Athens Rising

With a history going back more than 2500 years, Athens is often regarded as the birthplace of Western civilisation.

Each year hundreds of thousands of sightseers flock here to see the city’s ancient monuments, archaeological sites and world-class museums. In 2004, Athens hosted the Olympic Games, and billions were spent modernising the city’s infrastructure. Due to the economic crisis, Greeks are now living under harsh austerity measures, but their capital remains a welcoming destination, with blissfully sunny weather, delicious Mediterranean cuisine and a hedonistic night-life.

Must-see spots

Athens was founded upon the Acropolis, a rocky outcrop rising above concrete apartment blocks in today’s city centre. The city’s oldest buildings stand here, including the iconic Parthenon, an ancient temple dating from 447 BCE. Supported by 46 outer columns, it was dedicated to the goddess Athena, the city’s namesake, and an ivory-and-gold statue of her was kept here. Later, it remained a place of worship — the early Christians used it as a church and the Ottomans converted it into a mosque.

Nearby, ancient finds from the site are displayed at the ultra-modern Acropolis Museum, a light and airy glass-and-concrete building completed by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi in 2009. You can wander among larger-than-life archaic and classical statues of gods, mortals and animals, with the hilltop temples of the Acropolis in clear view.

On the top floor is a reconstruction of the frieze that once decorated the Parthenon. The missing pieces — many of which are now housed in the British Museum in London as part of the Elgin Marbles collection — are coarsely outlined by white plaster copies, highlighting their absence.

Today, Athens’s epicentre is Syntagma Square. The square is home to the Greek parliament building, which was originally built as the Royal Palace in the 1840s after Greece gained independence from the Turkish. Syntagma has been the main stage to the anti-austerity riots since 2010, and has seen frequent clashes between protestors and the police. In June 2011, it was occupied by tens of thousands of people protesting against job losses, tax increases and drastic cuts to social services. More recently it has seen calm, but when there is unrest it generally climaxes here, so heed warnings.

Where to stay

Grand Dame Hotel Grande Bretagne opposite the parliament building exudes old-fashioned charm and refinement. With a palatial marble lobby, 320 sumptuous rooms and suites, an Acropolis-view rooftop restaurant and a basement spa, it is truly a five-star option.

Designer Rehab Between Syntagma and Plaka, New Hotel is a member of Design Hotels. The 1950s building, renovated by the Brazilian Campana brothers in 2011, has 79 rooms with quirky furniture, plus a rooftop lounge and a wellness centre.

Sleep Central Below the Acropolis, Hotel Plaka is ideally placed for sightseeing. The 67 rooms are basic but comfortable, and the after-dark roof terrace bar affords views of the floodlit Parthenon.

Local living Near the colourful Central Market, EP16 Apartments occupies a 1930s modernist building. The five units (sleeping three to four people) have parquet floors, modern kitchens, king-sized beds and marble bathrooms with Aēsop toiletries. There’s also a communal rooftop garden with sun beds and a fridge.

Hip Hostel In a renovated neoclassical mansion, City Circus hostel combines wooden floors, frescoed ceilings and wrought-iron balconies with vintage furniture and street art. There are 11 rooms, including private doubles with ensuites and dorms sleeping four to six people.

Local places to eat

For the best of innovative contemporary Greek cuisine, book a table at Funky Gourmet, which earned its second Michelin star in March 2014. It’s open for dinner only and there is no à la carte here, just three degustation menus offering an unforgettable foodie experience accompanied by impeccable service.

For good old-fashioned Greek taverna fare, try Klimataria, opposite the Central Market. Classics such as tiropites (cheese pies) and pastitsio (oven-baked pasta with minced meat and bechamel) are served in a rustic dining room with wooden wine barrels and draping grapevines. It’s loved by locals and stages live music and cooking classes.

Athenians nominate Kostas for the best souvlaki in town, a lunchtime takeaway on a leafy square. Dating from 1946, it’s down-to-earth and honest, hence the long queue outside. Come here for succulent kalamakia (chunks of skewered pork) or kebab (minced meat rissoles), wrapped in warm pita with fresh tomato, onion, chips, yoghurt and tomato sauce.

Suburb spotlight

Unlike many European capitals, Athens has beaches within easy reach of the city centre. Escape the heat by heading to Vouliagmeni, overlooking the deep blue Aegean, 20 kilometres south of town. Approached down a palm-lined avenue, it’s made up of smart modern villas and apartment blocks, plus several luxury hotels set amid fragrant pine trees. Athenians come here to swim, either at the pricy Astir beach, complete with four-poster beds, power yoga and water aerobics, or at the less expensive public beach, overlooking a sandy bay.

Moneyed visitors sleep at the luxe Astir Palace, which hosted the 1993 and 2009 meetings of the secretive Bilderberg Group. You can still swim out of season at Lake Vouliagmeni, where mineral waters with therapeutic attributes never drop below 21 degrees Celsius, even in winter.

Hidden gems

Against a backdrop of ancient achievements, traditional folk art and contemporary creativity are thriving in the capital. At the centre of this is the much-loved The Art Foundation (TAF), an art gallery set in a mellow courtyard garden with a coffee bar. Paintings and installations are displayed in the former stables, and the central open-air space stages occasional concerts and DJ nights.

In a renovated 1970s ice-cream factory, The Breeder promotes contemporary Greek artists. Exhibition spaces extend over four floors, and include The Breeder Feeder, a pop-up restaurant hosting guest chefs showcasing their talent, in the same way galleries showcase the works of visual artists.

A must for folk-music enthusiasts, the long-standing Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments exhibits an extensive collection of traditional regional instruments. There are headsets with recordings next to each showcase, so you can hear the sounds made by the instruments. In summer, concerts are held in the adjoining walled garden.

Living like a local

A tête-à-tête with Marina Fokidis — writer, curator and founder of Kunsthalle Athena, an experimental arts centre situated in the up-and-coming Metaxourgio neighbourhood.

How do you think recent political events have affected artists today?

Sometimes the burden of history has a negative effect on creativity — this is true about Greece in general. However, the current crisis has proven to be an inspiring source for contemporary art production. Where do you suggest visitors go to feel the soul of Athens? The historical centre, of course. But they should also visit residential areas under transformation such as Ano Petralona, and eat in local tavernas such as Oikonomou and Therapeftirio. They should see the area around Syntagma, not just the main roads, and explore the galleries and art centres in Metaxourgio, despite the neighbourhood’s roughness.

Where do you suggest visitors go to unwind and relax at the end of a long tiring day?

Filopapou Hill, overlooking the Acropolis, where Bob Dylan and Van Morrison (who found this spot accidentally) jammed and played Foreign Window (you can find this on YouTube). I also recommend visiting an open-air cinema in Athens, such as Dexameni in Kolonaki.

Words by Jane Foster - Published in Voyeur May 2014
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 3 700 000
Time Zone UTC +1
Languages Greek
Currency Euro €
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