Despite the horror headlines about the Greek economy, a visit to Athens, the birthplace of democracy, remains one of Europe's best value experiences. If you're a lover of history, culture, music and food, irrepressible Athens will sweep you off your feet. Yes, the traffic can be abominable, the crowds can be suffocating and the summer heat oppressive, but with a bit of nous and well-tuned timing, the city will linger long in your memory. Steer clear of the old girl between July and August, when she's over-heated, over-crowded and ill-tempered. The shoulder months of April/May and September/October deliver a far more soothing experience.
At the foot of the Acropolis, Plaka is the oldest continuously inhabited suburb of Athens. The atmospheric district's cobblestone lanes bustle with bars, cafes, market stalls and trinket shops. The Greeks are exceptional craftspeople, and the specialty items you can bargain for include ceramics, jewellery, carpets, wall-hangings and leather goods.
Plaka rolls into the neighbouring central city district of Monastiraki, which is also a hot-bed of market stalls and cafes.
To accentuate the Grecian experience, there is a welter of bars and restaurants touting live Greek music, and even group-dancing, if the mood should take you. Zorba the Greek and the evocative sound of the bouzouki must be sampled.
Syntagma Square is the city's official centre, and home to the Greek Parliament. At its base is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier guarded by Greek soldiers, the Evzones. In traditional military costume, with pom-pom shoes and swirling skirts, the Evzones perform a regular Changing of the Guard and marching routine, which is a de rigueur photo stop. Another sublime sight is the Ancient Agora, which was the political and commercial heart of classical Greece. The vast green space is studded with ancient ruins and beautifully restored monuments. It was the stomping ground of some very big thinkers, including Aristotle, and was the cradle of democracy.
Sporting buffs should revel in the glory of the Games. The main stadium for the 1896 Olympics is near the city centre, while the grand stadium built for the more recent affair in 2004, is easily reached on public transport. Athens' taxi drivers are notorious for extortionate tariffs and unorthodox routes. Steer clear of this racket, and enjoy the cost-effective reliability and convenience of the Athens Metro, which links the airport and the sea port of Piraeus with the city centre's key stations.
Where to stay
A great-value property in the heart of old Athens is the charming Hotel Attalos (www.attalos.gr). This three-star family-run hotel, metres from Monastiraki station, offers comfy air-conditioned rooms, fully equipped en-suite bathrooms and free Wi-Fi. Savour the roof terrace's eye-popping panoramas of the Acropolis and city.