The insider's guide to Athens
Robin Gauldie shares his expertise and experience on how to make the most of a trip to the Greek capital
Athens is amazingly user friendly. Don’t think of Athens as a vast metropolis (although it’s home to some four million people). Visualise it instead as a mosaic of interlocking urban villages. Around every corner, you’ll find little leafy squares with cafes, hipster bars and coffee shops in once-gritty working-class neighbourhoods.
This is the oldest city in Europe, but in many ways is one of the youngest. Around 2,500 years ago, it was the epicentre of civilisation. Only two centuries ago, as Greece became a nation for the first time, it was just a village of a few thousand people, huddled beneath its ancient Acropolis. Since becoming the royal capital of independent Greece in 1834, it has constantly reinvented itself. The remains of ancient temples and marketplaces hint at the glory of Classical Greece. Byzantine churches and a scattering of Ottoman mosques are reminders of later epochs. But most of the modern city is a product of much more recent history.
In the 19th Century, monarchs and plutocrats endowed their capital with grand public buildings and broad boulevards. Home to fewer than half a million Greeks before World War II, population soared exponentially to around four million in the 20th Century. Athens suffered growing pains, but more recently, European Union funds and the can-do spirit of the 2004 Olympics replaced creaking public transport infrastructure with a state-of-the-art integrated tram and metro system. The notorious nefos smog that formerly hung around all summer is a thing of the past, along with diesel-belching buses and trucks.
Mapping your way around
The white marble columns of the Parthenon, topping the crag of the Acropolis, are the crowning glory, next to a gleaming modern museum that one day soon, Athenians hope, will once more house the Parthenon Marbles currently languishing in the leaky old British Museum in London.
Tree-filled Syntagma Square, dominated by Greece’s parliament building and grand hotels, is the central hub. The old Plaka district, huddled between Syntagma and the slopes of the Acropolis, is undeniably tourist territory. But go a little beyond to discover edgy neighbourhoods that Athenians love, yet most visitors never reach.
Tree-filled Syntagma Square, dominated by Greece’s parliament building and grand hotels, is the city’s central hub
South of Plaka and the Acropolis, Koukaki is mainly traffic-free and residential, with a scattering of trendy boutique hotels. The small cafes, restaurants and street-food joints scattered around its leafy squares are frequented more by locals than visitors.
From Syntagma, walk down Ermou – a busy shopping street – to Monastiraki, where a restaurant-filled square at the heart of one of the city’s oldest districts is a go-to for some of the best traditionally grilled lamb, chicken and pork in Athens. It’s also the gateway to the legendary Flea Market, where streets and alleys are crammed with shops selling everything from genuine antiques and curios to worthless junk.
For a real buzz, cross Ermou from the square and walk north to Plateia Iroon. With a boho vibe and bustling after-dark scene, Psyrri has become the new frontier for Athenian creatives. On streets around Plateia Iroon, galleries jostle for space with carpentry and leathercraft workshops, alongside cafes, bars, restaurants and music venues – and every wall is a palimpsest of vivid street art. West of Psyrri, Gazi is a post-industrial district where a massive 19th-Century gasworks has become the vast Technopolis arts and exhibition complex. Surrounding streets are a foodie heaven, with dozens of restaurants, where some of the most creative chefs in Athens deliver menus that combine influences from all over the world.
A treasure of historical records
Don’t miss the Acropolis Museum and National Archaeological Museum, a vast treasury of finds from sites all over Greece. If you have time, stroll up Vasilissis Sofias from Plateia Syntagma to discover three knockout smaller museums – they’re often overshadowed by the big-ticket collections, but together span five millennia of Europe’s oldest culture.
Museum of Cycladic Art
Forget the parvenu sculptors of the Classical era – a mere 2,500 years old. Instead, marvel here at startlingly modernist-seeming marble figurines from the heyday of the enigmatic Cycladic culture, that flourished in the Aegean Islands from around 2800BC.
Byzantine and Christian Museum
Many non-Greeks know little of the Byzantine Empire that dominated the Greek world for more than 1,000 years, so a visit to this museum – packed with glowing icons, fabulous frescoes, mosaics and elaborate embroideries – is a revelation.
Benaki Museum of Greek Culture
This museum, housed in a beautiful neoclassical building, gives you some idea of what Athens looked like after its late-19th Century rebirth. Highlights of the collection include arts and crafts from the 17th Century to post-independence and 20th Century Greece.
Take a moment to enjoy food and drink
From old-school grill-houses to Michelin-starred fine dining restaurants (six of them at the last count), Athens is a glutton’s paradise.
The drinks list is equally varied. A new generation of winemakers has taken advantage of Greece’s hugely varied terroirs, microclimates and uniquely Greek varietal vines to produce world-class reds and whites that are hard to find outside Greece (high-end Athenian restaurants snap up much of the product). Raki, the Greek version of grappa, is no longer just a simple raw grape spirit, but is now offered in a range of mellow, cask-aged versions for sipping, not gulping. Cocktails have also become a thing, with sophisticated lounges popping up all over the city centre. Greeks eat late and stay up later – you’ll find plenty of spots for after-dinner drinks in the small hours.
