It's all Greek to him

The Greek’s unusual version of the Changing of the Guard ceremonyThe Greek’s unusual version of the Changing of the Guard ceremony

Independent local travel advisor Jack Leaf presents a guide to Athens, which he believes has experienced a 'delightful transformation' since his first visit and has plenty to offer holidaymakers.

The terrible forest fire in July that devastated the coastal resort of Mati in Greece focused my mind on a wonderful and much-overlooked tourist destination: Athens. The impression of Greece's capital city to many who have not been is one of congestion and pollution, best seen from the transfer vehicle on the way from the airport to Pireus Port.

I visited Athens for the first time about 25 years ago, in transit for 36 hours en route to stay with friends in Istanbul. In December 2017, I was delighted to be invited as a delegate to the Greece Tourism Expo – and what an amazing transformation the city has undergone, which started in time to host the Olympic Games in 2004 and has continued ever since. Furthermore, with age and experience, I have learned how to delve beneath the surface of a city to discover its hidden gems, rather than run around in a frenzied state to tick off the top 10 sights!

I stayed at the Grecotel Pallas Athena, a privately owned boutique hotel in a superb location downtown, where the emphasis is on the owner's extensive collection of artwork and their interest in organic food, as was evident in the extensive breakfast offering. Where London is full of expensive, pretentious restaurants and one is hard-pushed to locate somewhere still serving a quick snack or a cheap, good English meal, Athens has retained its old charm for those who don't want a fancy scene, so dining at Bairaktaris in Monastiraki was a special treat.

As well as city sightseeing – be that the Parthenon crowning the Acropolis representing Ancient Greece or the Greek's unusual version of the Changing of the Guard ceremony outside the presidential mansion – be sure to enjoy another full-day experience: sailing to the Saronic Islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina. Stroll along Hydra's narrow, cobbled streets on this car-free island, buy a treat in an almond sweet shop, visit the monastery or simply savour the views of this 500-year-old harbour town. Next stop Poros, a much greener island with a quaint town flanked by citrus trees and windmills. Renowned for its naval history, visit the naval museum or explore the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon, or just stroll around the shops near the clock tower. The island of Aegina is a much bigger island – they like to think they rival Athens – where, in addition to shipbuilding and fishing, there is still much farming, so be sure to buy some olives and pistachio nuts before the return sailing to Athens.

I wish I had more space to talk you through the food and wine (old) city tour, but be sure to do it, and sample wine, ouzo, meats and cheeses while your guide takes you off the tourist drag to appreciate the older buildings and panoramic viewpoints.

Jack is based in Snaresbrook – visit or call 020 8989 6764. For more information on Athens, visit

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