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48 hours in… Athens

Places

48 hours in… Athens

Fashion journalist and Athens devotee Ella Alexander plots the perfect weekend in her favourite Greek city

Ella Alexander

BY Ella Alexander3 July 2024

If you ask anyone about Athens they’ll talk about its ancient history, but this is a city much more about the future than the past. For all of its gods, ruins and mythology, Athens today is intensely forward-thinking. It is political, creative and bohemian with a blossoming arts and culinary scene.

FRIDAY: EVENING

The Dolli

For first-night buzz, the lively district of Gazi is the place to be. Bohemian bars that spill out onto mural-covered streets sit next to traditional tavernas filled with a young arty crowd. Start your trip with the city’s finest souvlaki at the unassuming takeaway joint Elvis (1–5 Archimidous), an Athenian foodie institution that also, curiously, doubles up as a tribute to the King. There are a few tables outside to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy its pillowy pittas stuffed with high quality chicken or pork. Once you’ve eaten, walk through Gazi to Monastiraki — not far from decadent hotel Gatsby Athens — past the beautiful neoclassical Benaki Museum until the streets become cobbled and narrow.

Take in the politically charged street art that decorates the walls and head towards rooftop bar Couleur Locale, hidden on a back street and accessible through an inconspicuous hole in the wall. The several flights of stairs lead to one of the best views of the Acropolis. Guests sip cocktails and dine on tapas as live DJ sets offer the soundtrack. As the sun goes down, the ancient citadel is illuminated by golden lights; Couleur Locale is the perfect place to watch it all unfold. Alternatively, head to nearby Smith hotel the Dolli, where guests can watch the ancient city switch from dusk to dark from its photogenic rooftop infinity pool. The waters reflect the Acropolis like a mirror – pure visual heaven.

SATURDAY: MORNING

The Acropolis

It sounds obvious, but if it’s your first time in Athens, you must see the Acropolis up close, a place that inspires awe in earnest. If you want to beat the crowds (and the intense heat), go early and book in advance. A tour guide is useful but not essential: you’ll be blown away by the majesty of this sacred temple regardless. An homage to the power of human determination and what civilisation can achieve, the Acropolis has watched over Athens for over 2,500 years and to stand next to it is a humbling experience.

If you’d rather avoid the inevitable queues, go for a hike around it and take in the city’s spectacular geography. I like Anafiotika: a tiny, picturesque neighbourhood on the north-east of Acropolis Hill, lined by whitewashed houses and bougainvillaea. It’s not far from the touristy district of Plaka, but much quieter. After all that walking, you’ll need sustenance, so book an Uber and head towards Blue Parrot, a jungle-like, artsy eating and drinking spot that sits on a pedestrianised square in Metaxourgeio. The music is great, the food fresh and hearty, and the cocktails and coffee equally strong.

SATURDAY: AFTERNOON

From there, it’s a five-minute walk to the Breeder, the city’s buzziest art gallery, which sits on a run-down side street. Known for showcasing a mix of local and international creative talent, this former ice-cream factory looks intimidatingly sparse, but its staff are welcoming, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and the work on display is consistently inclusive and thought-provoking.

SATURDAY: EVENING

The Athens I know and love is about art, food and nightlife, so make your next stop Seychelles, a relaxed much-loved restaurant, which even locals agree still lives up to the hype. It sits in an unassuming 19th-century building with tables scattered outside, and always attracts a lively crowd, who come for dinner and stay for the ambience. The food is excellent with an ever-changing, affordable and well-executed menu that uses the best local produce to create classic Greek dishes with a contemporary twist. The fish is heavenly, but truly there’s no dud culinary card here – although for more upscale seafood, head to Xenodocheio Milos, where you’ll mingle with the Athenian glitterati.

Afterwards, take a short walk to Bios, an arts and cultural hub with a low-key, industrial rooftop bar that often hosts film screenings and DJ sets, although mercifully not at the same time. Like most rooftop bars in Athens, the views are unforgettable; here, you’ll look out over the majestic Parthenon. Don’t miss out on Bios’ signature popsicle cocktails, an ideal cooler for those balmy evenings.

