It's no wonder that all roads lead to the fascinating and maddening metropolis of Athens. Lift your eyes 200 feet above the city to the Parthenon, its honey-color marble columns rising from a massive limestone base, and you behold architectural perfection that has not been surpassed in 2,500 years. But, today, this shrine of classical form dominates a 21st-century boomtown. To experience Athens—Athína in Greek—fully is to understand the essence of Greece: ancient monuments surviving in a sea of cement, startling beauty amid the squalor, tradition juxtaposed with modernity. Locals depend on humor and flexibility to deal with the chaos; you should do the same. The rewards are immense. Although Athens covers a huge area, the major landmarks of the ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods are close to the modern city center. You can easily walk from the Acropolis to many other key sites, taking time to browse in shops and relax in cafés and tavernas along the way. From many quarters of the city you can glimpse "the glory that was Greece" in the form of the Acropolis looming above the horizon, but only by actually climbing that rocky precipice can you feel the impact of the ancient settlement. The Acropolis and Filopappou, two craggy hills sitting side by side; the ancient Agora (marketplace); and Kerameikos, the first cemetery, form the core of ancient and Roman Athens. Along the Unification of Archaeological Sites promenade, you can follow stone-paved, tree-lined walkways from site to site, undisturbed by traffic. Cars have also been banned or reduced in other streets in the historical center. In the National Archaeological Museum, vast numbers of artifacts illustrate the many millennia of Greek civilization; smaller museums such as the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art Museum and the Byzantine and Christian Museum illuminate the history of particular regions or periods. Athens may seem like one huge city, but it is really a conglomeration of neighborhoods with distinctive characters. The Eastern influences that prevailed during the 400-year rule of the Ottoman Empire are still evident in Monastiraki, the bazaar area near the foot of the Acropolis. On the northern slope of the Acropolis, stroll through Plaka (if possible by moonlight), an area of tranquil streets lined with renovated mansions, to get the flavor of the 19th-century's gracious lifestyle. The narrow lanes of Anafiotika, a section of Plaka, thread past tiny churches and small, color-washed houses with wooden upper stories, recalling a Cycladic island village. In this maze of winding streets, vestiges of the older city are everywhere: crumbling stairways lined with festive tavernas; dank cellars filled with wine vats; occasionally a court or diminutive garden, enclosed within high walls and filled with magnolia trees and the flaming trumpet-shaped flowers of hibiscus bushes. Formerly run-down old quarters, such as Thission, Gazi and Psirri, popular nightlife areas filled with bars and mezedopoleia (similar to tapas bars), are now in the process of gentrification, although they still retain much of their original charm, as does the colorful produce and meat market on Athinas. The area around Syntagma Square, the tourist hub, and Omonia Square, the commercial heart of the city about 1 km (½ mi) northwest, is distinctly European, having been designed by the court architects of King Otho, a Bavarian, in the 19th century. The chic shops and bistros of ritzy Kolonaki nestle at the foot of Mt. Lycabettus, Athens's highest hill (909 feet). Each of Athens's outlying suburbs has a distinctive character: in the north is wealthy, tree-lined Kifissia, once a summer resort for aristocratic Athenians, and in the south and southeast lie Glyfada, Voula, and Vouliagmeni, with their sandy beaches, seaside bars, and lively summer nightlife. Just beyond the city's southern fringes is Piraeus, a bustling port city of waterside fish tavernas and Saronic Gulf views.
Aerial view of the beautiful Marina in Limassol city in Cyprus
A major commercial port, cruise ship port of call, and wine-making center on the south coast, Limassol, 75 km (47 miles) from Nicosia, is a bustling, cosmopolitan town, with some of the liveliest nightlife on the island. Luxury hotels, apartments, and guesthouses stretch along 12 km (7 miles) of seafront, with the most luxurious ones just to the north of town. In the center, the elegant, modern shops of Makarios Avenue (where you'll mainly find clothes and shoes) contrast with those of pedestrian-only Agiou Andreou in the old part of town, where local handicrafts such as lace, embroidery, and basketware prevail; make sure you avoid shopping on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, when many shops close at 2 pm. A luxurious marina that will hold 650 yachts as well as house apartments, shops, and restaurants should further boost the town's lively appeal.
Panoramic Aerial View of Haifa, Israel
Spilling down from the pine-covered heights of Mount Carmel, Haifa is a city with a vertiginous setting that has led to comparisons with San Francisco. The most striking landmark on the mountainside is the gleaming golden dome of the Baha'i Shrine, set amid utterly beautiful garden terraces. The city is the world center for the Baha'i faith, and its members provide informative walking tours of the flower-edged 100-acre spot, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the top of the hill are some small but interesting museums, the larger hotels, and two major universities. At the bottom is the lovingly restored German Colony, a perfect area for strolling.Israel's largest port and third-largest city, Haifa was ruled for four centuries by the Ottomans and gradually spread its tendrils up the mountainside into a cosmopolitan city whose port served the entire Middle East. The climate is gentle, the beaches beautiful, and the locals friendly.You don't see the religious garb of Jerusalem or the tattoos and piercings of Tel Aviv in this diverse but fairly conservative city. In fact, you can't always tell at a glance who is part of an Arab or Jewish Israeli family, or if someone is a more recent immigrant from the former Soviet Union.
Busy Ashdod is not only one of Israel's fastest-growing cities, it's also the country's largest port. Perched on the Mediterranean, it processes more than 60% of the goods imported into Israel. Home to many ancient peoples over the centuries, Ashdod today is a modern, planned city. It's also a convenient jumping-off point for exploring several of Israel's most interesting cities, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Bethlehem.
The port and town of Sharm-el-Sheikh lies near the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula where the Straits of Tiran meet the Gulf of Aqaba. With its strategic position, the Sinai posed a desirable target for various rulers over the centuries. In recent times, the last battle for the Sinai was fought between Egypt and Israel from 1967 to 1979, ending with a peace treaty signed in Washington, D.C. Since the withdrawal of the Israelis, more and more Egyptians have settled in the Sinai, taking advantage of the booming tourist trade. However, vast interior regions are still sparsely populated. Many Bedouins have been affected by the advent of the 21st century, which is rapidly changing their age-old customs and nomadic lifestyle. As tourism and hotel projects continue to spring up along the Sinai coast, contact with Bedouins not involved in tourism is becoming increasingly rare. Once their nomadic life kept them on the move with their tents; today many Bedouins cultivate grain, vegetables and dates in addition to catering to the tourists. Sharm-el-Sheikh was initially developed by the Israelis during the Sinai occupation. Na'ama Bay, a short drive from the port, has grown from virtually nothing into a sizeable resort since the early 1980s. Between the two towns, a string of hotels line a once-untouched coastline. Resort hotels offer great opportunities for swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving. Glass bottom boat trips are available for those preferring to view the exotic marine life of the Red Sea without getting their feet wet.
The resort town of Aqaba, on the Red Sea at the southern end of Jordan, is a popular spot for divers with some of the best coral reefs in the world. Snorkeling and other water sports are popular, and it's easy to hire a boat for a day or half-day, including lunch.Aqaba has become quite a bustling destination, with several large luxury hotels and a large shopping area. There are many jewelry stores selling pearls, gem stones, and gold and silver jewelry. It's worth noting that although it's an international beach resort, Aqaba is quite conservative—certainly much more so than Amman—and North Americans tend to be more comfortable at the private hotel beaches.