Mediterranean street food, modernist marvels and politically inspired nightlife are some of the surprises chosen by this writer and film-maker
Inspired by the city’s activists and creatives, journalist and film-maker Alex King moved to Athens in 2017 to chronicle attempts to breathe new life into a city worn down by crisis.
Athens has a fascinating mix of young innovators bringing fresh ideas to the city’s culinary scene and idiosyncratic old eateries that feel frozen in time. For lunch, head down Karori Street in the ancient Psiri district to Feyrouz, which is run by a family of cooks and musicians who trace their ancestry back through Lebanon, Cyprus and Istanbul to ancient Antioch. Their delicious pan-Mediterranean street food celebrates the way generations of people moved around this region – taking their foods, flavours and music with them. For dinner, Kottaroú, behind the railway station on Agias Sofias, is an underground taverna that dates back to 1885, where you can feast on homemade specialities while musicians play intimate rebetiko (Greek blues) sets.
You need special eyes to fall in love with the concrete chaos of modern Athens. I started to see it all in a new way and appreciate its architecture and social history thanks to Nikos Vatopoulos, urban explorer and culture editor at Greek newspaper Kathimerini. I interviewed him for We’ll Always Have Athens, a podcast I co-produced in the first lockdown. Whenever I need inspiration, I follow a flâneurial adventure from Nikos’s book Walking in Athens: they are pure urban poetry and discovery. It led me to areas near where he grew up, such as Patisia and Kypseli, with their experimental modernist housing, strongholds of the wartime resistance and a marble dog statue beloved by generations of Athenian children.
You often hear the ruckus from inside Communitism before you see it. The labyrinthine mansion-cum-workshop that houses this community-run art space looks like it could fall down at any minute. But while its guardians slowly restore the place from inside, it hosts some of the most original and free-spirited events in Athens, from political discussions to art shows, Balkan brass band spectaculars and techno parties.
Climbing one of the hills of Athens is a great way to catch a breath of fresh air and appreciate the city’s spectacular geography. But nothing can compare to the view from 1,000-metre Mount Hymettus. It’s great for hiking but I love to cycle up through Kaisariani forest an hour or two before sunset. You are rewarded with increasingly jaw-dropping views at each break in the trees until you reach the summit and catch the last rays of sun over the Saronic Gulf.
Kypseli, where I live, has one of the most interesting social, architectural and cultural mixes of any European neighbourhood. In the 1950s and 60s it was the most desirable area in the city, where international stars like Frank Sinatra would hang out when they visited. It then fell into a long decay after its well-heeled residents left for the suburbs. A resurgence over the past decade or so has transformed it into Athens’ most diverse and exciting neighbourhood. The grand but faded modernist apartment blocks coexist with exciting incomers such as Kolchidas Georgian bakery on Fokionos Negri Street and Lalibela Ethiopian restaurant on Naxou. Relive Kypseli’s glamorous past with a film at Stella, a retro open-air cinema with bright neon-pink lighting, then drinks at Au Revoir, a nouvelle-vague-with-a-Greek-twist drinking hole run by the Papatheodorou family since 1958.
Monsieur Didot (doubles from €131 B&B) shows what can be done when a neoclassical building is lovingly restored. The boutique hotel pays homage to Ambroise Firmin Didot, a French entrepreneur who brought his grandfather’s typeface to Greece with a field press during the 1821 War of Independence. It’s a great place to stay if you need inspiration for your next masterpiece.