Athens, the Greek capital, is a stimulating open-air museum that merges ancient history with a truly 21st-century social life. Director scoped out the best places to stay, eat and explore, and even sorted the dilemma of deciding what to read on your travels
Where to stay
Athens’ hotels abound with fantastic alfresco workplaces. Lugging your laptop to the Herodion hotel’s rooftop, tapping away while sitting in a deckchair, accompanied by the smell of olive trees and tinkling of water fountains, gazing occasionally at the rocky Acropolis outcrop, is one such pleasure. The business-orientated Athens Gate Hotel has a 360-degree terrace, with spacious balconies also overlooking the colossal Temple of Olympian Zeus. Meanwhile, New Hotel is a design-friendly bridge between this summer’s Rio Olympics and the sporting event’s birthplace. Designed by the Brazilian Campana brothers, it fuses favela chic with Niemeyer-referencing modernist curves, while its lobby is decorated with smashed-up pieces of furniture from the hotel that previously stood there.
Where to eat
Judging by the amount of young Greeks dining on Athens’ bustling streets you’d never guess the city is undergoing a fiscal crisis. The trusty taverna – the type of family-run, tables-spilling-on-pavements affair offering Dionysian feasts of grilled meats and mezze still reigns supreme in Athens. Alight at whichever eatery seems most boisterous, remembering that Greeks dine late, with most places full around 10-11pm. For an haute twist on Greek cuisine, try two-Michelin-starred Spondi, which serves dishes such as red mullet with aubergine coffee in its rustic villa location. Hole-in-the-wall souvlaki (gyros orskewered meat wrapped in pitta) joints are ubiquitous. Kostas on Plateia Agia Irini serves a recipe stretching generations. Next door is perennially busy microroastery Tailor Made, a glimpse into Athens’ coffee trend (the frappé is a Greek invention).
What to see
Although Athens boasts myriad museums showcasing the antiquities of its ancient past – the Acropolis Museum, Benaki Museum and National Archaeological Museum to name a few – you can trace the city’s millennia by drifting through its storied streets. Start by climbing the Acropolis, exploring the Parthenon temple and Theatre of Dionysus (morning is best to avoid the heat). Next, wind your way down into the Ancient Agora, the former political heart of the city. The route then emerges into frenetic Monastiraki Flea Market and Plaka’s souvenir shop-lined streets. Also, check out the kilts, pom-pom shoes and high-kicks of the hourly changing of the guard ceremony outside the parliament, while taking the funicular to Lykavittos Hill’s summit affords sweeping views of the city.
“There’s a stereotype about Greek people that they are highly strung,” says Jonathan Kingan, managing director of JJK Associates. “And it can be true. Sometimes I go into my client’s offices, and staff are on the phone, shouting like they are going to murder somebody. But that’s just normal, business as usual. British people are quite reserved, but Greeks are not – they’re very open and emotional. From my experience, you just have to be laid-back about it – and try not to engage with it.”
For the flight
The motorbike-riding, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has written some of the most readable critiques of the recent eurozone crisis, such as his And the Weak Suffer What They Must? and The Global Minotaur. For more on Europe’s ongoing problems, investigate Michael Lewis’s Boomerang: Travels in the new Third World or PostCapitalism by Paul Mason, the former economics editor of Channel 4.
Varoufakis wasn’t the first commentator to tell Greeks some disturbing truths. Some 2,400 years ago Socrates was condemned to death for criticising Athenian politicians, and Paul Johnson’s Socrates: A man for our times explains why the father of philosophy’s views are still just as relevant today. For more ancient lore, swords-and-sandals epic 300 is a cartoonish re-telling of the Spartans’ stand against the Persians. Greece-set films Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Shirley Valentine and the world-conquering Abba musical Mamma Mia! offer similarly guilty pleasures.
Greek music needn’t mean Demis Roussos, the bearded balladeer staple of 1970s dinner parties. Although it is worth checking out his former band, the progressive rockers Aphrodite’s Child, which also included Vangelis, whose 1982 Blade Runner soundtrack is a masterclass in synth neo-classicism.
Athens: Useful info
Yanis Varoufakis debates with Norman Lamont at the IoD Annual Convention on 27 Sept.
Book tickets here iod.com/annualconvention