OK. Now this may sound like quite the strangest idea for Christmas vacation but I am sure I can change your mind in a few seconds. Or at least I can try to.
I know that Athens, in the traveller’s mind, is not connected with Christmas trees, snowmen and Rodolf’s noses but the Greek capital has so much more to offer for the Xmas traveller: Great food, lots of art, beautiful people, world-famous bar scene, truly affordable prices and (highlight) the mildest Christmas weather in Europe.
First of all, there ARE in fact, many Christmas-y festivities for everybody. The central streets are beautifully decorated, a huge tree stands in the Syntagma Square, the Citylink Galleria is a Christmas heaven and every shopping mall has something for the hungry eye. There is a world-class opera house (presenting Puccini's "La Boheme" and Tsaikofsky's "Nutcracker" ballet), dozens of musical suggestions for every taste, a small Christmas village at the National Garden and even a "Disney on ice" show at the Badminton Theater. So the Christmas spirit won't abandon the Athens visitors, if this is a concern to you. Now, let's see what else you can do in this exciting city (besides a session of intensive bar-hopping which actually goes without saying):
Art in Athens: Every sightseeing route in this city starts from the Acropolis Hill (the Athenians call it the Rock) and the magnificent buildings that dominate the Athens skyline for 2500 years; the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Propylaea and the rest of the antiquities on and around the hill. For the lazy ones it is quite a steep ascension but it is more than worth it. Next stop is the new amazing Acropolis Museum which houses the Parthenon marbles not looted by Lord Elgin and several artefacts found on the area. The sculptures from the Archaic Temple (prior to the Parthenon) are breath-taking.
The Archaeological museum is another must-visit museum. Although it is sometimes overshadowed by the brand new Acropolis museum, the less-modern building on Patision Street is the essence of Ancient Greek Art and one of the most important archaeological museums in the world. Don’t forget to visit the Santorini murals on the second floor.
The Cycladic and the Byzantine museums, both situated at the Kolonaki area, are two more world-class institutions that you might want to visit. They are both exquisite and also really close to the Syntagma Square.
The must-see art event of the season is the El Greco tribute at two of the buildings of the Benaki Museum, on the occasion of the 250 years since the painter’s death. The «Domenikos Theotokopoulos between Venice and Rome» (Pireos Street Annexe) which investigates El Greco’s first steps in the West, during his stay in Venice and through the early stages of his residence in Rome (1567-1574) and the « Friends and Patrons of El Greco in Toledo» with important archival material from Toledo and Madrid, manuscripts and books as well as four portraits of El Greco from the collections of the Museo del Prado, the Museo del Greco in Toledo and from a private collection in London.
And this is just the pre-modern era art: for contemporary choices Athens has a thriving art-gallery scene with everything an art-lover can ask. Check out the current exhibitions on view at cityartnow.
Accomodation: Hotel Grande Bretagne is undeniably the best hotel in the centre of Athens, situated right on top of the Syntagma Square. It is a bit pricey (rooms start from 235 euros) but it is a great value-for money choice which can make you feel like a king. This is a luxury and historic hotel with elegance written on every single corner of it. Some rooms have an excellent Acropolis view. The biggest shopping store of Central Athens is almost adjucent to the hotel. An alternative but also worth-it choice is the Live in Athens apartments (from 94 euros for 2 or 4 persons) scattered in various buildings in the heart of the ancient city of Athens; some really close to Acropolis. They are beautifully decorated, relaxed and comfortable.
Moving around: Athens is in fact a vast city but the centre is rather small and everything a visitor might want to see is in walking distance. The strolls around the Acropolis Hill, in the Plaka and Thysseion districts are an essential part of the Athens experience. The metro system has only 3 lines but its brand new, modern, shiny and cheap and it can get you everywhere in minutes. For your (obligatory) late-night outs you can get a taxi; it’s easy to find and costs next to nothing (compared with the rest of Europe) especially when you share. On arrival or departure use the metro or the airport bus, both from Syntagma Square (yes, this is a name you have to memorize). They are both fast (about 45 min) and cost 5 euros per person.
Christmas highlight: The mild weather is perfect for those who don’t really have a fixation with below zero temperatures. I mean, it is still a cold winter but it can also be sunny at times and you can enjoy outdoors activities NOT wearing the whole of your suitcase’s contents.
Food: Although Athens has several top restaurants serving international / ethnic cuisine; it is practically a crime not to experience the most of the Greek traditional cooking. If you want to try souvlaki from the many small souvlaki & pitta places in the centre, do so but keep in mind that this is NOT the food that Greek people eat in every-day basis at their homes. There are dozens of tasty choices in the Greek culinary world. Don’t be afraid to try everything you can. Especially anything that involves vegetables and a casserole. You’ll be more than satisfied. You’ll be a fan. (Note for the hardcore Westerners: Yes, there are McDonalds, Pizza Huts, TGI Friday’s, even a Hard Rock Café if you want to stick to the international flavors)
Travelling with children: There are several activities in most big museums that can keep younger visitors occupied and educated. The Acropolis museum can give you a family backpack which contains everything your kids need in order to paint miniature replicas of ancient statues (or additionally your clothes, face and the floor) in bright colours. There is an excellent Egyptian art section at the Arcaeological Museum that kids love; it contains mummies and all!
When walking in the city you might want to pay extra attention when crossing heavy traffic roads. It is not advisable to ignore the red walking light; Greek drivers tend to be impatient and fast. As for food, the kids usually love playful recipes such as souvlaki, mousaka or pastichio (oven baked pasta with mincemeat and bechamel sauce).
For more travel and art tips you can revisit cityartnow as this article will be updated regularly.