Greeks eat late and stay up later – you’ll find plenty of spots for after-dinner drinks in the small hours.
The beauty of souvlaki, Greece’s most popular street food, is its simplicity: meat on a skewer, grilled over charcoal, commonly wrapped in pita bread with sliced tomatoes, onions and yoghurt. Souvlaki has a rich history, as popular in ancient Athens as it is today. Souvlatzidika (souvlaki joints) serve up kalamaki (grilled pork or chicken skewers), kebab (in Greece, sausage-shaped patties of minced lamb and beef), the ubiquitous gyros and burger-like bifteki. Best of all is kontosouvli: chunks of marinated meat, onion, tomato and peppers, slow-roasted over charcoal.
Top picks of foodie heaven
An anchor of the Monastiraki food scene since 1879, with a sturdy traditional menu that hasn’t changed much. Walls are hung with a century’s worth of photos of celebrity patrons.
The Dimotiki Agora Municipal Market, half a dozen blocks from Syntagma, is a curious foodie’s paradise, although veggies, vegans and the squeamish should avoid the cavernous meat and seafood sections. It’s surrounded by authentic eateries like Karamanlidika, where you can sample fiery sausages, salty anchovies, pungent cheeses and homemade pastrami at marble-topped tables.
Custard-filled bougatsa pastries really come from Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, but have caught on in a big way here. Watch them being prepared by hand in the open kitchen at this patisserie in Psyrri’s central square.
Plateia Iroon 1
Chef Lefteris Lazarou earned his Michelin star with signature seafood dishes like grouper with artichoke from Tinos, peas, egg yolk and lemon in stonefish broth. Not cheap, of course, but worth every cent. Vegan and vegetarian options too.
Akti Koumoundourou 54
One Michelin star
The coolest of the city’s new-wave cocktail bars, with a dazzlingly innovative drinks menu.
By the Glass
This stylish wine bar and restaurant is an education for any connoisseur who doubts that Greek vineyards can produce world-class vintages. More than 500 wines to sample.
G. Souri 3/Fillelinon
Beautifully preserved old-school cafe on a square next to the Flea Market.
Hitting the town for the night
For a great evening out, head for one of the rebetadika spots. Rebetiko is often described as the country’s answer to the blues, born of the hard years of the 1920s, when more than a million Greeks were driven from their ancestral homes in Turkey into exile in Greece – predominantly in the working-class neighbourhoods of Athens. The basic line-up (all acoustic, say purists) features one or two bouzoukia, guitar, violin, contrabass and accordion. Exarchia, the gritty area around the university, is the epicentre, with joints like Aggelos and Kavouras.
Shop ’til you drop
Check out the shops attached to the Museum of Cycladic Art, the Acropolis Museum and National Archaeological Museum for copies of ancient artworks – plenty of them, like doll-sized terracotta heads, small enough to fit into your carry-on luggage.
The mercantile shoreline is shaking off its gritty past to rebrand as the ‘Athens Riviera’. For a couple of days of pampering by the sea, try The Alex (www.santikoscollection.com/thealex) – a 34-room boutique hotel with an acclaimed rooftop restaurant overlooking Microlimano, a tiny harbour where yachts and fishing boats jostle for space. It’s lined with posh bars and seafood restaurants.
Islands on your doorstep
Jump on a fast ferry from Piraeus for a taste of island life. It takes just 90 minutes to get to Hydra, an almost annoyingly cute haven where tiers of old stone houses rise above a quayside lined with cafes. Favoured by 1960s bohemians, including singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, this traffic-free base has a portfolio of fabulously romantic and boutique hideaways, including the Hotel Bratsera, with the island’s only pool (www.bratserahotel.com), Hotel Miranda (www.mirandahotel.gr) and Hotel Hydroussa (www.hydroussahotel.gr). Check out www.thehotelguru.com for more great places to stay on Hydra.
For ferry timetables and bookings, visit www.gtp.gr
With a car, you can take a short, but epic journey into Greece’s deep history
With a car, you can take a short, but epic journey into Greece’s deep history, pausing at Roman-era Corinth, Homeric Mycenae and Tiryns – and the echoingly vast open-air theatre at Epidavros. Stop overnight in postcard-pretty Navplio, a tranquil harbour town beneath a vast Venetian citadel. The historic Hotel Byron (www.byronhotel.gr) with its wrought-iron balconies and views over the Gulf of Navplio, is a top choice for an overnight stay and there are plenty of great places to eat.
Moving around Athens
Metro line 32 connects the airport with Syntagma and other downtown points. Trains run every 30 minutes, take around 40 minutes, costing €9 one way. A taxi costs a fixed €40. Much of the old city centre has been pedestrianised.