ATHENS, Greece - It has become fashionable to disparage this sprawling city of 5 million souls as not worth more than a day or two of a traveler's time, as if all one might care to experience are the Acropolis, some moussaka and a handful of centrally located museums.
Go prepared. Maintained by a North Carolina resident with lengthy ties to Greece, "Matt Barrett's Athens Survival Guide" (www.athensguide.com) is the indispensable primer for the city, richly detailed and illustrated yet mercifully free of the typical guidebook and tourist bureau lily gilding. His guide is worth it for the district-by-district restaurant and night club recommendations alone.
The Greek capital is not an especially attractive metro area, the critics argue, despite a jeweler's setting of mountains and sea. So make your obligatory visit, absorb a bit of atmosphere then jet off to the country's more esthetically pleasing venues: an Aegean island, say.
What language barrier?
Linguists tell us that 40 percent of the English language is French, that there are legions of Arabic loan words, and that another 12 percent of our vocabulary derives from Greek.
But for visitors, there's that inconvenient matter of the puzzling Greek (Cyrillic) alphabet, and such little quirks is that their word for "yes" ("ne") sounds like "nay" while "no" is expressed as "okhi" (which sounds like "okay" to English speakers).
This is of no consequence, however, since almost all city street and business signs are in both alphabets. And you will be hard-pressed to find an Athenian who doesn't speak serviceable English.
If you expect every European city to have the visual splendor of Paris, the fairy tale quality of Prague, the style of Barcelona, then the argument is defensible. But not if you believe all great cities have their own historical, culinary and cultural glories and that making an effort to explore these treasures can be handsomely rewarded.
The simplest way to get downtown from Eleftherios Venizelos International airport is the Metro, which costs about 8 euro and goes to Monastiraki after stops at all the principal stations in between. Just beware of pickpockets on this route; it's their chief hunting ground. The airport also is connected via the Proastiakos-Suburban Railway to Athens' central Larissis Station.
Central Athens is for strollers (Peripatos, in Greek), with many streets closed to cars and trucks (but not motorbikes). The city's other traffic-choked streets received major relief with the completion of the new Metro prior to the Olympic Games of 2004, and this clean, efficient system (some stations contain their own museums of artifacts uncovered on site) is among the simplest to use anywhere with just three main lines (Red, Blue, Green).
For a breezy introduction to the city, and a way to get your bearings, consider taking the Athens City Sightseeing Bus ("Hop on, Hop Off Bus"), which stops at most of the city's central squares.
Begin, of course, with the Acropolis and its unsurpassed architectural brilliance, looming 200 feet above the city. And marvel at the fact that its structures have survived various, incongruous, incarnations: Turkish harem, Florentine palace, Islamic mosque and ammo dump. The elegant Erechtheion temple restoration is complete, and conservation work continues on the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaea.
If you're here in summer, make sure to go in the early morning. Otherwise, the sun is blinding and the heat blistering. Expect to invest a minimum of four hours discovering this iconic site, including a stop at the contrastingly modernist Acropolis Museum, which debuted in 2009.
But before passing through Beule Gate to take in the Acropolis' wonders, first survey it from the summit of nearby Filopappou Hill, accessed from the same Unification of Archaeological Sites promenade that skirts the Acropolis and leads to other key Archaeological Park historic sites like the Ancient Agora (marketplace), the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. and the Hephaisteion (460 B.C.), the best-preserved temple in the city despite predating the Parthenon.
The tree-lined pedestrian walkway, which goes by the street name Dionyssiou Areopagitou, begins at the Acropolis Metro stop and culminates in the Thission district, flecked with appealing cafes and tavernas and offering one of the city's most beautiful vistas of the Acropolis.
Discover the districts
Athens' identity is a composite of its distinctive neighborhoods, from prosperous Kolonaki (which hugs the base of Athens' highest point, 909-foot Mt. Lycabettus) to the nightlife meccas of Psiri, Keramikos and the Gazi to the touristy but charming streets of the Plaka. Part of the Plaka, tucked into the northeast slope of the Acropolis, is the winding, narrow enclave of Anafiotika, whose chockablock white residences and floral effusions suggest an island neighborhood of the Cyclades more than Athens proper.
