36 Hours In Athens.

Drool over ancient hunks, sample 100 natural wines by the glass in a tiny bar inspired by Donald Judd and marvel at the world’s most beautiful museum. Athens got its groove back and not since the days of Pericles has it been this cool.

FRIDAY 2PM: MONA

Perched on a graffitied side street in Psirri, one of downtown Athens’ coolest spots, is ever-so-lovely newcomer Mona, a 20-room hotel sculpted from the shell of a 1950’s textile factory. A mix of vintage furniture and edgy custom pieces, goddess-like panels of billowing gauge and mid-century flourishes—original terrazzo floors here, a shapely brass-trimmed handrail there—read like decadent archaeological remnants in an otherwise industrial space.

Guest rooms come with freestanding Corian tubs, espresso machines and giant iPads connected to Netflix and room service. Beds are like clouds, dressed in organic cotton, with a Marshall speaker on the bedside table made of stacked bricks and a rotation of the hotel’s excellent playlists. Splurge on a ‘Penthouse’ (45m2) or ‘Mona’s Suite’ (55m2) and you also get a terrace. Peruse the hotel’s art collection, a lineup of contemporary photography and ceramics by Greek and international artists, all for sale. Then take the old marble staircase to the roof terrace with its club-like play of palms, daybeds and vintage patio furniture. Order some spanakopita and a Greek salad—at least Mona’s mouthwatering twists on the classics—and check out the honesty bar, kicking back to sigh over the jaw-dropping view of the Acropolis. Mona is the younger, more urbane sister property of Shila, an elegant Neoclassical home in Kolonaki made over as a six-room guesthouse oozing cinematic style. 

4PM: BASIL & ELISE GOULANDRIS FOUNDATION

A listed building from the 1920’s has been given a futuristic ten-storey extension in Pangrati, a neighbourhood once favoured by the Athenian intelligentsia and now the stomping ground of the young and cool. It’s a sleek operation, home to the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation and the A$4.4 billion dollar collection of modern masters assembled by the late shipping magnate and his art-loving wife. Galleries are arranged thematically, beginning with the heavy-hitting ‘Classics of Modern Art’. Expect an enormous and relatively seminal Picasso alongside Cezanne, Van Gogh, Leger and almost every other master painter from 1870-1945 and a single El Greco. Things get more eclectic in ‘Glances of the 20th Century’, where the likes of Max Ernst and Francis Bacon face off Hepworth, Giacometti and César, although paintings were the couple’s fetish. A side room sees a spectacular Julian Schnabel at tight right angles with an equally impressive Anselm Kieffer.

It’s a dazzling assemblage—more original and at times more avant-garde than just wealthy industrialists collecting big-ticket art. Really special, though, is that the couple, who lived much of the year in France and Switzerland, also supported Greek artists, as evidenced in the exceptional modern and contemporary Greek works across the next two floors. Paintings by Yannis Moralis, Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika and a monumental market scene by Panayiotis Tetsis, amongst many others, offer an enthralling glimpse into the soul of Modern Greece. But Sailor Sitting at the Table, Pink Background (1980) by Yannis Tsarouchis was the standout, capturing this nation’s essence. The foundation also features a restaurant with a fabulous terrace as well as a museum bookshop with a back and current catalogue of ravishing tomes. (Another Tetsis Market scene hangs in the entrance of the just-opened National Gallery—the largest collection of Greek paintings in the world.)

6PM: TANINI AGAPI MOU

Get your Dionysus on at Tanini Agapi Mou—’Tannin My Love’—a tiny gem of a wine bar on the border of Neapolis and Exarcheia that takes its design cues from Nils Holger Moorman and the sculpture of Donald Judd. Most extraordinary though, honouring the country’s 6,500-year history of winemaking, is that the compact Tanini serves 100 Greek natural and low-intervention wines by the glass. There is no better place to discover the joy of Greek wine, produced across the country by 1,300 winemakers, whose vineyards are planted almost entirely with indigenous varieties. 70% are white, although Greek rosés and reds are also dangerously good. Don’t miss the Roditis orange wine from the Peloponnese, perfect for washing down a wedge of Arseniko cheese (Tanini also does a mean cheese board) made by a small producer on the island of Naxos.

