Art & the City: Kolonaki and the Vasilissis Sofias Museum District

In the single square kilometer in the city center that contains three of the capital's most important museums, it's possible for culture fans to stroll through fifty centuries of history and art.


You’ll need many hours, if not days, to explore the collections of the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture, the Museum of Cycladic Art, and the Byzantine and Christian Museum, which together cover 5,000 years of art and history, from the Cycladic civilization of 3000 BC to the 20th century.

Created by the Alexandria-born Antonis Benakis (1873-1954), a scion of one of the leading families of the Greek diaspora and a philanthropist with a larger-than-life personality, the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture is a treasury of Greek art, history and culture that should not be missed. Housed in the impressive neoclassical family mansion (an attraction in its own right) of the Benakis clan, the museum’s vast permanent collection will take you on a journey from prehistoric times to the 20th century, exploring all facets of Hellenism. Ancient artifacts and Byzantine icons, elaborate traditional garments and items of jewelry, paintings and mosaics, and even everyday objects, such as an iron axe from Epirus used to prune olive trees, a baglamas (long-necked bowl lute) from Crete and an early 18th-century violin from Asia Minor, compose a captivating national cultural narrative. If you enter from the side door (on Koumbari Street), you’ll find a golden plaque on your right which reads: “Here lies the heart of Antonis Benakis.” This somewhat unusual donation to the collection was in accordance with the final wish of the museum’s founder, proving the depth of his dedication to his institution.

 

On the top floor of the museum is their newly renovated café-restaurant with fine views over the downtown area.

The Museum of Cycladic Art focuses on the civilization that flourished in the central and southern Aegean archipelago between 3200 and 2000 BC, and on the iconic Cycladic marble figurines produced by that society. Unique in form and ingenious in their simplicity, these masterpieces significantly influenced modern art and design. Other noteworthy exhibits include the rare “cup-bearer” figurine, the statue of the “Mother Goddess” measuring 140 cm, and the one-off “Dove Vase,” a disc-shaped marble plate with 16 carved doves, possibly used in rituals and considered one of the most remarkable artifacts bequeathed to us by the Cycladic marble sculptors. Bring your historical journey to a close at the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Villa Ilissia, the former winter palace of French noblewoman Sophie de Marbois-Lebrun, the Duchess of Plaisance (1785-1854).

This impressive building dating from 1848, which looks like it belongs in a knight’s tale, houses much of the museum’s collection, comprising 25,000 artifacts from different parts of Greece, Asia Minor and the Balkans, and spanning the period from the 3rd century AD to the 20th century. Of particular interest is the 4th-century statue of a male figure with a lamb on his shoulder, similar to the ancient Greek statue known as the “Moschophoros,” or “Calf Bearer,” but here representing Jesus as the good shepherd, as well as the marble plaques engraved with pagan and Christian symbols. If weather permits, a stroll through the museum’s beautiful gardens is a treat.

The War Museum (next to the Byzantine and Christian Museum) has an extensive collection of weapons and military memorabilia. Outside are a number of airplanes, including a 1954 Lockheed single-seat, single-engine fighter-bomber, a remnant of an analog era.

A walk around Kolonaki

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by REDD Coffee (@redd_coffee)

Info

Vasilissis Sofias & 2 Rizari

Open Mon-Sun 09:00-19:00

 

Admission: €6

The museum café is, in fact, a military mobile kitchen parked by the entrance.

Coffee time

Among the many thriving Greek roasteries, Redd stands out for its cosy atmosphere. In this tiny café close to the Museum of Cycladic Art, they serve exceptional espresso in handmade ceramic cups. You can specify just how you’d like your blend – with chocolate or fruity notes, robust or weaker, and sharper or milder acidity – and they’ll make a cup just for you.

 
 
 
 
 
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Info

8 Kapsali

Tel. (+30) 216.900.2141

Wholesome brunch

As enticing as it is tasty, the menu at Me features fresh eggs, cold-pressed juices and energy bowls made with quality Greek products. If, however, you want to enjoy the wholesome food they serve at this attractive spot on a lively, tree-lined street, you’ll have to book a table because seating is limited and the place is extremely popular. 

 
 
 
 
 
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Info

10 Kapsali

Tel. (+30) 210.724.2588 

Quality Greek cuisine

Papadakis attracts a mixed clientele, from locals in the know to lucky visitors and businesspeople who don’t want to jeopardize a deal with a poor dining experience. Here, everything is always the same: tasty and unpretentious. The emphasis is on seafood, prepared in traditional fashion by a chef who is well known in Greece for her homestyle recipes. The menu features fish soup, orzo with shrimp, and delicious pasta creations made with the freshest ingredients.

Info

15 Fokilidou

Tel. (+30) 210.360.8621

Contemporary art in a stately mansion

Dating to 1890, the Deligiorgis Mansion is one of the beautiful buildings designed by architect Ernst Ziller when Athens was just a large village. For the past four years, it has housed the Athenian branch of the Allouche Benias Gallery, founded in New York in 2014. It has already hosted exhibits by several leading Greek and international artists whose work reflects trends in pop culture, figurative art and neo-expressionism, including Kenny Scharf, Ross Bleckner and Donald Baechler. 

 
 
 
 
 
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Info

1 Kanari

Tel. (+30) 210.338.9111 

Sweet temptation

At Sweet Alchemy, the boutique confectionery store run by celebrated pastry chef Stelios Parliaros, everyone gives in to temptation. Dainty chocolates, sweet tarts, Greek-style turron and amazing gâteaux de voyage beckon from glass display cases. If you want something sweet to enjoy while walking, try the cappuccino cream in a small glass, one of the chef’s most notable creations.

 
 
 
 
 
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Info

24 Irodotou, Kolonaki,

Tel. (+30) 210.724.0205 

In vino veritas

Paliokalias, Gerodetis, Santameriana: the names of some Greek wines can be a bit of a tongue twister. At the wine store Mr. Vertigo, the experienced staff will know what you’re looking for, even if you can’t pronounce it. Mr. Vertigo specializes in wines made from indigenous varieties, terroir wines, natural and minimal-intervention wines. On its shelves are many bottled revelations, including rare local varieties, limited edition wines and distilled spirits of the highest quality that you can take home with you.

Info

15 Filikis Etairias

Tel. (+30) 210.725.0862 

For the love of books

Are you into fantasy? Classical literature? Greek history? Booktique offers a wide range of books for all tastes and ages, with an extensive bilingual collection (Greek and English), translations and original works by English-speaking writers who lived in, were inspired by, or wrote about Greece. Our recommendations include “Athens: City of Wisdom” by Bruce Clark, “The Greek Revolution and its Global Significance” by Roderick Beaton, and translated collections of Greek poetry by award-winning poets Kiki Dimoula and Michalis Ganas. 

Info

21 Patriarchou Ioakeim

Tel. (+30) 210.723.5425



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