The revival of Europe’s classical capital has attracted plenty of artists, curators and digital nomads. But it’s entrepreneurial young Athenians who are opening pop-up restaurants, design collectives and guesthouses, regenerating derelict buildings in rough-around-the-edges areas such as Pangrati, Kypseli and Keramikos. Messy and unpredictable, Athens fizzes with an intense energy that burns bright into the night.
What to see and do
Explore Athens with an insider
Everyone visits the Acropolis and the cleverly curated Acropolis Museum (EUR5, about Dh21, concessions EUR3), where you can get up close and personal with the antiquities, both above and below ground.
Hit the Parthenon first thing in the morning or just before dusk – at midday, the white marble reflects the high heat.
To get beyond the symbolism, book a tailormade tour with Athens Insiders, whose charismatic guides even get the children excited about ruins, with treasure hunts, pottery workshops and a running commentary of mythology.
Avoid the tourist traps in Plaka on a walking tour with Culinary Backstreets. You’ll get a taste of some fig paste and goat’s cheese in an artisan deli, cod cured in fenugreek at a 400-year-old taverna, and several regional variations of baklava – all served with titbits of culinary trivia.
Natassa Pappa has mapped the stoas (covered arcades) that connect the commercial heart of Athens. Fans of typography, architecture and quirky old shops will love her Into Stoas trips.
Discover Athens’ museum mile
Stroll down Vasilissis Sofias Avenue and you can explore Greek culture through the ages in a single day.
The Museum of Cycladic Art (EUR7, concessions and Mondays EUR3.50) displays stunning bronze age figurines and ceramics, alongside work by contemporary heavyweights like Ai Weiwei and Paul Chan.
The Byzantine and Christian Museum (EUR8, concessions EUR4, under-19s free) is a poignant trove of sacred icons, mosaics and textiles, set in walled gardens with shady seating among the fruit trees and fountains.
The eclectic Benaki Museum (EUR9, concessions EUR7, under-22s free) collection covers everything from folk costumes to 20th-century paintings.
Stavros Niarchos park
Renzo Piano’s soaring new HQ for the Greek national opera and library is surrounded by a 52-acre park dotted with playgrounds and picnic spots. Admire the views from The Lighthouse, a glass box floating above the green roof; learn to sail on the 400-metre canal; take a free yoga class or catch an outdoor movie on the Great Lawn. Free admission, apart from opera and ballet performances, snfcc.org
Neighbourhood to know: Koukaki
Designers, curators and savvy Airbnb users have discovered this working-class neighbourhood near the Acropolis. Visitors can brunch on meat and kimchi quesadillas and detox juices at Bel Ray). Writers bring their laptops to Little Tree, a cosy bookshop-cafe.
At Underflow, a beautifully moody gallery and record shop, you can browse the vinyl with a drink. Splash out on Kyma sandals and embroidered kaftans at True Story Athens or T-shirts hand-printed with ancient Greek proverbs at Athena Design Workshop (Parthenonos 30). Pick up provisions at Pantop wlion and head into the pine forests of Philopappou Hill for a sunset picnic. The summit has the best views of the Parthenon.
Hit the beach
Athens’ southern coastline is flanked by pine-fringed peninsulas, upmarket marinas and sandy beaches that are blissfully empty off-season. The fanciest (and priciest) option is Astir Beach in Vouliagmeni, where the Four Seasons will open its first Greek outpost in 2019. Until then, the buff and bronzed play beach racquet and chill at Krabo, the Margi hotel’s new beach bar on adjacent Zoska bay.
For clear waters with smaller crowds, head to the pebbly coves that flank Attica’s southern tip, then watch the sun set behind the temple of Poseidon at Sounion.
Where to eat
With its butchers, beggars and braying hawkers, the central food market is a sensory assault. Take a breather at this deli/ouzeri, where cheery waiters will ply you with house-cured pastrami and pickled anchovies at tiny marble tables. Sausages are strung like bunting around the deli counter: try ‘the rocket’, an extra spicy salami, if you dare. Around EUR20pp, Sokratous 1 & Evripidou, +30 210 325 4184, karamanlidika.gr.
Cherchez la Femme
At this inspired update of the traditional kafenion, Greek coffee is brewed over hot sand in a copper beaker. Dainty mezze of grilled octopus, smoked aubergine with grape molasses, and stuffed vine leaves is served. The interior is retro chic – botanical wallpaper, crystal chandeliers, green marble tables – but the best people-watching is on the pedestrian street overlooking Athens cathedral. Around EUR25pp, Mitropoleos 46, +30 210 322 2020, no website.
Taverna tou Oikonomou
Ano Petralona, a gentle neighbourhood of low-rise houses and low-cost tavernas, is where locals go to eat well. This family-run taverna has been around since 1930. Neither the menu nor the decor have changed much: the baked aubergines, stuffed cabbage leaves and cockerel and pasta casserole, faded yellow walls and worn wicker chairs have a reassuring familiarity. It’s cosy in winter, but sitting beneath the olive trees growing out of the pavement on a scorching summer night is as Athenian as it gets. Around EUR15pp, Troon & Kydantidon 32, +30 210 346 7555, on Facebook.