8PM: CAFE AVISSINIA

Ketty Koufonikola-Touros opened her cafe in the heart of the Athens flea market in 1985 so both dealers and bargain-hunters could get a decent cup of coffee and a bite to eat as they rummaged through piles of antiques. Over the years her smart little coffee house, Cafe Avissinia, grew into an even smarter bistrot and eventually the rustic but elegant restaurant it is today. Ketty’s cooking (think creamy moussaka and other traditional dishes) is hearty Greek fare at its most delicious—and often secret family recipes, according to Ketty’s son, Nicholas who took over the running of his mother’s restaurant. The patterned and romantic ground floor belongs to another century and spills out into Avissinias Square. Book a table on the roof terrace, though, for uninterrupted views across rooftops to the Ancient Agora and up to Athens most famous rock.

10PM: JUAN RODRIGUEZ

There is an abundance of bars in Psirri, the nighttime epicentre of Athens, but Juan Rodriguez stands out from the crowd. The interior is what a 1920s Buenos Aires tango bar might have looked like. Outside is just as theatrical. Sit at the bohemian jumble of tables and chairs on the opposite footpath and watch waiters—a tray with your black-salt-rimmed margarita in hand—give way to groups of bar-hopping Athenian revellers as they cross the street. Finish with a nightcap on Mona’s roof terrace—it’s a three-minute walk back to the hotel—and soak in the Acropolis in all its illuminated glory.

SATURDAY 10AM: ANCIENT AGORA OF ATHENS

So you have had the delicious Mona breakfast—think small pancakes and seasonal fruit, fresh sourdough bread, small-batch butter that tastes hand churned and eggs the way you like them. Now it’s time for the Ancient Agora, 30 acres of trees and paths and ruins in the shadow of the Acropolis. This is where Athenians, from philosophers to prostitutes and politicians, would assemble to do business and discuss the important matters of the day. The main structure is the Stoa of Attalos, a two-millennia-old double-storey shopping mall—largely a reconstruction of original elements with modern but authentic-looking fillers, financed in the 1950’s by a Rockerfeller. What is wonderful about this sprawling structure is that you can inhabit the space and imagine how it must have been to live in ancient times. A true ruin can be found in the magnificent Temple of Hephaestus (460-415 BC) on a small hill a few hundred metres away, one of the best-preserved temples of its kind in all of Greece.

12PM: PANAGIA KAPNIKAREA AND THE GHIKA GALLERY

Between Ancient Greece and Modern Greece there was a millennium of Byzantine Greece prior to 400 years of Ottoman rule. Athens was a more or less a provincial outpost during this period (especially under the Turks) but you can glean a sense of the city’s Byzantine past inside a handful of tiny churches, such as the resplendent Panagia Kapnikarea, which dates back to the 11th-century. Frankincense wafts through the dark and icon-laden interior, where you’ll see Athenians dropping in to say a quick prayer as they go about their shopping. Drop in even for just a few minutes to get a sense of Byzantine splendour, travelling through a good chunk of the 5,000-year-old palimpsest that is Athens.

Fast forward to the 20th century at the former home and studio of the influential Greek painter, Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika. The space showcases not only his pictures—Ghika combined cubism with the nature, light and architecture of Greece—but the work of the 1930’s generation of artists, poets and architects who collectively defined Greek modernism. The Ghika Gallery is one of a handful of cultural outposts under the banner of the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture (home to the most dazzling display of Greek costumes amongst other collections) just up Vasilissis Sofias Avenue. (For more on the intersecting lives of Ghika, British painter John Craxton and the travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, see my story in WISH.)

2PM: PHILOS

Philos serves the city’s most delicious all-day brunch in the faded grandeur of a 1930’s building, once the home of an Athenian art collector who donated 1,400 pictures to the National Gallery. Don’t let the ‘brunch’ thing put you off: you can wash down the house special, the decadent Philos Royale with a glass of ice-cold beer or wine. Speaking of libations, the cafe’s basement morphs into a speakeasy bar in the cooler months, from October onwards.

