Weekend in . . . Athens
After dark days, the Greek capital is beginning to shine once again
After years of dreadful press that defined Athens as a broken-down capital prone to fiery riots, the city’s self-confidence and creativity are stirring again. Enterprising young fashion and graphic designers are opening shops celebrating the classic lines of ancient Greece and the anarchic wit of modern times. In reviving city squares, there are new restaurants and cafes serving native delicacies such as Cretan sausage and sheep’s milk yogurt with preserved quince.
The five-year-old Acropolis Museum is consistently rated one of the top museums in the world, and the National Museum of Contemporary Art is set to move into a new building later this year. Even rough times have silver linings.
Friday Noon 1 Muses and orators Walk along the wildflower-dotted Hill of the Muses, pierced by the marble monument to Philopappos, a Greek-Syrian nobleman who served as a Roman consul. Greeks like to fly kites here on Clean Monday, but it’s usually crowd-free, with good views of the Acropolis and the city. A trail leads past the 15th-century church of Agios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris, which is named after the Greek word for cannon because, legend has it, an Ottoman soldier was struck dead by lightning just as he was about to fire a cannon at the congregation. North of the Philopappos monument is the Pnyx, where Athenian citizens and orators like Pericles, Themistocles and Demosthenes spoke. There’s still a large stone platform here that’s popular with tourists and locals channelling the ancients (if only for a selfie).
3pm 2 Comfort food, updated Get a modern taste of hearty Peloponnesian cuisine at Manimani, an excellent and inexpensive restaurant in a restored neo-Classical house not far from the Acropolis Museum. Try the yellow split peas with onion chutney (€5), the sweet green salad with soft katiki cheese and dried figs (€7.50), and the homemade noodles, called hilopites, simmered with chicken, fennel, sun-dried tomatoes and basil (€9.50). For dessert, walk to the Fresko yogurt bar, where you will discover multiple varieties of “Greek yogurt”. Fresko has yogurt made from the milk of cows, goats and sheep, as well as traditional toppings ranging from thyme honey to “spoon sweets” (fruit boiled in sugar and lemon juice).
5pm 3 Acropolis now The Acropolis Museum, designed by the Swiss-born architect Bernard Tschumi, houses spectacular artefacts from the country’s most famous site. Finds date from the Hekatompedon, the oldest known building on the Acropolis. The showcase is the Parthenon Gallery, where portions of the Parthenon frieze are displayed. Most of it is, of course, at the British Museum in London. (Lord Elgin had the sculptures from the Propylaea and the Erechtheum removed between 1801 and 1812, when Greece was still part of the Ottoman Empire.)
7pm 4 The Road to hipster square Restaurants, cafes and bars have bloomed along the back streets between Syntagma, across from parliament, and Monastiraki, home of a lively marketplace. Meliartos is a standout bakery, cafe and creamery that uses locally sourced ingredients for its pies, sandwiches, ice cream and yogurt. Lukumades is named after the luscious fried dough balls that are the main course here, served with honey, chocolate praline or mastic-flavoured ice cream. On nearby Agia Eirini Square cigarette-rolling hipsters sip Stubborn Mules at Osterman, which has one of the best brunches in town.
9pm 5 Greek wine and cheese A low-key but excellent wine bar, Heteroclito celebrates the Greek vineyard, which has been growing in body, flavour and international respectability. Grab a table outside and order a glass of Melissokipos, a white from Crete, and the excellent Greek cheese platter (€8), with aged dry anthotiro (a goat’s milk cheese) from the Cretan city of Chania and smoked, spicy cow’s milk cheese from the northern city of Naoussa.
10pm 6 Art and song Many artists in Athens say Greek culture wallows too much in its past and fails to appreciate the dynamism of its present. These voices – visual and musical – have found homes in the Art Foundation (known as TAF) and Six d.o.g.s. TAF opened in 2009 in a renovated 19th-century complex with galleries and a space for lectures, plays and concerts. Six d.o.g.s. has an excellent cafe-bar and spacious garden and hosts concerts ranging from underground metal-rap to nostalgic indie-folk.
