Not too long ago, Athens used to be the city Greeks loved to hate. It had a reputation as expensive, polluted, and overcrowded, with more than five million inhabitants -- over 40% of the country's population. Preparations for the 2004 Olympics brought forth many changes, and the successful staging of the games imbued the ancient city and its residents with a newfound confidence that acted as a catalyst for more evolution. As they were in Barcelona, the Olympics were just what Athens needed to get its groove back. The city feels young again. Forever the city of 1,000 contradictions, Athens is one of the few ancient cities in the world where the cutting edge, the hip, and the modern can suddenly coexist so harmoniously with the classical.
Athens today is sophisticated and cosmopolitan but no matter how fascinating its current renaissance, keep in mind this is a city that has gone through countless transformations in its long and turbulent history. The city continues its urban renewal despite massive headaches. Athens saw its illegal migrant population swell to over two million (in just 10 years!), altering the demographics of several inner city neighborhoods, spiking up petty crime and creating an anti-immigrant sentiment just as the economy collapsed, the IMF moved in and unemployment rose to over 16%.
The economic crisis and the government's austerity measures that have ushered in a recession, the constant fear of default and bankruptcy and the persistent rumors of a return to the old currency, have darkened the mood in the usually festive metropolis. Athens is struggling to find its footing, but Europe's oldest city shows no signs of slowing down.
The dawn of the 21st century found the ancient city with a multitude of much-needed improvements: since the turn of the century, the city has created a vast new infrastructure; a sparkling and expanding new Metro, with immaculate stations, many of which display the artifacts found during its construction; a new international airport; miles of new roads and a beltway that has eased the city's infamous traffic and has reduced the city's equally infamous smog.
The ancient sites have been linked together by a promenade, a sort of "boardwalk" around classical Athens, with antiquities on one side and modern-day sidewalk cafes, galleries, renovated mansions, and outdoor art installations on the other. All in all, 10 miles of downtown Athens's streets have been pedestrianized, transforming what had been one of the most pedestrian-unfriendly cities in the world into a more charming, accessible, and enjoyable city. The coastline has also been revived with a dizzying selection of cafes, restaurants, promenades, beaches, pedestrian shopping districts, and open-air nightclubs by the sea -- accessible by a short tram ride from downtown.
The city's hotel scene has also gone through a renewal, with classic hotels restored to their former glory and boutique hotels continuing to pop up. The economic crisis might mean better deals can be found not only during the off-season, but year-round.
Greek cuisine continues its renaissance at the hands of talented new chefs, making Athens a haven for foodies; museums are being renovated and expanded, while several new and exceptional smaller museums have joined the impressive lineup. Galleries and art and exhibition centers continue to spring up -- many housed in former warehouses and factories. The numerous industrial-to-art conversions have led to the rebirth of formerly run-down neighborhoods. Following the lead of Psirri and Thissio -- two ancient neighborhoods once neglected, now the hippest downtown destinations -- Gazi and Kerameikos have also risen from the ashes, going from gritty to urban chic.
As you explore Athens, try to make the city your own. Walk its streets; take in its scents; linger in its sidewalk cafes, courtyard gardens, squares, and rooftop terraces; take in a show in an ancient open-air theater, or an avant-garde performance, concert, or art exhibition at one of the new multipurpose arts complexes; enjoy a movie under the stars. Climb its mountains, swim in its waters, visit its ancient temples and Byzantine churches, try its food and its nightlife, and see as many museums as you can. Explore its ancient districts and its most modern ones, to witness an ancient city discovering its modern soul in front of your very eyes.
Take the bad in stride as well -- long-term problems have been addressed, not eradicated. The smog does return from time to time (especially during heat waves) and traffic can still be fierce -- so feel free to yell at the taxi driver who refuses to stop for you in a torrential rain or packs you into his taxi with many other passengers in the stifling summer heat; to mutter obscenities to yourself for getting stuck in traffic when you could have easily taken the Metro instead; and to throw up your hands in exasperation as a strike threatens to ruin your holiday -- a glimpse of the floodlit Parthenon or a glass of wine on a rooftop, in an ancient quarter, or by the sea will have you back to your old self in no time.
Long after you have gone, you may feel a certain nostalgia. It is Athens, calling you back like a siren, as she has done to so many of us who have tried to leave her. For anybody who has taken the time to truly get to know her, you will find yourself longing to return. Exciting and exasperating, beautiful and gritty, ancient and modern, sultry and restless, seductive and unforgettable -- welcome to my Athens.
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.