Ancient history, hip neighbourhoods and a new wave of lively cafés, restaurants and rooftop bars… Athens has survived years of economic hardship and emerged with an intoxicating new spirit, writes Sally Robinson.
It’s 4pm on a sun-soaked weekday afternoon and Athens is humming. In the village-like Plaka district, a labyrinth of steep, narrow streets lined with Neoclassical houses at the foot of the Acropolis, locals spill out of cafés, sipping coffee on whitewashed steps in the sun. Behind them, the honey-stoned Parthenon stands against a perfect blue sky.
Over in Kolonaki, the city’s luxe heartland, lunchers linger at outdoor tables on the elegant, tree-lined central square or pick up supper at Yoleni’s (Solonos 9; +30 21 2222 3623), a multi-floor gourmet food emporium.
It’s hard to believe this city has been in the grip of an economic crisis for 10 years. Today, there’s a vital energy about the place. Vibrant neighbourhoods are emerging and boarded-up shops are reopening as tiny cafés, bars and other businesses low on capital investment and high on creativity.
Culturally, Athens has three shiny new spaces. The most spectacular is the $US861 million Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center designed by Renzo Piano. Up the road is the swish Onassis Cultural Centre, offering a slick program of music and arts events, and the National Museum of Contemporary Art, which has made its home in a sleek converted 1950s brewery.
All this amid the relics of one of Europe’s most ancient cities. Glance up from almost anywhere in Athens and the dazzling Acropolis watches over the metropolis from its rocky outcrop, as it has for almost 2500 years. Athens wears its heritage lightly, its archaeological sites and unkempt historic remains scattered across it.
Look carefully, though, and you’ll see the scars of the past decade. Some of the new coffee shops are run by young professionals who can’t find work in their field. The quirky micro-boutique hotel Alice Inn Athens is the brainchild of an architect-turned-innkeeper, John Consolas, who had to find another job when the construction industry collapsed.
“I’d always dreamt of having a little hotel,” says Consolas. “When my career in architecture came to a dead end, I had nothing to lose.” Able to negotiate a bargain lease on a Neoclassical townhouse in the centre of historic Plaka, Consolas transformed it (on a shoestring) into the Alice Inn with its four delightfully individualised rooms. “It was the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says.
Athens’ renewed creativity has been helped by rock-bottom rents, which have attracted international artists to the city and fostered art spaces. “We feel like we’re at the centre of things now,” says Ifigeneia Papamikroulea, project manager at TAF/The Art Foundation, a not-for-profit art venue and bar in lively Monastiraki. “The migration wave has brought a real energy to the city.”
Athenians have always had a café life but the past few years have seen a boom in caffeine culture, with charming little shops, tucked away down laneways, serving seriously good brews. “In the middle of the economic crisis, everybody started to drink coffee,” says Alexandra Papadimitriou, publisher of local title The Coffee Magazine. “Greeks love to socialise but instead of going out to dinner, they meet for coffee.” Most cafés double as bars; come 5pm, they start pouring apéritifs and serve drinks until late.
Greece’s austerity measures have also fuelled Athens’ vibrant street-food trend. Disused shops have been repurposed to plate up everything from dim sum and sushi to Venezuelan and Lebanese dishes. “These places are offering something hip, fashionable and exciting that isn’t too expensive,” says Nena Dimitriou, a food writer for Gastronomos and Greece Is.
Many of these great eating options are hidden in the city’s emerging neighbourhoods, which are easy to explore on foot. In half an hour, you can stroll from Syntagma Square through Plaka to Thiseio, which is packed with bars and restaurants. From here, it’s 10 minutes to Monastiraki Flea Market or 15 minutes to the fashionably gritty Metaxourgeio district.
When urban life gets too much, Athens has a safety switch: the sea. Less than a 30-minute drive away, the Athenian Riviera stretches from the Port of Piraeus to Cape Sounio. Spend a day at the beach or, better still, hop on a hydrofoil and sail to one of the nearest islands – you can be on Aegina in 40 minutes or Hydra in one and a half hours. Where else in the world can you do that?
Here are 14 things you should do to experience the best of the city
Marvel at the Acropolis
Standing at the top of the Acropolis, with the ancient Parthenon (built in the 5th century BCE) outlined against a deep-blue Athenian sky, is a dazzling experience. The view across Athens – a jumble of tightly packed white low-rises shimmering towards the endless Aegean Sea – is spectacular. To avoid the crowds, buy tickets ahead of your visit (they are only available from the ticket office on site but are valid for five days). Get there at 7.30am (30 minutes before opening) and, when the gates open, dash up the hill and have the place to yourself for a few precious minutes. Alternatively, be at the top an hour before sunset on Sunday to see the Evzones (Presidential Guard) lower the Greek flag at the belvedere on the eastern side, accompanied by a spirited rendition of the national anthem.
