What’s the antidote to the sense of swampiness and confusion, the sheer grinding murk of Brexit-era politics? I found it in a trip to Athens, original seat of democracy and blue-sky philosophical thinking. Stepping out at Monastiraki subway station with my suitcase, the immediacy of the Acropolis, with its golden ratios and elegant enormity exuding perspective, order and timelessness, I felt instantly soothed.
These days, though, Athens is not just for gazing at stone. Its plunging property prices and thriving leftist-anarchist scene, resurgent since 2009, has produced a hipsters’ paradise too. The ancient now jostles with first-rate contemporary art galleries, while the standard fare of souvlaki and ouzo has been overtaken by a food and drink scene everyone is suddenly talking about.
What to see
The Acropolis should be appreciated from every angle, but first from a distance. Head to Lofos Strefi, a hill in Exarchia, an edgy (but safe) district full of hipsters drinking beer and furious wall to wall street art lambasting capitalism and welcoming refugees. Wend your way up a maze of terraced, graffitied paths and you will emerge on a ridge offering a staggering panorama of Athens. Time it right for the best urban sunset you’ll ever see.
The next step is the Acropolis itself. Once you’ve mooned over the Parthenon, Erechtheion and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre, go down the south-eastern slope to the Acropolis museum, a beautifully sleek and airy space of sweeping marble that houses all artefacts found on the Acropolis (minus, to palpable fury, the Elgin Marbles, which are in the BM).
The sprawling Agora, meanwhile, offers a spectacular warren of ruins where the business of Athenian democracy, as well as trade, theatre and worship took place, and its small museum has first-rate collection of objects. The Cycladic museum is four elegant floors of Cycladic art from 3000BC (hauntingly expressive, abstract portraiture), ancient Cypriot and Greek artefacts, plus an exhibition space for modern artists’ take on the ancients. I saw Picasso (until 20 Oct), and it’s worth hastening to Athens just to see his ceramic renditions of the owls of antiquity.
The Benaki has the whole history Greek art and design, from antiquity through to the dawn of the twentieth century, with sensational Byzantine and Ottoman objects plus material relating to the Greek Wars of Independence. But Athens’s heady power lies in mixing new with old. The best of a large crop of contemporary Greek art galleries include the Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Centre, the Breeder and the explicitly political State of Concept galleries.
Where to stay
When in Athens…binge on the Acropolis as well as on fantastic food. You can do the former to perfection in one of the beautifully-renovated apartments run by Boutique Athens (www.boutiqueathens.com). Located in Plaka, minutes from most of the ruins, ours (PL6 – €400 per night in high season) slept nine over two levels, with marble floors, full-service kitchen, carefully chosen Greek art and furnishings and a vast roof terrace offering a gobsmacking view of the nearby Acropolis. We lay on enormous linen sofas as the sun set over the city, drinking wine and ogling as the Parthenon’s night lights went on. There is also an open-air table and benches that seat ten, and a second roof-top kitchen to go with it. If you do manage to drag yourself away, you can be in the heart of the Acropolis in ten minutes.
Those keen to max out on flavour and design should book into the Ergon House ‘food’ hotel in Synagma/Monastiraki, which sounds horrible but is lovely – Ergon is Greece’s answer to Fortum’s. Swinging past pails of olives and plates of nutty cakes, you enter through the crowded ‘Agora’ full of people eating bowls piled high with ruby-red tomatoes and feta and other vivid salads, sandwiches and stews. The cavernous space is spectacularly vaulted with plants, which you can see from the 38-room hotel two floors up. Rooms are snug and interesting, made with Greek wood and marble, and beds raised up on a plinth, flush against a giant window (house.ergonfoods.com, £230 per night).
For a more opulent take on modernity, nearby is the NEW hotel (from £200 per night), an exuberant project that incorporates bits of the old Olympia Palace Hotel and designed around themes from ancient Greek folklore – think bamboo walls and gold-fronded mirrors. For more earnest, staid luxury, the Grande Bretagne is where heads of state, Hollywood stars and wealthy Americans on tour lay their heads (from about £350 per night).
Where to eat and drink
Athenian food is to be relished across all registers. The sweet milk boureka from Takis, an old neighbourhood bakery in trendy Koukaki, was a highlight of the whole trip. Pastry from Takis should be chased with a creamy cappuccino from Drupes and Drips, the tiny, perfectly formed café and wine bar just opposite. Meanwhile those after the perfect souvlaki require O Kostas in Sytagma. For dining, the Ergon is the best introduction to the flavours of modern Greece, but Yiantes in Exarchia has more charm. I sat at one of tables in the semi-covered, split-level courtyard, and had honeyed aubergine with roast tomatoes, home made brown bread with tzatziki and sardines with potatoes, washed down with sophisticated, floral house white.
Vassilenas is sleek and the talk of the town, featuring the likes of sea bass carpaccio with lime, green apple, cauliflower and ginger. To experience that sweet spot where urban edge meets entrepreneurism go to Bel Ray, a former garage serving ingenious takes on classic cocktails – a port and tonic was surprisingly good. We were also charmed by Heteroclito in Monastiraki, a tiny wine bar packed with Greek vintages, where the lowest in price were, miraculously, the best.
BA flies to Athens four times a day, from £200 return