What are Athens and the Attica region really about?
My first visit to the Greek capital was in the summer of 1988. I remember initially feeling a little overwhelmed, but the city felt vibrant and full of promise, and I was looking forward to getting to know it better. That happened as over the years many more visits to Athens followed, but I never completely ‘got it’. I remember the first time I walked around on Lykavittos, the forested hill in the middle of the city. No matter in which direction I looked, the town seemed to go on forever. The Acropolis & the Parthenon as well as the sea were sure points of reference, but I couldn’t make sense of anything else. I long kept this sense of not quite ‘getting it’.
A city marked by contrasts
It was only after I moved to Athens, ten years later, that I realised there was no point trying to somehow ‘define’ the town. It is simply too full of contrasts. Athens and Attica are about modernity and antiquity, chaos and tranquillity, the hard life and the good life. In the centre, modern buildings stand next to antiquities. There’s noise; there’s traffic, but in every neighbourhood parks of all sizes offer oases of tranquillity. In the summer, the smell of blossoming orange trees and jasmine flowers fill the air, even in the centre of Athens. The new Attiki Odos motorway allows you to cross the suburbs at 100 km per hour, but a stone’s throw away from that same motorway you may have to stop your car to let a herd of sheep pass. Food can be bought in huge supermarkets in the suburbs and fancy delicatessen shops in the centre, but also in the street markets where farmers sell their biological produce. The ‘typical’ Athenian works long hours and is continuously ‘running’, but will also always find a moment to have a coffee or an evening out with friends. You can eat out in trendy Japanese and the best Michelin-starred Greek restaurants or in little neighbourhood eateries and seaside tavernas – in either case you’re in for a treat. Traditions are celebrated by young and old alike, but check out the boutiques in Kolonaki and get a taste of the nightlife in the centre of Athens and in the seaside suburbs, and you’ll realise that Athens and the area around it are trendy as any other European capital.
All these odd but fascinating contrasts make visiting Athens and Attica such a joy. There’s something for every personality, for every mood, for every age and for every budget. When you visit Athens, simply embrace the contrasts and be prepared for a bundle of surprises. Enjoy the thrill of the unknown, and you will feel right at home.
What to see and do in the Attica region
Make sure you don’t spend all your time in the centre of town. The wider Attica region is worth checking out as well. A few places that are not to be missed are:
Mikrolimano (little port) in Piraeus, a wonderful spot to have some fresh fish in a traditional Greek setting by the sea.
The lake of Vougliameni, the ‘sunken lake’ find by mineral-rich (and warm!) spring water. It is in one of Athens seaside suburbs, great for swimming any time of the year.
Cape Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon. A scenic drive by the coast takes you to the southernmost tip of Attica where this white-marble temple dating from the 5th century BC proudly looks out over the Aegean Sea. A sunset must!
The archaeological site and museum of Vravrona, a small temple you can explore without busloads of tourists (actually, when I went with visiting family from the Netherlands were the only ones). Take your beachwear so you can go for a swim afterwards – it is very close to the sea.
Active holidays in the Athens/Attica region
If you want to do and experience a bit more then the obligatory Athens sightseeing, shopping and dining, you may be interested in signing up for one or more of the activities organised by Greece’s leading active holiday specialist Trekking Hellas. They offer a number of really great half- or full-day activities that Athens visitors normally don’t get to enjoy, such as biking in the royal estate of Tatoi, hiking or caving in the National Park of Mount Parnitha and rock climbing in Varimbombi.
Where to stay in Athens and Attica
Where in Athens should you book your hotel? The obvious choice is Plaka, the historical and touristic centre of town. The neighbourhood (and adjacent areas) has a wide choice of hotels, varying from small and modest budget hotels and rather bland middle of the range hotels, to design boutique hotels and sumptuous luxurious hotels. The southern suburbs by the sea offer a wide range of large, resort-style hotels, but should you pick one of these, check the location carefully: some are located right on the busy main road by the coast, and I do not recommend them if you are sensitive to noise. If you prefer to stay somewhere quiet, Kifisia, one of Athens’ most upscale suburbs, with an easy railway connection to the centre of Athens.