Τhe first place I visited the day the lockdown was lifted in early May was Sounio. To be more precise, it was that small rock in Sounio.
Located on a hidden beach in front of a house – you need to know where to go – this rock is smooth, as flat as a pancake and only a little higher than the level of the sea. After such a long time, when the only escape I could access was either inside my house or in my neighborhood streets, it almost went without saying that I would head to this particular beach.
From the northern suburbs of Athens, it took about 40 minutes to reach the spot. Surrounded by green waters, warm to the touch and with the blue horizon to gaze at, I felt as if the rock had been put there just for me.
Of all the countless times I have gone swimming or shopping, eaten a meal or taken a stroll, enjoyed a coffee or stayed in a hotel along the Athenian coastline, I’d never appreciated its value as much as I did that day. I remembered the words of someone who works in the tourism industry, who once said that Athens isn’t much different from an island, if you think about it: it has its center (a proverbial Hora) and, just as on the larger islands, the beach is just a 30-minute drive away!
The good life
This particular “beach” – that is to say, the Athens Riviera – is about 70km long. In 1954, Kathimerini newspaper published an article about how the beachfront area of Athens could be developed and eventually become more popular than the Côte d’Azur of the French Riviera, a rather unusual opinion for the time.
A few years later, the development of the coast began with the creation of Asteria Beach in Glyfada. At the same time, scenes in contemporary Greek cinema promoted an image of the good times that could be had in the wider area.
Characteristic images from these days include shots of the airport at Elliniko, the first in the country, with the scarves of cosmopolitan ladies fluttering in the wind; of the belles of Astir in Vouliagmeni; of water skiers skimming over the turquoise waters of Lemos in Vouliagmeni; and of convertibles driving along the route from Faliro to Varkiza.
Starting point: Sounio
This might seem a little backwards, but I like to start the long and enjoyable route along the coastline at the Temple of Poseidon. Dedicated to the god of the sea by the ancient Athenians and built on a high rock at the very tip of the Attic peninsula in Sounio, this structure gazes out over the Aegean. For me, the word “sunset” always conjures up images of this precise location – not Santorini.
A few minutes away, on Legrenon Avenue, you’ll find the taverna Theodoros and Eleni, which serves what I consider to be the most delicious mussels in Athens. Sautéed in garlic and wine, they’re always served with French fries, a wonderful Greek version of the classic “moules-frites.”
In the same area, Cape Sounio Hotel offers a five-star alternative for gastronomy and hospitality. The bungalows, nestled in pine trees and featuring private swimming pools and endless views of the Aegean, are the best option, while a similarly luxurious setting can also be found at Grand Resort Lagonissi a little further down.
This independent resort, with its beaches, swimming pools and restaurants, conveys the impression that, once you enter, you never really have to go anywhere else until you leave. Most Athenians have visited at least once, if only as guests at a wedding reception.
All-day beach resorts
As we continue along the coast we come to Varkiza where, this year, we welcome a much-awaited opening. Coyocan Playa, located in Varkiza Resort (the former Yabanaki), is the younger brother of the bar-restaurant in Thiseio that goes by the same name.
This year, it is offering a high-quality beach concept, with boho decor. It seems that the owners have traveled to Tulum, in Mexico, and wanted to recreate the atmosphere of its beach bars right here. I would say that this has been largely very successful – plus the sea in Varkiza is much better than that of Tulum. Those who manage to reserve a sun lounger or bean bag on the sand really should try the Mediterranean-Mexican menu, which has an emphasis on seafood (everything from ceviche to lobster pasta).
For a more classic option, and one of the more refined choices on the Riviera and in Athens in general, I recommend Island, located a little further down. Owner and founder Chrystanthos Panas, who knows the Athenian restaurant industry better than most, has been talking for decades about how the true value of this city resides in its coastline. In fact, he might just be the person who first introduced the term “Athens Riviera” into our vocabulary.
Island Club Restaurant is built on a large rock on the edge of the sea, where Greek and international guests are known to dock their yachts before walking the short distance to the restaurant or to the area’s nightclubs. Here, they can enjoy an exquisite dinner under the stars or a refreshing cocktail, an experience that can easily turn into an evening of dancing until sunrise. I think we all have memories of such nights on this city “island.”
Astir: The “Four Seasons” chapter
A few sharp turns later and we’re already in Vouliagmeni. In terms of location, natural beauty and facilities, Vouliagmeni is the riviera’s crown jewel. This is where the Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel Athens is located. Inspired by the historic glamour of the original Astir Palace Hotel, and now featuring 303 rooms and grounds that cover nearly three hectares of verdant seafront landscape, the resort was renovated last year to become the first Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts in Greece.
The luxury and sophistication of this unique experience can be briefly encapsulated as follows: three private beaches connected via a 300-meter walkway; three swimming pools; five tennis courts; facilities for nearly every water sport under the sun; a 1000-sq.m spa that operates based on the philosophy of Hippocrates (considered the father of medicine); and eight different restaurants catering to all tastes.
This year, the talented Luca Piscazzi is at the helm of Mercato, one of the restaurants located in the renovated Nafsika building, to which he brings his extensive experience from a three-Michelin star restaurant in London, and his expertise in Italian cuisine. Special mention goes to the restaurant Matsuhisa Athens, just a few meters away, that Nobu Matsuhisa himself has dubbed the most beautiful of all his restaurants in the world.
