"Athenians may not know how to drive," a Greek friend said as she evaded a motorcycle speeding toward her on a sidewalk packed with parked cars, "but they sure know how to park." Almost a third of Greece's 10 million residents live in greater Athens; it doesn't help that right now many of the streets, sidewalks, and squares in the city center are topsy-turvy because of the ongoing construction of the Metro, slated to be finished in time for the 2004 Olympic Games, which Greece wants to host.
So it's now best to bypass the congested downtown and explore the fashionable Kolonaki district on the slopes of Mount Lycabettus, the twisting paths of the Anafiotika area of the Plaka, the butchers' and fishmongers' stalls and fruit and vegetable stands of the Central Market on Athinas Street, and the leafy paths of the National Gardens.
Of course, you must see the Acropolis. To avoid the crowds, arrive when it opens at 8 a.m. Afterward, take in one of Athens's best-kept secrets: its superb small museums (the Byzantine Museum, the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic and Ancient Greek Art, the Benaki Museum). To find out what's going on in art galleries and at the handsome concert hall, the Megaron, pick up copies of the daily Athens News, the weekly Hellenic Times, and the monthly Athenian. And if you do get gridlocked, well, it's nothing new. To build the Parthenon, teams of mules dragged carts laden with 12-ton blocks of marble; when an axle broke, traffic would stop for several days until the damage was repaired.
Ouzo with Style To Kafeneio 26 Loukianou St.; 30-1/722-9056; snack and ouzo for two $20, lunch or dinner for two $50. (Service is included, but it's customary to leave a 10 percent tip.) Since it's in Kolonaki and the tablecloths are pink, this is not your father's kafeneion (café). The crowd: ladies who lunch, staff from nearby embassies, elderly gentlemen who nurse an ouzo all afternoon and take in the passing scene. There's a wide selection of mezes, including a zesty onion pie, but save room for the artichokes à la políta casserole or the leeks with crème fraîche.
Trendy Traditional Kalliste 137 Asklepiou St.; 30-1/645-3179; lunch or dinner for two $70. In a beautifully restored 19th-century house with handsome ornamental plaster ceilings, Kalliste is simultaneously cozy and elegant. The menu lists inventive specialties such as red-lentil soup with pomegranate, chicken with hazelnuts and celery purée, and pork seasoned with coriander and sesame. Even the crème caramel is made distinctive by the addition of rose liqueur.
Ultimate Taverna Fare Vlassis 8 Paster St. (off Plateia Mavili); 30-1/646-3060; dinner for two $40. Vlassis is so popular it doesn't even bother with a sign; you'll find it in a well-lit building, up a short flight of steps on the right as you head onto Paster Street. The menu is classic taverna food, but eggplant salad has never tasted so good, lamb with egg-lemon sauce has never been so tender. Reservations a must.
Best People Watching Vitrina 7 Navarchou Apostoli St.; 30-1/321-1200; dinner for two $80. If it's possible to be ostentatiously understated, Vitrina is just that: the walls are pale gold, and the waiters' silver-gray slacks and shirts exactly match the tables and chairs. While waiting for their rabbit croquettes, salad with arugula and pine nuts, and shrimp in Muscatel and lavender sauce, diners toy with cellular phones over wines from Vitrina's serious cellar.
Hillary Ate Here Daphne's 4 Lyssikratous St.; 30-1/322-7971; dinner for two $100. Nouvelle Greek cuisine, earthy and sophisticated crowd, post-Neoclassical Pompeiian muralsthis popular Plaka restaurant is known for service and ambience.
Garlic Heaven Bakaliarakia 41 Kydathineon St.; 30-1/322-5084; dinner for two $25. This Plaka favorite is in a basement with wine barrels, skeins of garlic, and its very own ancient column. Tourists make up the early crowd, but after 9:30 p.m. Athenians arrive to dig into crisp fried cod and eggplant in garlic sauce, along with the pungent house retsina, just as their ancestors did when Bakaliarakia opened in 1865.
Sound of Music Xynos 4 Agelou Geronta St.; 30-1/322-1065; dinner for two $40. Strolling musicians make this Plaka taverna popular with tourists; at 10 p.m. Athenians take over.
