If you want to dig beyond the archaeological sites and ancient ruins of a city with 6,000 years worth of history at its disposal you need to use those things at the end of your legs: your feet. (Even if walking has become a bit of a novelty for many living in Dubai).
First things first, locate the city’s Acropolis, its famous colonnaded temple ruin, which stands tenaciously above the bustling, crowded city of seven million inhabitants, conveying a sense of the former power of this, the birthplace of European culture. It’s also a handy landmark for visitors -– much of modern Athens mushroomed up during the 1950s and ’60s with apparently little thought given to maintaining the classical grid layouts of the city’s bygone architects. But set out on foot and you can’t fail to be charmed by the little backstreets, each new corner and leafy square (Athens is big on squares) revealing a unique character and plenty of independently run cafés, quirky shops, galleries and treasures to sate mall-jaded Dubaians.
Start your odyssey at Acropolis Hill. Join a guided tour and stroll up its steep sides to the Temples of Zeus and Athena, constructed over centuries from around 500BC. Although most cities can be accused of ‘sprawling’, Athens really does, and this is a good spot to appreciate the metropolis below. You’ll see the entire city laid out around you, a concrete jungle of apartment blocks (Athenians mostly live in apartments, escaping to village summer houses and the coast at weekends and holidays), office buildings and ancient monuments.
Down the hill and past the obligatory tourist shops, it’s a short 20-minute stroll to Panathinaiko Stadium, which was home to the first modern Olympics in 1896 and dates back to 329BC. When Athens held the games again in 2004, the marathon finished here, and the old stadium offers an intriguing glimpse into the history of an event that has changed today beyond all recognition. For the last games, a new stadium was built, which today is used for concerts and shows.
Next head to Sofia Street, by the National Gallery. This is one of the Athen’s biggest roads and leads into the city centre. On the way you can stop off at the War Museum and its macabre collection of weapons from the Stone Age through to the Second World War. By the Benaki Museum, which houses an equally expansive collection of art, you can leave the main road behind and walk up the hilly side roads into the district of Kolonaki. Here, you’ll come across several independently run art galleries and cafés before emerging into Kolonaki Square, one of Athens’ more upmarket areas. By now you’ll probably be in need of a coffee, but eschew your regular brew and ask for a ‘freddo’, an iced coffee that’s a real Greek speciality.
Get back out onto the main road as it’s time to visit Syntagma Square, where the country’s parliament building, an ex-royal palace, is located. It is one of the few parts of Athens where the clean, ordered lines of its neoclassical era remain. The square is named after the constitution of 1843 when Greeks demanded a democracy; today the McDonald’s is a rendezvous meeting spot, a helpful if un-photogenic landmark. Just beyond this lies the popular shopping district of Ermou, a largely pedestrianised series of alleyways and roads. For a walker-friendly city, it’s little surprise that Athens seems to have more than its fair share of shoe shops and, while Dubai mall veterans may feel the prices are high, the rule of thumb for shopping seems to be the smaller the road, the cheaper the bargains. Hondos Center, a Greek department store, is located here, along with an array of high street names and Greek high street stores. Check out Koph (email@example.com) for locally-produced arts and crafts.
Towards Omonia Station, you’ll cross into a decidedly less salubrious part of Athens. For a sanitised Dubaian, it’s something of an illicit thrill to find yourself rubbing shoulders with dreadlocked hippies, scruffy art students and ne’er-do-wells, in this down-at-heel little enclave. One corner has been turned into a park, with benches and what looks suspiciously like a tented squatter’s camp bearing painted slogans flapping colourfully in the breeze. Fans of indie music will appreciate the record shops and alternative vibe of this area. In general, begging isn’t immediately apparent in the city, although it’s not unusual to see zebra crossings populated by juggling clowns who busk for coins as the lights change.
Next to Omonia Square, another neighbourhood offers a different vibe. Exarchia Square and the area around it is something of a bohemian spot. The graffiti on the walls is the kind of stuff you’ll see in books, distressed faces splayed over building facades, splashes of angst from a spray can remind you that this is a young, art-loving city.
