Athens, Greece travel guide: Streets reveal a city transformed despite economic crisis

Chaos has reigned but Athens is a gem of a city. Despite economic uncertainty and the grinding economic turmoil, Greece's capital has developed an unexpected lustre. No longer just a mandatory waypost for travellers eager for the islands, Europe's oldest city, from a traveller's point of view at least, is a knockout.

Scepticism accompanied my visit earlier this year, along with memories of the dirty, congested city I'd visited in the late 70s. The people then seemed battered from years of a harsh military regime that fell in 1974. And the city, though historically the golden birthplace of democracy and civilisation, did not feel cosmopolitan. A menu offering "Bowels in Sauce" summed up the Athens food scene and only the rustic bread hot from the morning ovens was beautiful. Back then, we hastily farewelled our expat family and took the first boat out of Piraeus.

But Athens was a destination on our 17-day APT Ancient Mediterranean cruise and so unavoidable. With news of Greece's economic woes accompanying me into Athens, I was pretty sure those bowels in sauce might now be a luxury item.

Not so. The very people whose middle name is adversity are showing their resilience. Grim world news aside – and at least there's more certainty now with the Greek parliament in October approving austerity measures to unlock international bailout money – there's a modest renaissance happening in Athens, built on the foundations of quality infrastructure and nourished by misfortune.

Despite criticism that Athens' 2004 Olympics were a crystallisation of Greek economic dysfunction, partly responsible for today's debt crisis, Olympics spending definitely modernised the city. The new metro with the latest rolling stock, ticketing systems and automated station access dramatically improved the city's gridlocked transport system – a 90-minute cross-city trip now takes six minutes.

And though there are white elephant stadiums, there are also new roads and airport, a new electric tram network, and updated telecommunications and power networks. The increasingly pedestrianised city centre has alleviated Athens's notorious pollution, while districts like Gazi and Psyrri, once overrun with cars, have gentrified, filling with trendy hotels, bars, cafes and restaurants.

So, as a visitor, what makes Athens so appealing? Beauty for starters. From the moment you arrive at the pleasing airport and are whisked on excellent roads into the low-rise city nestled in its surrounding hills (for nothing is allowed to dominate that pinnacle of democracy, the Acropolis) Athens displays itself.

Of course there are the beautiful archaeological sites layered with history and antiquities, combined with the gelato-coloured neoclassical buildings of Plaka, Athens' oldest residential quarter, whose cobbled streets ramble up towards the Acropolis.

But now, streetscapes have improved with simple additions like the plantings of citrus and Judas trees – in late spring they provide a palette of purple flowers and orange tangerines – though officials have been known to collect low-hanging fruit for fear they will be used as missiles against politicians.

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And the city's artistic and cultural revolution includes street art – the most prolific of any European city – from the rainbow stairs in Pangrati and Kolonaki, to the imaginative transformations of bus shelters and buildings.

Then there's amenity – the metro, tram system and Attica tramline to the southern beach suburbs are a success and while traffic is still pretty intense, you can quickly escape into pedestrian areas.

In a charming nod to antiquity, six metro stations also serve as miniature museums showcasing Greek art and artefacts as well as original 19th-century architecture.

Building the metro became a large-scale archaeological dig with more than 5000 ancient articles revealed from 4th-century BC amphorae, cups, plates to early Christian mosaics to marble gravestones and, in the lovely Syntagma Station, a reclining skeleton in his excavated grave.

Finances willing, the Onassis Foundation's "Re-Think Athens" project aims to transform Athens' centre, from Amalias Avenue and Syntagma Square to Omonoia Square and the Archaeological Museum. New squares, green spaces, eco-friendly means of transport and rejuvenated buildings will reverse social and financial decline and revitalise working class areas.

Aristotle's Lyceum, unearthed by archaeologists and considered the forerunner of the modern university, opened last year centrally. Renzo Piano's Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre housing an opera house, national library and park will open early 2016. And the old airport is slated for a giant park.

Infrastructure aside (the Greek saying, "And who will pay for the marble?" sounds an ominous warning) it's the Athenians driving their city's phoenix-like ascent. Tourism remains Greece's star industry and Australians are doing their bit – 183,000 of us visited last year, a 41.8 per cent increase on 2013.

