For the critics, it is an overcrowded and chaotic metropolis, where monuments can hardly compensate for the inconveniences caused by modern civilization. As one guidebook wrote, "What a bizarre blend of a big metropolis and a provincial hell-hole." That's also one of the reasons to go there: to decide which side you are on. Athens is the city where it all began, or at least European civilization, democracy, and the Olympic Games, which is quite enough. Though the city's main symbol is that of Acropolis Hill, there is much more to Athens than that.

The history of the city is nearly impossible to summarise. Its name derives from Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, who according to the Greek mythology also gave the city the Crag of Lycavittos in order to shield it from enemies. Today, Lycavittos offers an excellent opportunity to view the city, especially at night. Athens' other focal point is the famed Acropolis, hosting the well-preserved remnants of three temples devoted to Athena.

In terms of hard facts, though, the city began around a castle built in the 15th Century BC on the site of today's ancient Acropolis complex. By the year 1400 BC, Athens had already become a city of considerable importance. In the 5th Century BC, after successfully overcoming several home-grown tyrants and a series of Persian invasions, it became one of the most powerful city-states of the Greek Peninsula. That period also marked the peak of ancient Athens architecture, art, theatre and philosophy. Its downfall followed quickly after Sparta, a former ally against the Persians, went on to dominate the whole Greek Peninsula. By the standards of many other states of the period, however, the downfall could still be considered the best of times, as thinkers like Plato and Aristotle graced the city's streets. Spartan domination was the end of Athens as an independent capital until well into the 19th Century, when Greece gained independence from Ottoman rule. Before that time, Athens had been an important city of the Roman Empire until it was overcome by so-called barbarians, and then by the Turks in the 15th Century. It took another four centuries before the Turks were driven out of Athens and Greece entirely, and the 'Greek cause' was popular among many Western Europeans, including Byron.

The uprising against the Turks was not the last of the dramatic historical events that befell the city. It suffered greatly during World War II, and then had to bear an ignorant junta government, during which time the city grew quickly and without much urban planning. The situation changed with Greece's accession to the EU in 1981.

More recently, it was hosting the 2004 Olympic Games which further promoted more thoughtful development in the city. Even those not interested in athletics and games will discover that the Olympics made the city more user-friendly. Modern infrastructure is finally in place, plus the state-of-the-art Olympic venues make a nice contrast to all the antiquities. Since the Olympics, Athens' alleged reputation as a metropolitan hell-hole should be reconsidered.

Though the Olympic Games are now held elsewhere, Athens is still full of events, the biggest one being the giant Hellenic Festival stretching from mid-July right to the end of September. It consists mostly of drama, classical music and dance performances, all set against the ancient panorama and atmosphere of this beautiful city.