Of the various "must-see" cityscapes, high on the list is Athinas Street, sort of the real Athens in microcosm. Running from Omonia Square to Monastiraki Square, it intersects with Athens' top clothes shopping street, Ermou, in the Psiri district, home to the famous shop (on Ag Theklas Street) of Melissinos, the Poet and Sandal-Maker. A working-class enclave by day, Psiri transforms into a major cafe and club destination at night. But the main morning attraction along Athinas' length is the festival of color that is Athens' bustling Central Market. The busy street eventually deposits the stroller in the districts of Monastiraki, Thission and Gazi.
East and West
There's mild irony in the fact that Greece, the Cradle of Western Ways, is in eastern Europe, and several areas of Athens, especially the bazaar-like district of Monasteraki, has an Eastern look and feel.
Greece has been an independent country only since 1829. Like Italy, it shares the illusion of being an ancient country. In fact, for most of the last 2,000 years, neither country owned genuine statehood. For 400 years, Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Turks.
Francis Tapon, author of "The Hidden Europe," wonders if Greece "has a big strong ego or a small fragile one," a question amplified by the financial crisis that Athenians, battered by high unemployment, insist is subsiding.
To be sure, Greeks sometimes seem almost inordinately proud of their country, with Athens as its epicenter, which smacks of living in the past. But given 3,500 years of history (twice that if you count the first settlement around 5,000 B.C.) and the profound cultural influence of classical Greece, one makes allowances.
If modern-day Athenians, reveling in the glory days, feel at a loss to rival the achievements of Pericles, Aristotle, Sophocles and their kin, neither can Americans claim contemporary statesmen and Enlightenment-infused thinkers to match the Founding Fathers.
Though the conservation/restoration impulse has not always been prevalent in Greek life, today's public and private museums of Athens are the equal of any in the world. A marvel by any reckoning, the National Archaeological Museum (28 Oktovriou St.), harbors a vast array of artifacts echoing the many millennia of Greek civilization, while smaller museums such as the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art (4 Neofitou Douka) and the Byzantine and Christian Museum (22 Vas. Sofias Ave.) showcase the histories of particular regions or periods with admirable felicity.
But the jewel in the crown may be the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbarei), located across from the National Gardens near Syntagma (Constitution) Square. Established in 1930 and housed in the one-time Benakis family mansion, the museum contains Greek works of art from prehistoric to modern times, as well as an extensive collection of Asian art. The Benakis family donated its collection of more than 37,000 Islamic and Byzantine objects in 1931, with another 9,000 artifacts added in the 1970s. Since that time, the collection has been expanded by some 60,000 objects, books and documents. During its grand re-opening in 2000, a series of satellite museums was created to feature specific collections, allowing the main museum to focus on Greek culture.
The National Gallery of Art (50 Vasileos Konstantinou St.) presents permanent collections of Greek painting and sculpture of the 19th and 20th centuries as well as traveling exhibitions.
Also within the National Gardens are storied Hadrian's Arch and the remains of the massive Temple of the Olympian Zeus.
Expect something of a political history lesson at the Acropolis museum, where they still await the return of the Elgin Marbles. These prime segments of the frieze on the Parthenon, along with one of the Korai maidens from the Erechthion temple adjacent to it (and numerous other artifacts), were "sold" - stolen, as far as Athenians are concerned - to Lord Elgin of Great Britain during the Turkish occupation and have long resided in the British Museum. Greece wants them back, and has just the museum to protect them now.
For more history, ponder a day trip south by car or bus to gorgeous Cape Sounion, long a strategic outpost of the Athenian empire and home to the majestic ruin of the Temple of Poseidon. Alternately, head out beyond the city's southern fringes for Piraeus, a lively port city with fine waterside fish tavernas and Saronic Gulf views.
The Greek National Tourism Organization is situated at 7 Tsoha St. in the Ambelokipi district, while the Athens Welcome Center conducts daily, 90-minute historic tours of downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. You may also consult the city website, www.breathtakingathens.com, the Athens Welcome Center, which operates daily historic tours of downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. There also are such English-language publications as Odyssey, the Greek daily news supplement Kathimerini inside the International Herald-Tribune, and the New York Times International Edition.
Pack light, but be sure to bring a robust appetite, an appreciation for the many cross-currents of history, and a desire to immerse yourself in the embrace of a warm, demonstrative people who know how to live - even in the midst of crisis.