Ancient glory, urban grit and coastal glamour
For a city with so much mythical and cultural baggage, Athens is surprisingly modern. Sure, there are Byzantine churches tucked among the tightly knit apartments and the Parthenon looms into view around nearly every corner. But come expecting a living postcard and you’ll be in for a shock. Three million people are crammed into this hectic, 24-hour city. Yet there’s an intimacy to the way life is lived outdoors in neighbourhood squares, rooftop bars, and balconies where neighbours gossip in their nighties. And there’s an irrepressible energy that has propelled Athens through a decade of austerity to become southern Europe’s most happening cultural capital.
Explore this edgy new energy in off-centre neighbourhoods like Kypseli and Keramikos, where abandoned, graffiti-covered buildings are being converted into galleries, enterprising newcomers are enlivening the food scene, and digital nomads ensure the cafés are constantly full. If you need to escape the urban hustle, there’s no need to hit the islands: Athens has a sparkling coastline of beach resorts where you can swim six months of the year.
Hot right now . . .
Rachel Howard, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest things to do and the best places to eat, drink and stay this season.
Picasso and Antiquity. Line and Clay, at the Museum of Cycladic Art (4 Neophytou Douka; 00 30 210 722 8321), is a rare opportunity to see ceramics and drawings by Picasso juxtaposed with ancient artefacts on loan from 15 Greek museums. Runs until 20 October 2019.
Fita (1 Ntourm; 00 30 697 434 0034) is so new it doesn’t have a website or even a Facebook page. And it doesn’t need either to draw local crowds to the working class neighbourhood of Dourgouti for Fotis Fotinoglou’s modern Greek comfort food.
You’ll love the sassy cocktails made with Greek spirits like tsipouro, mastiha, and yes, ouzo, at To Lokali(44 Sarri; 00 30 210 325 0673), a neo-retro bar-restaurant hidden in a plant-filled, softly lit backyard in Psirri.
With a blue mosaic floor that feels like stepping into a swimming pool, Ancient Greek Sandal's first flagship store instantly puts you in holiday mood (1 Kolokotroni; 00 30 210 323 0938). Snap up leopard-print slides, winged jelly shoes, and limited-edition sandals embellished by Greek jewellers.
48 hours in . . . Athens
Plenty of world-famous sites don’t live up to the hype, but the Parthenon (00 30 210 321 4172) never disappoints. Poised above the concrete clamour, this classical icon has dominated the Athens skyline for 2,500 years. To commune with the monument, you need to avoid the crowds and the heat — the resplendent marble reflects the fierce Athenian sun. Beat the coach parties by clambering up to the Acropolis when the site opens at 8am (pro tip: where sneakers, not flip flops or, god forbid, heels). Skip the queues by purchasing your tickets online. If you’re staying in Athens for a few days, buy a combined €30 (£27) ticket, valid for five days, that also gives you access to the Ancient and Roman Agora, Hadrian's Library, the temple of Olympian Zeus, the enchanting necropolis of Kerameikos, and Aristotle's Lyceum.
You can literally walk in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks at the newly opened excavations beneath the Acropolis Museum (15 Dionysiou Areopagitou; 00 30 210 900 0900), a modern masterpiece that takes you on a chronological journey through antiquity. Previously only visible through the museum’s reinforced glass floors, you can now wander through a whole neighbourhood of mosaic-lined residences, workshops, and bathhouses. The museum’s second-floor restaurant — and especially its angular terrace, jutting towards the Acropolis — offers seasonal salads, soups, and specials, with quintessentially Athenian views.
Anafiotika, a Cycladic village clinging to the northern slopes of the Acropolis, is a lovely place for an aimless wander. Cats snooze among the potted geraniums lined up outside crooked whitewashed cottages. These humble, but hugely desirable, dwellings were originally built by stonemasons from the island of Anafi, shipped to Athens by King Otto to knock up his palace (now the Parliament building) in the mid-19th century.
The Anafiotes also built the fancier mansions that line Plaka, the self-consciously quaint old town of Athens, where Lord Byron once penned odes to underage maids. Beyond the identikit souvenir shops, you’ll stumble upon Byzantine chapels (usually open, so you can light a candle and admire the fading frescoes); quirky museums dedicated to everything from folk music to modern Greek art; and the intriguing Benizelos Mansion (96 Adrianou; 00 30 210 324 8861), a rare example of Ottoman architecture.
Dig deep and you’ll even find treasure among the tourist tat: antique textiles and ceramics at Amorgos (3 Kodrou; 00 30 210 324 3836); straw and leather visors at Matalou at Home (5 Ipitou; 00 30 697 263 5512); marble busts and covetable curiosities at Eclectica (10 Hairefontos; 00 30 211 401 4322).
Peckish? Snare a table outside at Saita (21 Kidathinaion; 00 30 210 322 6671), one of the last surviving koutoukia, or basement tavernas, in Plaka. It’s famous for bakaliaro-skordalia (battered cod with intense garlic sauce), but all the Greek classics are done well here, from grilled lamb chops to pastitsio (Greek-style lasagne, always popular with kids).
Stroll a few blocks to the Trigono (Triangle), a warren of streets and arcades between Syntagma, Monastiraki, and Omonia Squares. Currently undergoing an ambitious pedestrianisation and regeneration project, this traditional shopping district has whole streets devoted to haberdasheries, door handles and neon lights. Peppered among them are fashionable bars and globally inspired restaurants.
My pick for a nightcap is Heteroclito, an unpretentious wine bar on a lively pedestrian corner. They’ve just expanded to a smaller space next door, serving natural Greek wines paired with Anatolian bites from the city’s best and friendliest street food joint, Feyrouz (23 Karori; 00 30 213 031 8060).
