Zarina Khan seeks out perfect views, cutting-edge museums and top-notch kebabs on a tour of the Greek capital.
1. The Acropolis
No trip to Athens is complete without a visit to the Acropolis, and with the new Acropolis Museum now open, it’s the perfect place to start your tour. Tickets for the museum (15 Dionysiou Areopagitou Street; newacropolismuseum.gr) cost €1, but the €12 ticket will give you access to the Acropolis and attractions such as the Ancient Agora and the Olympieion. The exhibitions showcase archaeological findings from the Acropolis, a mind-blowing display of intricate, ancient carvings, while on the entry level a glass floor provides a tantalising window through to the excavated ruins of ancient houses, roads and markets below. After leaving the museum, head up the uneven steps to the top of the Acropolis, where you can behold the Parthenon from a distance. The ancient structure has not weathered the millennia well, and is girded with scaffolding to prevent further erosion.
2. The Ancient Agora
Head back down the hill to the Ancient Agora, an area at the base of the Acropolis that was once an open place of assembly with market stalls. (The term “agoraphobia” refers to a fear of open spaces, and originates from the Greek.) Take a quiet walk along the dusty paths to the Church of the Holy Apostles, a relative baby in this most historical of cities, built in around the 11th century. Athens sometimes spoils you with awe-inspiring antiquity, but this little Byzantine church manages to hold its own with its rough asceticism and beautiful frescoed dome.
Monastiraki neighbours the Ancient Agora and abounds with small shops selling souvenirs and counter-cultural wares – here you can buy your combat boots, tie-dyed sarong and mini Parthenon in one fell swoop. Splashed with graffiti and sprinkled with backpackers, Monastiraki has a relaxing, alternative vibe, but be wary of pickpockets. If you’re in town on a Sunday, look out for the colourful flea market, where you can try your luck at finding authentic vintage treasures among the random junk being hawked.
South of Monastiraki is Plaka, a quiet and traditional district known for its gold and food. After walking the streets of Athens you’ll more than likely be hungry, and Plaka has a good pick of tavernas to choose from. For the most part, it seems that one souvlaki (skewered meat or veg) is as good as the next, so choose your taverna for its view (some are beautifully positioned near historic sites), ambience (a few have great live music, others annoying recordings), and price, with a plate of traditional Greek kebabs costing between €7 and €12. If you’re vegetarian, go for the excellent spinach pie, spanakopita.
5. Syntagma Square
Stroll over to Syntagma Square to watch the changing of the guard (every 30-60 minutes) at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Snap some pictures of the stunning Parliament building on your way, built by King Otto in the 1830s, and stop and pay homage to the Three Temples of Learning – the Academy of Athens, the University of Athens and Athens Library. Across the street is the National Garden, a verdant oasis in the middle of dense downtown.
For the final stop on your tour through the ages, check out chic Kolonaki for a slice of contemporary Athens, where boutique shops nestle alongside stylish restaurants and private art galleries on the south-western slopes of Lycabettus Hill. This is where the rich and famous gather, especially at sunset for a cocktail. Head to the top of the hill for the best views – on a clear day you can see right across to the Saronic Gulf islands of Aegina and Salamis.