The New Heart of Old Athens
The pillars of the Acropolis are glowing in sunset gold and crimson glory as I meander down Ermou Street to Monastiraki—a pedestrian enclave in the heart of old Athens.
When I reach the ancient Byzantine monastery that gives the area its name, a maze of side streets splinters off, leading to a plethora of family-owned shops, hip new cafés, and classic tavernas.
It’s just Monday and yet the place is pulsating with energy—young and old Athenians are sipping iced coffee, sampling meze (traditional Greek tapas), and settling around tables filled with food and wine amid crescendos of conversation.
I take a seat at Agia Irini Square and order a glass of Assyrtiko—a crisp white made from indigenous grapes grown on the island of Santorini.
The lively scene is a far cry from the Athens I remember in my youth, when traffic jams and smog made it a city I wanted to flee. Now Athens is the place to be.
A state-of-the-art public transit system has turned the Greek capital’s legendary gridlock into a thing of the past, blue skies now frame the cityscape, and recent unstable economic times have sparked a surge of creativity—stylish hotels, trendy nightlife, and culinary hotspots abound.
To sample this new Athens on the rise, you’ll need at least three days. Here’s my list of highlights to get you started:
New Hotel (yep, that’s its name) is located on Filellinon Street in the heart of the old city, within easy walking distance to the Acropolis and the Ancient Agora, as well as the bustling street life of Monastiraki.
The guest rooms are refreshingly large—a welcome change from the usual tiny bed spaces found in Europe’s urban hotels. The Greek owner’s passion for modern art gives New Hotel an edgy local vibe, in addition to being environmentally friendly—old chairs and furniture destined for the landfill have been recycled into beautiful wall art.
Travelers with thicker wallets will do well to book into Room 700, offering one of the city’s most unique and romantic experiences—a private rooftop garden with an outdoor bed to sleep under the stars on summer nights, with the nearby Acropolis as your view.
Greeks thrive around food or, as one local put it to me, they “go out to eat with friends and family—it is like breathing for us.” Athens has rightfully emerged as a Mediterranean food lover’s haven, offering everything from back alley tavernas serving authentic Greek dishes like yemista—fresh peppers and tomatoes stuffed with rice, feta, mint, and dill—to rising-star chefs who are putting a modern mark on Greek cuisine. Here are three places you can count on to hit culinary high notes:
- Café Avissinia: Part of the adventure is trying to find this traditional café within the labyrinth of the old Athens Flea Market. But persistence pays off with a classic meal to remember. This is reliably down-to-earth good Greek food. Ask for a table on the roof overlooking the Parthenon and try the taramosalata (a creamy caviar spread)—considered the best in the city—served with crusty bread and washed down with house wine.
- Mani Mani: Owned by a Greek American who moved back to his ancestral homeland to join the growing ranks of Athens’s new creative class, the name comes from a remote region of southern Greece known for its hearty food and rugged way of life. Located on a side street near the new Acropolis Museum, a tiny sign marks the entrance, leading to a small upstairs dining room with just a handful of tables. Everything on the menu is worth trying, but be sure to try the traditional fava beans.
- Tudor Hall: The name may be British, but make no mistake, this is modern Greek cuisine at its finest, under the direction of Executive Chef Sotiris Evangelou, who trained in Paris with renowned food master Alain Ducasse. The fine white linen, marble statues, and chandeliers put the King George Hotel eatery at the top of the city’s dining establishments, but the menu is all about local, healthy, fresh ingredients, like the steamed octopus with lemon-olive oil and smoked eggplant salad.
Greek wines are not well known outside the country, and the best never make it abroad due to this wine-loving nation’s homegrown demand. Almost every restaurant serves house wine worth trying—often made by friends or family. But the top vintages are strictly by the bottle. Here’s a sure-to-please sampling: Ktima from Argyros Estate, Semeli’s Mantinia Nasiakou, and Gerovassiliou’s Avaton.
- Acropolis Museum: News of one of Europe’s most spectacular museums to open in a generation was largely clouded by media focused on Greece’s economic turmoil. Located near the base of the Acropolis, the 226,000-square-foot architectural marvel, including glass floors revealing an archaeological site beneath the building, is a must-visit for anyone interested in ancient Greek history.
- National Garden: Bordered on one side by Parliament and on the far end by the stadium that hosted the first modern Olympic Games, this vast park of trees and flowers is the place Athenians go for a morning jog or an evening stroll—a glimpse of local life away from the tourist hubs.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
- The Ancient Agora and Parthenon: The concept of “philosophy walks”—discussing the meaning of life, democracy, and culture—was born amid the cypress trees and wild thyme that still flourish in the Agora. Socrates, Plato, and Pericles all wandered here in moments of deep contemplation and you should, too. Avoid the Acropolis-bound tour buses in the tourist-heavy summer by planning your visit two hours before sunset or go anytime in the off-season and you will have the place almost to yourself. Start at the lower Agora entrance and follow the ancient footpaths to the Parthenon.
Costas Christ is on the sustainable travel beat at National Geographic, which includes his “Trending” column as an editor at large for Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CostasChrist.
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