4PM: CYCLADIC MUSEUM

Weave through the streets and elegant boutiques of Kolonaki to the Museum of Cycladic Art, where otherworldly marble figures, usually of standing females with their arms crossed in front, cut entirely modern profiles despite the fact they were carved five millennia ago. It’s easy to see how Brancusi, Modigliani and Picasso were so inspired by the sculptures’ simple lines when they were discovered in the Cyclades, the string of islands from which they take their name, in the late 19th-century.

As breathtaking as the Cycladic art is, the museum—another Goulandris stop, housing the collection of Nicholas Goulandris (Basil’s brother) and his wife, Dolly—is also home to wonderful collections of ancient Greek and Cypriot art. The Stathatos mansion, a columned pile from the 1800’s, forms the museum’s annexe, where modern and contemporary exhibitions such as the recent ‘Brice Marden and Greek Antiquity’ capture the eternal dialogue between ancient and modern. Pick up a book or catalogue from the wonderful art shop on the ground floor and enjoy a perfect espresso at the Cycladic Café, the museum’s chic eatery.

6PM: GALAXY BAR

While post-crisis Athens excels in delivering new and shiny bars (more than one of the world’s ‘Top 50’ can be found in the Greek capital, with The Clumsies featuring multiple times in the top 10), it’s joints like Galaxy Bar that are the stuff of a true drinker’s dreams. Tucked away inside a stoa, an arcade on bustling Stadiou Street, Galaxy is what Greeks might call an ‘American Bar’ (the kind that opened after the Second World War), serving real liquor in a wood-panelled corridor of a space. Yannis Alabanos has been behind the bar for more than 50 years, crafting classic cocktails served alongside snacks of toasted bread with butter, cheese and hot mustard. According to one patron, Galaxy opens at 5 and closes when the last person leaves.

8PM: BIRDMAN

Birdman is the brainchild of Ari Vezene – a famous Athenian butcher and chef—a Japanese pub and grill recalling late-night Tokyo eateries and Kissa-style listening bars that is fused, naturally, with downtown Athenian spirit. It’s essentially one long bar so perfect for couples and solo travellers to watch the energetic dance of chopping, grilling and drink making on the other side of the counter. Music is analogue—think Japanese jazz and Nigerian funk—and the interior is sleek but cosy, with lots of raw oak, bauhaus-inspired tubular pendants, and a tatami-clad ceiling. It is, however, the food that shines. Meat is the specialty, dry-aged for up to three months, alongside a smattering of veg, organic chicken and seafood, such as the Hotate scallop with chilli dipper. Don’t miss the Iberico Katsu sando with red cabbage and apple tonkatsu sauce – how do you say finger-lickin’ good in Greek?

10PM: LINE ATHENS

Greek wine was not always made of grapes: Hellenistic vintners have fermented all manner of fruit over the millennia to create the perfect drop. As climate change makes the growing of grapes more difficult, the team at Line Athens have drawn on their nation’s ancient wine-producing heritage to save the world, one piece of fruit at a time. Line makes and bottles fruit wine on premises—labelled ‘why-in’ as only fermented grapes can legally be called wine. It’s a large, ex-industrial site in a quiet Athens suburb—12 minutes in an Uber—made over as a sexy bar-restaurant with DJ and courtyard garden. With Nikos Bakoulis of The Clumsies at the helm, it’s a slick operation and nothing goes to waste. Byproduct is used in the kitchen—for salad, chutney, flavouring home-made cheese or curing fish—or traded as compost for food. The Pomegranate and Honey why-ins are excellent, as is the sparkling, made of dried figs. Finish with a vegan pisco sour (seaweed extract instead of the usual egg white) or a martini made with Line’s very own Tipsy vermouth.

12AM: SANTAROSA

If you’re still thirsty on the ride home from Line, have the driver drop you off at Santarosa in edgy Exarcheia, self-described as a “floating dive bar in the Tangerine Gothic style”. A new favourite amongst Athens’ plethora of excellent watering holes, patrons return to the slick and arty space for sophisticated DJ sets as much as the stellar libations.

