The Big, Fat Greek Capital
Athens is cosmopolitan, cozy, screaming, oriental, calm, modern, dirty, breathing, riotous, and intoxicating. This city of almost 4-million people (including the suburbs) is alive both day and night. Sometimes its life is more miserable sometimes it is irresistibly pleasant.
The Greek capital deserves every minute you devote to it. Greeks live as if each day is their last – with a smile on their face, a full table and a good mood.
History and cats To feel good here you have to prepare for an unexpected mixture of oriental habits and modern urban lifestyle. They are everywhere and give a certain charm to the narrow streets of the old neighborhoods, such as Kolonaki, Plaka and Monastiraki. Each corner has a kiosk, called a peripteros – this is a place where you can buy everything: water, a newspaper, chewing gum, condoms, a city map or a small souvenir. Most of the peripteros work late through the night and are literally everywhere. In its millennial history, Athens has often experienced periods of wild growth. That is why the central part of the city, concentrated around the Acropolis, the Parthenon and the University, has a certain spirit about it – different from the more modern areas constructed later, such as Omonia, Exarcheia or Gazi. In any case, you will be left holding your breath with the various and transient mixture of architectural styles and urban planning experiments from different ages.
Living in the fast lane If this is your first time in Athens or in Greece, you have to know about several basic rules of behavior, which are typical for the local people. They will push you – if you happen to be politely standing still, the energetic crowd will pick you up and will spin you round. Are you waiting in line to buy a ticket for the subway? A charming young lady will already have leaned into you, her bust brushing your back, yet without even noticing you because she is on the phone with a friend. Just strolling along on the street? People caught up in their daily grind and in a hurry will organize a chaotic avalanche, which can crush you, spit you out and leave you back where you were. This city’s tempo is staggering when it comes to moving from point A to point B – contrary to the speed with which more fundamental changes in life occur. Greeks are loud – on the phone, with friends, in the cafe. This trait of theirs makes them proud representatives of the Mediterranean lifestyle. It is customary to smoke in Greece. Even though a total ban on smoking in public places has been accepted, you will notice thousands of people with a cigarette in their mouths.
Athens is a favorite destination for German and American tourists, as well as for French, Dutch or Japanese retirees, who come to check out the Acropolis firsthand. Due to the large number of foreigners (at least 5 million a year), Athens is an affluent city – it ranks 32nd in the world in purchasing power, according to a survey done by UBS bank. It is also quite an expensive city – ranked 22nd according to the same survey. When seen live, the Acropolis is a bit small. However, the walk up the hill, which will take a thirty-minute, exhausting climb under the southern sun, will lead you to an ancient row of pillars where you will see at least a thousand other people trying to immortalize the great monument for posterity. In this regard, it would be more pleasant to visit the new Acropolis museum situated right across the hill.
Navigation in Athens usually starts from the famous Syntagma Square, right in front of the Greek Parliament (the former royal palace). From there the options are limitless. You can get a taxi, use the subway or get a bus. Since you are in the epicenter of the craziness called Athens, the signs here are also in English. The Greek language uses its own alphabet, which is the first ordeal the unprepared tourist is faced with. Believe me, it is worth spending a few hours before your trip to learn the unfamiliar letters for the vowels, which pose the biggest problem. This can help you when you order something from the menu; it is very possible that the waiter may have only mastered shrugging in English.
The hotels in Athens are numerous, but have they tend to fill up quickly. This is especially true of the off-season months – April, May, September and October - when, apart from foreign tourists, the Greek capital is visited by many locals from the dozens of islands, who visit relatives or come to work. The hotel category should not be your leading criteria for selection. Five- or four-star hotels around Omonia Square are not for people who don’t like prostitutes, drugs and a lifestyle a la Quentin Tarantino. Many threestar family inns might be preferable, if you seek comfort and coziness. In general, the Plaka region is recommended for such purposes – besides, then your hotel will be situated close to most of the historic landmarks.
In the Monastiraki neighborhood you will find the wonderful Greek gyros – or diner. Suvlaki (shish kebabs), bifteki (similar to burgers) or lukaniko (Greek sausages) – the choice is yours, bon appetit. For the more picky, there are countless small and not so small restaurants offering local cuisine. In principle, most places should serve free water and bread. However, if you decide to dine in the area of the Acropolis, it is very likely that you will pay several Euros more for water and bread, which will be brought to you without ordering it the moment you sit at the table.
For sure it is worth finding the time for a short walk to Piraeus. You can get there by subway, then by one of the city trains. At the coast the fish will surely be fresh and the wind in your hair will remind you that life is wonderful – and even more so in Athens.