Travel: Exploring the ancient world of Athens

What country in Europe has sparkling new museums, abundant winter sunshine and amazing value? The last category knocks heavyweights France and Italy out of the ring, but leaves plenty of room for—yes!— Greece. The cradle of Western civilization may be getting a bad rap for its financial woes these days, but somehow it will pull through, just as it has been doing for centuries. 

In the meantime, Greece is a bargain to explore relative to other, pricier European destinations. Starting with hotels—my personal favorite, part of the Yes! Hotels group, is the 79-room New Hotel, a perfect boutique hotel ideally situated on the edge of the famous Plaka district, between the Acropolis and Athens’ busy commercial center. Right now you can get a luxurious guestroom here for about $150 a night (www.yeshotels.gr) and that includes a gourmet breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, New Taste: so good that finicky Athenians frequent it too. Have yourself a bowl of real Greek yogurt—the antithesis of store-bought—and top it with fresh fruit and honey, or go for something warm like a perfect omelette with mild Greek cheese, or a Greek pastry fresh from the oven. The service accompanying everything, like elsewhere in the hotel, is so charming and solicitous you’ll wonder how we let standards fall so far back home. 

The best of the city’s historic and cultural offerings are within walking distance of the boutique hotel, starting with the Acropolis, that ancient citadel built atop a rocky hill overlooking Athens. Before walking up to the summit to inspect iconic ruins such as the Parthenon, which has impressed the world with its simple yet powerful beauty since 438 B.C., spend some quality time in the Acropolis Museum. Not to be confused with the older National Archaeological Museum, this museum showcases masterpieces of ancient Greek civilization and art, including sculptures, friezes and figurines, all taken from the ruins of the Acropolis. 

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As iconic as the Acropolis is, make time to explore the ancient Agora—the downtown of ancient Athens—where among myriad fascinating ruins there are two standout attractions. The first is the Temple of Hephaestus, a beautiful structure said to be the best-preserved temple from the ancient Greek world. At the opposite end of the Agora is the freshly renovated Museum of the Stoa of Attalos. Housed in a two-story 2nd century B.C. structure reminiscent of the J. Paul Getty Museum, the museum features artfully placed ancient statues that gaze out across the Agora, its swaying olive trees and crumbling monuments reminders pointing to a more enlightened age than our own. 

As one of the great cities of the Mediterranean, Athens has cultural treasures of all stripes. In the Plaka you’ll find not just more souvenir peddlers than you could shake a souvlaki at, but also two fine mini-museums. The first of these is the Bath-house of the Winds. The last remaining public bath house in Athens dates to the first period of Turkish rule (1453-1669), and is located near the Roman agora. Active up until the mid-19th century, it now houses a museum devoted to the theme of cleanliness and beauty care. Nearby is another unusual museum that is less quirky but more significant: The Jewish Museum of Greece. If you didn’t know that Greece had a Jewish history too, you can thank Hitler’s Germany, which was responsible for wiping out 87 percent of Greece’s population of 65,000 Jews during the Nazi’s occupation of Greece in the Second World War. Many of the Jews were part of the ancient Romaniote community. 

Two other essential stops on the Athenian cultural trail are the Numismatic Museum, which showcases rare ancient coins in the sublime setting of legendary archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s Athens mansion–just a coin’s toss from the New Hotel, incidentally–and the exquisite Museum of Cycladic Art (www.cycladic. gr). The latter is located in the posh Kolonaki neighborhood, opposite Syntagma Square and the Greek Parliament building. The museum’s permanent exhibition on the daily life of the ancient Athenians is enlightening, pairing ancient artifacts with modern video interpretations. Meanwhile the collection—which also includes ancient vases, jewelry, figurines and statuary, is as intoxicating as a good Greek wine…but file that under Athens by night. The city shines then too. 

If you go: Fly to Athens using Aegean Airlines (www.aegeanairlines.com) from most major European gateways. The airline, voted one of Europe’s best, is also a mileage partner with Yes! Hotels (join the Aegean Miles & Bonus Club before check-in to earn points). 

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