Athenians may roll their eyes when the 2004 Olympics get all the credit for revitalizing the city, but there's no denying that Athens is a much more modern place these days. Still, for all the Santiago Calatrava stadiums and renovated and refreshed hotels, the residents of the Greek capital remain deeply connected to the past. And who can blame them? The Parthenon is in plain view from everywhere in town, issuing forth its challenge from the acropolis: The ancients built this back in 447 B.C. And you?
Shopping in Athens now, you glimpse this dual identity. In one store a daring young jeweler is propelling the 4,000-year-old Greek tradition into the 21st century. In another, a fourth-generation gallerist in her twenties is watching over her family's century-old collection of antiquities. Elsewhere, an up-and-coming shoe designer has debuted a line inspired by such native icons as Maria Callas and Melina Mercouri.
For most travelers, the treasure hunt begins at the Monastiraki flea market, where sorting through the maze of plaster acropolises and evil-eye medallions is an essential Athens experience. But the real finds are primarily in the upscale Kolonaki district; here, an impressive roster of local talent has set up shop among the global powerhouses of Gucci and Hermès.
For many, Greek gold begins and ends with Ilias Lalaounis. His pieces, which are inspired by Heinrich Schleimann's discoveries at Troy, archaeological excavations at Mycenae, the Cretan palace of Knossos, and Hellenistic and Byzantine art, are unmistakably Greek. The best of the traditional ones are a 22-karat-gold Herculean knot bracelet inlaid with lapis or coral ($13,000); finely detailed lion's- and ram's-head rings studded with rubies, emeralds, or sapphires (from $1,800); chandelier earrings, based on an ancient diadem, consisting of thin gold discs ($3,500); and a bold collar of unadorned hand-hammered gold ($10,260). The boutique, directly across from the Grande Bretagne Hotel, is now run by one of Lalaounis's four daughters, whose most recent offerings exchange the usual heavy gold look for geometric designs with pale-colored stones. There is also a Lalaounis Jewelry Museum located downtown, which displays a jaw-dropping collection of the maestro's one-of-a-kind creations. At 6 Panepistimiou Ave.; 30-210/361-1371.
If you're looking for shoes, the concierges and guidebooks will likely send you to either Stavros Melissinos, who has been making leather sandals for the last 80 years, or to Hermou, a street devoted, it seems, to imitation Tod's loafers. But the true vanguard of Greek footwear is, ironically enough, at Old Athens, a charming boutique in Kolonaki run by Vassilis Zoulias, the fashion editor of Greek Vogue. Here the brightly colored flats and kitten heels recall the city's glory days in the fifties and sixties, when the capital was a playground for Maria, Jackie and Ari, Dick and Liz. On the walls of Zoulias's parlorlike shop hang the images that motivate him: Elizabeth Taylor visiting the acropolis; Romy Schneider dressed in a Greek folk costume, shot by Cecil Beaton; Judy Garland in Kypseli. You can picture any of these women in the designer's colored crocodile ballet flats or lime-green stilettos accented with a black-and-white polka-dot ribbon. These confections ($195-$1,215), as well as the slingbacks in blue-and-white-gingham linen and the purple suede open-toe wedges, are classic and ultrafeminine but thoroughly up to date. At 17 Kanari St.; 30-210/361-4762.
An aura of reverence pervades this Kolonaki boutique dedicated to the jewelry line begun by Thomas Fanourakis in 1860. The marble floors are polished to a high shine; salespeople speak sotto voce and open the locked walnut vitrines in slow motion. The seriousness of it all might be off-putting if it weren't for the exquisite craftsmanship of the pieces themselves. Fanourakis is known for treating precious metals the way a dressmaker handles fabric: The gold of the Fortuni bracelet, for example, is pleated and accented with rose-cut diamonds ($22,880); the Scarf necklace resembles loosely gathered silk ($12,000); the Serpentine earrings look like grosgrain ribbon knotted three times with a short belt left hanging ($3,600); and the ridged-gold Scottish bracelet is set with diamonds, forming an abstract tartan motif ($20,500). At 23 Patriarchou Ioakim St.; 30-210/721-1762.
