Athens Travel Guide

Athens is an affable city enlivened by pedestrian streets, outdoor cafes, parks, urban eccentrics and gardens, redolent with mythology and smeared with grime. If you get into the Athenian mindset, you might not even notice the layer of nefos (smog) overhead.

Athens is a curious blend of east and west; its raucous street vendors and colourful markets are reminiscent of Turkish bazaars, while crumbling neoclassical mansions hark back to the city's brief heyday as the 'Paris of the Mediterranean'. The city may look like a concrete jungle, but beyond this off-putting veneer is a kind of dilapidated charm. Almost every house and apartment has a balcony bulging with geraniums, and many of the city's streets and squares are fringed with orange trees.

Facts in a glance

Area: 428 sq km
Population: 3.27 million
Country: Greece
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +2 (Eastern European Time)
Telephone Area Code: 21


Unlike most capital cities, Athens' history is not one of continuous expansion; it is one characterised by glory, followed by decline and near annihilation, and then resurgence in the 19th century, when it became capital of independent Greece.

We do know, though, that the hilltop site of the Acropolis, endowed with two copious springs, drew some of Greece's early Neolithic settlers.

Later, with the rise of city-states, the Acropolis provided an ideal defensive position, and by 1400 BC, it had become a powerful Mycenaean city.

1200 BC: Greece fell into a long dark age, of which very little is known, but Athens became the artistic centre of Greece in the 8th-century BC. Next came a period of social reform, followed by unrest and subsequent tyranny.

Athens didn't shake off tyranny until 510 BC, when Sparta stepped in to help the rich aristocracy. Following the defeat of the Persian Empire, Athens' power grew enormously.

Athens established a confederacy on the island of Delos, demanding tributes from islands for protection against the Persians. The money was used to transform the city. This was Athens' golden age: monuments were built on the Acropolis, and drama and literature flourished. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; sculptors Pheidias and Myron; and historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon all lived at this time.

431BC: Sparta, however, wasn't prepared to play second fiddle, and increasing hostilities triggered the Peloponnesian Wars. After 27 years of fighting, Sparta gained the upper hand, and Athens slid from its former glory. The century wasn't a total loss, as it did produce three of the west's greatest orators and philosophers: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Roman period: Athens continued to be a major seat of learning, and Roman emperors graced the city with many grand buildings.

After the subdivision of the Roman Empire into east and west, the city remained a cultural and intellectual centre until its schools of philosophy closed in 529 AD. Between 1200 and 1450, Athens was overrun by a motley crew of opportunists, including Franks, Catalans, Florentines and Venetians.

1453: The Turks invaded in and settled in for 400 years.

In the early stages of the War of Independence (1821-29), fierce street fighting saw the city change hands several times between Greek liberators and Turks.

In 1834, Athens replaced Nafplio as the capital of independent Greece, and King Otho set about repairing the war-torn city and bavarian architects created imposing neoclassical buildings (most of which have since been demolished) and tree-lined boulevards.

The historical event which, more than any other, shaped the Athens of today was the compulsory population exchange between Greece and Turkey that followed the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

The population of Athens virtually doubled overnight, necessitating the hasty erection of concrete apartment blocks to house the newcomers.

Athens suffered appallingly during the German occupation of WWII and in the civil war that followed.

1950: The expansion of Athens accelerated until 60s, when the country began the transition from an agricultural to an industrial nation. The colonels' junta (1967-74) tore down many crumbling old Turkish houses and the neoclassical buildings, all the while failing to tackle the infrastructure problems resulting from the rapid, chaotic growth of the city.

By the end of the '80s the city had developed a sorry reputation as one of the most traffic-clogged and polluted in Europe.

1980: fundamental changes have taken place, the most dramatic in the 1990s. Athens has a conspicuously wealthier society, though there are still major economic disparities and a rural-city divide. Greece is also becoming a major economic player in the Balkans. Greece is fast becoming part of the global economy, with a raft of foreign investments and privitisations shaking up its notoriously Kafka-esque public sector.

Confidence is riding high, billions are being poured into city development, and Athens, once more an Olympic city, looks set to regain some of its old glory. Authorities have embarked on an ambitious program to modernise the city, with key elements being the expansion of the road and metro networks and the new international airport at Spata.

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