Saturday 9am 7 Award-winning coffee Athens used to be a tough place for coffee snobs. But at Yiannis Taloumis’s Cafe Taf, you can revel in that perfect cup of Kageyo Co-operative Rwandan coffee. Taf’s barista, Stefanos Domatiotis, was named World Brewers Cup Champion for 2014. Enjoy a fresh-brewed cup with a piece of apple pie or vanilla cake at the cafe (€5-€6), on the edge of the bohemian Exarchia neighbourhood.
11am 8 Ancient Cubism The Museum of Cycladic Art showcases the trove of Greek art belonging to the shipping magnate Nicholas Goulandris and his wife, Dolly. Most of it came from the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, where an ancient civilisation flourished between 3,300 and 200 BC. The collection includes the noted geometric figurines that inspired Cubist art as well as frescoed Minoan vessels and Roman-era jewellery from Cyprus (€7).
2pm 9 Vegetarian delight Greeks love their meat, so vegetarians often make do with salads, spinach pies and eggplant dip. The Greek-Iranian couple who opened Avocado near Syntagma Square created an eclectic menu of Greek, Asian and macrobiotic dishes and a juice bar. Try the black-eyed pea patties with Florina sweet peppers (€7) and the Brama Briam panini (€7), with roasted eggplant, red peppers and cheese from Metsovo. If you need a quick energy boost, get a Go Green (a smoothie made from spinach, parsley, apple, lemon and ginger, €4.90). This is one of the few restaurants where the smoking ban is enforced.
4pm 10 Live your myth In pre-crisis days, Athenians often power-shopped for Gucci and Fendi in the old-money neighbourhood of Kolonaki. Now there’s been a revival in clothes and accessories designed by Greeks. Koukoutsi features elegant T-shirts, bags, diaries and postcards. T-shirts cost about €25. If you have more to spend, go to Zeus & Dione, which showcases upscale Greek jewellery artists like Ileana Makri, Liana Vourakis and Lito and also features beautifully fluid, Greek-inspired dresses like the Medea (€750). In Plaka, an area near the Acropolis, try souvenir-shopping at Forget Me Not, which sells Greek-made finds like Rainy July’s swimming-cap handbags (€40-€50) and clothes inspired by ancient Greek iconography by the young designer Nikoletta Ververidou.
6pm 11 River gods and Olympians According to legend, the river god Ilissos worshipped in a sanctuary on Ardittos hill next to what is now the Panathenaic Stadium in Mets, in eastern Athens. The architect Anastasios Metaxas refurbished the ancient Olympic stadium to host the Olympics in 1896. The Panathenaic Stadium, which the Greeks call Kallimarmaro (“beautiful marble”), is the finishing point for the Athens Classic Marathon held each autumn. It is a short walk from the National Gardens; take a stroll along the winding, landscaped paths and stop at the Aigli Cafe for a Greek-style tiramisu. 9pm 12 Meze and degustation Greeks have become judicious about eating out, and there’s been an explosion of affordable tapas places, like Mavro Provato. Try the Myrto, a salad with roasted manouri cheese, nuts, oranges and blackberry dressing (€6.90); the sarikopita, a soft-cheese pie finished with honey and toasted sesame; and the Mavro Provato lamb slow-cooked in parchment with new potatoes and herbs (€12). A more expensive option is the Funky Gourmet in Keramikos, a creative spin on Greek food that deserves its two Michelin stars. The degustation menus are €100 to €195 per wine pairing, but you can sample delights such as Greek bottarga with white chocolate, snails, lamb chops and a smoked ice-cream sandwich.
Sunday 10am 13 Brunch and beach Several new brunch places are catering to a long-ignored concept in Greece: breakfast food. The Nice N’ Easy cafe, known for its organic fare, serves huevos rancheros, pancakes and Bloody Marys (€15-€25). The New Taste cafe, in the New Hotel near Syntagma Square, serves Eggs Benedict and quiche (€10-€20). After brunch, head out to Vouliagmeni lake, set inside a jagged boulder and known locally as a natural spa. The lake, which stays warm year-round, is just south of the seaside suburb of the same name (€8). If you want to prance around in a designer swimsuit, go to Astir beach, the fanciest spot along the so-called Athens Riviera. There’s a €25 fee for summer weekends, but it drops to €18 in the autumn.
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate