When asked about visiting Athens, my stock advice is to go, see the old stones and, unless you have local friends to show you where it's really at, get the hell out to a more pleasant part of the country. Still, if there's one part of the city you ought to see it's conveniently located right next to most of the aforementioned old stones.

The area called the Plaka is not only conveniently and centrally located but is the oldest part of the city of Athens. It's right in the middle of town, on the north and north-east slopes of the city's Acropolis, skirting the higher reaches of the hill. Nobody knows how long it's been inhabited since it's impossible to dig deep enough, assuming space to dig is found, without uncovering something of more recent archaeological significance before getting to the layers representing prehistoric times. In classical Athens it was probably a mostly residential quarter since most of the famous monuments of ancient public life are found to the east and south of the Acropolis.

Getting there is easy and you can approach the Plaka from the east, north and west. The subway station of Monastiraki (green/blue lines) will leave you at the north edge. If you want to hit the flea market first, the Thision station (green line) to the west will do fine and you'll backtrack to Monastiraki. A multitude of public transport lines pass to the east and north-east of the Acropolis too and you can get there by walking five to ten minutes through the city's commercial centre. Since the Plaka is a pedestrian zone taking a taxi will generally get you no closer than a bus would.

Although I used to live on the north side of town, my favourite approach is the less travelled one from the east side of the Acropolis, across the road from Hadrian's Arch. I found bypassing downtown traffic by walking the length of the Plaka to the Monastiraki station much more relaxing than sitting in a gridlocked bus. If you're travelling across town from the south or south-east to the north and have the time I highly recommend it.

Vehicles are banned in all but a few main streets and are severely restricted when they are allowed in so it's essentially a pedestrian zone. By Athenian standards (this is a city which is extremely unfriendly to the disabled) it's relatively accessible and navigable despite the odd steep incline, though getting in and out of it will pose a problem for wheelchairs. Vehicle bans aside, watch out for the indigenous breed of kamikazi motor scooter drivers to whom restrictions mean nothing.

Most businesses, both traditional and tourist-oriented are on two main thoroughfares that run roughly parallel to each other and eventually merge, Adrianou St. and Kydathinaion St. This part of town, by the way, is mostly a daytime destination. Most interesting, traditional places are closed by six o'clock at the latest (four o'clock is more likely) and it's almost deserted by evening save for a few casual strollers and tourist traps out to make a buck from stragglers. Unless you know where you're going or have a sixth sense for locating the few places where things are still happening I wouldn't bother with it after dark. Some small museums are located here too but, to be honest, I have not visited any of them--how typical for a resident.

When things are open it's not a noisy mad-house like the city centre or the flea market. Its atmosphere tends to be more subdued and dignified. Apart from small businesses you'll also find the odd street hawker selling knick-knacks, silver jewelry, beadwork or "your name engraved on a grain of rice" as well as street musicians ranging from classical violin players to organ grinders. Regarding these street musicians, keep some change in your pocket. Many of them are Eastern Europeans with classical training who had a career before economic hardship drove them to Greece and are damn fine musicians well deserving of your spare change.

There are a few places which I really liked visiting as a destination. One is a small "ouzerie" called Platanos where you can have a drink and a snack at reasonable prices and is quite popular with the locals. It's on a secluded cul-de-sac near the livelier northern end and uphill. I could lead you there but admit I can't give directions. Ask, everyone knows it... I just hope it's still there since many of the traditional places are finding it hard to stay in business. There's also the oldest distillery in town which you can find by looking for the Brettos liquor store (this is the place to shop for real, quality ouzo) and an open-air cinema called the Cine Paris with a view of the Acropolis as well as the screen.

The part I actually loved most in the middle of the night, when nothing else was going on, is the area of the Plaka called Anafiotika. This is nestled on a steep slope hugging the northern cliff of the Acropolis and is the only part of Athens built to traditional Cycladic specifications. It's been there since the 1830s when builders from the island of Anafi were hired to work in the old Athens which had just become the capital of the new Greek state. At night it's virtually unlit and you navigate more by touch than by sight. It's built on so steep an incline that you may well find yourself walking on someone's roof if you stray off the narrow paths. In summer it's quite delightful when the people, many of them descendants of the original builders, put fragrant flowers out in improvised pots made from 17 liter steel olive oil tins and the din of the city fades to a remote buzz.

For further reading I recommend http://www.athensguide.com/ which I, as a former local, can confirm contains real and helpful information. So maybe my stock reply for the casual visitor needs revising: get there, see the old stones, visit the Plaka and then get the hell out.

Written for the E2 Tourist Guide Quest

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