The Greek capital has added impressive arts venues, daring restaurants and a blossoming hotel scene to its well-known Classical draws.
Here’s a surprise: while the Athenians were locked up in a pandemic, a flurry of creative activity and entrepreneurship was underway. The result? A total of 272 new restaurants, according to the local industry association, as well as hundreds of other cafes and bars. The city has also acquired 34 new hotels offering 1,982 rooms in the past two years. And its cultural landmarks flourished, with the emergence of major national projects bearing fruit.
“We have seen a cultural revival and a growing gastronomy scene showing the new dynamism of the city,” said Vassilis Kikilias, Greece’s Minister of Tourism. Adding in building new hotels and upgrading old ones, Mr. Kikilias said made him “optimistic about the season”.
As of May, the number of foreign visitors to the city was still below 2019 levels, but by only 12 percent, and since then crowds have returned to central plazas and landmarks in numbers reminiscent of pre-pandemic days.
Covid vaccination certificates are no longer required to enter the country or visit shops, restaurants and museums, and since June 1, protective masks are no longer required in closed public places except for hospitals, pharmacies, public transport and ferries.
Cultural gems shine again
The Greek capital’s newest cultural gem (or rather an impressively shiny old gem), the National Gallery reopened last year after an eight-year overhaul worth €60 million. Twice the size of the original building, the elegant new building features a glass facade that allows natural light to illuminate the exhibits and offers visitors a glimpse of the city around every corner. You can spend hours exploring the three floors to map the evolution of Greek art over the course of nearly seven centuries. But even a short visit should not be overlooked by the attractive works of the modern Greek painters Konstantinos Parthenis and Yiannis Tsarochis with their dreamlike icons, and the luminous paintings of Orientalist Theodoros Rallis and post-impressionist Iakovos Ryzos.
A fourth floor dedicated to Western European art is due to open in the coming weeks and will include paintings by Picasso and Mondrian that were stolen in a daring one-man heist in 2012 and recovered last year.
Another treasure for art lovers is the National Museum of Contemporary Art, a former brewery that opened in late February 2020 after an extensive renovation, but closed almost immediately with the country’s first closure. Five floors of thought-provoking sculptures, videos, and installations by Greek and foreign artists—new exhibitions grappling with themes of nation-building, mass protests, and the environment—are topped by a rooftop terrace with a panoramic view stretching from the Acropolis to the south coast.
Stimulated by a wave of creativity fueled by the social upheaval that came with the decade-long financial crisis, the capital’s independent art scene has boomed again during the pandemic, with exciting new spaces opening for art viewing. One of the smartest tobacco plants is a former tobacco factory in the gritty Kolonos district of Athens, whose pink and yellow facade has drawn comparisons to Battenberg’s giant cake. After the first exhibition last summer, the venue reopened in June with a display of 18 large-scale installations from the collection of businessman Dimitris Dascalopoulos, founder of NEON, the cultural organization that overhauled the factory, which recently donated hundreds of works to museums including the Guggenheim.
eating and drinking
There has been an uproar about Linou Soumpasis & Co. Since it opened in December in the vibrant central Psyrri district. Regardless of the new pub’s labels and bistronomy, the self-proclaimed “simple restaurant” offers quality food with a modern twist from the bustling open kitchen. The focus is on fresh food, especially fish, with the menu updated daily according to the distance of the day. Modern dishes include John Dory’s light feather rice with seaweed in cucumber juice, and juicy Piper fish grilled in zucchini puree. Veal stew in chickpea soup is also popular, as is a selection of homemade bread and organic wines from small Greek producers. Expect to pay around €110 (about $116) for a three-course dinner with wine for two. Wines range from €22 to €150 bottles all available in glass.
A few blocks away, Gastone, the latest project by the people behind Cookoovaya (recommended in the Michelin Guide), serves up Mediterranean flavors and street food in a vibrant retro setting that’s part classic Greek pub, part American diner. . Dinner for two costs around €30, and highlights include a crunchy ham sandwich and a twist on tzatziki made with Gorgonzola cheese.
