Here’s a surprise: While Athenians were shut down due to the pandemic, a flurry of creative and entrepreneurial activity was underway. Result? A total of 272 new restaurants, according to the local industry association, as well as hundreds of other cafes and bars. The city also bought 34 new hotels, offering 1,982 rooms over the past two years. And its cultural landscape flourished, with major national projects coming to fruition.
“We have witnessed a cultural revival and a growing gastronomic scene that showcases the city’s new dynamism,” said Vassilis Kikilias, Greece’s tourism minister. Adding to the construction of new hotels and upgrading of older ones, Mr Kikilias said it made him “optimistic about 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 crowds have since returned to central squares and landmarks in numbers reminiscent of pre-pandemic days.
Vaccination certificates against Covid are no longer required to enter the country or to visit shops, restaurants and museums, and from June 1, face masks are no longer required in closed public spaces, with the exception of hospitals, pharmacies, public transport and ferries.
Gems of culture shine again
The Greek capital’s newest cultural gem (or rather an impressive burnt-out old one), the National Gallery reopened last year after an eight-year, €60 million renovation. Twice the size of the original, the sleek new building has a glass facade that allows natural light to illuminate the exhibits and offers visitors a view of the city at every corner. You can spend hours exploring the three floors charting the evolution of Greek art over nearly seven centuries. But even a short visit should not overlook the arresting works of Greek modernist painters Konstantinos Parthenis and Yannis Tsarouchis with their dreamlike symbolism, and the brilliant paintings of orientalist Theodoros Rallis and post-impressionist Iakovos Rizos.
A fourth floor dedicated to Western European art will 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 for art lovers is the National Museum of Contemporary Art, a former brewery which opened in late February 2020 after a prolonged 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 grappling with themes of nation-building, mass protests and the environment – are topped by a roof terrace with a view stretching from the Acropolis to south coast line.
The capital’s independent art scene, enlivened by a flurry of creativity fueled by the social upheaval that came with the decade-long financial crisis, has flourished again during the pandemic, with the opening of exciting new spaces to view art. One of the prettiest is a former tobacco factory in the gritty Athens district of Kolonos, whose pink and yellow facade has drawn comparisons to a giant Battenberg cake. After a debut exhibition last summer, the space reopened in June with a show of 18 large-scale installations from the collection of entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos, founder of Neon, the cultural organization that renovated the factory, which recently donated hundreds of works to museums including the Guggenheim.
Eating and drinking
There has been buzz about Linou Soumpasis & Co. since it opened in December in the lively central district of Psyrri. Shedding the labels of neo-tavern and bistronomy, the self-proclaimed “simple restaurant” offers high-quality food with a contemporary twist from a lively open kitchen. The emphasis is on fresh food, especially fish, with the menu updated daily according to the day’s load. Recent dishes include a feather-light John Dory tartar with seaweed in cucumber jus and a tender grilled pepper fish in zucchini puree. Beef cheek stew in pea soup is also popular, as are 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 folks behind Cookoovaya (recommended by the Michelin Guide) offers Mediterranean flavors and street food in a lively retro setting that’s part classic Greek taverna, part American diner. Dinner for two is around €30 and highlights include the crispy pork sandwich and a twist on tzatziki made with Gorgonzola cheese.
Two new arrivals in Athens’ venerable industrial districts are also drawing crowds. Tzoutzouka in Rouf, offers adventurous tastes of traditional Greek dishes, such as a rich lamb casserole in red sauce with homemade pasta and spicy hard cheese for around €30 per person with wine. Proveleggios at nearby Kerameikos is the latest effort from the mastermind behind super-popular restaurant Nolan, serving innovative cuisine like hand-pulled noodles with sweet wild greens in dipping sauce and cocktails on a tree-lined terrace against a colonnade indie rock vocals. Dinner costs around €35 per person without drinks.
For cocktail lovers, Athens offers a dizzying selection of new drinking spots. At the Bar opposite the Bar, in a bustling pedestrian-only alley off the central Sintagma Square, the energetic young staff prepare classic cocktails using locally sourced ingredients, with prices starting at €7. Those who like their drink with a view of the city can join a bohemian crowd at Attic Urban Rooftop in the lively Monastiraki district, one of several new rooftop terraces, where cocktails cost between 11 and 13 euros.
In the up-and-coming Petralona neighborhood is Line Athens (sister bar to the world-ranked Clumsies) where staff shake up house-made vermouth cocktails, at the top of €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 Michelin-starred Spondi and Hytra. Hervé has a 17-item tasting menu offering a mix of dishes that reflect Mr Pronzato’s take on international cuisine for €95 per head. There is no sign – to enter, enter a code received 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 farm in a renovated neoclassical building with a tranquil garden. A tasting menu, worth €86, includes prawns with orange sauce, walnuts and fennel and scallops with yuzu kosho, grapefruit and lemon.
Top-end options for both food and accommodation include the ultra-upscale Xenodocheio Milos, which bills itself as the capital’s “first 5-star gastronomic hotel” – the latest venture from celebrity chef Kostas Spiliadis, who has established its Milos restaurant brand in various countries. including New York, Montreal and London. Rooms start at around €230 per night, while dinner starts at around €60 per person, with specialties including sea salt-roasted sea bass and thinly fried zucchini and aubergine.
New accommodation, along the coast and in the city
One of the newest hotspots for hotels is the so-called Athens Riviera, a 60-kilometer stretch of coastline filled with marinas, beaches and secluded coves that is about 30 minutes by taxi 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 sea views at its Pelagos restaurant with Michelin star. A nine-course tasting menu including Kristal caviar, red prawns and octopus ink risotto for €160 per person.
Wyndham’s Riviera Ramada Attica recently opened its doors in a quiet location on the Riviera, offering spacious rooms with sea views from €120 per night, and more hotels will open in the coming months.
In Athens, 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 in the renovated Omonia central square include the Acropolis Brown with its modern take on 60s Athens aesthetics (there are 165 rooms starting at €130 per night). It is one of four hotels opened in the capital by the rapidly expanding Israeli chain Brown. On 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 per night.
A few blocks away, close to Psyrri’s nightlife, 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 the Parliament of Greece, the Capital of Athens — MGallery features a rooftop infinity pool overlooking the Acropolis and prices starting at around €300 per night.
The pandemic also brought some closures, notably the capital’s iconic Hilton, which closed its doors earlier this year after nearly six decades, although it is expected to reopen in 2024 as part of the luxury Conrad chain.