The fact that the 40-year-old Votsi was selected to redesign the Olympic gold medal might indicate that her jewelry is modeled on classical forms. In fact, Votsi's trademark is boldly cutting-edge design. Her rings are particularly exceptional: One is attached to an oversize gold box that can store trinkets ($1,800-$4,580); another features four gold prongs leaping out of a large citrine ($5,400). Votsi also makes such unusual pieces as a necklace of rough-cut aquamarines ($8,700) and a ring made from a hunk of untreated lapis sprinkled with gold dust ($960). The bright, spare gallery in Kolonaki also showcases vintage pieces that Votsi buys at auction or during her travels, like matte-gold Indian beads (from $480) and heavy Afghan and Pakistani stone and wood necklaces. At 7 Xanthou; 30-210/360-0936.
Ileana Makri is something like the rock star of the Greek jewelry world: Her talisman medallions are now carried in Barneys and Maxfields, and Lenny Kravitz is reportedly a fan. The store carries Makri's full line of jewelry and objets, as well as Lucien Pellat Finet cashmere sweaters and Muriel Brandolini caftans. There are, of course, the necklaces that helped Makri make her mark—evil eyes hung on silk cord ($600), gold peace signs on leather string ($360)—along with evil-eye rings in blue sapphires and diamonds ($4,335), intricately cut yellow and white gold bangles (from $1,200), carved silver cups ($420), and silver spoons finished with royal-blue glass ($545). What's more, Magea is on what may be the chicest street in Athens. It is steps away from Ratka, a perennially popular restaurant watched over by the Bulgarian Ms. Ratka—the Athenian answer to Elaine's in New York. And just next door is the Periscope Hotel, the latest project by contemporary art collector Dakis Ioannou. At 18 Charitos; 30-210/724-0697.
This shop is a popular wedding registry site, which is not surprising considering that many Athenian brides have known Vourakis since their parents began buying them the designer's enamel charms at birth. Come Easter, stylish women pull out the colorful hand-painted eggs they've been picking up for decades from Vourakis, clasping them onto necklaces and bracelets. But the charms ($75-$1,200) are only the half of it. Vourakis also carries worry beads made of tigereye, agate, or rose quartz ($600-$1,200), and recently added a collection of limited-edition plates painted with traditional Greek shoes, the national flag, and—what else?—an evil eye ($120-$210). At 42 Pindarou; 30-210/361-7705.
This antiques emporium, occupying a 100-year-old mansion in the middle of the Monastiraki flea market, offers, according to its owner Eleni Martinos, "all the things that would be found in a traditional Greek home." That is, if your giagia and grandpa kept embroidered 18th-century linens from Rhodes and Kos ($1,200-$30,000) in pristine condition inside a perfectly restored Bavarian armoire ($10,600). The store has five levels, each filled floor-to-ceiling with vases, plates, chandeliers, books, and jewelry. Most of the pieces are from the 1700s and the Greek revolution (1821-1828). But you may unearth items dating as far back as the Byzantine era. Martinos is one of the few galleries licensed by the Greek government to sell antiquities, and its collection is unparalleled in the country—18th- and 19th-century gilt bracelets from Attica (from $150), Greek costumes and silver belt buckles from the same periods ($360-$1,200), and 19th-century coral chandelier earrings from Ipiros (from $1,450) are only a few of the treasures here. Among other finds are "Philhellenic" plates made in France by artists who supported the Greek uprising against the Turks ($500-$1,000) and silver gunpowder boxes worn by soldiers of the revolution (from $1,300). The place is so packed even the staircases are used to display vintage portraits of generals and folk heroes (from $850)—you won't know where to look first. Another gallery, run by Martinos's daughter, is in Kolonaki. At 50 Pandrosou; 30-210/321-2414.
Room to Get
The penthouse suite at the King George II Palace (30-210/322-2210) is decorated in murals by artist Konstantin Kakanias and comes with its own outdoor swimming pool. The landmark hotel was renovated just before the Olympics and on our visit, Christian Louboutin had just checked out of the suite.
The seafood temple Varoulko (30-210/411-2043), one of the city's few Michelin-starred restaurants, recently moved to central Athens (an improvement over the old site in Port of Piraeus). For homestyle cooking, the smart spot is Mamacas (30-210/346-4984), in the TriBeCalike neighborhood of Gazi.
Princess Marie-Chantal just opened a shop in Kolonaki (11 Spefsippou) selling traditional children's clothes such as smocked dresses for girls and Peter Pan-collar shirts for boys. The Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari; 30-210/367-1000) has added a building for its superb exhibitions of contemporary Greek art.