Discovering Real Athens

I found this wonderful Lonely Planet article in an unlikely place, the online edition of the Bangkok Post (


There’s more to Athens than just the Parthenon

By: Victoria Kyriakopoulos
Published: 1/02/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Brunch

From the iconic Acropolis rising majestically above the city to modish galleries and lively bars in gritty downtown backstreets, bustling Athens is a delightfully quirky clash of past and present, a city that confronts and surprises.


Major urban renewal has breathed new life into Athens’ historic centre, spectacularly reconciling the ancient and modern cities with charming car-free streets that wind along well-trodden ancient paths, and feel like you’re walking through a giant archaeological park. Ancient monuments are bathed in the famous Attica light that softens the concrete sprawl.

Amongst the downtown hurly-burly and traffic-ridden roads, you’ll find quiet shaded cafes and delightful neighbourhood squares, sophisticated shopping strips, quaint taverns and chic restaurants. Amid the sea of modern high-rise office and apartment blocks you’ll find Byzantine churches, restored neoclassical buildings and equal measures of grunge and grace.

While Athens’ wealth of archaeological sites and museums remain its drawcard, it’s the city’s vibe and mindset that enamours and surprises visitors. An infectious, restless energy permeates this city of four million; pavements bustle with Athenians revelling in the lively alfresco cafe and dining cultures, while balmy summer nights have a seductive allure. Vibrant street life creates a chaotic yet almost permanently festive atmosphere.

Athens comes alive at twilight and stays up late – its spirited nightlife sustains arguably more bars and clubs than many major world capitals.

Athens continues to be a city of change. The city’s radical pre-Olympics makeover went well beyond new infrastructure. There’s a newfound confidence and creative energy, particularly in emerging arts, dining and entertainment hotspots in newly hip, urban neighbourhoods.

Yet despite its urbane ambitions, Athens retains a distinctly east-west character; at the same time folksy and sophisticated, traditional and anarchic, frenetic and laid-back, often frustrating but inevitably fun.

HIGHLIGHTS Stroll around the heart of ancient and modern Athens. A grand pedestrian promenade connecting the city’s most significant ancient sites has radically transformed Athens’ historic centre. The delightful, traffic-free 3km promenade – reputedly Europe’s longest pedestrian precinct – has reconciled ancient and modern Athens and made it a focal point of Athens’ vibrant street life. In the evenings, locals and tourists alike delight in a leisurely volta (stroll) along the wide cobblestone boulevard that winds around the foothills of the floodlit Acropolis. Open-air art exhibitions, book fairs, buskers, street traders and vendors add to the festive atmosphere.

Starting at Dionysiou Areopagitou, opposite the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the walkway takes you along the southern foothills of the Acropolis, past the Odeon of Herodes Atticus to Filopappou Hill, then along Apostolou Pavlou past an open-air cinema, Thission, Socrates Prison, and Thisio’s bustling cafes to the Ancient Agora. Near Thisio metro, it branches west to Keramikos and Gazi and veers north through Monastiraki to the atmospheric streets of Plaka.

PLAKA Athens’ atmospheric old quarter, Plaka, the historic neighbourhood under the Acropolis, has long been a magnet for travellers and Athenians alike. Touristy in the extreme, it is undeniably atmospheric and charming, especially if you venture beyond the busy drag of souvenir stores and tavernas. Plaka’s stone-paved narrow streets give you a palpable sense of history, with ancient monuments and streets such as Adrianou and Tripodon that follow the paths of ancient roads, Byzantine churches and eclectic small museums in restored neoclassical mansions.

Much of Plaka is the old Turkish quarter that was virtually all that existed when Athens was declared capital of independent Greece, though few Ottoman structures survive. Gentrification has made Plaka one of Athens’ more exclusive neighbourhoods, though it has its share of crumbling buildings.

Directly under the Acropolis is the delightful Anafiotika quarter, a picturesque labyrinth of quiet, narrow, winding paths with whitewashed island-style houses decorated with bougainvillea and colourful flower pots. They were built by stonemasons from the island of Anafi who came to build the king’s palace during the building boom after Independence.

THE AGORA MUSEUM The Agora Museum is housed in the restored Stoa of Attalos (138 BC), essentially a 45-column, two-storey elite shopping arcade and hang-out for rich Athenians. The museum has a significant collection of finds, including a 5th century terracotta water clock used to time speeches.

More than 400 modern buildings were demolished to uncover the Ancient Agora during excavations in the 1950s. The 11th century Church of the Holy Apostles of Solakis, which has some fine Byzantine frescoes, was preserved.

The site has many significant ruins and building foundations, but the most impressive is the 449 BC Temple of Hephaestus (also known as the Thisseion) at the western end, the best-preserved Doric temple in Greece. Dedicated to the god of metallurgy, the frieze on the eastern side depicts nine of the 12 labours of Heracles.

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This is an edited extract from ‘Athens Encounter’, 1st edition by Victoria Kyriakopoulos Lonely Planet Publications, 2009.