The word “Athens” conjures images of spectacular history: the Parthenon towering over an ancient city, the original schools of democracy, and massive marble statues.
Its reputation is merited: Athens is over 3400 years old, and remnants of the past appear seemingly every step (sometimes in a museum, sometimes next to an H&M). Classical Athens—the peak of the city-states civilization around 300 BCE—is, of course, the immediate draw, as the mind-bending array of temples, art, and history have overwhelmed travelers for centuries (even writers in Ancient Rome geeked out when they finally got to visit the Acropolis). Today, though, the classical era is but a part of a much longer story. With a population of nearly 3.75 million people (roughly a third of Greece), Athens is very much a living, breathing, car-honking, expletive-shouting city, as evidenced by its omnipresent street art and stray cat army. Amid the tumult you’ll the ouzerie culture and alternative youth scene of modern Athens, which have their own feisty, yet laidback, charm. Balance your shots of the Acropolis with some shots of ouzo at a local taverna, or a strong coffee in rebellious Exarchia. From museums to night clubs, parks to packed bars, flea markets to fat souvlaki pitas, Athens has both your inner-nerd and inner-socialite covered.
The energy of central Athens flows around two main points: Monastiraki Square and, to its east down Mitropoleos Street, Syntagma Square, which is home to the Greek National Parliament. Due south of Monastiraki Square looms the Acropolis, which can still be seen from most points in the city and makes a great orientation point, especially at night. Wedged between Monastiraki and the Acropolis is the Plaka, the historic district that contains many hostels, monuments, tourist shops, and the famous neighborhood of Anafiotika. Just north of Monastiraki is the revitalized neighborhood of Psiri, which buzzes at night with Athens’ thriving bar scene. Heading west from Monastiraki on Ermou Street (a ten-minute walk), you’ll reach Gazi, a factory-zone-turned-home for touring DJs and late-night clubbers. Traveling north from Monastiraki on Athinas Street, you reach Omonia Square, a major metro stop. From Omonia, Metaxourgeio, a more working-class and less-visited area of Athens, stretches west; to the northeast lies the National Archaeological Museum and university hub Exarchia, which is more street art and apartment buildings than tourist traps and souvenir shops. Central Athens is about a half hour metro ride northeast of Piraeus Port, and a half hour tram ride west of the beach.
After arriving at Athens International Airport (Eleftherios Venizelos), take the metro or bus downtown. A cab will also drop you in the city center for a set fare of €38. If arriving through Piraeus Port, take the green line downtown from Piraeus Port Station. If the metro is out of service, a cab from Piraeus to Monastiraki Square costs €15.
Athens is safe to explore on foot, especially in areas frequented by tourists, though, of course, be wary of walking alone at night. Most of the city is also accessible via the metro, which runs 5:30am-12:30am and until 2:30am on Friday and Saturday. Individual tickets cost €1.40; a day pass is €4.50. Tickets can be bought at kiosks located at each station, but make sure you validate your ticket or you could face a large fine. Buses also run throughout the day—see the routes on maps from the GNTO or Syntagma Station. Information on bus schedules and routes can also be found at www.oasa.gr.
Tourist Offices: Greek National Tourism Organization (18-20 Dinoyssiou Areopagitou; 210 870 7000; www.visitgreece.gr).
Banks/ATMs/Currency Exchange: Check back in a year or so, but as of July 2017, Greece uses the euro (€). ATMs can be found throughout the city, especially in the tourist-friendly Plaka neighborhood and near all major museums and monuments.
Post Offices: Hellenic Post manages snail mail for Greece (www.elta.gr).
Internet: If you want Wi-Fi, you have to pay for it, and, even then, you may not get it. Solid Wi-Fi is a rare find in Athens, especially at well-frequented hostels. Your best bet is a trendy-looking café during off hours.
BGLTQ+ Resources: Homosexuality is decriminalized in Greece, but socially frowned upon in some areas of the country. In Athens, however, the culture is open and tolerant, and there is a thriving gay scene in some parts of the city, notably Gazi.
Emergency Number: 166
Police: Dial 100 in emergencies; www.astynomia.gr; Tourist Police (1571, available daily 24hr).
US Embassy: US Embassy Athens (91 Vasilisis Sophias Avenue; 210 721 2951).
Hospitals: Athens General Hospital G. Genimatas (Mesogeion 154, 210 77012115).
Pharmacies: Locations throughout the city and especially near the Plaka area; they commonly close at 9pm.