Athens has hit the news for all the wrong reasons lately. Economic crisis, social unrest and corruption in high places have become the blight of the city considered the Birthplace of Western Civilization. Some 2,500 years ago, classical ideals of democracy, philosophy and beauty were born here. Today it’s a chaotic jumble of high-rise concrete apartment blocks, dense traffic and soaring unemployment. But as Greeks look for a new way forward—they voted in the radical-left Syriza Party on an anti-austerity manifesto in January 2015—the city is still as exciting and exuberant as it has ever been … with tons of culture, a balmy Mediterranean climate and an unstoppable all-out nightlife.
Drinking coffee, be it Elliniko (Greek-style) or frappe (iced and frothy) is a ritual here, so start the day in true Athenian style, with coffee at Tailor Made. Take a seat on the terrace, overlooking the blue-flowering jacaranda trees on Agia Irini Square, just off the pedestrian-only thoroughfare of Aiolou. Tailor Made is currently one of the hippest cafes in town, and its name is a tribute to the fabric stores and sartorial businesses that once thrived in this downtown neighborhood. The building itself was designed by Ernest Ziller, a German architect who pioneered the neoclassical style in Athens in the late 19th century, following Greek independence from the Ottoman Turks. Inside, carefully chipped plasterwork and exposed concrete create a portrait of Ziller on the back wall behind the bar.
Photo courtesy of Athens Convention & Visitors Bureau
Walk through Plaka, Athens’ oldest residential neighborhood, a labyrinth of narrow streets lined by pastel-colored neoclassical mansions, many of which are now souvenir shops, pseudo-rustic tavernas or small hotels. It’s undeniably quaint, but feels more authentic in winter, when there are fewer tourists. Plaka is also home to several diminutive Byzantine churches, which tended to be erected on the sites of pre-Christian temples, and often incorporated pre-existing carved stonework from the earlier buildings. One of the nicest is the 12th-century Little Mitropolis, which stands next to the more cumbersome Mitropolis (Metropolitan Cathedral) from 1862. If the former is open, take a peep inside for a mystical experience: Orthodox chanting, medieval frescoes, flickering candles and bearded priests are discernible through clouds of incense.
A steep hike uphill through Plaka brings you to the Acropolis, a rocky plateau, rising above the sprawling modern city. Athens was founded here, some 2,500 years ago, with the construction of several magnificent temples. The best known is the Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena, the city’s namesake. In the centuries that followed, it was used by the early Christians as a church, and as a mosque by the Ottoman Turks. You’ll probably recognize it. The Acropolis has been used as a location in many films, including My Life in Ruins (2009) and The Two Faces of January (2014). Note that the Acropolis entrance ticket also gives you access to various other ancient sites, so put it in your pocket and keep it safe.
In contrast to the ancient relics, a 10-minute walk southeast of the Acropolis stands the ultra-modern glass-and-concrete Acropolis Museum designed by Swiss starchitect Bernard Tschumi and opened in 2009. The light and airy interior displays ancient finds from the Acropolis site—classical statues of gods, mortals and animals, carved in marble. On the top floor, you can see a life-size reconstruction of the frieze that once decorated the Parthenon, with the Acropolis in clear view through the museum’s floor-to-ceiling windows. For a lunchtime snack, opt for the museum’s bar-restaurant, which has tables on an open-air terrace.
Photo courtesy of Acropolis Museum press office
From here, walk back along the 2.5-mile, tree-lined, car-free Archaeological Promenade, which curves around the base of the Acropolis Hill. On the way, you’ll pass the second-century A.D. Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an amphitheater with astounding acoustics, designed to seat 4,800 spectators. Nowadays, it hosts the annual Athens Summer Festival. Luciano Pavarotti, Liza Minnelli and Goran Bregovi? have performed here. Also take a look in the Ancient Agora, where philosophers, merchants and religious worshippers met in ancient times. An Arcadian landscape planted with olive trees and scattered with crumbling ruins, its most notable building is the well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus, dedicated to the God of Fire.
Time for a sunset drink? Nearby, you’ll find The Art Foundation, better known as TAF. Entered through an unimposing doorway, it centers on a 19th-century courtyard garden rimmed by former-stables, each one of which serves as a tiny gallery exhibiting contemporary artworks: painting, photography and installations. Take a look at what’s on display, then order a cocktail at the open-air bar and enjoy the mellow atmosphere and background music.
Greeks eat late. To catch the local atmosphere, try to arrive around 9:30 p.m. for dinner at the informal Oinopoleion in Psirri. Originally a wine store opened by the Markou family in 1928, they still serve their own wine by the carafe, as well as tasty food such as vareniki (homemade ravioli filled with cheese) or the veal and tomato casserole. On Saturday nights, they stage live bouzouki music, with seating in a leafy garden out back.
Photo courtesy of Athens Convention & Visitors Bureau
Afterwards, track down the nearby Six D.O.G.S. An avant-garde venue that combines a café, bar and performance space, it is named after the concept of “six degrees of global separation,” which claims that everyone on the planet is connected through a chain of six acquaintances. They have an ongoing program of quirky concerts. Chris Eckman of Seattle rock band The Walkabouts and New York post punk band Dirty Fences are scheduled to play here in 2015. Later, Seven Jokers (Voulis 7) is a popular after-hours spot; it’s tiny and gets very smoky and crowded, and rarely closes before sunrise.