Image: Ancient Agora in Athens
Petros Giannakouris  /  AP
The Ancient Agora in the Monastiraki district is a good pick for visitors interested in Athens' famed archaeological sites. Travelers who put Athens on their itinerary could be rewarded with bargains on everything from restaurants and hotels to souvenirs, if they are willing to step into the heart of the recession.
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updated 4/21/2011 5:05:07 PM ET 2011-04-21T21:05:07

Many tourists see Athens as a launching pad for visiting the beaches and cute whitewashed buildings of the Greek islands. And the Aegean archipelago can be a great escape, especially during the nation's current economic crisis.

But those willing to put Athens on their itinerary could be rewarded with bargains on everything from restaurants and hotels to souvenirs, if they are willing to step into the heart of the recession.

For some, the risk of strikes and protests against Greece's tough austerity measures isn't worth it, especially since many have turned violent.

For others, the risk is small in one of the world's oldest cities, which offers ancient landmarks such as the Acropolis with its 2,500-year-old marble temples.

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German tourist Dorothea Lueddeckens didn't worry about the risk of upheaval. "Probably it's more dangerous to be on a German autobahn. Protests don't suddenly come out of thin air," she said. The 44-year-old professor said she, her husband and three children also chose Greece to help a struggling country, knowing it relies heavily on tourism — which provides more than 15 percent of annual economic output.

The Greek government is reaching out to visitors, reducing sales tax on all tourism-related spending, while scrapping landing, takeoff and stopover fees at regional airports through 2011. Analysts and industry officials expect a rise in tourist revenues, after last year's 8 percent drop.

A recent British survey also found good restaurant prices at the popular resort island of Corfu. It compared the price of a three-course evening meal for two in Greece and 13 other countries, including a bottle of house wine.

The price on the northwestern island came in at 37.74 pounds ($62.50), fourth from the bottom of the list and far cheaper than cities such as Miami; Sorrento, Italy; Brittany, France; and Brighton, England.

But in Athens, tourists have to know where to look.

"Prices have dropped, and there are good offers available for hotels and restaurants," said travel agent Panayiotis Georgakarakos. "If you book in advance, you can find deals."

But he also said hoteliers are feeling the pinch. "The cost of living here has increased, it has not fallen," Georgakarakos said. "Hotel owners, too, have to make a living. As it is, we are much cheaper than Rome or London."

Hotel rooms in some downtrodden parts of central Athens cost as little as $50 (34 euros) a night, but nearby streets can provide unsettling encounters with drug addicts, dealers and prostitutes.

The inner city has recently seen rising crime, including the area near the National Archaeological Museum, a popular tourist stop that showcases Greece's glorious past — and also next to the capital's main illegal drugs market. But the picturesque areas of Plaka, Monastiraki and Thissio around the Acropolis remain pretty and generally safe, partly due to improvements made for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

'Do you see anyone around?'

Miriam Trader, 56, traveling with a group of tourists from Baltimore, Md., was impressed by that area of the capital.

Image: Tourists by the temple of Athena Nike in Athens
Petros Giannakouris  /  AP
Tourists walk by the marble temple of Athena Nike in Athens on April 18, 2011.

"The food's delicious, from the nice restaurants to the more offbeat ones. We have felt very safe," she said. As for shopping, Trader said: "They're trying to move their merchandise and are offering good prices."

Unrest in destinations such as Egypt and Tunisia is expected to increase tourism to Greece this year. But shopkeepers in Plaka, Athens' top tourist haunt, told The Associated Press they haven't seen that yet.

"We are offering discounts of up to 15 percent. The thing is that people aren't spending," said souvenir shop owner Evangelos Baltzoglou. "Do you see anyone around?"

In Athens, prices vary wildly, with coffee ranging from about a euro ($1.43) for a takeaway to five euros ($7.15) at a cafe. The Acropolis Museum restaurant has reasonably priced meals and snacks, and stays open until late in the evening, offering a closer view of the ancient citadel than any hotel rooftop.

Humbler tavernas with traditional Greek food can be found throughout the center of Athens. Ones with live music tend to charge more.

Smaller shops sell souvlaki pitta — cubes of grilled meat served with tomato, garlicky tzatziki sauce, onion and potato chips, all tightly wrapped in a grilled pancake.

More than meets the eye
The Acropolis Museum, which opened nearly two years ago, received more than 1.3 million visitors in 2010. But don't miss the more compact Benaki and Cycladic Art museums, which cover a broader scope of Greek culture.

The center of Athens is small and easily covered on foot. Bus and subway services are reliable and relatively cheap, but often overcrowded.

Visitors should know that pedestrians rank at the bottom of the pecking order on the capital's streets and pavements, whose boundaries tend to blur in the eyes of car drivers, motorcyclists and even cyclists. Crosswalks are best avoided, but even at traffic lights don't count on motorists stopping for a red light.

The center of Athens contains more parks than first meet the eye, most in a state of quasi-benevolent neglect.

Several forested hills rise above apartment blocks that edge out the few neoclassical houses left outside Plaka. Governments have failed to protect architectural heritage from development fueled by high real estate prices.

There are archaeological sites galore, on hilltops, poking out under the foundations of modern buildings. They even include a subterranean stretch of ancient city walls in the basement of an office block off central Klafthmonos Square.

The Ancient Agora, whose rambling ruins are visible from outside, through a clutter of cafe and restaurant tables in the Monastiraki district, is a good pick, with the generally overlooked Kerameikos cemetery, a 10-minute stroll away.

Monastiraki is full of junk shops with varying prices and quality. Tourists should know that anything more than 40 years old is considered an antique and accordingly priced.

Athinas Street, off Monastiraki, has fascinating hardware and kitchenware shops, while Evripidou Street, near the neoclassical main meat and fish market, is famous for its spice and food emporia.

Tourists seeking the grittier edge of Athens can walk — during daylight hours — through the (legal) red-light district of Fylis Street, a 20-minute amble from the National Archaeological Museum.

The booming sex industry has saved rows of old houses dating from the early 20th century that otherwise would have been torn down. On Wednesdays, a busy open-air fruit and vegetable market emerges between the brothels.

From open-air cinema to hiking excursions
Such architectural survivals also can be seen in the Metaxourgeio district near Monastiraki and in the more salubrious settings of Ano Petralona, a quiet area on the western slopes of the Hill of Philopappos where one can get a decent meal at a good price. Don't miss Troon Street.

The central Kolonaki and Exarcheia areas are studded with elegant 1930s apartment blocks, built in a more genteel version of the International Style with marbled entrances, ornate ironwork and porthole windows. An influx of refugees from the disastrous Greek-Turkish war of 1919-22 led to special housing projects. Some survive in Kesariani, next to the Athens InterContinental Hotel and opposite the old Panathinaikos football ground.

At night, try an open-air cinema, where you can smoke, eat and drink during the screening. Smoking is technically illegal in any indoor cafes, bars or restaurants. But few people respect the 8-month-old law, which authorities have proved incapable of enforcing.

Some wags propose marketing Greece in these tough times to smoking tourists.

On the city's fringes, splendid ancient sites such as the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio and the Sanctuary of Demeter at Elefsina are both easily reached by bus.

Despite destructive forest fires, the mountains that ring Athens make for good hiking excursions, particularly Parnitha and, a half-hour bus ride from the center, Imittos (get off at the terminus of the 224 Kaisariani line).

Another great escape: the Saronic islands — Salamina (ancient Salamis), Aegina, Poros and Hydra, between five and 90 minutes from the mainland. Several companies offer day cruises. The capital's port of Piraeus provides regular ferry service to most of the Aegean Sea islands and Crete.

Any visit to Greece could be disrupted by strikes, which have increased since last year's austerity package was imposed to secure a 110 billion-euro ($160 billion) bailout from the country's European partners and the International Monetary Fund.

But alternatives usually exist. Even during a ferry strike, many islands can be reached by costlier plane services.

Demonstrations often turn violent, with exchanges of tear gas and petrol bombs between riot police and protesters, but they are not that hard to avoid and outsiders are rarely targeted.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Glorious Greece

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  1. Pillars of worship

    Construction on the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens began in 515 B.C., and was completed 700 years later by Emperor Hadrian in 131 A.D. There were originally 104 Corinthian columns, but only 16 remain standing now. (Julian Finney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Sandy escapes

    Millions of visitors enjoy sunny days on Anthens' beaches each summer, with warm weather seeming to last longer into fall. Many beaches have a small entry fee that helps pay for keeping the beaches clean. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Stunning sight

    An Orthodox bell tower overlooks the port town of Fira on the Greek island of Santorini. With a view to one of the most stunning sunsets in the Mediterranean, Santorini is one of Greece's most popular tourist destinations. (Sakis Mitrolidis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Ancient attraction