SUNDAY: MORNING

Ergon Bakehouse

Sunday mornings should start with good coffee and pastries, so make a beeline for Ergon Bakehouse for lovingly made, artfully displayed sweet and savoury delicacies. A short walk from there sits TAF, a multi-purpose culture space in Monastiraki that serves some of the best Java in town. Not far from Smith hotels Ergon Bakehouse Athens, Xenodocheio Milos and the Dolli, TAF is housed in a neoclassical building with a plant-filled courtyard flanked by independent shops and a family-run coffee house. As the day goes on, it becomes a busy bar but in the morning, there are few calmer places to recover from the night before.

Less than 100 metres round the corner is Abyssinia Square, which hosts a great flea market every Sunday. Here you’ll find a mix of stalls and jam-packed second-hand shops selling homewares, curios and antiques, from beautiful embroidered linens to silverware. Once you’ve sourced the perfect souvenir, head for lunch at Cafe Avissinia, the only restaurant on the square and a favourite of Athenians. Either take a seat at one of the tables outside and enjoy the upbeat atmosphere, or head upstairs to the top-floor dining room for one of the city’s best views of the Parthenon.

SUNDAY: AFTERNOON

One&Only Aesthesis

At this point you have two options: the beach or more culture. If the sun is shining, make like a local and take a 40-minute car journey to the Athenian Riviera. One of Europe’s most overlooked beach destinations, this elegant sandy stretch is peppered with stylish beach clubs, coves and restaurants from which to gaze over the Aegean Sea. Stay at One&Only Aesthesis, where Jackie O and Brigitte Bardot hung out in the Sixties, or book a decadent treatment at its Guerlain spa.

Alternatively, if you’d rather drink up more culture than bask in the sun, visit the expansive Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre – an arts and education complex situated in the bay of Faliro. The SNFCC hosts exhibitions, opera, classes and talks, but on a Sunday afternoon admire the award-winning architecture and take a walk through its sloping landscaped park, which creeps up over the buildings, scented by olive and cypress trees, lavender and thyme. Don’t miss the Lighthouse – a roof deck accessible by lift or through the park – offering panoramic vistas of Athens, the port of Piraeus and the Saronic Gulf.

SUNDAY: EVENING

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

From May through to October, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (or the Herodeon, as locals call it), is the primary open-air venue for the Athens Festival, a celebration of arts and culture. This 2,000-year-old arena on the southern slopes of the Acropolis is unarguably one of the most spectacular destinations to watch music or theatre — and the easiest way of avoiding the Sunday blues. If you’re visiting in the winter months, grab your coat and sturdiest shoes and join the Athenians in climbing Areopagus Hill. Grab a beer from a kiosk (and maybe some more souvlaki), before walking up towards the rocky outcrop for the most spellbinding views of the city.

NEED TO KNOW

Transport Central Athens is easily accessible by foot, but the Metro system is affordable, reliable and runs from 5am until midnight. You can use all means of public transport (buses and suburban trains) on the same ticket (a single ticket costs €1.20 and is valid for 90 minutes). A day pass costs €4.10 and a three-day tourist ticket, which includes unlimited travel and one round trip to and from Athens International Airport, costs €20.

When to go While the masses head to Greece in the summer months, spring and autumn are the ideal times to visit Athens, when it’s less crowded and intensely hot.

What to buy Leather sandals from Stavros Melissinos, a third-generation sandal-maker and poet who has crafted beautifully made, love-forever footwear for the likes of Sophia Loren, the Beatles and Jackie O. His business is now run by his son, but the same quality and classic design remains. For a rounded view of the best craftsmanship that the city has to offer, book an appointment at Anthologist, a lovingly curated concept store, studio and exhibition space selling vintage and antique textiles, brass objets d’art, accessories, jewellery and ceramics made by local Greek artisans. Founder Andria Mitsakos will guide you through the collection sourced from her travels around her home country and further afield, explaining the stories behind each object.

Good to know Avoid Athens on or around 15 August. It’s a public holiday and the locals will have left for the neighbouring islands and most of the best bars and restaurants will be closed. Also, keep in mind that Athenians eat late — usually between 9pm and 10pm — and most kitchens stay open until after midnight. Restaurants open earlier in touristy districts such as Plaka, but if you want a buzzy, authentic experience, go for drinks first and eat later.

To antiquity and beyond: see our full collection of Athens hotels