ONE MIGHT ASSUME that modern Athens is not defined by the Acropolis, home to the quietly glowing and iconic Parthenon, which has been sitting serenely atop the city since the fifth century B.C. But somehow it still sets the mood for the city, much like the Empire State Building does for New York City and the Eiffel Tower for Paris. And sentinel-like, it’s still visible from almost every corner of the city.
But descend from the windy plains of Attica into the dense, bustling, proud capital of 3 million plus, and you understand why Athens was the cradle of Western civilization, not to mention the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, and, most of all, drama! One can easily become overwhelmed by such theatrical claims to fame and heritage. So do as Athenians do — grab a table, order a frappé, and take a moment to soak it all up.
While Athens may be hard to separate from its ancient past, architecturally and culturally it is not defined by it. It’s this palimpsestic nature which makes it unique, even by Old World European standards. “Newer” sites, like the thousand-year-old Byzantine churches, tumble down from leafy hillsides, aside even newer Ottoman and neoclassical builds and timeless tavernas with wicker and wood chairs that spill into plazas shaded by fig, cedar, and acacia trees. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision Plato and Socrates sharing a bottle of wine in the shade of a tree.
In recent years, Athens has shed its image as the poster child for the 2008 economic crisis and reshaped itself with a stunning constellation of glassy modernist architecture and museums in development by the likes of Norman Foster and Kengo Kuma. Meanwhile, the next generation of local architects and designers are carving an Athenian identity into the city’s soul by revamping places like the ancient port of Piraeus, which has become an indie art hub, with galleries popping up in the quasi-industrial neighborhood of Agios Dionysios. Just 10 years ago, Athens was a place to drop anchor for a night or two before hopping over to an island. Today, in the midst of a new cultural era, it merits a much longer visit. And those who do make the trip will be richly rewarded.
Where to StayAcropolis views, sybaritic spas, and rooftop pool bars are some of the Olympus-like amenities you can expect to find in modern Athens and its sanctuary- and temple-like hotels.
Hotel Grande BretagneA historic stay
Four Seasons Astir PalaceA luxurious hotel just off the Riviera
Electra Metropolis AthensModern accommodations in the heart of the city
Where to EatAthens has earned a serious reputation as a foodie destination, with modern Greek and fine-dining options sitting seamlessly beside rustic tavernas, ouzeris, and koutoukia (traditional, mostly family-run restaurants).
Papadakis RestaurantA signature destination for Aegean Island cuisine
DiogenesA beloved local spot ideal for dining with a group of friends
NolanAsian-fusion cuisine with a Greek twist
What to DoThe city’s art and culture worlds have exploded in recent years, signaling a new cultural renaissance that merits longer visits for art and culture seekers who want to enrich their island-hopping holidays.
The National GalleryAn expanded landmark museum
Acropolis MuseumThe ultimate place to examine artifacts
AnthologistA Greek shopping experience
NEONFor a dynamic experience of the arts
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Adam H. Graham Writer
Adam H. Graham is an American food and travel journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Afar, and more. He typically spends a few months every year in Japan, and recently spent several weeks visiting Japanese vineyards in several different prefectures.