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8 great things to do in Athens

Chicago Tribune Reporter

Few experiences in life are as moving as ascending the Acropolis of Athens and coming face-to-face with the Parthenon. Despite the climb, the Mediterranean heat, the crowds and the polyglot of tour guides holding forth, to stand here is to step out of the present and marvel at the past, at the generation who conceived and executed proportions so graceful that not even the exoskeleton of scaffolding -- they've been restoring the site for decades -- detracts from its beauty.

Here, too, on the Acropolis, is the almost-as-famous Porch of the Maidens, where caryatids, or columns fashioned as women, support the roof.

It's inconceivable to visit Athens and not come to the Acropolis. And it should be everyone's first stop. But after the Acropolis, then what? Here's what we found.

1. Breakfast with a view

If there's anything in this world worth getting up early for, it's having coffee and rolls with the Acropolis for company. To do this, book a room at a hotel that serves breakfast on its rooftop terrace. At most hotels in Greece, breakfast is already paid for, included in the room rate. And many rooftops in Athens have Acropolis views. One of the closest is at the three-star Adrian Hotel, 74 Adrianou St. The Adrian stands only a few narrow lanes from the base of the Acropolis in the Plaka district, beloved by tourists and locals alike for its vibrant nightlife, sidewalk cafes and gift shops crowded with handicrafts.

2. Socrates behind bars

Tradition dictates that one of these three recesses at the base of Filopapu Hill served as Socrates' jail cell. The bars are a modern addition. While no one can say for certain that the 5th cntury B.C. philosopher was actually imprisoned and drank his death-sentence poison in this spot, that's how it's identified on maps, and the location makes it the likeliest candidate. What they can say for sure is that these caves definitely were used as a hiding place for artifacts from the National Archeological Museum during World War II. Only a 10-minute walk from the noisy, crowded Acropolis, the Prison of Socrates is so off the beaten track that you may be its only visitor, and so quiet that with propitious timing you can hear the Orthodox chant wafting from the nearby church of Avios Demetrios Loubardiarris.

3. Talking point

In the 1st century, Mars Hill became pivotal to the Christian faith when the Apostle Paul addressed a pagan assembly with his temple-to-an-unknown-god speech, found in Acts 17:22-31. The assembly, the Areopagus, was a sort of intellectual town council that gave its name to this spot and to the building in which it met. Areopagus in Greek translates to Mars Hill in English. Even though the building vanished long ago and the rock outcropping itself has been reduced by earthquakes, the view from the building's two-story summit is one of the most gratifying in Athens. The panorama takes in the entire ancient city from the dainty Temple of Athena Nike atop the Acropolis, back across the Ancient Agora, all the way to the well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus at the far end. Mars Hill sits at the western entrance to the Acropolis, and there's no admission fee.

4. Curb your appetite

Athens stands at the culinary crossroads of Mediterranean cuisines. That, combined with the city's sunny climate, makes outdoor dining irresistible, even if all you order is the ubiquitous frappe, a frothy iced coffee served in a tall glass with a straw. Frappes sell for about $6 at cafes bordering the Ancient Agora along Apostle Paul and Adrianou streets, on the pedestrian-only portion of Mitropoleos Street in Plaka, at the foot of Mt. Lycabettus in the Kolonaki neighborhood, and in the side streets north of Omonia Square. Naturally, these are also the best places to scout for lunch or dinner.

5. Temple of a lesser god

In the 5th century B.C., Pericles had a grand vision for rebuilding an Athens ruined by the Persian wars. Its star attraction would be the Parthenon, but not its only one. Across the Ancient Agora from the Acropolis would rise the smaller Temple of Hephaestus, the misshapen demigod of forges and metallurgy who is credited with making armor for Achilles, a staff for Agamemnon and the winged helmet for Hermes. For all Hephaestus' hideousness, the Athenians nevertheless built him this beautiful temple of Pentellic marble, the same glinting white material the Parthenon is made of. And, because it later saw service as a church from the 7th to the 19th centuries, it's in an admirable state of preservation today. Access is through either gate to the Ancient Agora. Admission is included in the $22 Acropolis ticket or separately in the $6 Agora ticket.

6. In step with the guard

The changing of the Evzone Guard goes off like a glockenspiel every hour in front of the Parliament Building, directly across from Sindagma Square. Three fresh troops march along the sidewalk to replace those at their post. Wearing their traditional pleated white shirts, or fustanellas, and heavily embroidered jackets, they attract throngs of paparazzi-tourists in such numbers that it can be hard to get a good look at them. But this is not the real show. The real show comes at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays when an entire cadre of soldiers led by a brass band makes its stylized march from the camp at the intersection of Iroudou Atikou and Vassilissis Sofias streets. Families of the soldiers know that this corner is the best place for unobstructed viewing. The troops proceed down Vassilissis Sofias to Amalias, where they turn onto the Parliament Building grounds. It's the greatest free show in town.

7. Roof of the city

There's only one place on Earth from which you can look down on the Acropolis, and that's the summit of Mt. Lycabettus. Getting there starts with a climb up through the Kolonaki, a neighborhood much like parts of San Francisco where the streets are so steep they become stairways. When you've gone as far as you can by sidewalk, you can either hike for free the rest of the way by footpath or take the $4 funicular ride. Up top, reward yourself with a $3 cup of tea at the summit cafe and leave a donation in the tiny chapel of St. George Lycabettus.

8. Sculpture on parade

Art lovers can easily lose themselves for half a day among the wonders in the National Archeological Museum of Athens. An entire gallery is devoted to the shockingly modern, minimalist Cycladic sculptures. Other halls are dominated by heroic bronze figures such as the Poseidon of Cape Artemision. Black and red pottery, signet rings, farm implements, drinking vessels and fresco fragments from across the centuries are displayed here. But perhaps the most controversial and riveting item is the golden Mask of Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae who joined King Menelaus and warrior Achilles in the battle against Troy. Detractors say the mask is a fake, or at the very least that of a king other than Agamemnon. Proponents aren't giving any ground. For the $12 admission fee you can decide for yourself.

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