flies direct, as does Greek airline Aegean.
Should the weather permit, tackling Athens by foot is strongly recommended. It is absolutely a city where little gems are found tucked around every winding corner and behind every town square. An excellent public transport system runs through the heart of the city all the way from the airport to the beach. And what's more, for less than two euros, you have unlimited access to all of it (except out to the terminal). There are five different tram routes running from Parliament down to the coast, and an underground service that operates between all the major tourist hotspots.
Bring your beachwear but don't feel the need to island hop to wear it. Athens’ coast might not be as luxurious as the stretches of sand along the Aegean Sea, but for an afternoon away from the hustle and bustle you could do worse than Pireaus. Some of the region's best seafood restaurants can be found in this area, known as the Apollo Coast, and there's privacy to be found in the many coves.
The biggest music event of the year in Greece takes place from June 18 to 23. European Music Day (June 21) is celebrated with gusto across the country (in 2015, 12 regions and 38 cities took part), with hundreds of pop-up and more formal events turning squares, parks and pretty much any pedestrianised street into a stage. Launched as a not-for-profit celebration in 1999, it goes from strength-to-strength every year, featuring classical and popular musicians from all over the world. Tastes of all kinds are catered for, while a series of workshops and conferences have since elevated the week-long festivities to another level. The majority of performances are free to attend and enjoy, though some specialist aspects require registration.