The Golden Age: From practically anywhere in Athens, you can gaze at the 490-foot heights of the Acropolis, reminding you once again of “the glory that was Greece.”
This majestic limestone plateau, and the stunning Parthenon temple surmounting it, are symbols of the 2,500-years-ago Golden Age that author Edgar Allan Poe praised in his classic quote.
By day, thousands swarm the steps of this cultural mecca to admire the iconic splendor of the pillared Parthenon and have their photo taken. By night, it’s brightly lit, visible from hotel roof gardens around town and charming open-air restaurants in the touristy Plaka district, just below the Acropolis.
We climbed off the cruise ship Azamara and took a taxi to the ultra-modern Athens Hilton, where that evening we relaxed in bed watching the Acropolis blaze like a beacon on the dark skyline.
We’d come a long way to get there, flying from LAX to London, then to Venice, where we boarded the luxury cruiser Azamara. Then came the Adriatic coast and Greek islands and finally Athens, which is one of Europe’s most interesting cities but too often neglected by tourists lured to London’s pricey pleasures and Paris’s equally expensive delights.
I admit, it’s certainly easy to bask in cultural history at the British Museum and the Louvre. But Sue and I fell in love with Athens and its civilized people, so proud of their ancient culture, so saddened that the latter-day glory of Greece is somewhat tarnished. Strikers march the downtown streets, protesting the government’s austerity measures, which are in turn aimed at solving serious budget problems.
Yet planes, trains, and cruise ships still disgorge the world’s curious, intent on a pilgrimage to the Parthenon. We joined them and taxied to the base of the Acropolis, hiked up the hill to the ticket booth, paid about $17 each, and headed up, shoulder to shoulder with a small army of men, women, and children speaking a polyglot of languages and cheerfully enduring the uneven steps. (Wear sensible shoes.)
We found the majestic Parthenon undergoing quite a renovation, intended to ensure that it will last another 2,500 years or more. It’s a miracle that it stands at all, considering all the looting over the years and that it was often a battleground. In 1456 the Turks tore down Acropolis stones to use the lead clamps to make bullets. Most catastrophically, the Turks used the Parthenon to store gunpowder, and when Venetians attacked in 1687, one of their mortar shots set off the munitions, which tore the interior to pieces.
So what else do you do in Athens after you’ve spent the de rigueur 45 minutes on the Acropolis? (There are other temples to see there, by the way.) Instead of following the crowd, we took one of the side lanes down to the Plaka and looked for one of the little outdoor taverna cafes.
Just below the Acropolis, outdoor tables are arranged on broad steps leading to the much-praised Palia Taverna tou Psara. Its roof garden offered splendid views. The menu featured grilled salmon and lamb chops, each dish for $21.50. Live folk music most nights. Near the Roman Forum, Yopia serves light dishes under awnings.
Down near the Plaka Hotel, the open-air Restaurant Hermion is the place for fried zucchini balls with a spearmint-and-dill dip, or for grape leaves stuffed with rice and ground beef, with an egg and lemon sauce, each dish about $12. A Mythos beer will set you back $5.25 as you relax in a wicker chair. A lamb or veal entrée costs about $18.50, spaghetti Bolognese $12.
Much of the white-tablecloth, fine dining can be found in hotels like the classic old (1862) Grande Bretagne or the Hilton. Athens, with the Mediterranean at its front door, revels in seafood. This is the time to be adventurous, tasting dishes like octopus grilled in vinegar and olive oil or stewed with tomatoes and onions. You’ll find squid fried, grilled, or baked and stuffed with rice and herbs. Shrimp is often baked with tomatoes and feta cheese, a key ingredient in many Greek dishes.
Greeks we met were mostly soft-spoken and not prone to bragging that Greece gave the world democracy, theater, philosophy, medicine, and much more. But one sommelier at Grande Bretagne’s roof garden lamented to us that Greeks feel that their wines lack appreciation in the outside world. The French, I suppose, turn up their collective noses. He urged us to try a glass of white Santorini Gavalas, a gem from that lovely island of Santorini. It was fine and a bargain at $11.50, in spite of the weak dollar. A full meal at the GB will set you back about $185, however, unless you skimp, as we did. Or just get lucky with an outside table and have a moonlight drink.
The Hilton beckons the carriage trade with an impressive array of eateries. Greek-themed Milos, famed in Montreal and New York, has a marble décor along with a Mediterranean menu that includes fried zucchini and eggplant-tzatziki. But you can order a sizzling steak, too. The sleek-lobbied Byzantino restaurant has been revised, with sharply reduced prices and a stunning glass and wood décor. Along with Greek dishes there’s Kansas-fed beef and wagyu burgers. The Sunday buffet ($55) is outstanding.
Upstairs, the roof garden serves excellent food along with Acropolis views. Over in the Pagrati district, the chandelier-hung, Michelin-starred Spondi is considered Athens’s best French-inspired restaurant. Elegant ambiance to boot. Dinner for two: around $290. We passed.
Where to Stay: Three hotels line up side by side along Syntagma Square in central Athens, starting with the Grande Bretagne. It’s the best in Athens, but pricy at $465 for a double. Next door, the King George II Palace is luxurious, boasts gorgeous rooms, and attracts movie stars. Third in line is the modern (1980) Athens Plaza, a bargain at $260.
Across town, the Athens Hilton is as modern as the Parthenon is old. It’s bright and shiny and offers clean, efficient rooms with superb views. It boasts a gym, a spa, and the largest hotel pool in Athens. Doubles from $321.
Deep in the Plaka is everyone’s old favorite, the three-star Plaka Hotel, ideally located among shops and small restaurants and walking distance to the Acropolis. The roof garden has long been a popular gathering place for a meal or a cold one while drinking in the outstanding views. Doubles start at $195, including a full buffet breakfast.
Tip: Even the Greeks will warn you not to visit in the beastly heat of summer. Although central Athens lends itself to walking, yellow taxis are plentiful. It’s far cheaper, however, to take the fast, efficient Metro system. Athens is an exciting city and bustling port, having cleaned up a lot for the 2004 Olympics.