Three of the city’s finest museums are strung along Vasilissis Sofias Avenue, the Museum Mile of Athens. The Byzantine and Christian Museum (22 Vasilissis Sofias; 00 30 213 213 9517) has an awe-inspiring collection of icons, mosaics and religious paraphernalia, housed in a porticoed building with a monastic atmosphere. The lovely gardens offer cool respite on a summer’s day.
The enigmatic marble figurines at the Museum of Cycladic Art (Vasilissis Sofias & 1 Irodotou; 00 30 210 722 8321-3) appear incredibly modern, although they were sculpted in the Bronze Age. Their powerful influence on generations of artists, from Cy Twombly to Ai Wei Wei, is explored in blockbuster exhibitions that cost a fraction of what they would in other European capitals. The light-filled café is rather too pricy, but the superb gift shop is worth a splurge. (Current favourites: silk fan earrings by Katerina Makriyianni and brightly painted bowls by Philippos Theodorides.)
Next stop: the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture (1 Koumbari & Vasilissis Sofias; 00 30 210 367 1000), an elegantly curated panorama of Greek arts and crafts through the ages. Check out the elaborate folk costumes and two giddily ornate parlours from Ottoman-era Macedonia.
Walk through the pleasantly scruffy National Garden to the all-marble Panathinaic Stadium (Vasileos Konstantinou Avenue; 00 30 210 752 2984-6), home to the first modern Olympics. Sprint around the running track and strike a pose on the winner’s podium. Then hop over the top-tier seats and follow the joggers and dog-walkers over wooded Ardittos Hill to the underratedFirst Cemetery of Athens (3 Logginou), where you can wander among the mournfully beautiful gravestones of Greek grandees, from George Seferis to Melina Mercouri.
Favoured by the Athenian intelligentsia, the Pangrati neighbourhood has a high concentration of cinemas, theatres and inexpensive tavernas where locals go for a late dinner. Join them for a cult classic at Oasis (7 Pratinou; 00 30 724 4015), a deliciously retro open-air cinema, followed by moussaka at Olympion (9 Anapfseos; 00 30 210 924 4388) or wild boar souvlaki at Vyrinis(11 Archimidous; 00 30 210 701 2153).
You’ll find all the local hipsters hanging out on Archelaou street. Pop into Maraboo (17 Archelaou; 00 30 210 724 7037) for an ouzo ice cream, Ohh Boy (32 Archelaou; 00 30 211 183 8340) for a banoffee pie, or tiny, groovy Mint (30 Archelaou; 00 30 693 715 5277) for a mojito.
Where to stay . . .
This legendary resort, where Onassis, Bardot and Sinatra once hung out, is located on a pine-clad peninsula in sought-after Vouliagmeni. Guests come to the Four Seasons Astir Palace to enjoy a beach holiday, spa and city break rolled into one glamorous, authentically Greek experience. Every room has a sea view; even the bathrooms are glass-fronted so you can enjoy that mesmerising vista as you soak in the bathtub.
Doubles from €400 (£345). 40 Apollonos Street, Vouliagmeni; 00 94 5735 75489
Perianth Hotel is a beautifully updated 1930s landmark in the historic heart of Athens that has all the markings of a future classic. The vibe is calm and uncluttered, a soothing sanctuary filled with modern art and custom-made furniture. The biggest perk for guests is free access to the Zen Centre on the first floor, an inspiring space with a daily schedule of martial arts, meditation and yoga classes.
Doubles from €150 (£135). 2 Limpona Street; 00 30 210321 6660
Central, affordable lodgings are often bland and basic, but City Circus Hostel brims with warmth and charisma, and resembles a vintage showroom in Berlin or Brooklyn more than a budget hostel in Athens. Housed in a pair of handsome townhouses, there’s a sociable vibe in the large living room, a buzzy bistro and colourful roof terrace.
Doubles from €60 (£50). Sarri 16; 00 30 21 3023 7244
What to bring home . . .
The simple, hand-made leather sandals and satchels from Olgianna Melissinos (7 Normanou; 00 30 210 331 1925) will last a lifetime and never go out of style.
Pick up tin taverna jugs from the old-fashioned homeware shops on Athinas and Pallados street in Psirri. Traditionally, the red jug was used for retsina, blue for water and yellow for olive oil.
When to go . . .
The Greek capital remains lively all through the year. For sightseeing, warm, sunny days make autumn or spring the best times to visit; soaring temperatures from mid-June to late-August can be tiring. Between November and February the weather is unpredictable, ranging from crisp, bright days to rain and even occasional snow – the compensation being a relative scarcity of tourists. In fact, it can make a lovely winter city break.
Know before you go . . .
British Embassy: 00 30 210 7272 600, Ploutarchou 1, Kolonaki; gov.uk
Greek Emergency services: dial 112
Athens Tourist Office: thisisathens.org; Info Point at Dionysiou Aeropagitou 18-20, Makrigianni (opposite the Acropolis Museum, on the edge of Plaka); 00 30 210 321 7116; open May-Sep 9am-9pm; closed Oct-Apr. There is also an Info Point at Athens Airport; 00 30 210 353 0390; open all year, daily 8am-8pm
Currency: Euro (€)
Telephone code: dial 00 30 for Greece, if calling from the UK
Time difference: +2 hours
Flight time: London to Athens is 3 hours 50 minutes
Rachel Howard has lived in Athens on and off since she was six, but this chaotic, historic city still gives her a thrill. Favourite Athenian pastimes include: iced coffee overlooking sun-dappled ruins, fried whitebait by the seaside and late nights in squares that smell of jasmine and cigarettes.
Experience Athens with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels and tours in Athens, tried, tested and recommended by our Athens experts.