If it's all Greek to you, follow the wise words of Julia Leach when making your Athens plans. The founder of Chance was so inspired by her trip, she used it as a jumping off point for her summer 2013 clothing collection.
Athens can seem like an intense, somewhat rough-around-the-edges city that you pass through on your way to a beautiful Greek island. Yet there is so much depth and richness to it, travelers shouldn't skip through too quickly. It's bustling and has several great secret addresses, along with iconic landmarks (hello, Acropolis). If you take the time to do just a bit of planning (or even if you don't), you can start or end a trip to Greece in this historic city after spending relaxing time on one or more of the destination islands. It's quite extraordinary that Athens has been inhabited for over 7,000 years. Take the time to explore its neighborhoods, many of which can be navigated in a single long walk, and since Athenians know how to have fun, book dinner at a taverna and linger over delicious mezedes and, my personal favorite, fresh seafood dishes (of course meat options are plentiful as well). Though I didn't indulge, there is also a vibrant nightlife.
IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING
Take a walk starting at the Central Market (Dimotiki Agora), which flanks the busy street Athinas. It's spilling over with wonderful food, from exotic spices and nuts to many varieties of cheese and mounds of olives. Have a meal at one of the small restaurants tucked into the market (a great way to rub shoulders with the locals), or buy generous slices of Greek cheeses —feta, graviera, aged kefalotyri (I'm crazy about this cheese, which is hard and a bit salty) — and a sampling of grapes, figs, tangerines, almonds, and thassos olives for a hotel picnic. From the Market, you can walk along Athinas and up to Pláka, the city's charming area featuring small winding streets peppered with shops and ouzeris, then further up to Anafiotika, a very special area nestled on the hill below the Acropolis. The streets here feel more like a Greek island than the cosmopolitan city below. These three areas will give you a snapshot of Athens, its energy, people, and cuisine.
WHAT TO DO:
These are my top ten picks for art, design, and shopping in Athens.
The Acropolis Museum
15 Dionysiou Areopagitou St., 11742; +30-210-9000900
An excellent museum designed by Bernard Tschumi that houses an extraordinary collection of historic archeological findings and artwork.
The National Museum of Contemporary Art
17-19 Vassileos Georgiou Β & Rigillis St., 10675; +30-210-92421113
I always like to check out a city’s contemporary art scene, so this is a first suggested stop. This young institution will raise its profile when it opens its new building (previously the Fix Brewery in central Athens) in October 2013. I also encourage a trip to The Deste Foundation, the contemporary art center founded by Dakis Joannous, located outside Athens in the suburb of New Ionia.
The National Gardens of Athens
Vassilissis Sofias Avenue, 10557; +30-210-7215019
The pace of Athens can be intense, so it's nice to escape the traffic and street life in this well-kept garden.
The Museum of Greek Folk Instruments
1-3 Diogenous, 10556; +30-210-3250198
A bit esoteric, but it’s worth a stop at the Lassanis Mansion in Pláka to see more than 1,200 restored instruments.
WHERE TO SHOP
Melissinos Art Sandal Maker
2 Aghias Theklas St, Monastiraki, 10554; +30-210-3219247
A must for custom-made sandals.
Greece Is For Lovers
50 - 52 Valtetsiou St., 10681; +30-210-9245064
Design items and exhibitions created around a vision for a uniquely modern Greece.
21 Dimokritou, 10673; +30-210-3800575
The best bookstore in Athens for a range of art books, international magazines, and rare and limited edition publications that in many cases can’t be found in the United States.
33 Trikoupi, 10681; +30-210-3827278
This very special store carries environmentally friendly design items and is a personal favorite thanks to my Athenian friends who gave me a set of these small Greeks, which now sit on my desk as a reminder of my Aegean travels.
Not Just Greek Salad
17 Valaoritou Str., 10671; +30-210-30261989
A small grocery store featuring gourmet and artisanal products, great for gifts to bring home for food friends.
THE BEST DESIGN SHOPS
3 Fokylidou Str., 10673; +30-210-3824744
Owned by a charming Swede, Martin Olofsson.
8 Anapafseos Ave., 15235; +30-210-3210815
They have a range of stylish items, many of which I hadn't seen previously in other European or North American cities.
28 Sari, 10553; +30-210-3311922
A store run by an Athenian style duo who spent time in New York and now sell a strong selection of vintage pieces.
WHERE TO STAY
I would have loved to book this beautiful apartment for my stay, but it was simply too big.
16 Filellinon Str., 10557; +30-210-3273000
The best boutique experience.
48 Charilaou Trikoupi Str., 14562; +30-210-6284400
A hotel that brings together design visionary Karim Rashid and Greek tycoon and art collector Dakis Joannous. You can imagine the sensibility: colorful, bold, modern.
26 Sofokleous Str., 10552; +30-210-5248511
A clean and affordable spot that’s great for a night or two on your way to or from the islands. The staff is friendly and they have a nice rooftop restaurant, terrace, and pool with a view of the Acropolis.
11 Litous Street, 16671; +30-210-8929000
If you have the time and are inclined to be on the water, The Margi will allow you to be out of the city center.
Hotel Grande Bretagne
Vas. Georgiou A' 1, Constitution Square, 10563; +30-210-3330000
If your taste runs more classical and your trip isn’t bound by budget, check into Athen’s most luxurious hotel in the old-world fashion.
