I once read that a city doesn’t need to be beautiful, but it does need to be interesting. Athens is attractive – not in the glossy, photogenic form of its neighbouring islands, but rather in a lively, dilapidated way. It’s this contradiction that makes it so fascinating as a destination; how its faded appearance belies a crackling underbelly of creativity and art.
Of all the cities in Europe, Athens is the least stagnant and rigid. It is brilliantly alive, cheeringly inexpensive and ever changing. I have spent an inordinate amount of time convincing friends and family to visit Athens because it so often gets overlooked for those aforementioned dreamy islands. But if you’re interested in art of all forms – in culture both high and low brow – there are few better European cities. And the best time to go, so I keep telling them, is spring.
Over the last decade, Athens has given rise to a blossoming cultural scene, which spans street art, new galleries both big and small, and a huge array of arts events to appeal to every sensibility. The city’s temperatures average at around 17 degrees in March, rising to 25 degrees in May, perfect weather for exploring without getting too hot (it also means you’ll be able to enjoy the sandy beaches of the Athens Riviera without the crowds).
Ideally, you’d have two or three nights here to really get to grips with it, but if you only have 24 hours then there’s still a lot you can squeeze in. Start with a street-art walking tour – murals and graffiti cover building after building, and it’s the clearest indication of the political leanings of the locals, who have been subjected to searingly high unemployment rates and severe austerity measures in recent years.
The quality of the pieces on show is high; many of the street artists have degrees in fine art and it shows. The neighbourhoods of Exarchia, Psyrri, Anafiotika, Metaxourgeio and Gazi are all ripe ground for huge-scale artworks that further explore Greece’s social and economic issues.
Psirri, one of the city’s oldest districts, is home to numerous micro-sized independent galleries, showing contemporary artwork, including Alibi and Alpha Delta, while the anarchic Exarchia locale houses the buzzy Hot Wheels Athens. Head to the Metaxougio area to visit the Breeder, an influential gallery space founded in 2002 and known for having boosted the international profiles of multiple Greek artists.
On a bigger scale, there’s the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre: an elegantly-designed complex offering music, dance, art and opera and overlooking the placid bay of Faliro. And don’t miss the glass-encased ‘lighthouse’ on top of the building with its panoramic views of Athens, Piraeus and the Saronic Gulf. Cementing the city’s status as an arts capital is the newly enlarged Gagosian building which opened in autumn 2020 and showcases an array of contemporary work by talents local and international.
A city where ancient history intermingles with vibrant creative energy, Athens is at its best in a season where its cultural treasures can be appreciated most fully. See you there.
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