The "birthplace of democracy", the Greek capital maintains authenticty amid modern upgrades.
My Kind of Place: Elegantly laid-back Athens
Although archaeologists cite Athens' Golden Age as having passed some 2,500 years ago, when Socrates and Plato would wander through the Agora discussing philosophy, it's still a city to be reckoned with in terms of ancient monuments, world-class museums, classic Greek dining and unbridled hedonism.
Often referred to as the "birthplace of democracy", today Athens is a chaotic concrete jungle and home to almost one in three Greeks. That said, few visitors can fail to be captivated by the sight of the magnificent Acropolis, crowned by three ancient temples and floodlit at night, rising above the city's skyline. Other joys include the world's finest collection of Ancient Greek art, on display in the National Archaeological Museum, and a blissfully sunny Mediterranean climate.
Having upgraded most hotels and the entire public transport system for the 2004 Olympics, which went off successfully, the country plunged into economic crisis in 2009. Still, since Greece depends on tourism for almost 20 per cent of its GDP, if you come here on holiday your money will be well spent.
A comfortable bed
The capital's most prestigious hotel has to be the Grande Bretagne (www.grandebretagne.gr; 00 30 210 333 0000) on Syntagma Square, adjacent to the Greek Parliament. Opened in 1874, it has 261 elegant rooms and 59 vast opulent suites, all furnished with antiques. There's a glorious outdoor pool on the roof, plus a garden restaurant serving creative Mediterranean cuisine with Acropolis views, and a luxurious spa in the basement. Rooms cost from €284 (Dh1,500).
Nearby, between Syntagma Square and Plaka, the quirky New Hotel (www.yeshotels.gr; 0030 210 628 4400) opened in July. The 79 rooms and suites have wooden floors and contemporary details such as electric black-out blinds and fantastic rain showers. Until the end of October 2011, standard doubles cost €160 (Dh848); as of November 1, that increases to €195 (Dh1,033, taxes and breakfast included).
For something far more down-to-earth, try Hotel Philippos (www.philipposhotel.gr; 00 30 210 9223611) in Makrigianni, a couple of blocks from the New Acropolis Museum. With 50 comfortable rooms and suites, some with Acropolis views and balconies (at no extra charge), it's reasonably-priced, peaceful and welcoming. Standard doubles start at €75 (including taxes and breakfast).
Find your feet
Taking the Acropolis as a point of reference, the city centre can comfortably be explored on foot, following the so-called Archaeological Promenade, a 4km cobbled tree-lined walkway, opened in 2004. Skirting the foot of the Acropolis slopes, it links the main ancient sites (the Ancient Agora, Kerameikos, the Roman Forum, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus), as well as three key metro stations (Acropolis, Monastiraki and Thissio).
On the north-east slopes of the Acropolis lies Plaka, a pretty district of neoclassical houses, many of which now accommodate small hotels (of varying quality), touristy tavernas and souvenir shops. North of Plaka, Ermou is a busy shopping street, running from Monastiraki to Syntagma (home to the Greek parliament and several of the city's smartest hotels). North-east of Syntagma, pine-clad Mount Lykabettus (Athens' highest point at 277m) rises above Kolonaki, residential quarter hosting embassies and several excellent museums, as well as the capital's most expensive clothes shops and jewellers.
Meet the locals
Drinking coffee is a national pastime and Athenians have mastered it, though, nowadays opting for a frappe (a frothy iced coffee, made from Nescafé and drunk with a straw) rather than the traditional elliniko (Greek coffee). Those looking for a front-seat Acropolis view congregate at the open-air cafes lining the pedestrian streets of Adrianou and Apostolou Pavlou.
Another Athenian ritual is the therino (open-air cinema), where movies are shown (original version, normally English, with Greek subtitles) in walled gardens below the stars on balmy summer evenings. The nicest central therini include Aigli by Village close to Syntagma, Dexameni in Kolonaki, and Cine Paris in Plaka.
Book a table
Connoisseurs invariably nominate Michelin-starred Varouklo (www.varoulko.gr; 0030 210 522 8400), on the edge of trendy Gazi, as Athens' best seafood restaurant. Owner-chef Lefteris Lazarou captivates his followers with creations such as octopus salad with celeriac, beetroot and radish, and shark fillets baked with cream, saffron and lemon.
You don't have to spend vast sums of money to enjoy a feast in Athens. Locals flock to Ilias (00 30 210 342 2407; no website) at two separate but nearby locations, close to Thissio metro station, for big platters of succulent barbecued lamb chops, along with Greek salad. It's informal and fun, and everyone eats with their hands.
Smart Kolonaki is the domain of designer boutiques - Cartier (Voukourestiou 7), Louis Vuitton (Voukourestiou 19), Gucci (Tsakalof 27) and Armani (Koubari 8) to name a few. Local talent includes goldsmith Lalaounis (Panepistimiou 6 & Voukourestio, www.lalaounis.com), whose elegant bracelets and necklaces are inspired by Ancient Greek pieces, and Elena Votsi (Xanthou 7, www.elenavotsi.com), designer of the 2004 Olympic medals, known for her sleek minimalist gold rings and pendants, often set with coloured stones.
Close to Monastiraki, the Poet Sandalmaker (Agias Theklas 2, www.melissinos-poet.com) has been handcrafting leather sandals in over 40 different styles since 1954 - if you visit his workshop, he'll make a pair especially to fit your feet. Former customers range from the Beatles to Kate Moss.
What to avoid
Omonia Square, and the area around it, long acknowledged as a gathering point for heroin addicts, has been spiralling downhill for over a decade. It must now sadly be labelled "depressing" by day and "dangerous" by night - 2011 has seen a rise in the number of reported muggings here.
The long-awaited ultra-modern New Acropolis Museum (www.theacropolismuseum.gr) in Makrigianni, close to the Acropolis. Designed by Swiss architect, Bernard Tschumi, it finally opened in summer 2009. Proud marble statues from the Acropolis site, as well as segments of the 2,500-year-marble frieze that once ran around the top of the Parthenon, are displayed in this light and airy, glass-steel-and-concrete building.