Walk through history
Built in time for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Dionysiou Areopagitou is a paved walkway hugging the southern slope of the Acropolis and connecting most of the city’s ancient archaeological sites, including the Acropolis (and Acropolis Museum), the Theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Stop at one of the shaded cafés on Makrygianni Street, at the start of the walk, for a freddo espresso. In the morning, runners and dog walkers frequent this wide, olive-tree-lined path. Then tourists take over until the cool of the early evening, when the locals come out to promenade.
Explore a secret neighbourhood
Just a 10-minute walk from the Acropolis is a secluded district, Makrygianni, its tranquil streets lined with bitter-orange trees. At Takis (Misaraliotou 14; +30 21 0923 0052), considered to be the best bakery in Athens, enjoy delicious koulouria (sesame bread rings), tiropita and spanakopita. Opposite, pull up a stool on the footpath at delightful coffee shop Drupes & Drips (Zitrou 20; +30 697 030 0404) or go around the corner to peaceful Little Tree, a gem of a café in a tiny, pretty square.
Taste local wine
Heteroclito, a cool little bar with a Parisian bistro feel, has a well-curated selection of Greek wines. Try a glass of minerally assyrtiko from the island of Santorini.
Discover the café culture
There are fab artisanal coffee shops and micro-roasters all over the city, ranging from chic, sleek operations to cute holes in the wall. Most start the day serving coffee, which then morphs into cocktails as evening falls. Three of the best are beautifully designed The Underdog; Tailor Made (+30 21 3004 9645) with outdoor tables in charming Agias Irinis Square; and the latest arrival on the scene, Peek a Bloom (Lekka 14; +30 21 0321 9000), tucked down a charming alley near Syntagma Square.
Thirty minutes from Athens, at one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean, ferries and hydrofoils leave for the Greek islands. Piraeus is a frenzied mass of humanity accompanied by the constant soundtrack of ships’ horns. It’s fascinating to walk along the quays, watching the chaos while the ferries are loaded. Escape from the madness to the tranquil pocket of nearby Mikrolimano, where upmarket fish restaurants and cafés overlook a harbour bobbing with yachts. The best is Varoulko Seaside – ask for a front-row table right on the water.
Enjoy a massage
Al Hammam Traditional Baths is a Turkish-style bathhouse in a restored house tucked away in a lane in Plaka. Before your massage, have a steam bath in the marble-walled steam room.
Watch the sun set
Athens does a world-class sunset over the Acropolis and the best place to see it is from a rooftop bar. The most elegant is GB Roof Garden Restaurant & Bar on the eighth floor of landmark hotel Grande Bretagne on Syntagma Square. In peak season, get there early for the most prized seats on the stunning outdoor terrace. For a more urban vibe, head to popular Bios and relax with the cool kids on a deckchair overlooking the Acropolis.
Browse the Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis Museum’s modern design, soaring windows and elegantly displayed collection make it a joy to wander around. An opening in the floor at the entrance and glass floors inside reveal the vast ruins of an ancient neighbourhood discovered during excavation. The museum’s restaurant, which is open all day and late on Friday nights, offers spectacular views of the floodlit Acropolis after dark.
Swim in thermal waters
About 30 minutes out of town, take a dip in the vibrant waters of Vouliagmeni Lake, which is naturally warmed by thermal springs and rich in minerals. Vouliagmeni is also home to Athens’ best beaches; head straight to Astir Beach for white sand, clear water, sunbeds, a restaurant and showers.
Sample street food
Tiny shopfronts in Athens serve everything from sushi to souvlaki. The best include family-run Feyrouz for homemade Lebanese; Los Loros for delicious Colombian and Venezuelan; tiny Sushimou for sushi made with Greek fish; and Hoocut (+30 21 0324 0026) in Agias Irinis Square for pita wraps.
Have dinner at a taverna
With its tables perched on whitewashed steps in the shade of a mulberry tree, charming Psaras Taverna feels like it could be on an island, not in the city. Order moussaka and a Greek salad topped with slices of fresh fetta, matched with retsina.
Catch an outdoor movie
With about 90 screens around the city, outdoor cinema is part of Athenian life. Cine Thisio is the prettiest with its dramatic Acropolis backdrop.
Eat at the hottest tables in town
Cookoovaya dishes up some of the best contemporary Greek food in the city, specialising in traditional village recipes with an inventive urban twist. For the freshest seafood served in a tranquil, art-filled space, try Papadakis Restaurant. Nolan, a tiny, super-hip eatery near Syntagma Square, has an innovative Greek-Japanese fusion menu. ￼