    The Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena and perhaps the most famous surviving building from ancient Greece, sits at the top of the Acropolis and overlooks Athens. Construction on the temple began in 447 B.C. and completed in 438 B.C. Today, the temple attracts millions of visitors a year. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Taste of the city

    The Agora on Athinas Street, otherwise known as the Athens Central Market in Athens, is a great place to buy affordable, fresh food. The market is open Monday through Saturday, and everything from meat to fish to vegetables to herbs is available. (Julian Finney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The modern face

    Concrete buildings typifying Athen's urban sprawl are visible from the Acropolis. The city, which has expanded geographically throughout the 20th century, has had severe problems with urban pollution that have improved in recent years. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Holy refuge

    Monks and hermits have found refuge in the monasteries at Meteora in Athens for more than 1,000 years. The gigantic rock formations in central Greece, which still puzzle scientists as to how they came to be formed, are visited today by thousands of tourists. The Holy Meteora have been maintained and protected as a monument of humanity by UNESCO. (Milos Bicanski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A look at the past

    Visitors view the old winch system that used to bring people and supplies to the monsteries inside the Monastery of Agia Triada at Meteora. The monastery, which is perched atop a pinnacle and is accessible by taking 140 steep steps, may look familiar because it was featured in the James Bond film "For Your Eyes Only." The two monks who still reside there often show visitors around. (Milos Bicanski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Art through the ages

    Frescoes by 16th century Cretan painter Theophanes the Monk have survived over the years and can be seen inside the Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas at Meteora. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A sea of tourists

    Tourists stand before a seawater tank containing sea life of the Mediterranean Sea at the Cretaquarium in the city of Irakleion on the island of Crete in southern Greece. This tourist destination, which opened in December 2005, works as a modern-day research, educational and entertainment facility. The aquarium was developed to hold 32 tanks containing around 2,5000 organisms from 200 species. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Climbing the ranks

    The Athens Olympic Stadium was built in 1982 and hosted the European Championships in Athletics that year. The city won the honor of hosting the 2004 Summer Olympics, and after an extensive renovation on the stadium, including a roof redesign, the building reopened just in time to host the opening ceremony on Aug. 13. Today, the venue hosts everything from major sporting events to concerts. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Birthplace of the Games

    In the 8th century B.C., the first Olympic festival was organized in Olympia (tradition dates the first games to 776 B.C.). Ruins of the ancient stadium are still evident at the site, though a fire in August 2007 ravaged the area and scorched the museum that housed some of Greece's great archeaological collections. Still, the Olympic flame of the modern-day games are lit by the reflection of sunlight in a parabolic mirror at the stadium. (Petros Giannakouris / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. House of antiquities

    The statue of Sleeping Maenad, which dates back to the time of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) can be seen at the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The statue presumably adorned a luxury residence and was found to the south of the Athenian Acropolis. It is just one of the many important artifacts from various archaeological locations around the country from prehistory to late antiquity. (John Kolesidis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Supporting ladies

    Tourists admire the six caryatids of the Erechtheion temple on the Acropolis Hill in Athens. Caryatids are female figures that serve as supporting columns that hold up roofs. Renovation works to restore them were underway for 30 years and finally ended in November 2008. The entire temple was dedicated to Athena Polias and Poseidon Erechtheus when it was built between 421 B.C. and 407 B.C. The caryatids are on a porch on the north side called "Porch of the Maidens." (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Frozen in time

    The Lesvos Petrified Forest on the Greek Aegean island of Lesvos is a UNESCO heritage site. The Petrified Forest numbers around 70 trees of various sizes that are ancestors of today's pines and cypresses, and were fossilized when the area was covered in volcanic lava around 20 million years ago. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Healing waters

    Bathers relax in the waters of the hot Loutraki spring near the town of Aridea in northern Greece. Curative tourism is among a series of new products that Greek authorities want to highlight in a bid to diversify the country's usual recipe of sea and sun. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Home of the gods

    A hiker climbs Mount Olympus, the legendary home of the ancient Greek gods in central Greece. The mountain is the country's highest, standing at 9,570 feet. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rich draw

    The Hozoviotissa Monastery on the Amorgos island, built in the 11th century on the side of the Prophetes Elias Mountain at 300 meters above sea level, is reportedly dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Having for decades relied on its archaeological wealth to draw tourism, Greece now seeks to exploit an equally rich religious tradition to entice visitors from fellow Orthodox countries. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Athens, Greece
    Julian Finney / Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (18) Glorious Greece
  2. Image:
    Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP
    Slideshow (23) A European tour

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