The “birthplace of western civilisation”, meaning primarily western philosophy and democracy, is far from a dry, dusty, academic destination. Modern-day Greeks are still awake and alive to debate and discussion in a way that so many others are not. From the taxi driver (note that taxi, among so many others, is a Greek word, meaning “arrangement”) who picks you up at the airport to the doorman at your hotel and even the drug addict who might ask you for money on the street, there’s an intelligence, humour and above all human side to Athens and its people, which is both heart-warming and life-affirming. My first taxi driver argued firmly against the country’s current prime minister, backing up his case with various statistics, trends and references to Aristotle. The EU, current migrant crisis, political manoeuvring (again, “politics” originates from the Greek word “polis”) and thoughts on national service were all set in their proper context, that is to draw relevant parallels from up to 3,000 years ago – in a cheerful and entertaining way. Then, at the end of the trip, there is no expectation of a tip, but grateful thanks for your business.
Despite a financial and migrant crisis, Athens doesn’t appear to be overwhelmed by its problems and there wasn’t, when I visited in April, any sense of chaos or unruliness. While parts of the city are gritty, most of it retains an air of relative Mediterranean affluence, although hotels, restaurants and transport are all very good value. “This is why Greeks can’t save,” said one of my guides. “They enjoy life.”
Despite off-putting TV news images, migrant camps are outside the pleasant city centre, which is still busy with tourists from all over the world, coming to experience world-class attractions such as the Parthenon, Acropolis Museum, the Panathenaic Stadium, Syntagma Square and Plaka.
A comfortable bed
Athens is a sprawling, busy city, so it's worth paying for a centrally located retreat. AthensWas is a glossy new luxury design hotel on a central pedestrianised street, just a few hundred metres from the Acropolis. There are only 21 rooms in this small, six-storey block, which boasts a gorgeous rooftop restaurant with a terrace offering a full view of the Parthenon. Greek marble, walnut wood panelling, furniture by Le Corbusier, Warren Platner, Toshiyuki Kita and Konstantin Grcic, lighting by the Bouroullec brothers and many others - this is a soothing, thoughtful and exclusive environment. Doubles from €215 (Dh903) per night, including taxes and breakfast.
For those seeking more conventional five-star luxury, the Hotel Grande Bretagne on Syntagma Square is set in a historic building dating from 1874 and boasts over 300 rooms. Despite its age, a thorough refurbishment has left it feeling grand and fresh. Now a Starwood Luxury Collection hotel, there are eight bars and restaurants, two swimming pools, a fitness room, full-service spa, hair salon and a selection of shops. The best thing about it is probably the fabulous panoramic view from the rooftop of the terrace of the city, Acropolis and the coastline. Double rooms from €260 (Dh1,093) per night, including tax and excluding breakfast.
Find your feet
Athens's ancient sites can be overwhelming to the first-time visitor, so begin with a simple stroll up Dionysiu Areopagitou, with its cafes and buskers, to the rocky hill of the Acropolis, which is home to the ruins of the Parthenon, Temple of Nike and various ancient theatres. Wander through the olive groves near the base at sunset if you can, before continuing on to nearby Plaka, a small-scale historic district. Then, if you're a first-time visitor, book a half-day individual or group Taste of Greece walking tour with Discover Greek Culture. An English-speaking guide will condense thousands of years of history as he guides you to and around a selection of key sites, cutting through the crowds and providing a more direct connection with the place. The price of the tour varies according to the size of the group, but starts at €70 (Dh295) per person. This company also offers tours themed around art, aristocratic dining and jewellery; and it offers special tours for children.
For a more alternative tour, Athens Urban Adventures offers a variety of unconventional walking tours, such as a four-hour Bohemian Tales of the City tour down back alleys and into neighbourhoods not listed in guidebooks. Alternative cafes, museums, street art, start-up clusters and artists' workshops all feature. There are also tours involving markets, ruins and ancient sites. Tours cost from US$51 (Dh187) per person.
Meet the locals
I took a half-day food tour, Culinary Secrets of Downtown Athens, with Culinary Backstreets and was fortunate to be given local Athenian foodie Carolina Doriti as a guide. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable and educated, Doriti takes guests to a huge range of local cafes and restaurants, including a historic dairy shop making sheep's milk yogurt, a dessert shop, specialist feta cheese shop, souvlaki shop, a gourmet coffee shop, local markets, gourmet food shops, delicatessens and an ancient tavern. Best of all, you can feast on all this to your heart's content. Tours cost from $135 (Dh495) per person for five-and-a-half hours and includes food samples.
