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When climbing up the steps to the Acropolis in the urban heart of Athens, usually something done in the sweltering heat, it is hard for visitors to imagine that the crystal-clear waters of the Saronic Gulf are a car ride as short as 15 minutes away. This, of course, is no secret to Athenians who know that you don’t have to get on a plane or even take a long boat ride to experience “the island life.” The Greek Riviera, which stretches from Piraeus to the temple of Poseidon in Sounio, has long been a retreat for the moneyed crowd.
In the past, wealthy families would decamp—and many still do—“down south” to Vouliagmeni, the seaside suburb about 30 minutes from the center of Athens, where they can enjoy the best beaches in the Greek capital region. The Athens Riviera has a long history as a global jet-set destination: noteworthy visitors included Brigitte Bardot, Frank Sinatra, and King Saud of Saudi Arabia, who was known to hand out gold watches instead of tips. The Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel was the epicenter of all the glamour and opulence.
Now Astir Palace—the heart and soul of the Rivera—has risen again, after being closed for three years after the hotel fell into hard financial times and, ultimately, disrepair. The storied property has been reincarnated into a Four Seasons, an American Express Fine Hotel & Resort property, the first major international hotel brand to invest in Athens since the recession. There are also new designer shops, a revamped beach club, restaurants, gorgeous vistas, and that singular aquamarine Greek sea. Here’s our guide to the new manifestation—and era—of the Athens Riviera. No ruins required.
Where to Stay
After a three-year, $670 million renovation, The Four Seasons Astir Palace, one of Greece’s most anticipated hotel openings of the year, began taking reservations this spring. It’s a marvel of luxury, culinary excellence, and natural beauty—there are three private beaches—as well as a museum outpost. (When the Benaki Museum store opens in June, it will be the first Four Seasons to have a museum-affiliated entity on its property.) There are also 2,000 pieces of art around the hotel, the vast majority of which are works of Greek artists.
The pine tree-dotted property is essentially two hotels in one, with separate buildings, Nafsika and Arion, that are a three-minute walk from each other but each has their own identity. Nafsika has a boho-chic vibe and caters more to families with a larger pool and kids’ club (children over the age of four can be dropped off). Arion is urban chic and has a contemporary feel. Here, you’ll find the spa that pays homage to Greek’s history of bathing ceremonies with an adult-only hydrotherapy zone—steam rooms, cold showers, an indoor pool, and a sauna that collectively make up the Fountain House.
The spirit of the hotel brings to mind the hard to translate Greek word filotimo, which generally means ‘love’, ‘hospitality’, and ‘embracing the guest’. Put another way, there were 4,500 applicants for 650 staff positions at the Four Seasons—that is to say, the whole operation is raising the bar for the already high standard of Greek hospitality.
If you want to holiday like a well-heeled Athenian, you can go the villa route with White Key Villas. For instance, there's the Villa Camelia, which starts at 6,700 euros a week, is close to a sandy beach, and has a pool and daily cleaning service. Guests also have access to a concierge service, which can arrange everything from spa treatments to a private chef and a driver to helicopter transfers. For large groups, White Key Villas offers full catering packages with weekly menus.
Where to Eat
Some say it’s the best fish restaurant in Greece. It’s located so close to the water you feel like you could throw a line out and catch your dinner yourself. Thankfully, Papaioannou has its own dedicated team of fisherman who use spearfishing, as opposed to lines, to catch. The reason? Spear-caught fish tend to taste fresher. The prices are a bit steep, but worth it for the view, ambiance, the ability to select your own fish from the gleaming selection of the day, and, of course, the finished product. The only downside is this restaurant may ruin fish for you. It’s hard to go back to “normal” seafood after this meal.
While it might seem silly to come to Greece to eat at an international, albeit very good, high-end sushi chain, there are many reasons to try this hotspot. Located in the Astir Palace complex a 10-minute walk from the Four Seasons, the west-facing views make for an unforgettable (read: must Instagram) sunset. The people watching is top-notch—lots of decked-out glamorous Athenians. Also, everything tastes better in Greece.
