Here’s a surprise: While Athenians were locked down because of the pandemic, a flurry of creative and entrepreneurial activity was underway. The outcome? A total of 272 new restaurants, according to the local industry association, as well as hundreds more cafes and bars. The city also acquired 34 new hotels, offering 1,982 rooms over the last two years. And its cultural landscape blossomed, with major national projects coming to fruition.
“We’ve witnessed a cultural revival and a growing gastronomical scene that showcases the new dynamism of the city,” said Vassilis Kikilias, Greece’s tourism minister. Adding in the construction of new hotels and the upgrading of older ones, Mr. Kikilias said made him “optimistic for the season.”
As of May, the number of foreign visitors to the city was still below 2019 levels, but only by about 12 percent, and since then crowds have returned to the central squares and landmarks in numbers reminiscent of prepandemic days.
Covid vaccination certificates are no longer required to enter the country or to visit shops, restaurants and museums, and since June 1, face masks are no longer required in closed public spaces with the exception of hospitals, pharmacies, public transport and ferries.
Cultural gems shine again
The Greek capital’s newest cultural gem (or rather an impressively burnished old one), the National Gallery reopened last year after an eight-year, 60-million-euro overhaul. Twice the size of the original, the sleek new building has a glass facade that allows natural light to illuminate exhibits and offers visitors a glimpse of the city at every corner. You could spend hours exploring the three floors charting the evolution of Greek art over nearly seven centuries. But even a brief visit should not skip the arresting works of the Greek modernist painters Konstantinos Parthenis and Yannis Tsarouchis with their dreamlike symbolism, and the luminous paintings of the Orientalist Theodoros Rallis and the postimpressionist Iakovos Rizos.
A fourth floor dedicated to Western European art is to open in the coming weeks and will include paintings by Picasso and Mondrian stolen in a daring one-man heist in 2012 and recovered last year.
Another treasure trove for art lovers is the Museumational Museum of Contemporary Art, a former brewery which opened in late February 2020 after an extended 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 exhibitions grapple with the themes of nation-building, mass protests and the environment – are topped by a roof terrace with a view sweeping from the Acropolis to the southern coastline.
The capital’s independent art scene, invigorated by a flurry of creativity stoked by the social unrest that came with the decade-long financial crisis, bloomed again during the pandemic, with the opening of exciting new spaces to see art. One of the edgiest is a former tobacco factory in the gritty Athens neighborhood of Kolonos whose pink and yellow facade has drawn comparisons to a giant Battenberg cake. Following a debut exhibition last summer, the space reopened in June with a show featuring 18 large-scale installations from the collection of the entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos, the founder of Neon, the cultural organization that overhauled the factory, who recently donated hundreds of works to museums including the Guggenheim.
Eating and drinking
There has been buzz around Linou Soumpasis & Co. since it opened in December in the vibrant central district of Psyrri. Dismissing the neo-taverna and bistronomy labels, the self-professed “simple restaurant” serves high quality fare with a contemporary twist from a bustling open kitchen. The emphasis is on fresh food, particularly fish, with the menu updated daily according to the day’s haul. Recent dishes include a feather-light John Dory tartare with seaweed in cucumber juice and a tender chargrilled piper fish in zucchini purée. The veal cheeks stew in chick pea soup is also popular as are the selection of homemade breads and organic wines from small Greek producers. Expect to pay about 110 euros (about $ 116) for a three-course dinner with wine for two. Wines range from €22 to €150 a bottle and are all available by the glass.
A few blocks away, Gastone, the latest venture by the people behind Cookoovaya (recommended by the Michelin Guide) serves up Mediterranean flavors and street food in a lively retro setting that is part classic Greek taverna, part American diner. Dinner for two is about € 30 and highlights include the crispy pork sandwich and a twist on tzatziki made with Gorgonzola cheese.
