ARRIVE BY CRUISE SHIP, as do many travelers to Rhodes, and you’ll experience a kind of unsettling déjà vu. From the deck of my Seabourn ship (the cruise line stops in Rhodes on a variety of Adriatic and Mediterranean itineraries), my first glimpse of the ancient, walled city fills me with awe. I’ve heard about the Knights of St. John the Hospitallier who built the wall in the 1300s, stopping at this largest of the Greek Dodecanese Islands en route to the Holy Land. From the water I can almost see them, swords in their scabbards, shiny armor glimmering in the sunlight.
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The Greek islands are so iconically picturesque, families seeking fun in the sun sometimes overlook Athens. At first glance, it’s easy to see why. Yes, Athens boasts the wow factor of the Parthenon and the Acropolis, but it’s also a big, crowded city full of traffic and noise, especially compared to the serene beauty of islands like Mykonos and Santoríni. But like most world-class capitals, Athens also features a cluster of neighborhoods, each with its own personality and style, which could make a perfect match for your family. Parents with young children looking to explore the city know their family dynamics best, but generally a little common sense prevails when choosing the right activities. I wouldn’t drag a toddler around archaeological sites, but school-age kids, teens and young adults who like mythology might have to be pulled away from some of the eye-popping examples of ancient art and culture. And because few of us live by culture alone, inviting beaches and plenty of nightlife spark this urban visit. Start at the city center, Syntagma Square, in front of the Old Royal Palace that now houses parliament. Traditionally attired Evzone guards patrol the Monument of the Unknown Soldier, marching in stiff-legged formation with rifles slung over their shoulders. While crowds usually stand by to snap photos of the changing of the guard ceremony, the throng is, thankfully, nothing like the mobs in front of London’s Buckingham Palace. Syntagma Square is not the place to be during political activities such as the demonstrations that took place here during the Greek debt crisis in the summer of 2015; however, each time, the unrest was short-lived and tourists came back in full throttle the next day. The charms of this neighborhood include the shops on nearby Ermou Street, a nearly mile-long pedestrian street with stores ranging from ubiquitous franchises like Zara and H&M to small, individually owned boutiques like Melissinos Art – The Poet Sandal Maker for custom-made Greek sandals. Not only a destination in its own right, Ermou Street winds along some of the other most interesting neighborhoods in the historic center. Save time to browse the shops and flea market stalls in Monastiraki, especially fun on Sundays, where unique vintage finds and historic architecture are sprinkled among the T-shirts and souvenirs.