Athens: Worth All the Marbles

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The Porch of the Caryatids at the Erechtheum, a temple on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Photos by Kent St. John.
The porch of the caryatids at the erechtheum, a temple on the acropolis. Photo by kent st. John

Athens: Worth All the Marbles

By Kent E St John
Senior Travel Editor

I have to admit, the last time I went to Athens I blew through. Boy was that a mistake. I recently made a return visit to the city for a preview of the new Acropolis Museum and found it to be a great place to explore.

Athens deserves time and I loved my time in Athens.

The city spreads like a white sheet over hill and dale, hidden neighborhoods explode with activity. Athens is as layered as the centuries of its history.

Coffee at cafes and late-night dining, sandwiched around some fantastic explorations — this city positively rocks. If the islands of Greece are your calling, a trip from Athens to nearby Hydra is easily done.

Now that the city has built the new museum, there are some rocks Athens wants back: the Elgin Marbles, ancient sculptures taken from Athens to England in 1806 by Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin. Greece has a lot of support worldwide.

Playing for All the Marbles

I am not sure what the Earl of Elgin would think if he were around today, but it very clear that a huge movement is under way to get the friezes back to Athens, and the new Acropolis Museum was built, some say, just for that very purpose.

The British Museum in London has long used the lack of a safe and appropriate place for the Elgin Marbles in Athens as a reason for keeping them in the British Museum. The completion of the new Acropolis Museum in view of the Parthenon has ended that reason for good.

The Acropolis rises above the city.
The acropolis rises above the city.

The state-of-the-art museum was opened in 2009 and it is stunning, so modern yet built in physical dimensions similar to the ancient Acropolis.

It took many years to complete partially because of the layers of history found beneath the building site.

Designed by Bernard Tschumi, Michael Photiadis and their associates, the building has three levels for exhibits and a fourth layer for the museum store, offices and a cafe.

Back to the Old Neighborhood

Athens is a city of neighborhoods and the Plaka is the oldest, narrow and winding, beneath the shadow of the Acropolis and the Parthenon. It is filled with classical buildings and shops; granted many are touristy.

The Elgin Marbles were taken from the Parthenon.
The elgin marbles were taken from the parthenon, the temple of athena.

Interspaced are small plazas and Byzantine churches. Restaurant owners will practically grab you by the arm even until late in the night.

It is mostly a pedestrian area and Ermou Street is one of the best shopping streets in the city.

Ermou Street starts Syndagma Square, a must-see in itself. Fronting the square is the Parliament Building, where you can watch the changing of the National Guard (Euzones) in the traditional Greek uniform.

The changing of the guard.

From here buses and taxis can be found in plentitude. Nearby is the main city market that will delight seafood aficionados.

Work All Day and Up All Night

Athens has a reputation as a party-hard city, and while big clubs are spread throughout the city, it is the bohemian area of Psiri that rocks.

By day the streets are filled with the working class plying their trades as leather workers, typesetters and workers in small factories.

At night the revelry commences, secret spaces open up and the streets are thronged.

Music blares and crowds appear. Suddenly bottles of champagne pop and nightclubs fill up. Return the next day and you will not recognize the place; return the following night and all the buzz returns.

In the summer the Glyfada Athens, on the coast about 15 km from the city center is the place to go, with huge dance clubs on the water to enjoy at night and lush sandy beaches to enjoy by day.

Money speaks and hedonistic pleasures prevail, dress up best as you can. The bottom line is Athens has a very healthy night life; a good time is an occupation here.

Sitting Above it All

Graffiti in Athens, Greece
Graffiti in athens

From my balcony at the St. George Lycabettuss Hotel in the Kolonaki neighborhood, Athens spreads below like a field of vast colors. The lights of the Acropolis suddenly light up as the sun sets.

I do not have far to travel far to spend time in the most fashionable area of Athens. Kolonaki overlooks the sea. Boutique shops and fine restaurants dot the area. Cafes are filled in the late afternoon and helped with my long climb from the city center.

Best part of my time staying in the Kolonaki area was the opportunity to see all of Athens spread out below, the Acropolis at eye level in the distance and beyond the Aegean Sea. The pull was so strong that I decided to head to the closest island sanctuary I could fit in my limited schedule. Hydra was recommended.

Out to Sea

Donkeys in the harbor in Hydra
Donkeys in the harbor in hydra

From Athens’s port city of Piraeus (now called Pireas) it was easy to arrange passage for the hour-and-a-half journey to the beautiful Island of Hydra.

Arriving in the beautiful round harbor was a stress buster of the highest order. Fishing boats filled the harbor and the lack of cars was a trip back in time.

The main town of Hydra is made up of 19th century mansions built by wealthy fishermen and ship owners most with red tiled roofs and painted bright white with colorful shutters.

Fortunately by law the island has kept its looks and no new or large resorts can be found there.

The main form of transportation to the guest houses and beaches is done via donkey, taxi boat and easily by foot. Numerous restaurants ring the harbor and the out door tables filled with revelers.

Houses rise above the harbor in Hydra.
Houses rise above the harbor in hydra.

When the day trippers from Athens left, I sat by the harbor and watched the town return to the small fishing village it really is, the perfect place to reflect on the colossus of Athens.

I will never breeze through Athens again, I promised the gods!

For more information:

Athens is lively and lovely and packed with history. Pick your neighborhood and revel in the sights and sounds. Here are some great sites to use to that end:

Matt Barrett’s site is filled with directions to places to go. has a break down of all the neighborhoods and what they hold.

They also have a fantastic site on wonderful Hydra including places to stay.

The New Acropolis Museum is a work of art itself. Most interesting is the reemergence of the fight to have the Elgin Marbles returned.

The St. George Lycabettus Hotel is a fantastic place to base in Athens. The views are astounding and its position in the Kolonaki area ensures great dining, shopping and people watching.