It's true that unemployment is high, especially among young Athenians but there's a resurgent entrepreneurial spirit. Naturally, visitors still want to walk up the (slippery) sacred rock of the Acropolis, see the Parthenon, Erechtheion and Temple of Athena Nike, visit the unmissable New Acropolis Museum, the Roman Agora and Ancient Agora, Hadrian's Arch, Temple of Zeus and Library. But Athens has always had another layer, now burgeoning – a vibrant contemporary world often driven by young people motivated by their straitened circumstances. There are trendy, affordable, authentic design outlets like Forget Me Not and B38, new-look museums (Greek Gastronomy Museum), amazing restaurants (the Michelin-starred Funky Gourmet), hotspot bars (Six Dogs, A is for Athens, TAF) offbeat walking tours (Alternative Athens) and interesting concepts like Romantso, an incubator for young artists.

Its people are the heart of a city and an important reason why tourists are increasingly visiting. Athens' population is 5.5 million, more than half of Greece's 11 million and, again from a visitor's perspective, they are gentle and friendly, though understandably weary.

There's pride and awareness of Athens' special place. Meaning is everywhere – the acanthus plantings reference the traditional design on Corinthian columns, the Byzantine church dome and cross suggest: "Our world is obscure; light is above".

We experience Athenian hospitality wherever we turn, from charming baristas to street vendors with complimentary offerings of koulouri. How do they manage under such circumstances? Athens APT tour co-ordinator Justin Kiousis, a Greek-Australian passionate about his city, hears we want to eat some traditional food. He enthusiastically recommends his friend Stavros' Liondi restaurant. It's deep in tourist heartland beside the Acropolis Museum, a slight worry, but Stavros sweeps us up like family – TripAdvisor reviews suggest we are not alone.

Leave it to me, he says, bringing us plate after plate of his excellent home-cooked food – zucchini fritters with yoghurt, creamy, garlicky tzatziki with warm pita, a fresh herby moussaka, falling off the bone slow-cooked lamb, pastitsio. We're as stuffed as his roasted capsicum.

The food is combined with a very nice Peloponnesian red, made on Stavros' family farm in Liondi from agiorgitiko grapes. Stavros has cooked private dinners for luminaries like Jeremy Irons and it shows, though not in pretension or price – about €10 ($14) a head.

Some may say a people's level of civilisation may be measured by how they treat animals. Just an observation: Athens has pampered stray dogs! They roam around being cared for by random Athenians – even our beautiful hotel, Hotel Grande Bretagne on Syntagma Square has its elderly stray – Sweetie. She reclines well fed near the entrance, watched over lovingly by the doorman.

And of course there's a demo while we're there – a surprisingly civilised affair, with those for the issue getting their march-past, followed by those against. As each lot streams past the Parliament, big groups peel off to watch the changing of the guards before rejoining the march. It's endearing, indicative of Greek passion, as well as pride in their culture and history.

FIVE THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN IN ATHENS...

1 The Australian Government has no travel warning for Greece, advising travellers only to exercise normal safety precautions.

2 Greek banks opened again on July 20, but further banking disruptions are possible. Take extra euros both in cash and on cards. Petrol stations may not accept credit cards

3 Take enough cash for seven days. Tourists can make unlimited ATM withdrawals up to their limit but credit card processing and servicing of ATMs throughout Greece remains limited

4 If you are travelling with more cash than usual, consider travel insurance to cover theft

5 Keep up to date with developments on the Australian Government's website: see smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/Greece

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

thisisathens.org

CRUISING THERE

APT's 15-day Adriatic & Aegean Odyssey 'Boutique Collection' all-inclusive small ship coastal cruise from Venice to Istanbul (includes Athens) aboard the MS Island Sky (departures in April, July and August 2016) is priced from $13,295 per person (includes APT's Early Payment Discount). Phone 1300 196 420, see aptouring.com.au [ or see your local travel agent.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Grande Bretagne, Syntagma Square. Doubles from €340 ($497) a night. See grandebretagne.gr

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies daily from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Venice, the starting point of the cruise, via Dubai, with return flights from Istanbul, where the cruise concludes, via Dubai. See www.emirates.com

Alison Stewart was a guest of APT

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