Yannis Kontos/Polaris for The New York Times
The Parthenon crowns the Acropolis.
By JOANNA KAKISSIS
Published: May 4, 2008
FOR years, Athens was little more than a one-night stand on the way to the Greek isles. Concretized and crowded, it lived off its archaeological sites and dirty-dancing-on-tables night life. But now a visit has become more than just a quickie for the sake of the Parthenon. Athens is reinventing itself as a city where antiquity meets edginess. Museums and galleries abound, and new ones are in the works. Late this year, the New Acropolis Museum, designed by the New York-based architect Bernard Tschumi, is scheduled to open at the foot of the ancient citadel. Not a bad warm-up for Mykonos.
1) WALK IN THE PARK
Once the private grounds of Greece’s long-deposed royal family, the National Gardens is one of the few leafy oases in Athens. Cypress, pine and palm trees shade trails, brooks, bridges, duck ponds, a botanical museum and prides of stray cats. The stately parliament building is next door and faces the Monument of the Unknown Soldier, where tourists try to distract the photogenic young evzones (the elite military guards who wear the skirt-like foustanella).
2) CAFE CULTURE
The jolting iced Nescafé frappé and the thick, grainy elliniko (don’t call it Turkish coffee) have lately been eclipsed in Athens by the freddo, cappuccino or espresso blended with crushed ice. The best is at Clemente VIII (City Link, Voukourestiou 3; 30-210-321-9340), a cafe packed with Athenian yuppies and coffee snobs on an elegant pedestrianized street near Syntagma Square. The area is also a hot shopping district, home to the Attica department store; designer boutiques; high-end jewelers; pâtisseries, including baklava-crazy Karavan (Voukourestiou 11); and specialty shops like Kombologadiko (Amerikis 9; 30-212-700-0500; www.kombologadiko.gr), where you can buy variations of traditional worry beads (komboloi).
3) CRAZY ABOUT CRETE
The rustic cuisine of Crete is the latest regional food craze to hit Athens. In the Ilissia neighborhood, Alatsi (Vrassida 13; 30-210-721-0501), which means salt in the dialect of Crete, the chef Dimitris Skarmoutsos dazzles with dishes like gamopilafo, a pilaf made with rich meat broth and sheep-milk butter; snails boubouristi fried in olive oil, vinegar and rosemary; and rabbit stewed in wine (25 to 35 euros for dinner, about $40 to $57 at $1.63 to the euro).
4) BAR WITH A VIEW
Cynical Athenians say the city looks best at night, when darkness hides its cement dowdiness. For a panoramic view of nighttime Athens, go to the balcony of the Galaxy bar (Vassilissis Sofias 46; 30-210-728-1000) on the roof of the Hilton near central Athens. You can admire the Acropolis while sipping a ridiculously expensive drink.
5) MUSEUM ROW
The old-money neighborhood of Kolonaki is big on overpriced shops and gorgeous museums. The Benaki (Koumbari 1 and Vassilisis Sofias) has a magnificent collection of Greek works from antiquity to modern times, all in a restored mansion. Nearby, the Museum of Cycladic Art (Neofytou Douka 4 and Irodotou; 30-210-722-8321) has possibly the world’s largest collection of art from the island group that includes Mykonos as well as Delos, Milos, Naxos and Siros. In neighboring Exarcheia, the renovated National Archaeological Museum (Patission 44; 30-210-821-7724) has classical sculptures and gold treasures from Mycenae.
6) ATHENS DOES BRUNCH
Many Greeks like to joke that breakfast is coffee and cigarettes, with maybe a greasy cheese pie. But at Sofia’s Valaoritou Cafe (Valaoritou 15; 30-210-361-1993) near Syntagma Square, you’ll find a selection of mouthwatering brunch food like frittata with truffles, tomatoes and artichokes or a tart with spinach, feta and smoked bacon (15 to 20 euros, with coffee).
7) STEP INTO HISTORY
The Unification of Archaeological Sites walkway is one of the best things that has happened to Athens in recent decades. About 2.5 miles long, it connects the city’s most important historical sites and is lined with chapels, neo-Classical homes and cafes. For 12 euros you get into the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora, the Theater of Dionysus, the Kerameikos Cemetery, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Roman Forum. Expect more buzz later this year, when the New Acropolis Museum opens.
