Don’t assume that Athens is just a transport hub. It may be a teeming metropolis of 4 million souls (and its fair share of soulless urban jungle), but the 2004 Olympics have granted it a rebirth which was long overdue: not just in terms of infrastructure (though the new ring road, metro lines, tram link, museum- and hotel refurbishments are a godsend), but also in terms of culture and high life. Syntagma and Plaka, now partly pedestrianised, brim with shoppers, flaneurs and new-found confidence. Kolonaki is a boutique-lined, poodle-walking Nice-in-Greece. Psiri is a gritty neighbourhood of meze bars and music clubs. Even the cuisine is inching towards the haute. Sure, spend a day in the Acropolis and Archaeological Museum (you can’t not), but consider an extra day or two for the lesser sites (Kerameikos, Pnyx hill), the smaller museums (Benaki, Cycladic Art) and the out-of-centre monasteries of Kaisariani and Dafni. And keep plenty of time spare for strolling the streets of historic Plaka, with their outdoor tavernas, crumbling houses and churches, and no end of jewellery / clothing / carpet / souvenir shops.
If you want to combine Athens with a taste of island life, the Saronic islands – Hydra, Spetses, Aegina – are an hour or two by hydrofoil, yet retain the painterly beauty and the slow pace of the remotest archipelago (Hydra and Spetses are largely traffic-free). Four days here and three in Athens would make a wonderful week’s break from northern Europe, especially in spring or autumn.