Here’s a surprise: While Athenians were locked down due to the pandemic, a flurry of creative and entrepreneurial activity was underway. The result? A total of 272 new restaurants, according to the local industry association, along with hundreds more cafes and bars. The city has also acquired 34 new hotels, providing 1,982 rooms over the past two years. And its cultural landscape has blossomed, major national projects have materialized.
“We have seen a cultural revival and a booming food scene that showcases the city’s new dynamism,” said Vassilis Kikilias, Greece’s tourism minister. The addition of new hotels being built and older ones being upgraded, Mr Kikilias said, made it “optimistic for the season”.
In May, the number of foreign visitors to the city was still below 2019 levels, but only by around 12%, and since then crowds have returned to central squares and monuments in numbers reminiscent of pre-pandemic days.
Covid vaccination certificates are no longer required to enter the country or to visit shops, restaurants and museums, and as of June 1, face masks are no longer required in enclosed public spaces except for hospitals, pharmacies, public transport and ferries.
Cultural gems shine again
The Greek capital’s newest cultural gem (or rather a remarkably burnished old one), the National Gallery reopened last year after an eight-year, 60 million euro overhaul. Twice as large as the original, the sleek new building has a glass facade that allows natural light to illuminate the exhibits and offers visitors a glimpse of the city around every corner. You could spend hours exploring the three floors tracing the evolution of Greek art over nearly seven centuries. But even a brief visit should not overlook the striking works of Greek Modernist painters Konstantinos Parthenis and Yannis Tsarouchis with their dreamlike symbolism, and the luminous paintings of Orientalist Theodoros Rallis and Post-Impressionist Iakovos Rizos.
A fourth floor dedicated to Western European art is due to open in the coming weeks and will include paintings by Picasso and Mondrian stolen in a daring heist in 2012 and recovered last year.
Another treasure for art lovers is the National Museum of Contemporary Art, a former brewery that opened in late February 2020 after a lengthy renovation, but closed almost immediately with the country’s first lockdown. Five floors of thought-provoking sculptures, videos and installations by Greek and foreign artists – new exhibits tackle themes of nation-building, mass protests and the environment – are topped by a rooftop terrace with a panoramic view of the Acropolis on the southern coastline.
The capital’s independent art scene, reinvigorated by a wave of creativity fueled by the social unrest that accompanied the decade-long financial crisis, has blossomed again during the pandemic, with exciting new spaces opening up to view art. . One of the most avant-garde is a former tobacco factory in the Athens district of Kolonos whose pink and yellow facade has been compared to a giant Battenberg cake. After an initial exhibition last summer, the space reopened in June with a show featuring 18 large-scale installations from the collection of entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos, the founder of Neon, the cultural organization that revamped the factory. , who recently donated hundreds of works to museums including the Guggenheim.
Eat and drink
There’s been buzz around Linou Soumpasis & Co. since it opened in December in the bustling central district of Psyrri. Rejecting the labels of neo-taverna and bistronomy, the self-proclaimed “simple restaurant” serves high-quality dishes with a contemporary twist in a lively open kitchen. The emphasis is on fresh produce, especially fish, with a menu that changes daily depending on the catch of the day. Among the recent dishes, a tartare as light as a John Dory with seaweed in a cucumber juice and a tender grilled piper fish in a zucchini purée. The stew of veal cheeks in chickpea soup is also popular, as is the selection of homemade breads and organic wines from small Greek producers. Expect to pay around 110 euros (about $116) for a three-course dinner with wine for two. The wines range from €22 to €150 a bottle and are all available by the glass.
A few blocks away, Gastone, the latest venture from the creators of Cookoovaya (recommended by the Michelin Guide) serves up Mediterranean flavors and street food in a lively retro setting that’s part classic Greek taverna, part American diner. Dinner for two costs around €30 and highlights include the crispy pork sandwich and a variation of tzatziki made with Gorgonzola cheese.