8) ISLAND LIFE
Though Plaka is touristy, this old neighborhood is far richer architecturally than most in Athens. Skip the tavernas and cafes and walk through the pretty streets packed with churches, modern art museums like the Frissiras (Monis Asteriou 3-7; 30-210-323-4678; www.frissirasmuseum.com) and ruins. Then take a walk to Anafiotika, a slice of old island life in Athens. In the early 19th century, homesick stonemasons from the tiny island of Anafi chiseled a tiny reproduction of a whitewashed Cycladic village into the foothills of the Acropolis. The minuscule lanes are lined with courtyards and balconies blooming with jasmine and roses.
9) ACROPOLIS SUNSET
Built in the fifth century B.C., the Acropolis temples — the Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike and Erechtheum — are considered the greatest architectural accomplishment of classical Greece. Enjoy them after the Mediterranean sun cools and bathes the city in a warm-toned glow. The view of Mount Hymettus is especially stunning at sunset.
10) GAS ALLEY
In the last five years, the Gazi district — once the site of the city’s gasworks, which blanketed much of the area with soot — has turned into the hottest area in central Athens. A central square where a new metro stop opened last year is lined with bars, restaurants and cafes. At Varoulko (Pireos 80; 30-210-522-8400; 50 to 60 euros for dinner), the star chef Lefteris Lazarou cooks creative dishes like caramelized octopus with mavrodaphne-sweetened trahana cream. Far less expensive but still delicious are the deep-sea squid, thick-cut fried potatoes and taramosalata — fish roe dip — at Sardelles (Persefonis 15; 30-210-347-8050; 25 euros for dinner).
BAUHAUS TO BEACH HOUSE
Artists and intellectuals like the laid-back Nixon bar (Agisilaou 61B, Kerameikos; 30-210-346-2077), which also has a screening room. The post-alternative crowd hangs out at Bios (Pireos 84, Gazi; 30-210-342-5335) in a Bauhaus building, grooving to everything from electronica to avant-garde noise, while the more mainstream Soul (Evripidou 65, Psyrri; 30-210-331-0907) has pop, hip-hop, R & B and fantastic mojitos. If you must dance on a table to bouzouki music, skip the goat-throated howlers and go for sweet-voiced popsters like Michalis Hatziyiannis, the Greek pop John Mayer, who headlined at the club Vox (Iera Odos 16; 30-210-341-1000) last season. Tickets start at about 25 euros for standing room, and tables start at about 100 euros, though prices vary with the performer. In summer, try the beach-side clubs like Bo (Karamanli 14; 30-210-895-9645) in the southern suburb of Voula.
12) HONEY MOUNTAIN
Hop on the No. 224 bus to Ethnikis Antistaseos Road, then walk about 20 minutes to hike through the blooms and pines of Mount Hymettus, which the ancient Greeks believed was the source of honey. Spring is especially beautiful, enlivened by riotous colors and scents of lavender, sage and thyme. For 2 euros you can see the frescoed chapels at the Kaisariani Monastery (30-210-723-6619; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
13) HARBOR CHIC
Athenians used to turn up their noses at Piraeus, the blue-collar harbor city, but scenesters are staking it out again, especially the yacht-lined Mikrolimano harbor. The results have been mixed, with goofy trance bars kicking out some wonderful old fish tavernas, but a few good places got coveted spots on the harbor. The best include Plous Podilatou (Akti Koumoundourou 42; 30-210-413-7910; about 30 euros), where you can have crayfish tails sautéed in ouzo and aniseed, and Ammos (Akti Koumoundrou 44; 30-210-422-4633; about 15 euros), a family-style taverna where you can happily (and cheaply) gorge on fried squid, grilled octopus, sautéed cuttlefish and all the fixings. Maybe Mykonos can wait.
Airlines that fly from the New York area to Athens include Olympic Airways, Air France, Continental and Delta; all have direct weekend flights. Based on a recent Internet search, round-trip fares for late May start at about $1,100. An express bus from the airport to Syntagma Square runs about every 15 to 20 minutes and costs 3.20 euros, about $5.22 at $1.63 to the euro. A cab into the city center is 25 to 30 euros.
Though in the heart of the unlovely Psyrri district, Ochre & Brown (Leokoriou 7; 30-210-331-2950; www.ochreandbrown.com) has elegant, minimalist rooms and is close to the central Athens sights. Rooms start at 190 euros in high season.
In Kolonaki, the St. George Lycabettus (Kleomenous 2; 30-210-729-0711; www.sglycabettus.gr) has small but comfortable rooms and a rooftop bar with Acropolis views. Doubles with breakfast from 195 euros in late spring and summer.
At the Divani Apollon Palace & Spa (Aghiou Nikolaou 10 and Iliou; 30-210-891-1100; www.divanis.gr) in Vouliagmeni all rooms have balconies with sea views. Doubles with breakfast start at 280 euros.