Always thought of Athens as dirty, crowded and polluted? Time to think again - since its Olympics makeover, it's a whole new city
My expectations of Athens
were somewhat cliché. I always thought of it as an over-crowded, polluted city with unbearably hot weather. I was right on the last point but completely wide of the mark with the rest. Athens is up there as one of the most exciting and vibrant cities in Europe, catching me completely by surprise.
After an easy three-and-a-half-hour flight from London, I made my way to the extremely cosmopolitan Classical BabyGrand Hotel
, in the gritty city area of Kotzia Square. I had decided to base myself here not only because of its proximity to some of Athens’s hot spots but also to understand just how the city has changed over the past decade. Whilst some neighbouring areas like Plaka and Syndagma have been geared towards tourism for some years now, the neighbourhood surrounding Kotzia has only just found its feet. It’s now a great area for a true Athenian experience but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, until recently it would be fair to say Kotzia Square was somewhat of a disaster zone.
Otherwise known as Platia of the Dimarcheo, or City Hall Square, Kotzia Square was a place to avoid or at best pass through rather quickly. During the building work of a new underground car park back in the early 1990s antiquities were discovered, forcing archaeologists to move in fast and excavate. After the archaeologists finished their work, it was abandoned and left a huge fenced pit, where people threw their rubbish. For the next decade Kotzia was a hangout for junkies and prostitutes and the area had one of the worst reputations in Athens.
Then came the Olympic rejuvenation of the city in the early 2000s. Today Kotzia Square stands as a shining example of the Olympic refurbishment and the remarkable transformation the ancient city has undergone. Now it’s not only one of the most impressive squares in Athens, but one of the most beautiful in the whole of Greece. The handsome neo-classic buildings from the turn of the century have been polished, sanded and painted and now stand elegantly offering a rare glimpse of old Athens. Whilst the excavated pit is still present, it is now cleared and is among one of the city’s many historical sights.
Athens has worked hard to shake off its reputation as an overpopulated, dirty city with only antiquities to offer tourists and has transformed itself into a stand-out cosmopolitan destination. It’s a city crammed with neighbourhoods all offering their own individual experience.
The place to stay
On my arrival at the Classical BabyGrand Hotel
I was pleasantly surprised. My experience with hotels in older European cities is that they can be a bit drab and tired. The Classical BabyGrand
is none of those things; in fact, it is one of the quirkiest hotels
I’ve stayed in, and is an excellent representation of the new Athenian attitude towards design and culture. It’s situated on the edge of Kotzia Square and is as central to the surrounding neighbourhoods as you can get.
The walls of the lobby are covered in laser printed psychedelic wallpaper whilst the front desks are authentic 1960s customised Mini Coopers. Each room in this relatively small hotel has a different theme. I was in the forest room that, along with murals of trees, had paintings of dubious looking fungi! Other rooms available are superhero-themed (Batman or Spiderman, for example), or you can opt for something more childlike with the weird Smurf room (remember them?) The ultimate feature of the hotel though is the bar. It is the only one in Athens to have the seal of approval of Moët et Chandon and is aptly named the Moët bar. Also recommended is the King George Palace
The place to eat
The largely pedestrianised area of Plaka is arguably the most attractive neighbourhood in Athens and a decent bet for a good meal in one of its many eateries. Plaka’s beautifully intricate network of narrow lanes and stepped alleys is staggeringly romantic. It feels a million miles from metropolitan Athens but is a mere 15 minutes’ walk away! This nineteenth century quarter is set at the foot of the mighty Acropolis and everywhere you look, the wonderfully lit Parthenon seems to be rarely out of sight. The plethora of family run Greek tavernas in Plaka offer similar menus mainly consisting of seafood, lamb and veal as well as other Greek favourites such as stuffed vegetables and fresh salads. At around €20 per head for a two-course meal with wine, the prices are also pleasing. On my first night I went to Taverna Nefeli on peaceful Panos Street. I sat outside on the terrace at a small candlelit table under a grapevine, with outstanding panoramic views of the Acropolis, enjoying a delicious glass of Greek red Domaine Semeli. It doesn’t get much better than that!
The place to drink
When I turned the corner from the relaxed, romantic vibe of Plaka into the busy streets of Monastiraki and Psyrri it was like being zapped from the Cotswolds into Soho on a busy Saturday night. There are more drinking bars per square metre here than anywhere else in Athens; people are bulging out onto the streets and the vibe is electric. Due to the balmy evenings, most of the drinking is done outside, making it difficult to know where one bar starts and the other ends. Adriannou Street runs adjacent to the Acropolis, with spectacular views of the Temple of Ares and the Temple of Apollo, and is lined with plenty of trendy bars playing good music. I stopped for a much-needed beer in Bar Kuzina, a modern cocktail bar right in the heart of the action. The streets off Iroon Square deep in the Psyrii district are also well worth checking out. Bar Taki seems to be a favourite with the locals and has nightly guest DJs. Beer is about €4.50 for a large glass and cocktails are around €6.
Now is the time to visit Athens. The Olympic refurbishment has had a tremendously positive effect on the city, with improved infrastructure and cleaner, safer streets. This is a city with a lot to offer, a city on the up. Bring on 2012, I say!
EasyJet flies to Athens from London Gatwick and London Luton with prices from around £32 one-way, or £67 return.
Classical Baby Grand Hotel: Graffiti Double Rooms from around €150 per night (inc tax and breakfast).
King George Palace: double rooms from around €220 per night.