SUNDAY 8AM: AVISSINIAS SQUARE

For early birds Avissinias Square—home to Cafe Avissinia—has the souk-like jumble of ‘antique’ and vintage shops that turns into central Athens’ flea market every Sunday from 7am. ‘Antique’ in air quotes as in an effort to protect Greek heritage from contemporary Lord Elgins—the 19th-century Brit who stripped the Parthenon Sculptures from the Acropolis and shipped them off to England—nothing older than 100 years can leave the country. Wonderful silver, pottery, embroidery, jewellery, maps art and old postcards can nevertheless be had for a good price, in a delightfully crumbling and romantic atmosphere.

10AM: THE ACROPOLIS

Forget Rome: Athens also has seven hills and their tales and topography are truly the stuff of legend. If you know the city and have already climbed its most famous mount, you might want to skip this and explore one of the city’s others, such as Lycabettus Hill. If you haven’t, the Acropolis is a must. Forgo the flea market and arrive earlier to miss the crowd when it opens at 8am, the softer light also making for beautiful photos.

12PM: ACROPOLIS MUSEUM

Singling out an Athens museum is like asking a mother to choose her favourite child. But the Acropolis Museum must be singled out, not for having the greatest collection—an accolade that surely goes to the excellent National Archaeological Museum—but for the sublime synergy between this sleek and silvery building and the ancient wonders it contains. Although hat’s not to say the collection, which encompasses prehistory to the late Classical period, is not both vast and magnificent. Sculpture flanks a massive glass ramp leading up to the first-floor galleries, echoing the climb the ancients took to reach the temples crowning the mount. Korai and other beauties on plinths, tall and thin, punctuate the Archaic Gallery, hands down one of the most jaw-dropping museum spaces in existence. All of this leads crescendo-like to the top floor. If you were wondering why the exterior of the building takes the form that it does, it’s because the architecture had to accommodate the abundance of ancient remnants over which it was built, with the top floor then scaled and positioned to mirror exactly the dimensions and orientation of the Parthenon. This is what makes the interior experience of the Acropolis Museum so satisfying: encased in acres of glass, this new home of the Parthenon Sculptures—those that were not pinched by Elgin—remain bathed in the brilliance of Attica light, looking back at the Pathenon just 300 metres away.

36 Hours in Athens

2PM: TAVERNA SAITA

Although well-trod on the sightseeing trail, historic Plaka has a charming and village-like feel, wrapping around the storied slopes of the Acropolis. Skip the deluge of tourist haunts for Saita, a local taverna feeding Athenians since 1970 on Kidathineon Street, a pedestrian thoroughfare lined with crumbling Neoclassical mansions, one of which was the home of the renowned 20th-century Greek poet, George Seferis. Recipes have been passed down through three generations of the same family, comforting taverna food such as fried zucchini balls, wild greens, fried salt cod with skordalia (garlic and potato dip) and lemon lamb. Expect to pay €7-12 for a main plus €4 for a half litre of decent house wine, not to mention free orange cake for dessert at the end of the meal—a mouth-watering expression of the generosity Greece is renowned for. 

Adapted from a story originally published in Vogue Living

Travel Itinerary:

MONA

Kakourgodikiou 4
Athens 105 54 Greece
+30 21 0324 5804
www.mona-athens.com

BASIL & ELISE GOULANDRIS FOUNDATION

Eratosthenous 13
Athens 116 35 Greece
+30 21 0725 2895
www.goulandris.gr

TANINI AGAPI MOU

91 Ippokratous & Methonis
Athens 106 80 Greece
+30 21 1115 0145
www.taniniagapimou.gr

CAFE AVISSINIA

Kinetou 7
Athens 105 55 Greece
+30 21 0321 7047
https://cafeavissinia.net

PHILOS

Solonos 32
Athens 106 73 Greece
+30 21 0361 9163
www.facebook.com/philos.athens/

MUSEUM OF CYCLADIC ART

Neofitou Douka 4
Athens 106 74 Greece
+30 21 0722 8321
www.cycladic.gr/en

GALAXY BAR

Stadiou 10
Athens 105 62 Greece
+30 21 0322 7733
www.facebook.com/GalaxyBarAthens/

BIRDMAN

Voulis 35
Athens 105 57 Greece
+30 21 0321 2800
www.birdman.gr

ACROPOLIS MUSEUM

Dionysiou Areopagitou 15
Athens 117 42 Greece
+30 21 0900 0900
www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en/