Rick Steves, Rick Steves Travel - PBS, October 7, 2014
Once famous for its sprawl, noise, graffiti and pollution, Athens has been cleaning up its act. New driving laws, along with a marvelous subway system, have made the city less congested. While it used to turn my hanky black in a day, the air now seems much cleaner. And while before, it felt as though there was one blade of grass for each of the city's three million cars, today it's much more people-friendly, with welcoming pedestrian streets and squares filled with benches, inviting cafes and grassy parks with shade-giving trees.
But the city's big draw remains its ancient sites. Even in today's bustle, you can still feel the aura of the ancient Greeks, who reached their apex here nearly 2,500 years ago. With the mighty Acropolis crowning the old center, you're constantly reminded as you wander the streets of Athens that this is the birthplace of Western civilization itself.
The Acropolis (literally "high city") is lassoed by a delightful pedestrian boulevard. Winding up the hill you'll find yourself in an ensemble of grand temples. Led by the visionary architect/sculptor Pheidias, the Athenians built this complex of supersized, ornate temples worthy of the city's protector, Athena. Unlike most ancient sites, which have layers of ruins from different periods, the Acropolis was started and finished within two generations -- a snapshot of the Golden Age set in stone. Pheidias' crowning achievement was the Parthenon: Simple, balanced, and orderly, this is the finest temple from the ancient world.
At the base of the hill stands the Acropolis Museum, which houses artifacts from the Acropolis. The striking, glassy building gives a postmodern jolt to the otherwise staid, concrete cityscape. The centerpiece is a life-size mock-up of the 525-foot-high marble frieze that once wrapped around the Parthenon. Of the original, the museum owns just 32 feet. The best parts are in London's British Museum. In the early 1800s, the Ottoman Turks, who controlled Greece and couldn't care less about its cultural treasures, were happy to take a bribe from Englishman Lord Elgin to let him make off with the finest ancient Greek statuary.
While the Acropolis was Athens' ceremonial showpiece, at its foot sprawled the city's marketplace of Agora. This was where the real business of the day -- commercial, political, social, and religious -- took place. Other than one well-preserved temple and a rebuilt portico, little remains of the Agora.
But with a local guide, the Agora can come to life. Wandering this field of humble ruins with my Athenian guide Fay ("like Faye Dunaway," she explained), she referred to the Acropolis and Agora as uptown and downtown. She made the hot and dusty visit a delight, bringing meaning to the rubble.
Fay explained that Greeks designed on a human scale -- appropriate for their democracy. As Romans didn't have democracy, their leaders had a taste for grandeur. So when the Romans came, they put an "un-Greek" veneer of power on the Agora, including pompous staircases, fancy pavement, oversized temples, and larger-than-life statues. Roman statues are always propped on something, with "too much robe" and interchangeable heads. Masters of both imperial ego and efficiency, they reused stone bodies, economically replacing the head with each new emperor. That's why lots of Roman statues are headless.
After a day communing with Athens' ancients, I enjoy communing with locals at a traditional Greek restaurant. My favorite way to eat here is to order a medley of mezedes (small plates) to share. The selection, while predictable and routine, never gets old for me: tzatziki dip, garlic dip, fava bean dip, or a mix of all three on a serving platter; fried eggplant or zucchini; Greek salad; and big grilled peppers stuffed with feta cheese.
Usually there's something from the sea, such as grilled calamari, sardines, or a plate of fried small fish (three inch), very small fish (two inch), or very, very small fish (one inch). With three-inch fish, I leave the head and tail on the plate (and try not to wonder about the once inky, now dry black guts). With the smaller fish, I leave nothing but a line of greasy fingerprints on the fringe of my paper tablecloth.
With dinner, I order the infamous resin-flavored retsina wine, which makes me want to sling a patch over one eye and say, "Arghh." The first glass is like drinking wood. The third glass is dangerous: It starts to taste good. If you drink any more, you'll smell like it the next day.
With a belly full of mezedes and just enough retsina, I walk off dinner on the pedestrian street that runs along the base of the Acropolis. Wandering this modern walkway under the floodlit Parthenon, I enjoy a mix of ancient splendor, the charming 19th-century "old town," and a steady parade of modern Athenians doing the same thing.
IF YOU VISIT...
SLEEPING: Hotel Phaedra is simple but wonderfully located, overlooking a peaceful Plaka square with ancient ruins and a Byzantine church (budget, www.hotelphaedra.com). Hotel Cecil has 36 quaint rooms in a once-grand old building located in the heart of Athens (moderate, www.cecil.gr).
EATING: Scholarhio Ouzeri Kouklis is a fun place specializing in mezedes and homemade ouzo liquor, with a lively terrace and romantic balconies for two (Tripodon 14, tel. 210-324-7605, www.sholarhio.gr). Strofi Athenian Restaurant serves classic Greek dishes on an elegantly modern rooftop with striking Acropolis views (Rovertou Galli 25, tel. 210-921-4130, www.strofi.gr).
GETTING AROUND: The tourists' core of Athens is very walkable, but public transportation -- buses and the Metro -- is useful for reaching farther-flung destinations, such as the National Archaeological Museum.
FOR TOURIST INFORMATION: www.visitgreece.gr.
This article was written by RICK STEVES and Tribune Content Agency from Rick Steves Travel - PBS and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.