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Athens: History, festivals and Greek islands

By Bob Cooper , January 25, 2018

Athens may be known as the “cradle of Western civilization," but admiring its ancient buildings is only one reason to visit.

Monuments in Athens, Greece

Magical monuments and museums

Europe's oldest major city knows how to show off its 3,400 years of history. The city of three million people is filled with Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman monuments, most famously the Acropolis. A UNESCO World Heritage Site built nearly 2,500 years ago, the hilltop citadel is a collection of several ruins, including the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike. In contrast, the adjacent New Acropolis Museum — 10 times the size of the landmark's original museum — opened just seven years ago, and displays an even more extensive collection of millennia-old sculptures and objects recovered from the site. Elsewhere in Athens, museums showcase archaeology, ancient Greek art, Byzantine art, Cycladic art (ancient art of the Aegean islands), ancient epigraphs and coins.

Hiking Trail in Athens, Greece

Sports and entertainment

Greece may be the birthplace of the ancient and modern Olympics, but Athenians don't rest on their laurels (an expression that originated in ancient Greece, by the way). They love to root for their local professional basketball and soccer teams. They love to hike in the mountains and national park surrounding the city. They love taking in an IMAX or OMNIMAX film at the huge Athens Planetarium, which screens several daily. And they love exploring the live theater options at more than 100 theaters citywide. Visitors can also enjoy these diversions.

Greek Island Resort near Athens

Greek islands

The Greek islands' resorts, beaches and ancient temples are so popular that they have more hotels than mainland Greece. Athens is the gateway to the islands, which are only a quick ferry trip away from the city. Among the best and most popular islands are Santorini (with an active volcano and streets carved into cliffs), Hydra (a car-free island where locals get around on donkeys) and Sifnos (mountains and beautiful beaches) — but altogether there are 200 inhabited Greek islands, so it's easy to pick one where you can escape the crowds.

Balcony Restaurant in Athens, Greece

Festivals and food

The August full moon is celebrated throughout Greece. More than 100 monuments, including many in Athens, are open for free visits during the moon's appearance on August 17–21, with music, dance, theater, art and films. Film takes center stage when 50,000 indie cinephiles flock to the Athens International Film Festival, with screenings from filmmakers around the world at five theaters. But every day is a festival at Athens' tavernas (casual restaurants), where Greek food and wine are consumed and celebrated.

Tourist Areas in Athens, Greece

Practicalities

Athens can be hot and a bit crowded in August, so September through November is a perfect time to visit, when it's still warm and the prices are lower — though Athens is a bargain year-round. It's far less expensive than most of Europe's other great cities, like London, Paris and Rome. Buses, subways and taxis are the best way to get around in Athens, and many ferries also go to the islands.

If you go

United Airlines has launched new nonstop service to Athens International Airport from Newark Liberty International Airport, extending through October 5. Visit united.com or use the United app to plan your trip.

Cape Town: A first-timer’s guide to the Mother City

By Eric Rubens , December 07, 2019

Eric Rubens (@erubes1) is a MileagePlus member based in Southern California. He is a photographer/videographer who loves meeting new people and traveling the world.

When planning a vacation, one of the first steps is picking a theme. If you're in search of mountains, many look to the Rockies, Swiss Alps, or Dolomites. If a tropical vacation is desired, Hawaii, Mexico, or the Caribbean may be calling your name. There are so many beautiful destinations in this world, but is it possible for one of them to be blessed with incredible mountains, picturesque beaches, and some of the best wildlife viewing in the world?

Cape Town is one of the few places I've found that seems to have it all. With the iconic Table Mountain and Lion's Head rising out of the city, there are hikes leading up to majestic views down the African coastline. The beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay are some of the most incredible beaches on this planet. If wildlife peaks your interest, there's Boulder's Beach, home to one of the only land-based penguin colonies in the world. Did I mention the safari is a short trip away? Add in an exchange rate that is very favorable and you have all the makings of a trip you'll never forget.

Camps Bay Beach

Planning a trip to Africa for the first time can be both intimidating and a bit challenging. I found very few of my friends or family had been, which made my voyage to South Africa even more exciting. Cape Town is home to a hip urban scene, a vibrant melting pot of culture, and jaw dropping landscapes that'll make you wonder why you didn't visit sooner. There's no city quite like it, and this list of top things to do will make sure you maximize your time in the Mother City. Several theories exist regarding the origin of Cape Town's nickname as "The Mother City." Some say it can be traced back to the beginning of the city's history as a trading hub in the 17th century, or its status as South Africa's first metropolis. But many locals have their own theories – one running joke is that it takes nine months to get anything done in the very laid back city.