Two newcomers to the gentrified industrial districts of Athens are also drawing crowds. Tzoutzouka in Rouf, offers bold traditional Greek dishes, such as a rich mutton casserole in red sauce with homemade pasta and spiced hard cheese for around €30 per person with wine. Proveleggios in nearby Kerameikos is the latest attempt by the masterminds behind wildly popular Nolan Restaurant, serving innovative cuisine like hand-pulled noodles with sweet greens in a tare dip and cocktails on a tree-lined terrace. of trees on an indie rock soundtrack. Dinner costs around €35 per person without drinks.
For cocktail lovers, Athens offers a dizzying array of new bars. At the Bar in front of the bar, in a busy pedestrian alley near the central Syntagma square, an energetic young staff prepare classic cocktails revisited from ingredients produced on site, from €7. Those who want a drink with a view of the city can join a bohemian crowd at the Attic Urban Rooftop in the lively Monastiraki district, one of the many new rooftop terraces, where cocktails are offered at prices ranging from €11 at €13.
In the booming neighborhood of Petralona is Line Athens (the Clumsies’ world-ranking sister bar) where staff whip up cocktails with homemade vermouth, most for €10.
The same neighborhood is home to Hervé, the low-key new restaurant of Paris-born Hervé Pronzato, whose experience as a chef in Athens includes stints at Michelin-starred Spondi and Hytra. Hervé offers a 17-course tasting menu offering a mix of dishes reflecting Mr. Pronzato’s vision of international cuisine for €95 per person. There are no signs – to enter you type in a code acquired with your reservation.
At Soil in the Pangrati district, Tasos Mantis, also a former chef at Hytra, serves “earthy gastronomy” using vegetables and herbs grown on his own farm in a renovated neoclassical building with a serene garden. A tasting menu, at €86, offers prawns with orange, pecan and fennel sauce and scallops with yuzo kosho, grapefruit and candied lemon.
High-end options for food and accommodation include low-key opulence Xenodocheio Milos, which bills itself as the capital’s first “5-star gourmet hotel” – the latest venture from celebrity chef Costas Spiliadis, who has established his mark of Milos restaurants in locations including New York, Montreal and London. Rooms start at around €230 per night, while meals start at around €60 per person, with specialties such as sea bass cooked in sea salt and fried courgettes and aubergines.
New accommodations, by the sea and in town
One of the newest places for hotels is the so-called Athens Riviera, a 60-kilometer coastal strip dotted with marinas, beaches and secluded coves that’s about a 30-minute taxi ride from the city center . The Four Seasons Astir Palace opened there in 2019 on a peninsula of pines, offering 303 rooms (from €1,700 in July and €1,100 in August) and fine dining with sea views in its Michelin-starred Pelagos restaurant. A nine-course tasting menu including Kristal caviar, red prawns and octopus risotto in ink for €160 per person.
Wyndham’s Ramada Attica Riviera recently opened in a quiet Riviera location, offering spacious sea-view rooms from €120 a night, with more hotels expected to open in the coming months.
In Athens proper, the choice of accommodation is not lacking. Of the 34 hotels that have opened in greater Athens during the pandemic, 26 of them are in the city center. Newcomers to Omonia’s revamped central plaza include the Brown Acropol with its modern take on ’60s Athens aesthetics (it has 165 rooms from €130 a night). It is one of four hotels opened in the capital by the rapidly expanding Israeli Brown chain. On the same square, in the heart of the capital’s historic and shopping district, is Marriott’s ultra-trendy Moxy Athens City, with its bright interiors, smiling staff and comfortable rooms from €170 a night.
A few blocks away, near the nightlife of Psyrri, the quirky Selina Athens Theatrou, part of the global hotel brand, offers bright rooms adorned with murals and airy coworking spaces from €90-120 the night.
And in the heart of the city near the Greek Parliament, Athens Capital — MGallery has a rooftop infinity pool with views of the Acropolis and prices start around €300 a night.
The pandemic has also led to closures, including the capital’s iconic Hilton which closed earlier this year after nearly six decades, although it is due to reopen in 2024 as part of the luxury Conrad line of the chain.