The cradle of Western civilization is steeped in history in a way few capital cities are, with some of the most recognizable archaeological sites and ancient temples in the world. After the urban renewal prior to the 2004 Olympics, the city managed to reconcile its glorious past with a sophisticated present. However, the 2008 economic crisis hit the county hard, and the sky-high unemployment rates and political instability that rocked the country in early 2012 have hurt tourism.
But Athens is an exciting capital city that still has major tourist appeal, offering iconic ancient temples, world-class museums, wonderful shopping, beautiful relaxing parks, a clean and reliable metro system (that can double as a cultural ride, as some of the stations have well-preserved ruins), and a vibrant nightlife scene. It's also the most convenient gateway to the gorgeous Greek islands and to the rest of the country, since it's the hub for most buses, trains, ferries and air carriers.
Highlights for visitors include the majestic Acropolis and nearby ruins, the Plaka neighborhood with winding narrow streets and fun (if tourist-y) shops, the Monastiraki flea market, and the changing of the guard at Syntagma Square. Kolonaki is worth visiting for its posh shopping, art galleries, and sophisticated bars. For the best city views, visitors should take the funicular all the way to the top of Mount Lycabettos, also home to an open-air theater and the 19th-century Chapel of St. George.
Athens saw a huge increase in accommodation options before the 2004 Olympics, both in the city center and in the nearby suburbs. And while public transport is reliable and cheap (except for the buses, which are extremely slow and not all that convenient), it’s probably better to stay in the center. Where exactly depends on budget and taste.
Plaka, Monastiraki, Syntagma and Psirri are probably the most convenient locations, but they're crowded and prices are higher than in other parts of the city. Omonia is still central, but a little less attractive (and some would say not as safe), so the hotel prices tend to be somewhat lower. Kolonaki is the most cosmopolitan and trendy area in Athens and hotels are usually a little pricier here. The upside is that you’ll be surrounded by cool designer boutiques and great bars and restaurants. Piraeus is the port area, and a convenient spot for a stopover if you’re heading to the islands -- but there are few attractions here, and it may be more fun to stay in the center and take the subway to the port.
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