Travel: Where to Stay & What to Do in Modern Athens

Greece has had its struggles, but the birthplace of civilization is on the cusp of a cultural renaissance. Be part of the Athens Revival with The Resident’s guide to what to see, where to eat and things to do in modern Athens  

Lead image: The Acropolis of Athens (SHansche / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

‘Everyone’s an entrepreneur in Athens. You have to be,’ says Greek-born, London-based Elena Torode, who is charged with showing us the contemporary side of a capital city more famous for its ancient history than its hip hangouts.

‘Entrepreneurialism is intrinsically part of the Greek DNA,’ she goes on to say, as we sit on the rooftop of the new Athens Marriott, sipping cocktails in the afternoon sun. ‘Now we have a new age of entrepreneurs born out of the recession with amazing new ideas, but they’re also transforming established ideas to keep up with the times.’

My interest is well and truly peaked and, one cocktail down with that heady I-got-up-at-4am-for-my-flight feeling, I’m eager to get out there and see it. And we start where all good holidays should – with a feast.

Where to eat

We head for the district of Metaxourgeio, a boho neighbourhood that has been quietly reinventing itself as the capital’s creative quarter. Our destination is Aleria, a 10-minute drive from the Athens Marriott Hotel. And my, do these guys know how to lay on a feast.

The five-course tasting menu includes incredible culinary feats like beef tartar ‘moussaka’ with aubergine and crispy milk skin; couscous bourdeto with scorpion fish and squid; and pork cheeks with cauliflower, grape syrup and yuzu.

The restaurant is set in a renovated neoclassical villa handed down to owner Nikiforos Kechadiadakis by his parents. Despite having no experience in the industry, he decided to turn the property into a restaurant when he was just 23, and now the place is listed among the best restaurants in Europe.

After dinner, and a few too many glasses of fine Greek wine, we pour out into the cool autumnal air and slip through narrow, tree-lined streets where run-down buildings and street art combine to create a unique vibe.

We arrive at Beauty Killed the Beast, a very Dalston-esque cocktail bar, where we sip mastiqua and cocktails until around midnight. The day’s early alarm call has us all yearning for sleep, but for the locals, the evening was just getting started – and it’s only Monday.

Where to stay

The Athens Marriott Hotel, launched in October 2018, marks the brand’s re-entry into the Greek market after a five year absence – another sign that the capital’s resurgence as a destination is gathering pace.

The hotel has 366 rooms and suites with contemporary interiors, chic bathrooms and, in my case, a generous terrace granting views of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre and the coastline.

There’s also a small-but-perfectly-formed rooftop pool and two restaurants: Made in Athens restaurant, inspired by Athenian marketplaces; and e&o Athens, up on the rooftop, which serves contemporary pan-Asian cuisine.

What to do

There’s evidence of the Athens Revival, as us media types have labelled it, in Piraeus – the capital’s major port – too. Much like London’s docklands, the area’s links to shipping and trade have seen it prosper, falter and prosper again. The current trajectory seems to be very much upward, and we spend a morning here sampling traditionally made Greek coffee at Loumidis on Tsamadou street.

We’re given a demo of how to prepare the world-famous ‘black gold’ (it’s heated over hot sand in a small copper pot called a ‘briki’), and we lap it up. Loumidis is one of Greece’s top coffee purveyors, and it’s a perfect example of how humble traditions are being reinvented for the luxury market. Inside the store there’s a plethora of artisan produce born of the coffee bean.

Next door at Miran deli, we sample cured meats, cheese (Greece, apparently, has as many varieties as France, if not more) and tsiporo, which is similar to raki. We also try spoon sweets and Greek yoghurt at a nearby health food store full of honey, nuts and other local delights.

Mikrolimano marina, which is mostly populated by fishing boats and seafront tavernas, is the perfect setting for a lazy Sunday brunch

Then we wander off towards the area’s two smaller harbours: Zea Marina, with its smattering of luxury yachts, pretty waterside promenade and waterfront restaurants; and Mikrolimano, which is mostly populated by fishing boats and seafront tavernas that provide the perfect setting for a lazy Sunday brunch.

The Athens Marriott Hotel is the ideal base for exploring Piraeus. It’s located in Kallithea, a 10-minute drive from the port and 15-minutes from the Acropolis. Right next door to the hotel is the impressive Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre.

Designed by Renzo Piano and completed in 2016, the vast, contemporary glass and concrete sculpture – home of the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera – was made possible by a £496 million donation from the charity foundation set up after the death of billionaire Greek shipping tycoon, Stavros Niarchos.

Kallithea translates literally as ‘beautiful view’, and arriving at the site, Piano asked, ‘Where is the beauty? Where is the view?’. The site, an old parking lot left over from the frenzied stadium building ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympics, is blocked from the sea by a spaghetti junction of messy roads.

And so the architect set about restoring the beauty, and the view, by creating a lush, sloped parkland that reaches up to the centre’s viewing platforms. It’s a beautiful place for a stroll, some light watersports on the man-made lake or an alfresco coffee with a dramatic panorama of the city and the sea.

Think Athens and you think of the Acropolis – especially if you’ve just been watching The Little Drummer Girl on BBC One – or you might think of the Athens Riviera (glorious by British standards but ‘kinda meh’ by Greek standards, I’m told).

Or perhaps you’ve headed straight for the port to hop on a Santorini-bound ferry? Well, let the city of Athens pass you by no more; there’s a revival to explore.

Rooms at Athens Marriott Hotel on Syngrou Avenue start from €106 per night