View from the top of Table Mountain

#1: Take a hike or tram up to the top of Table Mountain

This iconic mountain rising from the city is arguably home to Cape Town's best views. The 2 to 3-hour hike to the top makes for a fun activity if you're up for it. Otherwise, take in the view from the aerial cableway, complete with 360-degree rotating floor and running every 5 minutes from the base. Once up top, there's plenty of walking trails, souvenir shopping, and food and drinks. Table Mountain is known for the blanket of fog that rolls over the peak, so weather at the top can change quickly. Make sure to check the weather before heading up and bring a jacket, since the wind can be intense!

Penguins at Boulder Beach

#2: Visit the penguin colony at Boulder's Beach

Even though it's an hour or so drive from the city, visiting Boulder's Beach and its nearly 2,000 penguins is an unforgettable experience. Watching the penguins lounge on the beach and come in and out of the waves makes for some incredible pictures and a unique encounter. You can also swim in the nearby waters and will often come face to face with members of the colony.

#3: Wake up for a sunrise hike up Lion's Head

One of the most bucket list-worthy activities on a visit to Cape Town is catching sunrise atop Lion's Head. It's a challenging hike and not for those with a fear of heights, but you won't soon forget the view from the summit. If you're willing to scramble and make your way up the final ladders, 360-degree views of the city await, and the sunrise over the city is one for the ages.

#4: Explore the Cape Winelands and the beauty of Constantia

South Africa has some of the best vineyards in the world. Even though the towns of Franschooek and Stellenbosch get the majority of the press, nearby Constantia is home to the oldest wine estate in the country, Groot Constantia. Its proximity (just 15 minutes from the city center) makes it perfect for a day trip. The city sightseeing "Hop-On Hop-Off" bus tour has a purple line that connects through this region, so getting here is easy! If wine tasting isn't your thing, the Alphen Trail is a beautiful trek through the countryside and sure to put you in a relaxing mood.

Chapman's Peak Drive

#5: Take a road trip down Chapman's Peak Drive

One of the most beautiful drives awaits just south of Cape Town. Carved into the cliffs and winding along the ocean, this road between Hout Bay and Noordhoek offers majestic views of the coastline. Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road since the sheer beauty can be distracting!

#6: View the diversity of flora throughout Kirstenbosch Gardens

The flora and fauna of South Africa is some of the most diverse in the world, and no place showcases it better than Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Tucked along the slopes of Table Mountain and widely recognized as one of the most impressive gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch is home to over 7,000 species of plants. The newly completed Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway allows you to walk above the tree line. If you visit in summer, try to make one of the Sunday concerts in the gardens, which are a hit with locals and visitors.

V & A Waterfront

#7: Shop your heart out along the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront

Known as one of the biggest tourism hubs of the city, the always bustling V&A Waterfront is home to many of Cape Town's finest restaurants, shopping, and the launching point of many tours. There are countless ways to spend your time here, but make sure to stop by the V&A food market, where over 40 vendors sell gourmet street food from around the world.

#8: Make your way to the Southern tip of Africa

If you're up for an adventure, take a trip to The Cape of Good Hope. You'll most likely encounter penguins, baboons, and who knows what else along the 1.5-hour drive. The weather can be very unpredictable, so make sure to check it before making the trip south. While there, visit the lighthouse and if you're hungry grab a bite at the appropriately named Two Oceans Restaurant.

#9 Take a tour of historical Robben Island

Even though the prison has been shut down since 1996, a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Cape Town's most popular tours. Tours take around 4 hours including a ferry ride to the island famous for housing Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned.

Insider tips:

-Use the "hop on hop off" bus for an easy guided tour of the city. The route takes you to many of the best spots throughout Cape Town and allows you to explore at your own pace. Buy tickets ahead of time to save on fare!

-Cape Town has some incredible boutique hotels and bed & breakfasts. My favorites are: Tintswalo Atlantic, 52 De Wet Luxury Boutique Hotel, and Derwent House Boutique Hotel.

-Make sure you don't carry too many valuables on you if you're walking around at night. Although beautiful and mostly safe, there is still a good amount of opportunistic crime throughout the city. Always pay attention to your surroundings.

