The past looms large in Athens, but visitors will be wowed by its resilience and innovation
It feels like only yesterday that television news bulletins cut to vox pops of tourists in Athens queuing at clapped-out cash machines amid the summer of capital controls in 2015. Seven years later, after the Grexit that never happened, the Greek capital is like a different world. Tourism has been an engine of economic recovery and the only reminder that this corner of Europe ran out of cash is the persistent anti-capitalist graffiti on the walls of high street banks.
Nonetheless, after hits on the tourist trade from both the financial crisis and Covid-19, an increasing number of the steadily returning visitors are looking for something different. Beneath the Acropolis, the souvenir shops on the pedestrianised streets of Plaka are busy as ever, as are the bars of upscale Kolonaki – but if you’re looking for a break that follows the locals’ lead, there are dozens of spots off the tourist trail that could blow your mind.
Since the financial crisis, neighbourhoods such as Kypseli, Exarcheia and Neos Kosmos have witnessed varying degrees of regeneration, in many cases community led, and often influenced by migrant communities, in particular Kypseli and Neos Kosmos.
I visited as Greece was lifting final Covid restrictions and the capital was showing every sign of bursting back to its lively, frenetic normal. Homemade baskets and leather sandals blossomed from boutiques, inviting some modest haggling over inflated prices.
Communists and cars
In Exarcheia, often referred to as the city’s “anarchist neighbourhood”, a ping pong tournament was under way as Turkish and Kurdish communists spilled out onto the street from a bar emblazoned with a huge hammer and sickle. In a central square not far away, a free techno concert was boosted by a plentiful supply of complimentary miniature cans of lager.
Psiri is no stranger to regeneration. Once down-at-heel, the district is now a hip nightlife hub whose fortunes were transformed by the 2004 Olympic Games. It’s also home to the Arion Athens Hotel where the rooftop terrace has spectacular views of the Acropolis and Parthenon.
From here, I made for the Hellenic Motor Museum, a private but publicly-accessible collection of cars, classic and modern, magically elevated to the upper levels of the Athenian Capitol shopping mall near the sprawling Pedion Areos park.
Founded by the flamboyant Greek motoring enthusiast Theodore Charagionis, it’s one of a number of quirky museums demonstrating that there’s more to the city’s heritage offering than the ruins of ancient civilisation.
A guided tour took me from pre-war Bentleys and Rolls-Royces to a quaint Mini pick-up truck manufactured in Greece after industrial unrest broke out at a British automotive factory.
Not that you should skip the classic beat of museums paying homage to the city’s immense contribution to Western culture and its role as the birthplace of democracy. The Acropolis Museum re-opened in 2009 to house every artefact found on the ancient citadel housing the Parthenon.
It’s visible all over the city and can feel rather overwhelming in scale, so as a first-time visitor, I booked in with Be a Greek, which organises guided tours with a brief to “turn you into a true local”.
Knowledgable guide Stamatia navigated our path through the labyrinthine aisles of exhibits, peppering their descriptions with contexts ancient and modern. Without her insights we’d probably never have appreciated that many of the statues and reliefs on display – now all in dull greys and whites as you also see at the British Musuem – were once resplendent in colour.
After a cold ouzo on the museum’s terrace, it was time for dinner. Now a favourite on the Athenian culinary map, Cookoovaya was opened by five of the city’s leading chefs to introduce diners to “wise cuisine” – a blend of traditional Greek flavours with modern haute cuisine. The scallops and grilled octopus – served with a puree of fava beans – were sublime, although two courses and house wine will set you back around €150.
Tavernas without the price tag
Athens’s best food can also be found in unlikely spots. The city is brimming with no-nonsense tavernas which can be hit and miss – but a little research and review sleuthing can turn up real gems. Taverna Aris in the Arcade of the Immortals, an old marketplace between the central districts of Omonoia and Psiri, served a succulent Greek salad, grilled fish and crisp white wine with plenty of change from a €20 note. For a more serene spot, try Cherchez la Femme, which as well as seafood offers souvlaki, moussaka and tapas-style accompaniments at moderate prices.
A wander off any main drag can throw you a few surprises. In Plaka, I found Tom’s Corner on Iperidou Street, an unorthodox gift shop selling only wire model bicycles and painted plastic wine bottles. Proprietor Tom McGrath has decorated his walls with slogans. His house collapsed on the site in 1999 earthquake but Tom, an Irish expatriate, has been somewhat more difficult to shift.
Close to one of the oldest squares in the city, Omonoia, the Brown Acropol Hotel channels the 60s with mid-century furnishings and retro patterns. Though I had no intentions of going camouflage on the trip, the wallpaper was a near-exact match for a summer shirt from Asda’s fathers’ day range which I’d brought along to manage the warm weather.
Cooling off by the coast
When the city gets too hot, Athenians flock to the islands, notably Hydra, around 90 minutes away by ferry. In the 50s and 60s, a colony of artists decamped here – including Leonard Cohen, who wrote “So long, Marianne” in tribute to his muse and girlfriend Marianne Ihlen, who also lived on the island. Its port town is rather tourist-heavy, but a short wander along the coast will put you in reach of stunning, unblemished landscapes and delicious seafood.
Closer still is the Athenian Riviera, where Boris and Carrie Johnson were recently spotted, and island of Evia, where they moved on to the town of Karistos.
I found Hydra the perfect respite from city life – and when you return to the mainland you’ll be fully recharged for the wonders of a city that always seems to have a pleasant surprise just round the corner.
How to get there
Aegean flies to Athens from several UK airports
Where to stay
Arion Athens Hotel has doubles from £85 B&B
Brown Acropol Hotel has doubles from £130
Where to eat and drink
Cherchez la Femme
Where to visit
Acropolis Museum tour with Be a Greek
Hellenic Motor Museum
Hydra Walking Tours