One of the seven dining concepts of the Four Seasons Astir Palace, Taverna 37 is the only beachfront restaurant. But don’t be fooled by the laid back vibe of the restaurant. They take food seriously. As just one example: They tried 36 types of feta cheese from all over Greece before settling on the one they currently serve. The sommelier is extremely knowledgeable about Greek wines, an underappreciated treasure of the Greek dining experience. The traditional dishes—tzadziki, grape leaves, moussaka, and grilled fish—are served to showcase their fresh ingredients. Go for lunch.
For a more nouveau Greek cuisine experience, Pelagos, on the lobby floor of the Arion building at the Four Seasons, is the place to try. (Weekends are packed, so book ahead.) People are flocking for dishes likes lavraki (sea bass) carpaccio, Santorini fava bean spread, and one of the best renditions of tiganita (perfectly fried vegetables). That is to say nothing of their selection of fresh seafood, all served in a sleek Martin Brudnizki-designed dining room overlooking the sea.
Going into its second season, this Modern Greek seaside restaurant is located along the Lemos peninsula, where yachts pull up to for crispy tuna tartare taquitos, grilled octopus, and zucchini herb and feta fritters. Beyond the food, sun beds with their own call buttons can be rented. And yes, the restaurant will provide catering for your entire yacht.
This boisterous, casual waterfront taverna is a real local watering hole in Vouliagmeni. They don’t take reservations. You’ll see a lot of families who come for the lively atmosphere and sea views. The meal starts with meze—small plates—that come around on a big tray. Grab a few. You’ll be hard-pressed to find dishes priced above 20 euros.
Where to Go
The cardinal rule of going to Greece is that you have to go out on a boat. Book with Vouliagmeni-based Personality Yachts run by Dimitris Zografos, a master of logistics. Zografos can arrange just about any boat tour, whether it’s two hours, two days, or two weeks. There are many Saronic Gulf islands that are an easy half- or full-day trip from Vouliagmeni, such as Moni, Agistri, and Aegna, where you can eat at little tavernas and put your feet in the sand. Or stay close by and sail (or motor) into any number of calm inlets for a refreshing dip.
Often called the hidden natural treasure of the district of Attica, this lake, which has water from natural springs and the ocean, has healing properties from its rich salt and mineral composition. The lake’s amenities include: sunbeds, massages, and a full menu and bar.
The temple of Poseidon, the ancient Greek god of the sea, is a legendary landmark dating to the fifth century BC, perched on a cliff at the southernmost tip of the Attic peninsula where the Saronic Gulf meets the Aegean. There are beaches and tavernas close by. Another dramatic way to see the Temple of Poseidon is by boat, which also has the added benefit of avoiding the crowds.
There’s a public side, where you’ll see what feels like the entire city of Athens descend on a Sunday, and a private beach club where you can book cabanas and have drinks at the cocktail bar. A world electronic music series will debut this summer, along with a collaboration from posh fitness brand Holmes Place that will offer beach stretching, yoga, and a full range of spa services.
Mykonos has a Parthenis store, so why shouldn’t Astir Beach? One of the most iconic Greek fashion houses, Parthenis is known for its elegant but easy to wear clothes, and is opening a store in Astir Beach this summer. The Astir Beach location will feature the line’s new resort collection, a whimsically chic line of bathing suits, dresses, and cover-ups done in partnership with British fashion illustrator David Downtown.
This upscale nightlife institution was started by brothers Chrysanthos and Spyros Panas, who grew up in Vouliagmeni. The venue includes a club-restaurant, three private villas, and two private beaches, all designed in harmony with nature. This is not your typical dark nightclub. It has become an international destination: Valentino, Ethan Hawke, and Bruce Willis, among many others, have come to dance long into the night right by the sea.