The lush National Gardens, between Leoforos Amalias and Irodou Attikou, south of Vas. Sofias, was once the royal family's palace garden. Now a public park, the area combines a park; gardens; meandering paths; many quaint bridges over ponds and small lakes favored by ducks, swans, and peacocks; and a small zoo with shade trees and benches. Look for one of the several cafes tucked away in the gardens; you can also picnic here or stop by the elegant Aigli cafe/restaurant. The large neoclassical exhibition/reception hall in the adjacent more orderly gardens were built by the brothers Zappas and so are known as the Zappeion. The National Gardens are open daily from 7am to 10pm. Note: At night, it becomes a spot for prostitutes, gay cruising, and pickups, but during daytime it is a wonderful little oasis in the city center.
Mount Likavitos (Lycabettus) dominates the city's northeast. It is a favorite retreat for Athenians, and a great place to get a bird's-eye view of the city as it spreads before you all the way to the Saronic Gulf. Even when the smog is bad, sunsets can be spectacular and the city beckoning from below is at its most seductive. A Chapel of Ayios Yioryios (St. George) sits at the top. Catch a summer performance at the Likavitos Theater. You can take the funicular (which leaves every 20 min. in summer) from the top of Ploutarchou (6€ with return), or walk up from Dexameni Square.
Pedion tou Areos (Plain of Mars) is central Athens's largest and most beautiful park, on busy Leoforos Alexandras and has never looked better thanks to a 2010-11 face-lift and redesign. Large trees, benches, gardens, fountains, lawns, and meandering paths offer escape from the bustling city. Near the park and across the busy avenue is the wonderful, little-visited Lofos tou Strefi (Strefis Hill), where a labyrinth of green paths lead you to the summit with spectacular vistas of the city and the Acropolis.
In the city center is Fillopapou Hill (also known as Hill of the Muses), a landscaped park with cypresses, pine trees, indigenous flora, joggers, dog walkers, lovers, and some important archaeological finds. It features the perfect vantage point from which to snap that postcard-perfect picture of the Acropolis. Along the way you will walk by ancient walls, a 16th-century church (Agios Dimitiros-St. Demetrios), and a cave dwelling thought to be Socrates's prison. The Hill of the Pnyx (the meeting place of the democratic assembly) also has vistas of the Acropolis and beyond. Farther to the west, there is a third hill, Hill of the Nymphs, said to be the location of William Shakespeare's Midnight Summer's Dream.
Athens's Urban Beaches
A string of popular beaches stretches along the Saronic Gulf from Athens to Cape Sounion; nearly all of them have been awarded the E.U. Blue Flag for clear waters. The beaches are easily accessible by bus, tram, and taxi. The tram reaches Voula, from there you can continue to the farther-away beaches via bus or taxi. Tip: To shorten your tram ride to the coast by 20 minutes, hop on Metro line 1 and get off at Faliro. Across the street is the tram stop, outside the Peace and Friendship Olympic Stadium Complex. From here you can just hop on the SEF tram line to Voula.
For beaches farther away from Voula, you can take a bus or taxi from Glyfada Square. The beaches are now run by private companies and charge admission, ranging from 6€ to 20€ per person per day. Entrance rates are always higher on weekends and holidays. Athens's privatized beaches resemble stylish clubs. For the admission price, you get a chair, umbrella, changing rooms, showers, and restrooms. Some have water parks, children's play areas, snack bars, lifeguards, beach volleyball, and racquetball areas -- a few even have guest rooms in quaint bungalows for those wishing to have a siesta. Some of the best beaches along the coast are:
Agios Kosmas: Second Agios Kosmas tram stop. A little difficult to find, but worth it; it's a free, quiet beach, clean and well managed and perfect if you have little children.
Asteras Glyfada (www.asterascomplex.com): Take the tram to the Glyfada stop at "Palio Dimarheio," "Paralia," or "Plateia Katraki" and walk along the coast. Inside this complex is a clean and family friendly beach (admission weekdays 6€; weekends 7.50€) with clean grounds, a snack bar, cafe, children's playground, and watersport options. The admission to this complex also grants you admission to the Balux House (www.baluxcafe.com). This glass-fronted beach house for all is a series of living rooms, with many intimate areas, a library, an indoor and outdoor playroom for children, TV sets with Xbox and PlayStation consoles, table games, a pool table, beanbags to curl up on, a restaurant cafe and lounge area, volleyball court, and gardens. After the sun has set, the house morphs into a fun, louder but still casual lounge-bar-club. Also on-site are the modern taverna Akanthus and the B.E.D. club.
Voula A: (www.thalassea.gr): The tram's last stop (Asklipeio Voulas) is right outside this beach (admission weekdays 6€, weekends 7€). Quiet, pretty, and clean, with a water slide, ample space, and a snack bar, this beach is more for families seeking a quiet time, older folk, or anyone looking for a quiet, inexpensive, and clean beach.
Voula B: Here you'll find palm trees, a spacious beach, a cafe, self-service restaurant, sports facilities, and some great bungalows (admission 6€). Tram: Asklipeio Voulas then a 5-minute walk along coast.
Astir Beach (www.astir-beach.com): Take the tram to Glyfada, then bus no. 114 or 116. This, the most "in-crowd" beach of all (admission 15€ on weekdays, weekends vary), is nestled in a sheltered bay. The beach is clean and pleasant with many amenities (shops, cafe, restaurant, and sport facilities) and even ruins -- a temple to Apollo.
Attica Vouliagmeni Beach: Take the tram to Glyfada, then bus no. 114 or 116. Set on an enormous stretch of sand on a beautiful coastline with playgrounds, tennis courts, basketball courts, all the usual beach amenities and a beautiful coastline, this is the best-value beach for your money (admission 6€).
Lake Vouliagmeni (tel. 210/896-2239): You can also swim in the springs here, which are open year-round daily 7am-7:30pm (admission 7€, children 4 and under free). Take the tram to Glyfada, then bus no. 114. The setting is strikingly beautiful (a huge cavelike rock) where the blue-green mineral water remains the same temperature year-round and is said to have many healing properties.
Varkiza Beach (tel. 210/897-2414): Take the tram to Glyfada, then bus no. 116, 125, or 171. Varkiza Beach (admission 12€) is one of the fanciest beaches with pristine waters and is a lot of fun for both adults and children with beach bars, a water park, volleyball and tennis courts, and private cabanas. Though the beach gets busy during the weekends, it can be delightfully quiet weekdays. On your way back downtown from the beach, linger in Glyfada to explore this popular neighborhood. Pedestrian street Metaxa runs through central Glyfada alongside the tram line, and combined with its side streets offers shopping options, lively cafes, and fine restaurants. Walking down Metaxa, check out Zisimopoulou Street, with more upscale cafes than you could ever need, but ideal for a stop and take in the scene with a cool drink. Nearby is George's Steakhouse, 4-6 Konstantinoupoleos (tel. 210/894-2041; www.georgessteakhouse.gr), a popular, affordable taverna serving delicious fare since 1951.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.