Athens is an ancient city. Often referred to as the birthplace of democracy, the Greek capital and its people have an enduring passion for life. The World Heritage-listed Acropolis is the ancient 'high city', set on one of Athens' 12 hills. The Pantheon is one of the most-recognisable remnants of this old world. History buffs will also love the 3-kilometre pedestrian zone in the city centre displaying the major archaeological sites. Of course, there's more to Athens than its past. The district of Psiri is a modern Athens snapshot – its trendy selection of shops, bars and small hotels bustle. Taverns hum. The nightlife in the city generally doesn't reach its peak until early in the morning.
There are more than a handful of things to do in Athens. Where to start? From above it all: with the view from Lycabettus Hill, reached by foot for funicular railway. Or, at the city's beginning, at the ancient fortified town of Athens: the Acropolis. There's a plethora of art galleries and museums here, naturally, but one of the most striking is the City of Athens Technopolis, an industrial museum and major cultural venue in Athens' former gasworks. See a play at the renowned, ancient world Herodes Atticus Theatre and if your visit coincides with the Athens and Epidaurus Festival, be sure to attend at least one event. If you've wandered Athens new and old, enjoy respite in the beautiful, central National Garden of Athens.
The Greek love of all things olive is alive and well in Athens. Along the spectrum of green (unripe) to black (ripe) olives are the plump and juicy versions of many varieties, haloed by vinegar, oil, brine, oregano and orange peel – to name a few. Olive oil is drizzled heartily, no salad should be seen without feta and meze, souvlaki, moussaka and baklava are among the Greek treats that should be sampled on home soil. But don't stop there. For a taste of the traditional consider going to Doris (best for lunch); Karavitis (popular with groups) or Vassilenas (for the foodie inside you).
The revitalisation pre-2004 Summer Olympics was welcomed by visitors seeking a variety of Athens accommodation options. You'll find simple hostels to flash hotels in Athens' neighbourhoods. A very rough guide: Plaka is a charming historic district, at the northern foot of the Acropolis; Monastiraki is its bohemian neighbour. Kolonaki is the upmarket area of central Athens. Gazi and Psirri are the epitome of the modern city (transformed from an industrial area). July and August are peak times but don't shy away from looking for a discount at the top establishments; there are enough rooms to go around.
Food, wine, fashion, music, furniture, collectables and more; this city is a marketplace. Athens Central Market is a sensory feast and little slice of gastronomic heaven. Monastiraki Flea Market is an Athens shopping delight – you could literally find anything for sale here. For a first-hand look, touch and taste of the products from the rare mastic tress on the Aegean island of Chios, swing by Mastiha Shop. If you need a fashion fix, be sure to seek out Christoforos Kotentos' creations at his workshop – his casual clothing is sold in Milan, New York and Tokyo.
Athens like a Local
If you want to raise a drink with the locals and enjoy some of the best cocktails in town, make your way to Au Revoir. Another tiny hotspot is Inoteca – a small bar on Abyssinia Square in Monasteraki. If you're shopped out, have eaten your fill and seen enough ancient archaeology to last a lifetime, get out of the city. You won't need to go far to recharge though: try the traffic-free island of Hydra. A hydrofoil leaves for Hydra from Athens' port, Piraeus. Donkeys and boats are the only form of transport allowed on the island and Hydra is officially a national historic monument, so the old-world charm abounds.