Vouliagmeni has it all
The Divani Apollon is another iconic hotel in Vouliagmeni – it is impossible for me not to turn my head towards the imposing structure on Poseidonos Avenue. The key word here is “thalassotherapy,” since this is the only place in Athens where this beneficial body treatment is offered.
As far as the neighboring Margi Hotel is concerned, this boutique hospitality option features an exotic, almost mystical atmosphere around its swimming pool. This is where you’ll find the Malabar Restaurant, a modern eatery that’s a special destination in its own right. Opening their own farm in 2015, in Kalivia just a few kilometers away, was a great move for the Margi; the hotel restaurant is now supplied with produce from this green expanse filled with olive trees and vegetable and herb gardens. What’s more, the area immediately around the farm is also available for unique dining experiences.
The area around Vouliagmeni also offers a wide range of choices and experiences. For starters, there is its celebrated lake, featuring rough rocks, a mysterious cave, pine trees, thermal hot springs, a natural fish spa, sun loungers on a wooden deck and delicious snacks served all day.
Astir Beach is yet another classic option, where a reservation in advance to secure sun loungers has been necessary for years now. This beach completely fulfills the “To see and to be seen” need, and this is why we recommend you make your reservation a few days in advance to ensure your… place in the sun.
The other place to be seen is Krabo Beach, a little further down. This restaurant-beach bar that was opened last year by architect Yiagos Agiostratitis, who also designed the space, became a hit overnight. It boasts a boho-chic atmosphere, shade from stylish bamboo awnings and pergolas, straw on the roof that imparts a sense of permanent movement, wooden tables, cacti, Aztec patterns on the oversized pillows, wonderful cocktails and delicious food. It goes without saying that reservations are necessary.
Ithaki Restaurant is as classic as a walk around Vouliagmeni itself. As children, we would go with our parents for the best fresh fish, and now we always stop by there with our own children (and friends) when there’s something to celebrate.
The restaurant BlueFish Vouliagmeni is one of the area’s newcomers, bringing, I dare say, something of the aura of today’s Mykonos to the mainland: fresh fish and other seafood carefully presented, an extensive list of fine wines and champagnes, and professional service. It’s not uncommon for a midday lunch to turn into a party with lively music that runs into the early evening, and those who come here always have a great time.
Of course, I mustn’t forget Waffle House, the famous hangout that is hard to resist for a delicious waffle, or even just a scoop of ice cream from their broad selection.
Glyfada: Athens’ very own Miami
As you leave Vouliagmeni behind and enter a more urban environment, it’s almost like the vacation is slowly ending, although it’s still just as summery here.
Let’s call Glyfada something like our own Miami – with palm trees, countless cafés, shopping boutiques, relaxed restaurants, trendy bars and residents who are the envy of other Athenians for their year-round tan.
Huracan is one of the area’s best restaurants, especially if you love contrasts, such as what you’ll find by pairing their spicy ceviche with their refreshing cocktails.
My personal favorite in Glyfada is Amigos, my oasis featuring relaxed attitudes, Mexican comfort food and frozen margaritas.
You’ll find cool classic and inventive drinks at Holy Spirit, the funky bar that showed Athenians a more relaxed way to enjoy well-crafted cocktails. Regulars come here directly from the beach for a lazy drink, or for its well-known parties. In the days before Covid-19, the place was packed. Now, with social distancing regulations in place, people can take their drink to go if there are no seats available.
From Flisvos Marina to the SNFCC
The marinas of the Athenian Riviera fall into a category of their own. The most beautiful is probably Flisvos Marina, in Palio Faliro. Most of the 302 berths are occupied by large yachts (over 35 meters) and many of them aren’t owned by Greeks.
It’s important to note that the marina and its surroundings are also enjoyed by the area’s residents – and people who live further afield – who come to cycle, go shopping or just enjoy views of the sea with a glass of ouzo or wine at one of the restaurants. It’s also a great place to take young children, as they can enjoy the promenade as they eat their ice cream.
After Flisvos comes the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC). Designed by famed architect Renzo Piano, it houses the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece; what’s more, it’s surrounded by a 20-hectare park with landscaped walking paths and a playground. The architect made it a priority to reestablish, through his design, the natural and conceptual relationship between the city and the sea that had been disrupted by the coastal highway.
Today this gem is visited by local residents and visitors alike for a host of reasons. Some come for the opera performances, others for the park, and some just to admire the view from the Lighthouse, the highest point of the SNFCC, which offers vies out over the Gulf of Faliro and back towards the Acropolis.
Piraeus: Vacation launchpad
The coastal road ends at Piraeus, which has its own character and follows its own rules. This port – considered a city in its own right, and featured in songs, films, history and legend, has always been part of our summer vacations. This is where we all come every summer, if only to board one of the ferries to the islands. In a very real sense, Piraeus is always the starting point of our vacation.
And, since we’ve come this far, a stop at chef Lefteris Lazarou’s Varoulko Seaside on Akti Koumoundourou is de rigueur for the great view and the best seafood in town, as its two Michelin stars indicate.
Closer to the port, in an old industrial area, you’ll find the wine bar Paleo Wine Store, a wonderful and rather strange place with a rough, maritime character. Nonetheless, the quality of the wine, the attention to detail in the dishes and the warm welcome will quickly let you know you’re in safe and very capable hands.
I can’t think of an ending that could do justice to this varied journey along the endless Athenian coastline. Let’s just close by being thankful that, in this very different summer, we’ll still have all that the Athens Riviera has to offer.