This is also the area where riots sparked and nearly engulfed Athens after a policeman shot a young boy dead in December 2008. There are still buildings with telltale smoke marks in gutted windows, although for most Athenians the riots are considered a one-off example of unrest, albeit a regrettable one. A makeshift shrine to the dead boy still stands, surrounded by candles and pictures, but if you turn the corner into yet another leafy square Athenian life continues as normal.
Having worked up something of an appetite with all this walking, it’s time to grab some food. Olives, olive oils and tapas-style condiments remain a popular export, and a plethora of cafés and restaurants offer options a world away from the tired souvlaki and moussaka combinations. Try Bliss (www.purebliss.com), for a mix of food and arty culture. For mezze, you can head to the district of Psiri, which boasts an array of inviting tavernas and colourful cafés.
At night Athens comes into its own. Young Athenians are notorious night owls. Nightclubs, such as Bios will fill slowly to capacity by around 1am. While there is a proliferation of clubs dotted around the city, many dance venues lie in and around Psiri, Plakat and Keramikos. Names such as Mammakas, Soho or Escape are currently the popular places to throw shapes – while the city’s uplit ruins glow peacefully elsewhere in the city.
Young Athenians are a forward-thinking lot, with a penchant for unique fashion items and a love of partying until dawn at the newest, hottest clubs. But, when it comes to Bouzoukia, the night clubs that feature traditional (and dare we say it, cheesy) famous Athenian folk performers, it’s tradition all the way.
‘It’s like going to see the equivalent of Robbie Williams in concert,’ explains Thomas Riganas, a twenty-something sales executive by day, avowed clubber by night. ‘We usually go to get some mezze in Psiri first, then head down to one of the clubs.’ Traditionally, each Bouzoukia features a raised stage around which are set tables and chairs. ‘You normally book in advance, as the best tables are booked up weeks ahead at the busiest clubs. It is popular with young people and old people alike.’ He recommends the cluster of nightclubs around Gkazi, which is a district that comes to life after dark. Be warned: partying in Athens is not to be undertaken lightly. ‘I sometimes wonder why we can’t start at 8pm, and finish at 2am, but no. We go out at 11pm, and come home at dawn.’ Mercifully for Tom and his friends, most Bouzoukias take place at weekends.
Need to know
Air Arabia now flies direct to Athens every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Prices start from Dhs1,182.
Where to stay
Divani Caravel Hotel, 2 Vassileous Alexandrou Avenue (+30 210 720 7000, www.divanis.com) Superior Room from €180 (Dhs936) per night.
Zorbas Hotel, 10 Gkyilfordou Street, Victoria Square (+30 2 10 821 8878, www.zorbashotel.com) Rooms from €24 (Dhs125).
Acropolis, Acropolis Station. Entry €12 (Dhs62), which includes entry to Theatre of Dionysos, Olympian Temple, Hadrian’s Library and Ancient Agora.
Benaki Museum (www.benaki.gr) houses a collection that dates from prehistory to modern times.
Bouzoukia Don’t leave without letting your hair down Athenian-style at one of these popular traditional Greek music clubs. Posidonio (+30 210 894 1035, 18 Posidonos Ave), Can Can (+30 210 561 2321, 62 Petrou Ralli).
Where to eat and drink
Bliss, 24A Romvis Street (+30 210 325 0360, www.purebliss.gr).
Ydria 68 Adrianou Street, Monastiraki (+30 210 325 1619, www.ydria.gr).
Soho 54 Voutado Street, Gazi (+30 210 342 2665).
Magaze Karori Street, Ermou (www.magaze.gr).
Where to shop
Attica (+30 211 180 2600, 9 Panepistimiou Str, Athens. Huge department store.
Hondos Center (www.hondoscenter.gr) Fashion and beauty department store selling every- thing from leather goods to cosmetics and homeware.