Wait—before you hop on that catamaran to one of Greece’s enchanting isles, there are more reasons than ever to spend more than just a one night, pre-island layover in Athens. Start adjusting to jet lag in this vibrant capital where the prices are low, art is abundant, and the Greek spirit is alive and well.
Design is Flourishing
Athens may be one of the oldest cities in the world, but many things are new again. This is the case at the New Hotel, a boutique property with an emphasis on design and creativity. The famed Campana brothers transformed the former Olympic Palace Hotel into a completely new property by reinterpreting materials and furniture, and showcasing themes from Greek culture. The result is quirky, eye grabbing, and sultry. Rooms have private balconies, powerful electric blinds that block out that strong Greek sun for lazy mornings, and sleek bathrooms. Don’t miss the rooftop Art Lounge, a 7th-floor sanctuary for soaking in the panoramic views of Athens over a cocktail.
Honorable Mention: The Periscope Hotel is an intimate boutique hotel in the ritzy Kolonaki neighborhood that blends sleek and modern design with useful guest amenities and great food.
A Taste of Greece
You may think you’ve eaten excellent Greek food, but few experiences compare to eating it surrounded by the Greek language and locals going about their daily routine. Stop into Ariston (Voulis 10, Syntagma), a bakery serving up savory and sweet pies since 1906. For more than a century, locals have stopped here for a fortifying piece of feta pie, spinach pie, or mushroom pie, all wrapped in flaky pastry. There are more than 70 types of pie (pita in Greek) sold here for the affordable price of a couple euro coins. The small shop doesn’t have any tables, so bring your paper wrapped snack into the street and grab a spot in nearby Syntagma Square for some people watching.
One of the great pleasures of Athens is taking to the streets, but no visit would be complete without taking it all in from above. Rooftops are where warm breezes blow and ice-cold cocktails are shaken, and Athens is now home to more options than ever for raising a glass while watching the sunset. One place for striking views is the cocktail bar at A for Athens, a hotel looking out at Monastiraki Square. This rooftop terrace offers memorable views of the Acropolis and the rooftops of Plaka below.
Honorable Mention: The Grande Bretagne is arguably Athens’ most iconic rooftop restaurant. It comes complete with unobstructed views of the Acropolis lit up at night, as well as stellar (yet pricey) cuisine and drinks.
Before you settle into the islands where stimulation might be blissfully limited, indulge in a sensory overload at the markets in Athens. At the Athens Flea Market off Monastiraki Square, pass all of the cheap t-shirt stands and wander through to the furniture stalls where antique trinkets and jewelry are for sale. When hunger strikes, visit the central market Varvarkeios Agora and explore the produce stands. Here you can taste a variety of olives in every hue and size. If you’re looking to bring something home, don’t miss the spice market with endless types of dried spices.
Do as the Locals Do
In the islands, you might be rubbing elbows with other travelers more than locals. Take a day in Athens to do as the locals do. Evening activities range from catching a film at one of the historic outdoor movie theaters (like Cine Thisio, looking up at the Acropolis, dating back to 1935 and screening both classic and studio films) to grabbing a stool at a chic new wine bar like Oinoscent to learn a thing or two about Greek wines, to dining late at a casual taverna such as Tzitzikas kai Mermigas ("the Grasshopper and the Ant") where local couples and families will fill the warm evening air with laughter and clinking glasses.
Insider Tip: Visitors might be surprised by just how many people in Athens speak English. Greeks are required to take English in school, and unlike some other Mediterranean countries, many people have enough English to answer your questions. It helps if you stumble through a couple words of Greek—try "kalimera" for good morning or "kalispera" for good evening. After a glass of wine, work your way up to "efharisto" for thank you.
Freelance writer Jessica Colley covers cuisine, culture, the arts, and experiential travel. She is currently based in New York City and called Dublin, Ireland home for several years. You can follow her on Twitter @jessicacolley or check out her "Writer in the Kitchen" series on her blog.
Photo credits: Ariston bakery and Athens markets courtesy of Jessica Colley; New Hotel room courtesy of New Hotel; A for Athens Hotel View courtesy of A for Athens; Oinoscent Athens courtesy of Oinoscent Athens/Facebook