From provocative art to bohemian bars, Jenny Southan discovers a trendy side to the ancient Greek capital

Last year was a record-breaking period for Greece in terms of tourism, with more than 17.9 million international visitors collectively spending €11.5 billion (up from €10 billion in 2012). This year, the country is hoping to top 19 million people from overseas and €13 billion in revenue.

It’s good news for a place that was hit hard by the financial crisis – severe austerity measures made thousands homeless, caused high unemployment, forced shops, hotels and restaurants to close, and sparked riots, which put people off visiting the capital.

However, with the end of the recession in sight, and the mood becoming more peaceful and optimistic, Athens is proving itself an attractive city for a few days’ break, either in its own right or en route to the islands.

There are pockets of real charm and beauty to be discovered and, as well as its famous ruins, a new trendy side is emerging with cutting-edge art, modern hotels and buzzing bars. Greece even got its first designer shopping outlet, McArthur Glen (, in 2011, located 10km from Athens International airport. Here we give you a fresh perspective on a city that is taking a new direction.


Before the 2004 Olympics, Athens was not a city known for cool hotels, but since then the market for quirky boutique properties has blossomed.

The 133-room modernist Fresh hotel ( was one of the first to open a decade ago, while the biggest player is now Yes Hotels, a group set up by contemporary art collector Dakis Joannou.

Now comprising five properties around the capital, the flagship is the outlandish, 51-room Semiramis, which features a wacky combination of lurid pink and lime green interiors, and futuristic fittings.

Three years ago the group reopened the former Olympic Palace property as the four-star New Hotel, featuring interiors by Brazil’s Campana brothers, Fernando and Humberto, who have become known for building furniture made from rubbish. The Favela chair, made from scraps of wood, is their most iconic piece, and examples can be found throughout the 79-room property.

The restaurant, New Taste, echoes this approach, with walls covered in an explosion of old table legs, strips of timber and bits of cupboard from the previous hotel.

The zany rooms have open-plan bathrooms with gold panelling, while some have illuminated Greek “evil eyes” on the wall and Ladder chairs with backs that stretch to the ceiling (you can fold your clothes over the rungs). Head up to the seventh floor and you’ll find a glass-walled restaurant-lounge with 2,000 art books and a wrap-around roof terrace with sweeping city views. It’s open 12pm-12am – even if you are not staying here, it’s worth stopping by for a frappé iced coffee.

New Hotel, 16 Filellinon Street; Syntagma Square; tel +30 210 3273 000;


Walking around Athens, which isn’t always the prettiest of cities (unless you are in the old part of Plaka), you will often see graffiti, something commonly associated with social discontent.

While some of it is vandalism, the spray-can is also earning mainstream appreciation thanks to galleries such as the Onassis Cultural Centre, which opened in 2010 and has hosted exhibitions of street art.

“Since the crisis, artistic production has become more important,” says Elena Poughia, a tour guide for Dopios ( who specialises in contemporary art and culture in the city. “The economic tension has contributed in a positive way, with issues such as freedom of speech and distribution of wealth tackled.”

Between April and July, the “No Respect” exhibition at Onassis saw 40 artists paint elaborate murals in the basement. The centre also hosts theatre and dance and, on September 14-20, is staging a free conference – “Music Technology Meets Philosophy: From Digital Echoes to Virtual Ethos”.

107-109 Syngrou Avenue;


Hidden behind a rusting set of six-inch-thick steel doors at 45 Iasonos Street, in Metaxourgeio, you would never just stumble across Breeder Gallery. This former ice cream factory has spearheaded Athens’ contemporary art revolution since 2002 (it moved to its current site in 2008).

In the spring it hosted a conceptual show by Swiss-Iranian artist Vanessa Safavi, in which shells were laid out on the floor next to pools of blue, pink and white silicon. “You need some time to contemplate them – after a while they become sexual,” says gallery director Nadia Gerazouni.

On until September 27 is an exhibition of sculpture by US artist Allyson Vieira. Breeder also endeavours to promote Greek artists abroad by participating in the likes of Frieze Art Fair New York and Art Basel Hong Kong. On the top floor, organic vegetarian restaurant the Breeder Feeder is open for dinner with rotating chefs and menus.

Open Tues-Sat 12pm-6pm, free entry.


Looking up at Athens’ most famous monument – the 2,000-year-old Parthenon, where philosopher Socrates used to engage his peers in profound discussions about how to live – is the New Acropolis Museum.

Opened in 2009, with 14,000 sqm of light-filled exhibition space, it displays fractured archaeological relics, faceless reliefs and plaster casts of limbless statues (the original and best-preserved pieces are the Elgin Marbles, in London’s British Museum).

Although most visitors will come for the remains, it’s the striking modern architecture by Switzerland’s Bernard Tschumi that can end up competing for your attention – there are glass walkways, panoramic city views through floor-to-ceiling windows, a mezzanine reading room looking down on people walking through the gallery below, and an al fresco terrace serving food.

Open daily with times depending on the season. Entry E5, 15 Dionysiou Areopagitou St;


One of the hippest up-and-coming districts is Gazi, named after the imposing red-brick former gasworks located here, now a museum. At night it is lively with bohemian bars and clubs.

Cartone serves tasty, affordable food, with “industrial chic” interiors decorated with cardboard sculptures of motorbikes, cars and jeeps. Hang with the locals on the streetside veranda and order a slice of spinach and feta pie (E6).

Open 9am-4am. 41 Persefonis Street; tel +30 210 3450 202.


The oldest distillery/bar/shop in Athens, dating back to 1909, the walls of this eye-catching drinking den feature shelves lined with hundreds of rainbow-coloured bottles.

Although nestled among souvenir shops in Plaka, it is also frequented by locals who come to chat over Brettos’ famous ouzo.

It won’t be to everybody’s taste, but the clear aniseed spirit, which turns cloudy white when water or ice is added, is a must-try. You can also buy handmade Cuban cigars and bottles to take away, or do some wine tasting (until 6pm).

Open daily 10am-3am. 41 Kidathineon Street;


Those in the know head 10km out of the city centre to this happening “beach house project”. Unveiled last year, Balux represents a new direction in dining and beach culture, with a vibe not dissimilar to the urban beach bars of Berlin.

The sprawling venue has numerous open-plan rooms to lounge around in, play pool, work, read, drink or order pizza. The front is open to the sea and sand, and there’s also an outdoor pool.

Open 9am-3am. 58 Posidonos Avenue; tel +30 210 8983 577;


Escape the busy streets of the capital for some chill-out time at the Grand Resort Lagonissi, 35km from the centre (Balux is en route).

Set across a 29-hectare peninsula with 17 beaches and coves, it has 276 stylish rooms, 109 of which are in the main building, while the rest are in idyllic waterside bungalows. Some even come with their own pools and gyms.

Popular among celebrities, sports stars and photographers, who often do fashion shoots on-site, the property opened in 2001 after the original resort was demolished.

Now it has attractive winding paths flanked with lavender bushes and magenta geraniums, a spa with eight treatment rooms specialising in colour therapy, tennis courts, and a dozen restaurants and bars (not all open off-season). There is also a huge conference centre.

The best thing about Lagonissi is its relaxed vibe – it’s all too easy to while away the hours at the seaside Mediterraneo restaurant, where you can munch on fried calamari in the sun and quaff bottles of icy Mythos beer.

40 km Athens-Sounion; tel +30 229 1076 000;