Two new arrivals in gentrified industrial districts of Athens are also drawing crowds. Tzoutzouka in Rouf, offers adventurous takes on traditional Greek dishes, like a rich ewe casserole in red sauce with homemade pasta and spicy hard cheese for about € 30 per person with wine. Proveleggios in nearby Kerameikos is the latest endeavor from the brains behind the super-popular Nolan restaurant, serving innovative cuisine like hand-pulled noodles with sweet wild greens in tare dipping sauce and cocktails on a tree-lined terrace against an indie rock soundtrack. Dinner is about € 35 per person without drinks.
For cocktail aficionados, Athens offers a dizzying selection of new drinking spots. At the Bar in Front of the Bar, on a buzzing pedestrians-only alley near central Syntagma Square, energetic young staff prepare twists on classic cocktails using ingredients produced on site, with prices starting at € 7. Those who want their drink with a view of the city can join a bohemian crowd at Attic Urban Rooftop in the bustling Monastiraki district, one of several new roof terraces, where cocktails are priced from € 11 to € 13.
In the up-and-coming Petralona neighborhood is Line Athens (the sister bar of world-ranking the Clumsies) where staff shake up cocktails with homemade vermouth, most priced at € 10.
The same area is home to Hervé, the discreet new restaurant of Paris-born Hervé Pronzato whose experience as a chef in Athens includes stints at the Michelin-starred Spondi and Hytra. Hervé has a 17-item tasting menu offering a mix of dishes reflecting Mr. Pronzato’s take on international cuisine for € 95 a head. There is no sign – to enter, you punch in a code acquired with your reservation.
At Soil, in the Pangrati neighborhood, Tasos Mantis, also formerly a 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, includes shrimp in an orange, pecan and fennel sauce and scallops with yuzo kosho, grapefruit and lemon confit.
Options at the high end for both food and lodgings include the understatedly opulent Xenodocheio Milos, which touts itself as the capital’s first “gastronomy 5 star hotel” – the latest enterprise of the celebrated chef Costas Spiliadis, who has established his Milos restaurant brand in locations including New York, Montreal and London. Rooms start at about € 230 per night, while dining starts at about € 60 per person, with specials that include sea bass baked in sea salt and wafer-thin fried zucchini and eggplant.
New lodging, along the coast and in the city
One of the newest spots for hotels is the so-called Athens Riviera, a 60-kilometer stretch of coastline dotted with marinas, beaches and secluded coves that is about a 30-minute taxi ride from the city center. The Four Seasons Astir Palace opened on a pine-clad peninsula there in 2019, offering 303 rooms (starting at € 1,700 in July and € 1,100 in August) and fine dining with a sea view at its Michelin-starred Pelagos restaurant. A nine-course tasting menu including Kristal caviar, red prawns and octopus-ink risotto for € 160 per person.
Wyndham’s Ramada Attica Riviera recently opened its doors at a quiet spot on the Riviera, offering spacious rooms with sea views from € 120 a night and more hotels are due to open in the coming months.
In Athens proper, there is no shortage of choice for accommodation. Of the 34 hotels that opened in greater Athens during the pandemic, 26 of them are in the city center. New arrivals at the revamped central Omonia Square include the Brown Acropol with its modern take on ’60s Athens aesthetics (it has 165 rooms starting at € 130 per night). It is one of four hotels opened in the capital by the rapidly expanding Israeli Brown chain. In the same square, in the heart of the capital’s historic and commercial district, is Marriott’s ultra-trendy Moxy Athens City, with its bright interiors, cheerful staff and comfortable rooms starting at € 170 a night.
A few blocks away, close to the nightlife of Psyrri, the quirky Selina Athens Theatrou, part of the global hospitality brand, has bright, mural-adorned rooms and airy co-working spaces from € 90 to € 120 a night.
And in the heart of the city near Greece’s Parliament, Athens Capital – MGallery features a rooftop infinity pool with a view of the Acropolis and prices starting at around € 300 a night.
The pandemic brought some closures too, notably the capital’s iconic Hilton which shut its doors earlier this year after nearly six decades, though it is expected to reopen in 2024 as part of the chain’s luxury Conrad line.