Athens is the pre-eminent city of Greece and the main arrival destination. No city mixes history and a chaotic energy better than Athens.
Athens is city with stunning archeological sites, colorful neighbors, overcrowding and smog like you've never seen it. For many travelers, the general impression is one of a poetic chaos. Roads are packed, taxi drivers are nuts and shops seem to spill off the sidewalks and into the middle of roads. Yet, in the middle of this chaos you'll find peaceful places such as the Acropolis, even though it is packed with tourists.
You can't mention Greece without talking about the Greeks impact on civilization. The city is littered with sites of extremely significant significance. This is not the place where you'll stand in front of an old structure where Sir so and so fought Sir so and so to the death in a duel that established something faintly important. Instead, you'll stand in front of monuments where civilization took a quantum leap forward.
The Acropolis is the dominant archeological site in Athens. It is one of those rare locations you can visit where the massive number of tourist do not diminish the impact. Towering over Athens, the Acropolis has seen better days until you consider how old it is. The Pantheon and Erechtheion are the two standing structures and both are impressive.
While contemplating the Pantheon, one can't help but be impressed by the ability of the Greeks to build such a towering, stone structure when much of humanity still considered a hut a luxury. The Erechtheion is amazing because it contains the famous Caryatids, the columns molded into the form of female figures. Standing upon the mount, you'll have a view of Greece that will reveal the chaos and a sense of the age of the city.
Athens has much to offer beyond the Acropolis. Books have been written on the subject. Large books. I'm not going to try to cover them here, but you should try to get over to the Tower of the Winds, where the Whirling Dervishes got their start.
Walking through Athens is like walking through history. They say time travel is impossible, but Athens seems to suggest otherwise.
But if you want a break from history, Athens has much more to offer travelers. You've seen the Acropolis, you've hit the museums and you're trying to figure out if it is time to head to the islands. Wait! You're missing much of the modern charm of Athens.
There is a conundrum with many historically significant cities. Guidebooks tend to send you off to every site with any potential historical significance, but leave out any mention of the modern attractions of the city. In the case of Athens, slavishly following your guidebook is a very bad choice and you'll be the worse for it.
As with any city, there are two good ways to see the charms of modern day Athens. The first is to get out and just start walking. The second is to befriend some local residents and let them show you the city. Either way, you'll do fine in Athens.
The charm of Athens is found in the hubbub of daily life on the streets. The city and residents exude energy and character. If you get off the tourist tracks, you'll find little neighborhoods with outdoor cafes and no tourists. This is where the action is in true Athens. Just plop yourself down at a café and start people watching.
One particularly good spot is in the Plaka neighborhood. A nineteenth century quarter, Plaka has a mix of Turkish and Greek influences. From Plaka, you can head to the shopping bazaars found throughout the city. The bazaars in Athinas and Eolou are a bit touristy, but no excessively. With a mideastern feel, you can sit down and drink tea with local shop owners while they hock their wares.
From there, the city is wide open. If you dare, grab a taxi and tell the driver you just want to see the real city. It will be the ride of your life.