A city of contradictions
Athens’ illustrious history still very much defines its modern identity. But don’t imagine a city of barefoot philosophers, roaming among the ruins rubbing their beards. The reality – a noisy, crowded, chaotic city – is inevitably a jolt to the senses. But it’s also a life-affirming metropolis, whose appeal lies in its refusal to conform to expectations or conventions.
Glorious antiquities abound amid the concrete sprawl. The archaeological park that circles the Acropolis links many of the most important sights. But you’ll also find Byzantine chapels squeezed between 1970s apartment blocks. You’ll stumble upon fallen columns in the National Gardens. And you can wander at will among 12th-century BC tombs in the curiously overlooked cemetery of Keramikos. This is where Pericles declared: “…at Athens we live exactly as we please.” A philosophy that still holds true in this city of ardent individualists.
There are armchair philosophers aplenty (bearded ones, too) in the city’s countless cafés. Miraculously, these cafés are always full, even in these recession-strained times. To understand what makes Athenians tick, while away an afternoon watching the chain-smoking, deal-making, gossip-mongering that goes on at Da Capo on Kolonaki Square or Filion on Skoufa Street.
In Athens, a coffee break can easily slide into an ouzo session. A round of mezze can morph into a midnight feast. The night is still young at 1am, when people of all ages start drifting between bars. Closing time is when the last customer decides to go – and it doesn’t matter if it’s a school night. I don’t know many other cities that operate on such a happy-go-lucky time zone. If you’re nocturnal, Athens is nirvana.
Bright lights, big city
Staying up all night to watch sunrise over the Parthenon is an unforgettable spectacle. Even the notorious night owl Henry Miller appreciated the brilliant quality of the Attic light: “Here the light penetrates directly to the soul, opens the doors and windows of the heart…” With 300 days of sunshine a year, you’re almost guaranteed good weather in Athens.
Life’s a beach
With a 75-mile (120-kilometre) coastline, Athens has dozens of fine beaches. The coastal suburbs of Glyfada, Alimos, Voula, and Vouliagmeni are awash with posh waterfront restaurants and clubs. Traffic along the coastal highway comes to a standstill on summer weekends – whether at 3pm or 3am.
Jump on a ferry from Piraeus and in less than an hour you can be eating grilled octopus in the fish market on Aegina. In two hours, you can be riding a donkey on car-free Hydra or following in the footsteps of John Fowles on cosmopolitan Spetses. One of the joys of living in Athens is that there’s another Greek island to explore every weekend of the year.
Although Athens is developing a reputation as a gourmet destination, the cheap and cheerful taverna has made a comeback as Greece struggles to stave off financial ruin. You can gorge on Greek salad, lamb chops, and litres of local wine – all for the cost of a couple of cappuccinos in one of the city’s swanky cafés.
Athens may be most famous for its antiquities, but it has a vibrant contemporary arts scene. Al fresco amphitheatres and disused factories are hijacked by experimental dance and theatre troupes for the annual Athens Festival (June-July). The Benaki Museum on Pireos Avenue stages cutting edge design, architecture and fashion exhibitions. But the new Acropolis Museum has trumped its competitors, attracting more than two million visitors in its first year. It might have taken three decades to materialise, but it was worth the wait.
Symbol of a nation
It’s on all those annoying lists of ‘places you must see before you die’ but the city’s centrepiece, the Parthenon, and the Acropolis, the rocky hill on which it stands, really do live up to the hype. It’s more impressive than ever now that most of the scaffolding has come down and a massive restoration project launched in 1983 is finally nearing completion. The architectural skills of the ancient Greeks provide a stark contrast to the concrete jungle creeping up the foothills of the Acropolis. This clash between ancient and modern is a fitting symbol of a city that is ever changing, yet always timeless.