Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Are you into ruins and buckets of paint artfully splashed on crumbling structures of more recent times? Do you dig ancient coins and flea markets and hidden courtyards where the ouzo shots are still making the rounds at 2AM on a Wednesday? If you answer yes to any of the foregoing then you may indeed be the Athenian type...
Out there on my pretty island in the Saronic Gulf, I thought I had it all: sea, sky and some kind of serenity. But one fine morning, it dawned on me that something was missing: drama. Where was the asphalt, where was the din? Where was the tableau of impeccably attired evzonoi (Presidential Guards) marking their paces, the scent of wild orange blossoms and, of course, those mighty Parthenon pillars reaching for the stars above the Acropolis? All in Athens, of course.
So, with swiftest dispatch, I made my way back to the metropolis whose ambient roar and riot of graffiti you can always count on, where flashes of pink bougainvillea make a play for your senses when you least expect it. This city, more than most, is defined by antiquity but it never lords that over you, because Athenians are too busy doing things to stop and give you a history lesson. Which is fine—you are free to thrill to the echoes of the past on your own, and maybe you'll catch up with your Athenian pals later.
As for me I thought that I would miss my island haven but, truth be told, from my temporary perch, I see clearly that I am on an island, in the archipelago of Syntagma, if you will. The famous square itself may be out of view, but it's just a whisper away.
Beyond my balcony stretched the Sea of Plaka, so to speak, its currents of stately red-roofed mansions sweeping up over the sinuous streets that end where the Acropolis begins, with the tiny houses of Anafiotika, like the transplanted Cycladic chora that it is, as the crest of the wave, reaching up the northeast slope. To my right there’s the Ocean of Everything Else, the vastness of modern Athens rippling out from the city center in massive, if silent (from up here, anyway), concrete waves. This city is big and somewhat complicated, which means that day or night, it is always ripe for exploration.
If your stay in Athens is limited, you must make time for both the obligatory cultural stops (we’re talking a lot of ancient civilization packed into one city) and random indulgences alike. First geography lesson: slender Mitropoleos Street functions as a sort of unofficial dividing line between the Plaka area, on its south side, and the more modern and generally more frenzied Athenian downtown core on its north side. My prescription for approaching the center of commercial Athens is to consume as much of each side − classic and contemporary − as possible, without forgetting to eat. Athenians don’t like to eat; they love it, and with the exception of a gyros on the go, there's no such thing as an express lunch here.
Thus fortified, you’re now in good shape to climb to the top of Areopagus Hill, site of the court of justice for some pretty serious crimes in ancient times. The spot has somehow metamorphosed into the hottest place for taking a selfie in Athens. When you see the views from up there, you’ll get the picture.
But where it gets really interesting, I think, is down below the hill, in the ancient Agora, an oasis of calm, with olive trees swaying over stone fragments almost too old to comprehend. There’s the Temple of Hephaestus, a real stunner that merits close inspection, as do the ancient Athenian artifacts inside the Museum of the Ancient Agora. For the flip side of all those evocative amphorae and ostraka (the potsherds used as ballots for ostracism), exit the Agora on the north side and you're in Monastiraki, with its wild mix of shops selling everything from genuine antiques to genuine junk, all collectible.
From here, dart across always-busy Ermou Street near where it ends at the Thiseio metro station and plunge into the always buzzing, playfully graffiti-splashed district of Psirri. If Monastiraki is where tranquil Plaka gets a bit louder, Psirri should come with free earplugs: with no shortage of bars, the whole neighborhood is ritually raucous by night. Go for a tropical libation at the ridiculously atmospheric Juan Rodriguez (3 Pallados) anytime in the evening and you’ll see, or rather hear, what I mean. For views, the unobstructed panorama of the Acropolis from the top floor of 360 Monastiraki (2 Ifestou) steals the show; it may well be the most dramatic setting for sunset sipping in Athens.
By night, Monastiraki and Psirri are places where it helps to be either highly caffeinated or highly young (okay, probably both) but even by day, this part of town demands a certain level of interaction. The Athens spice market is something that you simply have to inhale to believe, because time travel never smelled so good.
Make time for at least one of the smaller gems like the Museum of Cycladic Art or the Benaki Museum (the gift shops of both museums are fabulous). At the Numismatic Museum (12 Panepistimiou), history comes in myriad small denominations. Whether or not you dig Heinrich Schliemann’s brand of creative archaeology, judging by this elegant 1880 mansion in the heart of Athens, the Trojan expert had impeccable taste in real estate. Some of the coins in these glass cases were minted as far back as the 14th century B.C. so yes, it’s quite possible you’ll be looking at some of Pericles’ pocket change.
In this youthful city just 3,400 years old, where so many centuries tumble down on you at once and where the most prominent skyscraper is both older than Jesus and sturdier than anything a celebrity architect could dream up, there is sometimes nothing else to do but order another shot of tsipouro, or maybe a spritz if you'd rather (try Drupes & Drips, 20 Zitrou) and see where it takes you. Is Athens a place to get philosophical? When Aristotle held court in the Agora, I’ve no doubt that it was, but as for today, there are far too many appetites to satiate and unadvertised luxuries to discover to be overly concerned about the bigger questions of the day. In any case, for some of those questions, it might just be that Athens itself is the answer.