Published: May 2013
By Eleni N. Gage
Since the 2004 Olympics, Greece’s ancient capital, Athens, has undergone a much-needed face-lift. And with a new look drawing international attention, the city is hitting its stride.
True to the hotel's name, the 11 modern rooms at the new Ochre & Brown Boutique Hotel (7 Leokoriou St.; 30-210/331-2950; ochreandbrown.com; doubles from $230) are swathed in earthy colors and brightened with accents of bright red, orange, and pink. The hotel's best asset: a prime location in the up-and-coming Psyrri district, bridging old and new Athens. Stroll the nearby pedestrian walkway that encircles the Acropolis, or spend time in the modern art galleries and hub of Athens's thriving nightlife. • If you prefer Neoclassical opulence to boutique flair, check into the 1877 Hotel Grande Bretagne (Syndagma Square; 30-210/333-0000; grandebretagne.gr; doubles from $781). The ground floor holds a 12,000-square-foot spa with six thermal suites. Even more impressive is the rooftop restaurant, which has floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the Acropolis. • The affordable gray and blue Periscope (22 Haritos St.; 30-210/729-7200; periscope.gr; doubles from $200) pays homage to modern-day Athens. Twelve of the hotel's 21 guest-room ceilings are papered with aerial photos of the city.
Set in the fashionable Kolonaki neighborhood, the clothing boutique Bettina (29 Anagnostopoulou St. and 40 Pindarou; 30-210/339-2094) carries haute designers such as Superfine on the ground floor and edgier labels—ThreeAsFour and Greek newcomer Angelos Frentzos—on the top two. Around the corner, the tiny jewelry shop Apriati (29 Pindarou; 30-210/360-7878) sells whimsical baubles. Most noteworthy are the 18-karat-gold necklaces that come with your choice of pendants: a hotel-room key or a pig (in honor of the current Chinese year). Greece's hottest export these days?Mastiha, or mastic, a pungent resin from a tree that grows only on the island of Chios and is known for its therapeutic properties (a mastiha spa just opened in New York City). At the Mastiha Shop (6 Panepistimiou Sudagma; 30-210/363-2750), you'll find flavored sweets as well as beauty products from the coveted Greek naturopathic line, Korres. The Center of Hellenic Tradition (36 Pandrossou St.; 30-210/321-3023), arguably the prettiest store in Plaka, the city's tourist hotbed, forgoes kitschy souvenirs for ceramic plates from the island of Rhodes and intricately carved wooden frames and trays from Epiros.
Athenian heritage is visible at every turn, from the sculptures at the National Archaeological Museum ()44 Patission; 30-210/821-7717; culture.gr) to the collection of Cypriot antiquities at the Museum of Cycladic Art ()4 Neophytou Douka St.; 30-210/722-8321; cycladic-m.gr). But over the past several years, the city's contemporary art scene has evolved, with museums such as the Herakleidon Experience in Visual Arts (16 Thissio; 30-210/346-1981; herakleidon-art.gr) and the new three-story Pireos Street Annexe (138 Pireos St.; 30-210/345-3111; benaki.gr) staging rotating exhibitions of recent art and photography. After dark, bypass the touts trying to lure you into Plaka's mediocre night spots and head to Brettos Bar (41 Kydathineon St.; 30-210/323-2110). This narrow hideaway has 28 different liqueurs, all distilled in-house. Flavors range from amaretto to the surprisingly subtle rose petal. To hear live traditional Greek music, swing by the spacious, low-lit restaurant lounge Hrisomilo (12 Agatharchou; 30-210/331-7061), in the Psyrri district.
French food with a Greek twist earned Spondi (5 Pyrronos St.; 30-210/752-0658; dinner for two $200) a Michelin star in 2003. The three-story Neoclassical restaurant serves dishes such as roast lamb with candied lemon, pineapple, and coriander—and, for dessert, a velvety chocolate ganache cake with tonka-bean ice cream. At Cretan-inspired Alatsi (13 Vrasida; 30-210/721-0501; dinner for two $116), writers and artists gather for fresh stamangathi greens drizzled in lemon and olive oil—the secret to long life, according to the locals—and stewed chicken with noodles. For a mix of traditional and modern Mediterranean cuisine, head to Pasaji (Stoa Spiromilou, CityLink; 30-210/322-0714; dinner for two $77). Don't miss the addictive Anatolian phyllo–wrapped rolls stuffed with graviera cheese. The low-key taverna Filoistron (23 Apostolou Pavlou; 30-210/342-2897; dinner for two $45) sticks to delicious basics such as rollakia—braised suckling pig wrapped in eggplant. Snag a table on the roof deck for a spectacular nighttime view of Mount Lycabettus.
Getting There Delta and Olympic Airlines have daily nonstop flights from New York and Atlanta to Athens (9 to 11 hours' flying time). Continental flies direct from Newark, and USAir from Philadelphia.
Getting Around The city's metro (ametro.gr) is efficient and economical. Newer stations exhibit some of the artifacts that were unearthed during their construction.
When to Go Athens is ideal in fall or spring, with temperatures in the 70's. Avoid the city in August, when many shops and restaurants are closed.
Don't Miss During the Athens Festival (greekfestival.gr; June through September) music, dance, and theater performances are held in venues throughout Athens, including the A.D. 160 theater of Herodus Atticus.