WHERE TO EAT
After you've had your hotel picnic (see above, vis-à-vis the Dimotiki Agora), there are wonderful meals to be had in the restaurants and local tavernas, which I think are the best way to experience Greek food. For snacks, my Athenian friends quickly learned that I was happy to have a pasteli, a sesame seed and honey bar, every day in the late afternoon. I seek these out in New York now as a reminder of my time in Athens.
11 Levidou Str., 14562; +30-210-8088818
A chic eatery designed by a former editor of Greek ELLE Decor located in the northern suburb of Kifissia. Worth the trip out of the city center, though there is now a second location in the stylish Kolonaki neighborhood.
80 Leonidou and Salaminos, 10436; +30-210-5241120
An intimate and unassuming restaurant serving French-inflected food, some of the best of this type in Athens. Great value for the price and lovely owners.
30-32 Haritos, 10675; +30-210-7290746
It can be challenging to get a table here, thanks to the fashion and media people, artists, and celebrities vying for seats, but it's worth the wait for their French bistro food and innovative salads. Book ahead.
10 Ivis, 10554; +30-210-3232554
It’s a great spot in central Athens just a block away from the Melissinos Art Sandals, so you can enjoy ouzo, raki, and fresh daily recipes (including my favorite, shrimp saganaki) after shopping.
72 Etolikou and Vitolion, 18545; +30-210-4612457
Located in Piraeus Port, is a very well-known restaurant worth the cab ride from downtown Athens. They serve delicious contemporary Greek cuisine, which has been awarded Greek's Chef de Cuisine Golden Award.
48 Aiolou Str. Monastiraki Metro Station, 10555; +30-210-30048382
It’s great for a casual meal (on the menu you'll find vegetarian dishes, along with an eclectic mix of ethnic fare) and is particularly well-known for their Sunday brunch (think eggs benedict and bagels, which are uncommon in Athens).
Tzitzikas & Mermigas
12-14 Mitropoleos, 10563; +30-210-3247607
Rustic setting and affordable classic Greek food, a trusty stop if you’re out exploring Pláka and beyond.
58 Konstantinoupoleos, 11854; +30-697-2340342
For an authentic Greek meal, head to Nezos Tavern for traditional dishes that are wonderfully fresh, from grilled meat, octopus, and fish to unique salads that go far beyond the basic tomato-cucumber-feta-olive version you see on every menu in town. Chill out, enjoy wine, and linger over a sumptuous Greek dishes that will take you back in time.
57 Megalou Alexandrou, 10435; +30-210-5222633
A stylish restaurant located in a neoclassical house, Aleria is known for its stellar, modern interpretations of traditional Greek dishes.
5 Pyrronos, 11638; +30-210-7564021
One of Athen’s premiere restaurants, this hits the “fancy” note and has a wonderful reputation for haute cuisine.
HOW TO GET THERE
Delta and KLM have non-stop flights to Athens from NYC, though I had a very positive experience flying Swiss Air, connecting through the wonderful Geneva airport (an experience straight out of Monocle magazine). Once you arrive, you can easily take the metro in central Athens.
Athens is a very walkable city, but for venturing further afield, they have a serviceable bus and metro system, and taxis can be hailed on the street.
WHEN TO GO
Late April through early June is ideal, as this timing allows you to catch the lovely early spring/summer weather, yet avoid the onslaught of tourists. If you go early in April, you can enjoy Athens, but you’ll find that many hotels and restaurants on the islands, especially the smaller, more off-the-beaten-path ones, aren’t yet open for the season. September and October can also be a nice time to visit, though the temperatures start to drop. You’ll find classic urban weather in Athens in the summertime (in other words HOT and not as pleasant), while the winter months are often rainy.
Casual clothing, trainers for exploring Athens, layers for styling and keeping warm at night. Keep in mind that if you're going on from Athens to the Cyclades during August and September, the winds can get quite gusty, so bring a sweater and expect that your hat will get blown off.
BEST OF THE WEB
I found the best culture and shopping tips via Savoteur Athens. The Athens Museums website offers one-stop shopping if you want to plan a day of art, archeology, and history. As a general resource, the City of Athens official visitors' website, Breathtaking Athens, is very helpful.
FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE
I didn’t do much travel guide reading prior to my recent trip (a quick scan of a photo-filled DK book on the plane was enough), but I did deeply immerse myself in fiction and movies set in Athens and the Greek islands, from John Fowles’ The Magus to Phaedra, directed by Jules Dassin and starring Melina Mercouri. I was also inspired by photographer William Abranowicz’s beautiful books The Greek File and Hellas, which capture Greece at its most visually poetic.
For fun, it’s also worth watching Summer Lovers, a 1980s romp starring Daryl Hannah at her peak of leggy blonde beauty and a young Peter Gallagher. Finally, this summer I’m reading the recently published The Greek House: The Story of a Painter’s Love Affair with the Island of Sifnos by Christian Brechneff. I had such a magical trip to Greece this spring, I want to savor the memories as long as possible.
MORE ON FATHOM
Special thanks to my Athenian friends, Costas Kokkinos and Jacob Skenderidis, who shared so many special places in their hometown with me.
Inset photo of Pi Box restaurant courtesy of Pi Box.