I’m not sure whether it’s because the Greek capital doesn’t receive as much attention as say its main rival Rome or because of its recent well-documented troubles, but we honestly didn’t expect to love Athens quite as much as we did. There’s no perfectly persevered picturesque old town (the scramble for growth in the decades after World War II was sadly an architectural disaster) although – of course – it does possess its numerous captivating ancient ruins scattered unstrategically throughout the city, it can also be a little gritty in places but it’s the energy, vibe and pace of the city which makes it such a fascinating and exciting travel destination.
Our memories of its warm and passionate residents, its street art adorned neighbourhoods which are havens for interesting creative types, the gob-smacking views (Athens has some truly spectacular vistas) and its newfound trendiness which it seems to be revelling in, linger on just as much as its impressive collection of crumbling ancient monuments. It’s also now surfacing from its recent troubled times and well-documented austerity – its cultural and night-life scene is blossoming and the whole country is preparing for a bumper tourist season with over 21 million expected to visit this year. Athens makes a fun European weekend break or a must-see add on before heading out to one of the Greek islands.
We explored the Greek capital with Alternative Athens, an offbeat award-winning walking tour which took us to places the typical tourist never sees – from street art coated pedestrianized neighbourhoods to tasting the best falafel pitta and shawarma in town. It was a great introduction to city but even if you’re not into walking tours you will get far more out of your Athens weekend trip if you take your time explore some of the city’s neighbourhoods such as Pláka, Monastiráki and Psyrrí. Filled with interesting shops, trendy cafes (like the much talked about Thesaloniki pastry cafe pictured below) and attractive restaurants – they are the areas to head to if you want to sample a slice of real Athens life.
Stand out areas include Psyrrí, a former working-class neighbourhood that is now home to Athens’ busiest nightlife, a handful of quirky shops, the famous Athens Flea Market and a busy square which holds an atmospheric bazaar-esque market place full of fruit stalls, street performers, lottery vendors and kiosks. Our personal favourite though is the ever-popular area of Pláka, with narrow lanes and stepped alleys climbing towards the Acropolis, is arguably the most attractive part of Athens, it also has heaps of cafés, restaurants and interesting shops which make it a very pleasant place to wander around or dine on a typical Greek dish.
Obviously you can’t leave Athens without visiting a few of their ancient sites and we promise you won’t have to search far for your historical fix, whether its in the shape of the mighty Acropolis which dominates almost every view, or the ancient ruins curiously encased behind glass in places you’d least expect, like railway stations and the high street clothes shop Zara (a fascinating compromise between the archaeologists and modern-day life)!
Some of the sites are heaving with eager tourists, others are ignored by the masses but we personally wouldn’t leave without visiting The Parthenon – an icon of Western civilization, it’s one of the most famous buildings in the world, the Temple of Zeus (the largest temple in Greece – it took almost seven centuries to complete its entrance, the massive temple Arch of Hadrian), the Theater of Dionysus and of course the world-famous Acropolis which sits imposingly perched on a high hill overseeing the whole city.
It’s probably no big secret, but the famously friendly Greeks also really know how to enjoy themselves. As the evening falls, the Athens bars, which range from the classically decorated to the ultra-trendy slowly start to fill and all three districts are liberally smattered with more than a choice handful of good quality clubs and bars. Our personal favourite was a rooftop cocktail bar located on the sixth floor of a small hotel (next to Monastiraki metro station) which has quickly become one of Athens’ top after-dark venues. Although it’s outrageously popular, it offers a stylish open-air lounge terrace and amazing views of the floodlit Acropolis.
Despite inevitable globalization, Athens still manages to retain its character to a remarkable degree and what a character it is! Yes it has little pockets of grittiness and a hectic modernity but this is beautifully balanced with an air of intimacy and warmth, and above all there’s the sheer palpable vibrancy of the city. Although I wouldn’t just take our word for it, Athens is most definitely best enjoyed in person!
Where to stay
We stayed in the design hotel AthensWas located in the popular Plaka district, a perfectly formed boutique hotel which epitomises the newly trendy Athens. The rooms are spacious and achingly cool, decorated in a classic modernism style they feature large bathrooms with a large walk-in rain shower and even a fabulous retro bar area complete with a couple of stools. The sleek, dazzling lobby and its rooftop garden which affords fantastic city views also add more than a little extra. Prices start from £99 a night.