You can purchase tickets now at united.com or on the United app for three weekly nonstop flights from New York/Newark to Cape Town beginning December 15.

Opinions expressed by the author are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of United.

Say Halo to Curaçao

By Bob Cooper , December 06, 2019

Planning a Caribbean vacation around hurricane season isn't necessary if you head to Dutch-affiliated Curaçao. The southernmost of all Caribbean islands — just off Venezuela's coast — is rarely even grazed by hurricanes. It also has an ideal tropical climate with average winter highs in the 80s (and water temperatures to match) and only about one inch of rain a month.

Curaçao will be more accessible beginning December 7, 2019, when weekly nonstops begin from New York/Newark on United Airlines. The new seasonal service on 737-700 aircraft makes Curaçao the 21st Caribbean island destination for United, which already flies to the other two nearby "ABC islands" — Aruba and Bonaire. Why choose Curaçao? Because like the island's famous blue liqueur, it's colorful, exotic and appealing.

Settling in

Jet lag won't be an issue for Americans flying to Curaçao because it's in the same time zone as New York. Nor is it a long flight — about five hours nonstop from New York/Newark. Upon arrival you can take a taxi, rental car or hotel shuttle from Curaçao International Airport to your accommodations — a resort (reserve early), boutique inn, vacation house or B&B. Most are in Willemstad, a coastal city only five miles from the airport.

Forts above the port

Straat Curaçao Getty Images/iStockphoto

The historic city center and harbor areas of Curaçao's only city of Willemstad are designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site, mostly for the 17th to 19th century Dutch colonial architecture of the houses and forts. The houses are painted a rainbow of bright colors in the Caribbean tradition, and the city is packed with forts — Fort Amsterdam (built in 1636), Fort Beekenburg (1703), Fort Nassau (1797) and Fort Waakzaamheid (1803). All four offer stellar views and are free to visitors.

On the waterfront

Curacao colorful houses Getty Images/iStockphoto

Along with forts, the harbor area is home to the oldest continuously operating synagogue (and museum) in the Western Hemisphere, an African art museum that tells the story of the slave trade through West African art and artifacts, and a maritime museum. These visits can be followed by a tour and tasting at the Curaçao Distillery, where you'll see how the peels of the native Laraha bitter oranges are turned into curaçao liqueur.

Snorkel from the sand

Two people snorkeling off coast of tropical island Getty Images

The chief allure of this 38-mile-long island is, of course, the ocean. Besides sunbathing at any of the dozens of powder-sand cove beaches, you can wade right in and snorkel in the turquoise, bathlike sea, usually around 80 degrees. Visibility is up to 100 feet, a snorkeler's dream. More adventurous types can snorkel or dive from day boats that head to prime diving sites like the Mushroom Forest (mushroom-shaped coral), Blue Cave and several shipwreck spots. There's also a nice aquarium on the shoreline where marine life is seen up close in their natural habitat —from land or aboard a minisub that dives 1,000 feet.

Ready, set…

Curaçao is a convenient tropical destination for Americans because U.S. dollars and credit cards are commonly accepted, English is widely spoken and no visa is required. But the local culture and cuisine are still exotic enough to be intriguing with local specialties like stewed iguana and cactus soup served in restaurants and from food carts in Willemstad.

If you go

Flight reservations from New York/Newark (EWR) to Curaçao (CUR) can be made at united.com on the United app. Use miles to reserve a hotel, rental car or both with MileagePlus®.

Fantasy Flights: Making holiday wishes come true

By The Hub team , December 04, 2019

One of our most treasured events of the year is here – Fantasy Flights! Our Fantasy Flights bring holiday cheer to children in need by taking them on a special trip to the "North Pole." Each station creates a North Pole with care, in preparation for all the children who will soon be there…

Our participating stations this year are HNL (Honolulu), FRA (Frankfurt), CLE (Cleveland), DEN (Denver), IAD (Washington Dulles), LAX (Los Angeles), SFO (San Francisco), MCO (Orlando), ORD (Chicago O'Hare), GUM (Guam), EWR (New York/New Jersey), NRT (Tokyo-Narita), PHX (Phoenix), IAH (Houston), MCI (Kansas City) and SAT (San Antonio).

Please stay tuned for stories, photos and more from these magical events. #UAFantasyFlights

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