Thanasis Vassilenas recently moved his family’s much-loved fish taverna in Piraeus into a smart downtown space with super-slick service. Every dish is a refined delight: light-as-air taramasalata with crispy pitta, delicate grouper soup, sea bass carpaccio with lime, green apple, cauliflower and ginger. The EUR23 set lunch (1-5pm) is phenomenal value. Around EUR40pp, Vrasida 13, +30 210 721 0501, vassilenas.gr
Is it worth waiting half an hour for a kebab? Totally, if only to watch Kostas and Poppy grill, garnish and wrap their spicy skewers in pillows of pitta in perfect synchronicity. Workers, students and off-duty chefs queue patiently outside this hole-in-the-wall, mindful of the sign above the till: Oxi Agxos (no stress). Washed down with a drink, you’ll still have change from EUR5. Be quick – they usually sell out by 2.30pm. Pendelis 5, Syntagma, +30 210 322 8502, no website
My top tips
Best cafe Philos (Solonos 32) does flawless coffee and fantastic brunch (try strapatsada, eggs scrambled with tomatoes and oregano) in an ‘elegantly wasted’ townhouse, with vintage tiles and raw concrete walls.
Best ice-cream Kokkion (Protogenous 2) does artisan gelato in ground-breaking flavours: peach, apricot and rosemary sorbet, or mascarpone with bergamot and molasses. The fresh ginger lemonade is just as refreshing.
Best street food Feyrouz (Karori 23) run by the sweetest family from Antioch, serves incredibly tasty lahmacun, pide, tabbouleh, and spicy pumpkin or beetroot soup for just a few euros each.
Where to stay
Greek-Irish architect John Consolas pioneered the B&B scene in Athens. His funky townhouse on a quiet street in the old town, Plaka, has just four bright, brilliantly individual rooms, so book ahead. Neoclassical features abound (high ceilings, wrought-iron balconies, creaky wooden stairs), but the look is edgy eclecticism, rather than vintage chintz. The ground floor feels like a real home, with a library, gramophone and kitchen-diner. Breakfast (proper coffee, homemade cake, squeeze-your-own orange juice) is a communal affair, taken in the secret courtyard in summer. Doubles from EUR60 room only, but breakfast is complimentary in summer, aliceinnathens.com.
18 Micon Street
A former tool warehouse, this 14-room hotel still has an industrial vibe: trompe-l’oeil cement, brick or wood wallpaper, angular bedframes, steel clothes hangers. With open-plan layouts, even standard rooms feel like lofts. Several rooms have large terraces; the Parthenon is framed in the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Acropolis Loft. There are two family rooms, one with fun, green bunk beds. Breakfast is served in the ground-floor lobby, with picture windows for watching life drift by in Psyrri, a neighbourhood with a village feel, home to leather craftsmen, antique dealers and mezze joints. Doubles from EUR90 B&B, 18miconstr.com
Home and Poetry
Smack bang in the centre of Plaka, this neoclassical mansion was converted into a 16-room hotel in 2017. The faux antiques and reproduction paintings don’t quite live up to the building’s glorious bone structure, but neutral bedrooms (named after Greek poets) are airy and uncluttered. Breakfast is served on the glorious roof terrace, right below the Acropolis, while a gramophone cranks out Greek ballads and Cuban boleros. Great value for a prime location. Doubles from EUR97 B&B, homeandpoetry.com
Exarchia is the stomping ground of anarchists and activists, but there’s a sense of community in this lively neighbourhood of bookshops, theatres and old-school tavernas. The pervasive graffiti masks some fine neoclassical architecture, such as this cheery hostel on a peaceful pedestrian street. Inside it’s retro heaven, from the vinyl collection in the parlour to the swinging love seat in the tiled courtyard. Four bedrooms and three dorms share two spotless bathrooms and a pink kitchen filled with vintage crockery. Doubles from EUR45.50 room only, dorms from EUR20.50, athens-quinta.hotelsathens.org
You could walk past this hotel every day without noticing it. Access is through By the Glass bar , in an arcade that opens onto a courtyard. Built in the 1920s to house refugees from Asia Minor, and subsequently home to a Greek prime minister, this central bolthole is an easy walk to the sights.
Black, white and grey rooms are modern and masculine, with steel bedframes, reclaimed marble sinks, and bathrooms in black glass cubicles. The open-air atrium is the best feature: take breakfast outside. Sixteen new rooms are coming in early 2019. Doubles from EUR93 B&B, innathens.com.
Fly Emirates Dubai to Athens, starting from Dh2,630 return.
Best time to go: Autumn is generally mild (locals swim well into November) and hotel prices much cheaper. In June, all the city is a stage: the Athens and Epidaurus Festival takes place all over town and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre hosts the free, week-long Nostos festival, with outdoor concerts, workshops, DJ sets and kids’ activities. In August a lot of locals shut up shop and head to the islands.