Clothes and Shoes Kolonaki district Athenians take their fashion seriously (they're especially obsessed with shoes), as you'll see if you window-shop along Kanari, Patriarchou Ioakeim, and pedestrianized Milioni and Tsakalof Streets. To blend in, wear the thick-soled boots that the young and with-it currently find indispensable for assaults on Kolonaki's cafés and boutiques.
Souvenir Stop Center of Hellenic Tradition 36 Pandrossou St.; 30-1/321-3842. Old and new posters and paintings, ceramics and icons, weavings and woodcarvings, worry beads and sheep bellsall in a handsomely restored house. The café has a view of the Acropolis.
Woven or Stitched Hellenic Folk-Art Gallery (National Welfare Organization) 6 Ipatias St., 30-1/324-0017; and 135 Vassilissis Sophias Ave., 30-1/646-0603. Chic Athenians buy wedding presents in this gallery piled with exquisite handmade carpets, kilims, tapestries, and embroidered tablecloths woven by village women throughout Greece.
Oldest Antiques Antiqua 2-4 Amalias Ave.; 30-1/323-2220. Try to save room in your suitcase for a first edition, watercolor, print, string of amber beads, or silver sword from one of Athens's oldest antiques galleries. You can ogle the icons and ancient coins, but remember: you need a license (virtually impossible to obtain) to take any classical antiquities and most icons out of the country.
Beads, Bangles Ilias Lalaounis 6 Panepistimiou Ave.; 30-1/361-1371. If you're tempted by the Mycenaean jewelry in the National Archaeological Museum, head for Ilias Lalaounis, which sells superb copies of ancient and Byzantine jewelry as well as original creations. You can watch some of these being made at the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum, on the corner of Karyatidon and Kallisperi streets near the Acropolis.
And Baubles Zolotas 10 Panepistimiou St.; 30-1/361-3782. Lalaounis's main competitor is just steps away. If you're tempted by a necklace, try it on: the gold is heavy enough to strain an Olympic weight lifter.
Diamond in the Rough Martinos 50 Pandrossou St.; 30-1/321-3110. Sandwiched in among the schlock shops in the heart of the Plaka, Martinos sells ornately carved dowry chests, delicate Venetian and ancient glass, embroideries and kilims, swords and side tables.
Angelic Oasis Andromeda Hotel 22 Timoleontos Vassou St. (off Plateia Mavili); 30-1/643-7302, fax 30-1/646-6361; doubles $315. This five-year-old boutique hotel has 30 rooms overlooking either a quiet side street or the even quieter gardens of the American ambassador's residence, only a 10-minute taxi ride away from the downtown center (ask the concierge to write down the name and address for the return cab ride). Many of the soothing bedrooms are decorated with baroque mirrors and wall hangings of Raphael's ubiquitous angels.
Every Convenience Hilton Hotel 46 Vassilissis Sophias Ave.; 800/445-8667 or 30-1/725-0201, fax 30-1/725-3110; doubles $270-$330. Just what you'd expect from Hilton: a seriously glitzy marble lobby, an in-house bank, shops, restaurants, guest rooms overlooking either the Acropolis or the mountains around Athens, and an outdoor swimming pool to relax in after sightseeing.
Sting Slept Here Grande Bretagne Syntagma Square; 800/325-3535 or 30-1/331-5555, fax 30-1/322-0211; doubles $380. Athens's first luxury hotel opened in 1874, and since then just about every famous name passing through town has stayed in one of its balconied rooms overlooking Constitution Square and the Acropolis. Ongoing Metro construction, however, means views of a crane.
Kolonaki Calm St. George Lycabettus Hotel 2 Kleomenous St.; 30-1/729-0711, fax 30-1/721-0439; doubles $200-$270. Most of the 167 rooms in this hotel above Dexamini Square on the slopes of Mount Lycabettus have views of the mountain or the Acropolis. It's a pleasant, relatively tranquil spot, a few streets above Kolonaki's buzz.
Simple Pleasures Athenian Inn 22 Haritos St.; 30-1/723-8097, fax 30-1/724-2268; doubles $100. This Kolonaki hotel is a favorite with budget-conscious American professors and has earned testimonials from writers Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh-Fermor. The 28 simply furnished rooms are on the small side, without television, but most have a balcony.
SHERRY MARKER, author of and contributor to several guides to Greece, has visited Athens annually for the past 25 years.