The historic Greek capital of Athens is an increasingly exciting destination, with a sophisticated restaurant and café scene to match its stunning ancient archaeological monuments
Once the playground of the rich and famous, you probably had to know an Onassis to get the best out of this old city. The less flush may have found the Greek capital more package than picturesque, but not any more. Today, this historic city is a lot more than the sum of its famous monuments: it oozes street-style and swagger, a legacy of the colossal investment poured into the city’s infrastructure and buildings for the 2004 Olympic Games. From the manicured central squares to the contemporary museums, boutique hotels and cool clubs, this is a city that has elegantly risen to become one of Europe’s must-visit capitals.
What to do
Visit the Acropolis (00 30 210 321 0219; www.acropolis.gr) first thing in the morning to avoid the heat and the crowds. Wonder at the huge Parthenon but don’t forget to take a look at the wonderful friezes of the Temple of Athena Nike before walking down the hill through the pine forest to the Theatre of Dionysos. Then explore the cobbled streets of Plaka; the Anafiotika area is especially picturesque, with colourful flowerpots lining the tiny houses’ whitewashed walls. Shop for sandals, sunglasses and souvenirs in Monastiraki Square, visit the designer shops and plush cafés of Kolonaki or stop at the Agora (central market) on Athinas Street to stock up on salt cod, olives and pickled garlic.
The National Archaeological Museum (00 30 210 821 7717) is filled with Mycenaean treasures and classic Hellenistic statuary and simply unmissable for anyone interested in ancient Greek culture. But if it’s contemporary art you’re after, take the metro to Keramiko where you will find a plethora of artists’ studios and hip galleries.
Once you’ve had your fill of urban buzz and ancient sites, head to Piraeus, Athens’ buzzing port, for sunset drinks by the sea. The pretty Mikrolimano harbour is lined with waterside cafés and a great place to relax with a glass of ouzo.
Where to stay
The landmark, turn-of-the-century Grande Bretagne is the place to wallow in indulgent luxury. Truly majestic, the rooms with an Acropolis view are definitely worth the surcharge. For contemporary decor, stay at the sleek and stylish Fresh Hotel, situated in the heart of the spice market. Meanwhile, Hotel Semiramis, designed by Karim Rashid, is ultra-hip and slightly mad with its bold furniture and funky colours. Be sure to ask for a bungalow by the pool.
Where to eat and drink
The Athenians love to spend their afternoons putting the world to rights on a leafy terrace, sipping a cold frappé (iced coffee). Join them at Athinaion Politeia (00 30 210 341 3795) on Apostolou Pavlou or at Ionos (00 30 210 322 3139) on Angelou Geronta. Or take a break with an espresso and a slice of delicious apple pie at the lovely Filion (00 30 210 361 2850) on Skoufa 34 in Kolonaki.
For lunch, try a traditional taverna: feast on mussels pilaf and stuffed vine leaves at the bohemian Café Abyssinia (00 30 210 321 7047) in Monastiraki or tuck into large dishes of fried aubergine with skordalia (garlic sauce) at Damigos (00 30 210 322 5084), a basement restaurant in Plaka. Head to locals’ favourite Tzitzikas kai Mermigas (00 30 210 324 7607; Mitropoleos 12-14): a good way to sample lots of different regional takes on the cuisine, it serves a range of mezedhes, or small dishes, such as cheese pies and salads.
For dinner, make a booking at one of the capital’s hottest tables. The Michelin-starred Varoulko (00 30 210 522 8400) is all about seafood; the menu includes sea urchin risotto or baby calamari with a tahini-tinged sauce. Apla Aristera-Dexia (00 30 210 321 0219), the domain of local chef Karamolegos, serves contemporary Greek cuisine, while 48 The Restaurant (00 30 210 641 1082; www.48therestaurant.com) is a very popular eatery.
Time running out?
Pop into Elixirion, on Evripidhou 41, and fill your basket with local produce such as dried oregano, honey with thyme, spices and fragrant olive-oil soaps.
If you don’t have time to walk, jump aboard the number 400 bus that links all the major sites, from the Archeological Museum to the Acropolis and the Greek Parliament. Tickets cost €5 and allow you to hop on and off all day long.
Currency is the euro. Athens is two hours ahead of GMT and a three-hour 45-minute flight from London.
Athens Tourist Information: Amerikis Street 2 (00 30 210 322 3111; www.athensguide.org). Visit the website for opening times.
Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens by Sofka Zinovieff (Granta Books, £7.99). An inspiring account of setting up home in the city.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.