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Map of Athens Greece neighborhoods

Athens is a big city that's a collection of many different neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive flair. Here are some of the neighborhoods that await you. If you have the time, why not just stroll, get lost, and be pleasantly surprised when you discover that you're on a street where almost all of the shops sell only icons or sugared almonds (an essential gift for guests at weddings and baptisms), or where there's a little park with a bench where you can sit and watch the world go by. Don't forget to take in the Archaeological Promenade, the walkways that stretch from Hadrian's Gate past the Acropolis on Dionissiou Areopagitou to the Ancient Agora, past Thissio and on to the Kerameikos.

Central Athens

Commercial Center - The commercial center (a bureaucratic name no one uses, and that appears on no map) lies between Omonia, Syntagma, and Monastiraki squares, and includes the Plaka and Psirri districts. Certain streets are designated pedestrian-only, but consider that many motorists and almost all motorcycle riders assume that pedestrian-only regulations do not apply to them.

Omonia Square - My grandmother always used to tell me how beautiful Omonia Square used to be; a grand plateia (square) surrounded by neoclassical buildings and couples strolling along. I never got to see that. For me, Omonia was never a destination, but a place you couldn't avoid. There wasn't anything in particular to see (except some good Acropolis views); it was gritty, grungy and not pretty, but interesting to wander through. Omonia today is in its worst shape ever. The latest redesign is a disappointment, and though the pre-Olympic cleanup got rid of the unsightly billboards, restored buildings' neoclassical facades, and paved the way for trendy hotels, the area remains gritty and attracts less desirable elements at night - it's best avoided after 9pm. The government has promised to clean up and redo the square once more, along with pedestrianizing the entire Panepistimiou Avenue. Athinas Street (or better yet, pedestrianized Aiolou - also spelled Eolou - with its charming cafes and shops) will lead you away from the grunge and into Monastiraki. For a look at grand old Athens of the 19th century, check out the beautifully restored Kotzia Square with its grand neoclassical buildings including the Athens City Hall designed in 1874 and the National Bank of Greece Cultural Center. In the middle of the square a large portion of an ancient road has been uncovered, and can be seen in a fenced-off area where several ancient tombs and small buildings are also visible. The square is even more beautiful at night when it is dramatically lit, so be sure to include it in an evening stroll. The area near the Athens Stock Exchange is now home to an Asian quarter and several Bangladeshi shops.

Athinas Street - This street links Omonia and Monastiraki squares, and has Athens's Central Market. Here you can browse fish and meat halls, buy vegetables and fruit from all over Greece, sample cheeses from distant islands - or buy a pair of shoes or sunglasses from a street vendor. Across from the markets, formerly bleak Varvakeios Square is now landscaped, has several cafes, and offers an opportunity to take a break from the frenzy of the market. Another nearby square, Klaftmonos has been redesigned and from it you can see the Neoclassical University Trilogy - another glimpse at grand and elegant 19th-century Athens.

Syntagma (Constitution) Square - The heart of Athens - Syntagma Square is the focal point of the city's political and civic life, from protest rallies to New Year's celebrations. This is also where you'll find the major banks, travel agencies, and several fine hotels, including the Grande Bretagne, the grande dame of Greek hotels. If you are not staying here, take a peek at the magnificent Beaux Arts lobby, head into the Alexander bar for a drink (dress smartly), and take in the old-world elegance and glamour. The excellent GB restaurant on the terrace has some of the most stunning views of the city, but to enjoy the sweeping view and tempting menu you will need a reservation and lots of money. You might want to reserve a seat at the terrace bar (if it's early enough) and enjoy the view over a drink.

The central post office is at the corner of Mitropoleos. For years, the sidewalk cafes here were popular places to spend time, but with the proliferation of the fast-food joints that attract younger Athenians and bands of student travelers, you may not want to linger. That said, beautifully restored Syntagma Square, the in front of the Syntagma Metro, with two cafes across from one another, is a convenient meeting point. This square is even more beautiful at night when it is brilliantly lit.

Syntagma is the home of much of governmental Athens: The handsome neoclassical building at the head of the square is the Greek Parliament building, formerly the Royal Palace. The most impressive thing about this grand building is its stone and how it changes color throughout the day: from off-white to gold to a light blush mauve before it is lit dramatically at night. During the day this is where you'll see the Changing of the Guard several times a day and may hear a band playing on Sunday around 11am. The soldiers who march in front of the Parliament building and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier often wear the evzone uniform (frilly white skirts and pom-pommed red shoes) of their ancestors who fought to gain Greece's freedom during the War of Independence (1821-28). (Be sure to spend some time in the National and Zappeion Gardens adjacent to the Parliament.) Tucked away off Stadiou Street, across the street from the National Historical Museum, you will find a cobblestone oasis known as Karitsi Square with some of downtown's funkiest eateries, galleries and multipurpose cafe/bars spilling over onto Kolokotroni Street. This is where Athens' indie heart beats. South of Syntagma Square, Monastiraki Square and the Plaka area are Athens's two main tourist destinations.

Plaka - Right below the Acropolis, Plaka is the most tourist-heavy neighborhood in the city. Its maze of narrow medieval streets twist their way through ancient sites, Byzantine churches, offbeat museums, and 19th-century homes. Restaurants and cafes line many streets of this pedestrian neighborhood that is rich in history and character and is atmospheric, romantic, and nostalgia inducing. Feel free to lose yourself in the labyrinthine streets. Maybe you will find the tiny village within a village of Anafiotika, a Cycladic town at the base of the Acropolis.

Monastiraki - This neighborhood fringes the Agora and the Roman Forum, and the flea markets are open every day but are usually best - and most crowded - on Sunday. Many tavernas, cafes, and shops line the streets, but my favorite street by far is Adrianou, the street that links Monastiraki to beautifully restored Thissio, with restored houses as restaurants and cafes on one side and the Agora on the other - and Acropolis views as well.

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