The latest joke going around among Athenians is about this year’s unusual weather. “Was there a clause in the last debt agreement that gave them permission to take the sun away, too?” A cloudy summer sky is more than the Greek capital can take after all that it’s been through, and survived, in the last few years.
Looking back, you can’t miss the dramatic ups and downs of the rollercoaster ride Athens has been on in this new century: from a stopover city en route to the islands, without a metro system, it was transformed into a modern metropolis for the Olympic Games, only to become the wounded Athens of the recession, which then evolved into a dynamic destination marked by rapid tourism development.
The very same destination whose global public image a few short years ago revolved around shuttered shops and street protests is now nearing the decade’s end as a renewed city, full of optimism for the future, with unprecedented tourism numbers. The crowning glory of this reversal of fortune was the 5.8 million international visitors that the city welcomed last year. What was it that travelers suddenly discovered that made them choose this city over Rome, Barcelona or one of the picturesque Greek islands?
It certainly wasn’t the Parthenon, the souvlaki or the Evzones (Presidential Guard); they’ve always known about those. Their own stories about the place that won the title of Europe’s Leading City Break Destination 2018 combine a true mix of experiences and include ancient tours as well as contemporary art, modern gastronomy, refined street food, stylish cafés, rooftop terraces with amazing views, and brand-new hotels.
What’s more, unlike many European destinations battling overtourism, Athens is seeing growing numbers of independent visitors rather than hordes of tour groups, which changes how visitors experience the city.
If you want to see the true face of 2019 Athens, it’s not enough to take a stroll along the island-like alleyways of Plaka. Old neighborhoods are evolving into new hotspots, as in the case of Kypseli, with the recently redeveloped Municipal Market, or Pangrati, where the 11-story Goulandris Art Museum, housing an extensive collection of artworks by legends such as Gauguin, Degas, Picasso and Van Gogh, is due to open in the autumn.
Parts of the center that were run-down have come into the spotlight thanks to interventions by the city’s creative forces. A characteristic example of such urban renewal is the Athens Trigono, a downtown area that was once exclusively a center of commercial activity; it has been largely renovated, pedestrianized and relaunched. Today, it’s full of drinking and dining establishments operating alongside older shops.
Social innovations and ideas promoting solidarity are being brought to life in places such as Shedia Home, the new multi-functional venue of the Shedia street paper, which supports the homeless. Inspired initiatives for the integration of refugees are being put into action; the Caritas Discover Athens program, in which young Iranians, Afghans and Syrians act as alternative tour guides and reveal their own “Best of Athens” to other refugees in the city, is a prime example of such endeavors.
On the museum map, the big names are being joined by interesting themed museums, including the Benaki Toy Museum and the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology. Of course, this summer’s most popular ticket remains the one that grants you access to the internationally acclaimed Acropolis Museum, even among the locals, who are lining up to admire its brand new exhibition space, located underneath the museum, where visitors can tour the excavated ruins of an ancient Greek neighborhood.
The city is a wide-open field for investment. You sometimes feel as if you’re walking on a Monopoly board, with new state-of-the-art hotels popping up one after the other. At the same time, long-established fixtures in the hospitality sector are being renovated, making for even better accommodation experiences. Modern micro hotels provide options for those seeking something better than what’s on offer on Airbnb, while old buildings in the center are being transformed into elegant boutique hotels. It’s not just about aesthetics anymore, it’s about inspiration, too, and the concept that it serves.
You can, for example, find a hotel dedicated to foodies, such as the Ergon House Athens, or choose to stay in an old 1930s printing house in Psyrri, which now houses the 12-apartment Foundry Hotel Athens. Its rooftop features a garden where, in the afternoons, you can order a picnic basket full of Greek products, beers and wines, and enjoy your meal with a view of the Acropolis.
There are also more and more choices for those who insist on multi-star accommodation. Two of the most notable are the historic Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel Athens in Vouliagmeni, which reopened a few months ago after a radical renovation, and the Grand Hyatt Athens on Syngrou, the second Grand Hyatt to open in Europe after their branch in Berlin.
Such developments along Syngrou Avenue, which connects the center to the Athens Riviera and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, are sure to attract even more tourists southwards towards the sea over the next few years, softening the boundaries of the inner city; this will be further aided by the transformation already underway on the southern front of Attica.
The regeneration of Faliro Bay and the construction of a new coastal road are underway, and projects such as the modernization of the Alimos Marina, and the massive urban renewal project at Elliniko, the city’s old airport, are being planned along the Athens Riviera. Extensions to the metro system are also taking place, and when the new works reach Piraeus by 2021, Athens International Airport will be just a 45-minute ride from Greece’s largest port.
If you’re an Athenian, you probably love and hate Athens equally, and make no effort to hide it. You’ll rarely hear locals praise their city. They’re annoyed by the narrow sidewalks where parked cars create obstacle courses for pedestrians; by a lack of cleanliness; and by a lack of green spaces – all issues high on the agenda of Athens’ new mayor, Kostas Bakoyannis, who takes office on the first of September.
His vision includes model neighborhoods, pocket parks and free Wi-Fi hotspots, as well as a project called the Great Walk of Athens, a pedestrianized stretch running from Dionysiou Areopagitou Street to the National Archaeological Museum.
And even with its current flaws, Athens will find ways to surprise you. Some of the best memories that you’ll take away will be ones that it gives you for free, such as a sunset seen from the Areopagus Rock, or a haunting tune played by a street musician on his accordion on a lazy Sunday morning.