Forget what you’ve heard about a Greek crisis: The ancient capital is undergoing a new cultural, spiritual, and artistic renaissance. The archaeological monuments are as jaw-dropping as ever, but now the flavor of Athens is seasoned with the creativity of a generation of entrepreneurs, designers, chefs, and restaurateurs. New neighborhoods are becoming vibrant, making it more rewarding to venture off the beaten path.
Athens’ port, Piraeus, is a major jumping-off point for cruises in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, as well as hydrofoils to the Greek Islands. From Piraeus, it’s easy to wander through the city’s most appealing neighborhoods, stopping for souvlaki, Greek salad with big chunks of feta, tart yogurt, and iced coffee at one of the many rooftop cafés or neighborhood squares that always seem to be overflowing with leisurely, friendly Athenians.
Tip: Piraeus may only be about 30 minutes by car from the Acropolis, but you should allow more time to account for Athens’ unpredictable traffic.
The acropolis from the Hotel Grande Bretagne pool.
Photo by Hotel Grande Bretagne
Splurge: Hotel Grande Bretagne – This 320-room historic hotel is grand indeed, with an unbeatable location on leafy Syntagma Square and near the National Garden. Picture spectacular views of the Acropolis from the hotel’s rooftop restaurant and higher-level rooms, and a traditional vibe that includes a sprawling, colonnaded lobby, dripping chandeliers, puddled silk draperies, and an army of jacket-clad butlers and waiters at the ready. Doubles from $352.
Steal: Alice Inn – Greek-Irishman John Consolas calls his four-suite residence “a reinvention of a bed-and-breakfast that’s more than a hotel but not exactly serviced apartments — more like your rich friend’s house.” It’s located in a lovely 1912 house that he restored himself using his architectural background, but there’s no rich-man price tag. The very reasonable rates include Wi-Fi, access to laundry facilities, wine and snacks in the communal living area, and homemade breakfast in the dining room. Doubles from $68.
Greek salad with feta cheese
Photo by SIME / eStockPhoto
Breakfast: New Taste – The dining room at the hip New Hotel draws guests and nonguests for its lavish breakfast buffet. Tables are covered with fresh-from-the-oven pastries, sweet and savory Greek pies, olives, cheeses, meats, and creamy yogurt that you can top with local honey or marmalade. The staff also whips up eggs to order.
The room itself is a feast for the eyes, designed by Brazil’s famed Campana brothers, with giant columns composed of cut pieces of antique furniture, funky “tomato” and “pixel” chairs, golden lamps, and lime green shag carpets.
Lunch: Manas Kouzina Kouzina – So good they named it twice. Kouzina is the Greek word for “kitchen,” and manas means “mother” — and that’s more or less what’s on offer at this lunch counter in super-hip Agias Irinis Square. Diners pick one of three plate sizes (the “small” portions are generous enough to share) and point to dishes that have been slow-cooked according to traditional recipes from old monastery cookbooks, the chef’s mother, or his grandmother. Everything — down to the sodas and beer — is from small-scale local producers.
Dinner: Papadakis – French-trained Chef Argiro Barbarigou is one of the most famous female chefs in Eastern Europe. She cooks for the likes of Pierce Brosnan, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Carla Bruni (who actually bowed to Barbarigou), but you wouldn’t know it from her small, unpretentious restaurant on a quiet street in the posh Kolonaki neighborhood. Her cooking emphasizes simply grilled seafood and traditional dishes like octopus stewed in honey and vin santo — sweet wine from Santorini. Dinners end with pour-your-own glasses of house-made strawberry liqueur and limoncello.
Dessert: Lukumades – This tiny shop at Aiolou 21, near Agias Irinis Square, is the place to go for Athens’ beloved take on the beignet. The just-fried dough fritters are served with the traditional drizzle of honey and sprinkle of cinnamon, or made more indulgent with ice cream or chocolate sauce.
Statues in the Acropolis Museum
Photo by SIME / eStockPhoto
For Everyone: Acropolis and Acropolis Museum – If you see only one thing in Athens, it should be the most iconic monument of Western civilization, and what UNESCO calls the symbol of World Heritage. Its central structure, the Parthenon —dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the goddess of wisdom, and completed in 432 BC — lives up to the majesty shown in history and mythology books. The Acropolis Museum, right near the crumbling columns, is home to replicas of the friezes that surrounded the Parthenon and artifacts from the site — and it has ruins of its own under the glass floor.
For Couples: The Island – Once you’re in central Athens, it’s strangely easy to forget you’re in a coastal city. Reconnect with the sea during a languid afternoon or late night on the Athens Riviera, a stretch along the Saronic Gulf (about 30 minutes from downtown), whose natural beauty and chic clubs bring Mykonos to mind. The standout: Island Club Restaurant, where the crowd is glamorous, the music is excellent, and the Mediterranean food and sushi are much better than they have to be. Dinner service starts at 9, but no one gets there before 10 — hire a car and go late.
For Families: Hellenic Cosmos – The name makes it sound like an amusement park, but this cultural center is actually an interactive learning space created by the Foundation of the Hellenic World, a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve Greek history and culture. Many of the exhibitions and events are child-friendly, including the interactive, planetarium-like Tholos, a virtual reality theater that takes guests through ancient sites.
For the Adventurous: Water sports on the Athens Riviera – Kouros Club in Anavyssos rents equipment and gives lesson (in English) in windsurfing, kitesurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, wakeboarding, and water-skiing. The Vouliagmeni Waterski & Wakeboard School in Vouliagmeni also offers instructions in those sports.
Tip: Athens’ professional tour guides are few and far between, and therefore can be expensive. A better, less formal, and more “local” option is to book an afternoon with an enthusiastic amateur. Companies like Athens Insiders and Dopios pair visitors with locals who share their interests (such as shopping or museums) who create custom, ad hoc walking tours. If you’re just there for the food, check out Culinary Backstreets, a company that organizes food-centric walks to hidden treasures.
A one-stop shop for information and inspiration, DiscoverGreece.com lets guests search by their interests, provides practical advice, includes an events calendar, and has a price-comparison booking feature to score deals on air and hotels.