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Last updated : Nov 2009
Athens Travel Guide
Athens Travel Guide and Athens Travel Information - TravelPuppy.com
Athens (Athina) named after Athena-the goddess of wisdom, who, according to legend, won the city after defeating Poseidon in a duel. The goddess’ triumph was celebrated by the construction of a temple on the Acropolis, the site of the city’s earliest settlement in Attica.

As a city state, the coastal capital of Athens reached its glory days in the fifth century BC. The office of the statesman, Pericles, between 461BC and his death in 429BC, saw an extraordinary spate of construction resulting in many of the great classical buildings (the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Hephaisteion and the temple at Sounion) now regarded as icons of ancient Greece.

Physical evidence of the city’s success was matched by accomplishments in the intellectual arts. Democracy was born, drama prospered and Socrates conceived the foundations of Western philosophy. Amazingly, although the cultural legacy of this period has influenced Western civilisation ever since, the classical age in Athens only lasted for five decades. Under the Macedonians and Romans, the city retained a privileged political and cultural position but became a prestigious backwater of the Empire rather than a major player. The birth of Christianity heralded a long period of occupation and decline, concluding in 1456 and four centuries of Turkish domination, which has left a permanent cultural mark on the city. By the end of the 18th century, Athens was suffering the indignity of having the artistic achievements of its classical past removed by prowling collectors.

Modern Athens was born in 1834, when the city was reinstated as the capital of a newly independent Greece. Greek refugees flooded the city at the end of the Greek–Turkish war, increasing the population. After World War II, American capital funded a massive expansion and industrialisation programme. The speedy growth of the post-war years and the high temperatures of its Mediterranean climate have created a city that can often be polluted and could be described as an urban sprawl. Too much traffic creates a gridlock on the streets and noxious fumes (néfos) in the air, although great efforts are being made to reduce this. Visitors with visions of shiny marble and philosophers in white robes are understandably troubled that the architectural achievements of Athens’ classical past are surrounded by the unforgiving concrete of indiscriminate 20th-century urbanisation. Over 3 million visitors come to the city each year but the majority sees the sights as quickly as possible (as if fulfilling some cultural duty) before heading off for the easy hedonism of the Greek islands.

However, Athens repays a closer acquaintance. In addition to the celebrated classical sites, the city boasts Byzantine, medieval and 19th-century monuments, as well as one of the finest museums in the world and areas of surprising natural beauty. In spite of the traffic, an appealing village-like quality becomes evident in the cafés, taverns, markets and the maze of streets around the Pláka. Furthermore, Athens has the most excellent restaurants and the most varied nightlife in the country and remains a major European centre of culture, celebrated each year at the Athens Festival. The metropolitan area, including the port at Piraeus, is beyond doubt the industrial and economic powerhouse of the country, while the return of the Olympic Games in 2004 is prompting a flurry of new development. Major projects include the new Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport, the building of new sports venues, the extension of the Athens metro system, the upgrading of hotel accommodation and the revitalisation of the Piraeus port area. The world-famous National Archaeological Museum, which was closed for renovation through 2003, is due to reopen for the Olympics, although the long-awaited New Acropolis Museum has fallen way behind schedule. In addition, ancient sites within the city centre are being linked by a traffic-free ‘archaeological promenade’ intended to improve the urban environment for locals and visitors alike.