Something unexpected happened in the summer of 2021. Suddenly, out of nowhere — and from locations near and far — everyone seemed to be heading for Athens.
And why not? Whether by necessity or foresight, Greece was one of the first European nations to reopen its borders during the second year of the coronavirus crisis.
And Athens became the logical first step for thousands of travelers eager for good food, world-class architecture and access to some of the best beaches imaginable.
A year on, Athens could not be cooler — filled with sleek new hotels, cutting-edge art galleries and world-class fashion and design.
“Athens is a real love story for us,” said hotelier Leon Avigad, whose firm Brown Hotels will open 50 hotels across Greece by 2025 — including nearly 20 in Athens alone. “We love the people, we love the ambiance and the incredible level of support from the city.”
The company’s most intriguing Athens property is Lighthouse Athens, a 220-room urban retreat set in a one-time theater smack-dab on Omonia Square, the city’s traditional cultural centerpoint.
Hidden behind the building’s original white-marble facade are cool concrete walls and sleek black parquet floors leading to a slew of groovy public spaces including a rooftop pool and nightspot.
And many rooms include balconies with Acropolis views (from $140 per night).
Meanwhile, the company’s Dave Red Athens includes 87 industrial-inspired rooms with an equally super-central location at more wallet-friendly prices (from $58 per night).
But Athens’ new spirit extends far beyond its hotel boom.
“The city has a soul-stirring sense about it that just becomes you,” said Andria Mitsakos, a long-time New Yorker who moved to Athens 10 years ago where she established Anthologist, an e-com platform showcasing best-in-Greek design. “We are a living, breathing, cultural hub of inspiration.”
This, being Greece, much of that inspiration is literally thousands of years old. Some of the most inspiring of all can be found at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Kolonaki, a private museum with thousands of works from Greece and Cyprus showcasing the distinctive, almost other-worldly Cycladic island aesthetic.
The museum is directly connected to the neoclassical Stathatos Mansion, which houses a fantastic selection of contemporary art.
The Cycladic museum serves as the perfect warm-up to Athens’s real historical show-stopper, the Acropolis Museum, whose glass-floor lobby literally hovers over an excavation site.
Inside are thousands of artifacts found in and around the Acropolis dating back to the Greek Bronze Age, upwards of 5,000 years ago.
Beyond the (literal) classics, Athens has seen the arrival of impressive contemporary art and cultural hubs. Neon, for instance, is a sprawling space set in a former tobacco factory in the up-and-coming Kolonos district.
Established by Greek collector and entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos, the nearly 70,000-square-foot center mounts large and small public art exhibitions (from sculpture to video art) both here in Athens and across Greece.
Equally innovative and cutting-edge is the newish Rodeo Gallery in the port of Piraeus about 30 minutes by taxi from the city center.
The gallery is set in a converted warehouse and is the highest-profile among a handful of hip arts spots helping transform this historic port area, which is conveniently close to the equally compelling (and sprawling) Stavros Niarchos Park, which was designed by Renzo Piano.
Hungry? Obvi! Then head for Cookoovaya — a much-lauded collaboration between five of the city’s top chefs.
It promotes “wise cuisine” — food rooted in traditional Greek ingredients and techniques but with modern flair. Think grilled Greek octopus with Santorini fava or whole fish of the day cooked the way you like it — grilled, steamed, raw, or in a soup or casserole.
The dishes here are ambitious and flavorful, so much so that a second outpost has opened in St. Tropez.
Seeking something simpler? Then a traditional souvlaki is essential.
Every Athenian and every Athens ’hood clearly has its favorite, but two of the best include Kalamaki Kolonaki (Ploutarchou 32 St.) — where they serve both traditional lamb as well as chicken, pork and turkey — and O Kostas (5 Pentelis St.), which has been dishing out perfectly prepared portions of meat-in-pita for more than 65 years (smart tip: say “yes” when the owner offers to add in an extra dose of paprika, the kick can’t be beat).