If you just want to hang out around locals in a cafe for a few hours, the modern Coleur Locale in Monastiraki has a big rooftop terrace with views of the Acropolis, great coffee and tapas-style snacks. Try the caffe freddo with some salty doughnuts, bruschetta and dried-veal tacos with apple, feta and orange, and the bill won't set you back more than €20 (Dh84).
For even better value, visit Kostas, a traditional and highly regarded souvlaki shop situated on Pentelis Street, near Syntagma Square. The business has been going since 1950, and the delicious meal is a bit like a shawarma, with pieces of barbecued chopped veal or lamb mixed with salad and a selection of sauces, wrapped in thick, freshly baked pitta bread for €2 (Dh8.40). Locals and tourists alike wait patiently to be served and usually consume on the spot. Sometimes there is a long queue, and stocks can run out by the afternoon (9am-3pm, closed Sunday).
Book a table
If you want to eat local food but don't want to sacrifice atmosphere, comfort, views or style, head to Attikos Greek House at Garibaldi 7. While there's another lovely terrace with a great view of the Acropolis, the inside area is also very attractive, being both light and homely. The menu features fresh, home-cooked classics, from delicious Greek salad (€8; Dh34), tzatziki (€4; Dh16), mouthwatering eggplant baked with tomato sauce and feta (€9 euros; Dh38) and surprisingly tasty spinach pie (€5; Dh21) as starters to main dishes like lamb cooked in lemon sauce with potatoes (€14; Dh59), this is a great place for a late lunch that will run until dinner. Just as good as the food is the fact that this family-run restaurant seems to receive few tourists but is packed with locals in the know.
In a different area, the upmarket Kolonaki in the foothills of Lycabettus Hill but still fairly central, is Athens' first organic restaurant, Nice n Easy.
Despite the slightly strange name (a reference to a Frank Sinatra song) and Hollywood-themed decor, the restaurant offers a fantastic menu, and its Greek owner, who previously ran restaurants in Los Angeles, is passionate about supporting pesticide-free small suppliers all over the country (the menu states exactly which particular supplier and region all major food groups come from, and the nutritional profile of each dish). Portions are generous and prices are competitive: sautéed wild mushrooms with Gorgonzola and thyme costs €7.90 (Dh33), water buffalo meatballs with Naxos cheese and yogurt sauce are €6.90 (Dh29), talagani cheese with lime paste and herb salad is €6.90 (Dh29), kale salad with a host of extras is €7.90 (Dh33), decadent cockerel risotto from €15 (Dh63).
For a top-end dining experience, Cookoovaya is an example of an energetic new breed of chef showing that Athens can compete with other world cities. This huge open-plan, open-kitchen restaurant has five chefs working together to reinvent Greek classics. Yet don't expect molecular gastronomy – portions are hearty. The sea bass carpaccio (€14.50; Dh61), and beef carpaccio, with Gorgonzola and truffle vinaigrette (€14; Dh59) are worthwhile as starters; mains such as grilled sea bream on orzo pasta from €32 (Dh135).
The area south of Omonia station, around the Central Market, is great for high-quality foods from specialist suppliers. Karamanlidika is a delicatessen and restaurant, but they can vacuum pack almost any item to take home. A large block of strong Kefalonian feta cheese will only set you back about €5 (Dh21). On the same street, Evripidou, are salt and spice sellers – pick up a kilo of generously laced truffle salt for €12 (Dh50).
What to avoid
Despite signing up to EU regulations banning smoking from all enclosed places, many Greek restaurants still allow smoking, making for an unpleasant atmosphere even in high-end restaurants.
Those sensitive to smoke can only vote with their feet and walk out. Elsewhere, such is the enthusiasm for chain-smoking that non-smokers will often find themselves exposed. Greece is also still subject to occasional short-notice strike action, which sometimes disrupts air travel. Allow an extra day or two in your itinerary just in case.
It would be a shame to visit Athens and not see the city from the top of the Acropolis. Even if you have no interest in ancient ruins, the panoramic views across the city are sensational.
Etihad flies direct to Athens in five hours, from Dh2,275 return in economy class and Dh8,065 return in business class.
Read this and more stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Thursday, May 19.