Chic Greece

Ancient Athens adds modern touches

By: Allen Salkin

The Olympics are over, but the improvements they left behind have rendered Athens far more visitable than ever. For starters, the new rail system has slashed the previously interminable trip from the state-of-the-art airport to Syntagma Square into a quick jaunt. Likewise, the new tram system, which debuted in 2004, has brought the sparkling coastal areas of Athens and many of the new performance and athletic venues in the city within easy reach for visitors. But there’s far more changes than a few new choo-choos.

The Gasworks district is now the hot spot for nightlife, museums have been modernized and even one of the greatest tourist sites in the world, the Acropolis, has seen improvements in accessibility and to its onsite museum.

For the Olympics, two-thirds of Athens’ 70,000 hotel rooms were renovated, and 1,500 luxury rooms were added to the hotel stock. While some Athens properties tried to charge the inflated Olympics rates into this year, most prices have come back down to reasonable 2003 levels.

Although I must recommend the Hotel Grande Bretagne. A year-and-a-half renovation took the aging hotel’s 400 rooms down to 327 sharp, gorgeous rooms with overstuffed furniture and high-speed Internet access. The deluxe rooms have views of the Greek parliament and Lykabettos Hill. The furnishings are posh, but tasteful, British in the best way. The cozy and elegant hotel bar, Alexander’s, was named by as the best hotel bar in the world. A former royal palace, the property was first built in 1862 and opened as a hotel in 1874. A $100 million renovation culminated with the hotel’s reopening in March 2003. It now operates under the Starwood chain’s Luxury Collection brand.

Athens offers other lodging, including some new boutique options. In the Gasworks district, not far from the Acropolis, the five-story hotel Eridanus has views of the old city, as well as rooms with onyx baths and original paintings by a noted Greek artist.

Clients can also check into the Hilton, which reopened for the Olympics after a year-and-a-half renovation. The rooms were gutted and completely refurbished, and an indoor swimming pool is the highlight of the new spa.

As for transportation, tell clients to avoid renting a car. Driving can be fun on the islands, but not in Athens. Instead, clients should rely on the new tram and subway systems and, of course, their feet: Most of the great archeological sites and the best shopping, both ritzy and bargain, are located in the pedestrian-friendly area of central Athens, near the Monastiraki subway stop. That said, Athens’ taxis are one of the world’s great bargains. Long cross-city trips can cost less than $5, and a trip from the airport to downtown is about $15.

Aside from the new, Athens remains a showcase of the old. Clients should see the city’s museums and artworks, which span the 21st century B.C. to the 21st century A.D. In my opinion, there’s nothing more stunning than the Caryatids at the Acropolis museum. The range of Greek history into the modern age can also be seen at the Folk Art Museum and the Popular Musical Instruments Museum.

The capital of Greece has been something to see for thousands of years, and it remains so.


Hotel Grande Bretagne

Eridanus Hotel

Hilton Athens

Greek National Tourism Organization