Two newcomers to the modernized industrial areas of Athens are also attracting massive crowds. Tzoutzouka in Roof offers adventures of traditional Greek dishes, such as a rich red-sauce lamb tagine with homemade pasta and spicy hard cheese for around €30 per person with wine. Proveleggios in nearby Kerameikos is the latest attempt by the minds behind the highly popular Nolan, serving inventive cuisines like hand-pulled pasta with sweet wild vegetables in an empty dipping sauce and cocktails on a tree-lined terrace against indie rock. Dinner is about 35€ per person without drinks.
For cocktail lovers, Athens offers an amazing selection of new drinking places. At Bar in Front of the Bar, in a bustling pedestrian-only alley near the central Syntagma Square, energetic young staff prepare classic cocktails using ingredients produced on site, with prices starting at €7. Those who want to grab their drink with a view of the city can join the bohemian crowd at the Attic Urban Rooftop in the bustling Monastiraki neighborhood, one of several new rooftop terraces, where prices for cocktails range from €11 to €13.
In the up-and-coming Petralona neighborhood is Line Athens (the sister pub of world-class Clumsies) where staff shake cocktails with homemade vermouth, for €10.
The area itself is home to Hervé, the hidden new restaurant of Paris-born Hervé Pronzato whose experience as a chef in Athens includes tenures at Michelin-starred Spondi and Hytra. Hervé has a 17-course tasting menu that offers a mix of dishes that reflect Mr. Pronzato’s eating of international cuisine for €95 per person. No sign – to enter, you hit the code you got with your reservation.
In Soil, in the Pangrati district, Tasos Mantis, who was also a former Hytra chef, presents “earthy gastronomy” using vegetables and herbs grown on his own farm in a neoclassical building with a tranquil garden. The tasting menu, priced at €86, includes shrimp in orange sauce, pecans, fennel and scallops with yuzu kocho, grapefruit and lemon confit.
Upscale options for both dining and lodging include the upscale Xenodocheio Milos, which promotes itself as the capital’s first “5-star gastronomy hotel” – the latest project of celebrity chef Costas Spiliadis, who has established his restaurant Milos brand in locations including New York, Montreal and London. Rooms start at around €230 per night, while dining starts at around €60 per person, with specials including sea bass baked in sea salt, fried zucchini, and delicate eggplant.
New residence along the coast and in the city
One of the newest locations for hotels is the so-called Athens Riviera, a 60-kilometre coastline dotted with marinas, beaches, and secluded coves about 30 minutes by taxi from the city center. Opened in 2019, the Four Seasons Astir Palace on a pine-covered peninsula there offers 303 rooms (starting at €1,700 in July and €1,100 in August) and fine dining with sea views at the Michelin-starred restaurant Pelagos. A nine-course tasting menu including crystal caviar, red prawns and baked octopus ink for €160 per person.
Wyndham’s Ramada Attica Riviera Hotel recently opened its doors in a quiet location on the Riviera and offers spacious rooms with sea view starting at €120 per night, with more hotels due to open in the coming months.
In Athens, there is no shortage of accommodation options. Of the 34 hotels that opened in Greater Athens during the pandemic, 26 are in the city center. A newcomer in the renovated Omonia central square, the Brown Acropolis with its modern take on the aesthetics of 1960s Athens (has 165 rooms starting at €130 per night). It is one of four hotels opened in the capital by the rapidly expanding Israeli chain Brown. On the same square, in the heart of the capital’s historic and business district, is the ultra-modern Moxy Athens City of the Marriott, with its bright interiors, cheerful crew and comfortable rooms starting at €170 per night.
A few blocks away, near Psiri’s nightlife, is the quaint Selena Athena Theatre, part of the global hospitality brand, with bright, frescoed rooms and airy coworking spaces from €90 to €120 a night.
And in the heart of the city near the Greek Parliament, Athens Capital – MGallery features a rooftop infinity pool with a view of the Acropolis, with prices starting at around 300 euros per night.
The pandemic has caused some closures as well, notably the capital’s iconic Hilton which closed its doors earlier this year after nearly six decades, although it is expected to reopen in 2024 as part of the luxury Conrad chain of hotels.