Αthens has traditionally been a rewarding stopover for visitors to the Greek islands – more often seen as an appetizer or dessert than as the main course of their holidays. The majority of travelers would bid farewell to it after a visit to the Acropolis and a stroll through Plaka. Recently, however, the Greek capital has become a destination in its own right, one that combines ancient heritage with modern urban vibes and appeals to all age groups – from baby boomers to millennials.
The cogs of the tourism industry can be heard turning all the way from Athens International Airport to the city center. Over a three-year period, international arrivals by air have increased by 73 percent. This year, the city is expecting a record-breaking five million overseas visitors – double the number of five years ago. From January to August 2017, the Acropolis welcomed 1.9 million visitors. Piraeus retains a steady top-10 ranking among Mediterranean cruise-ship ports, with more than 1.1 million passengers passing through it this year. According to a study conducted by World Travel Market London, Athens is Europe’s second-best “Standout Performer for 2017,” with Irakleio in Crete clinching the top spot.
If you’re reading this article in wintertime Athens, then you’re not the typical kind of tourist the city gets. “The bulk of visitors choose to visit the capital from May to September. Yet there are significant signs that the number of off-season tourists to Athens is increasing. We are confident that this trend will continue and that the city will become a popular destination during the winter period,” says Yiannis Retsos, president of the Greek Tourism Confederation (SETE).
The city’s potential as a Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) destination has also come to the fore. According to data collected by the International Congress and Conferences Association, Athens has climbed 23 places in recent years and since 2016 has held a spot among the top 25 international conference destinations.
It isn’t by chance that 95 percent of visitors say that, after returning home from their holidays, they will recommend a trip to Athens to friends and relatives. Nor is it by accident that dozens of travel writers from international media outlets have been raving about the city.
Well-known journalist Pierre Groppo booked a room at the Hotel Grande Bretagne, sipped coffee at Zonar’s, relished the cuisine at Nolan, visited the Onassis Cultural Center, photographed street art, caught a performance by Greek choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou, and then returned to Paris and lauded Athens in an article published in the French edition of Vanity Fair last July.
A few months later, in a piece titled “Why Athens is the perfect city for an autumn break,” The Telegraph urged those in search of “one last blast of warmth before winter” to book a ticket to Athens. A Lonely Planet report on the city’s artistic scene, which noted that “Athens is defining a new era for itself as a mecca for contemporary arts,” was just one of dozens of such articles that have recently showcased the capital as an attractive cultural destination.
One of the world’s biggest contemporary art exhibitions, documenta 14, was co-hosted this year by Kassel and Athens, drawing some 340,000 visitors to the Greek capital and altering the impression that the art-loving public had previously held about the city. Following the exhibition, Athens was named “Emerging Cultural City of the Year 2017” by the organization Culture Destinations; this honor was a fitting complement to Athens’ designation as the “UNESCO World Book Capital 2018.”
Two new landmark spaces have also contributed to the shaping of the city’s cultural profile: the National Museum of Contemporary Art and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. The latter, designed by architect Renzo Piano, also houses the Greek National Opera. “Its high-quality productions are a significant reason for a tourist to visit Athens and view performances of operatic masterpieces, classical and contemporary ballets and all types of musical theater, in two impressive halls with unrivaled acoustics,” says Giorgos Koumendakis, the GNO’s artistic director.
The creative forces of the city meet in hubs like Romantso, form digital nomad communities like Impact Hub and respond to calls from the Municipality of Athens, which has been promoting collaborations in the tourism field. One of these joint projects is This Is My Athens (myathens.thisisathens.org), with its “Meet the Locals” program in which volunteers share authentic urban experiences with tourists (to rave reviews on TripAdvisor).
Another dynamic campaign, powered by the Hellenic Initiative and titled One City: Never Ending Stories, has seen the City of Athens, Aegean Airlines and Athens International Airport join forces to promote the city as a center for contemporary culture and as an attractive, year-round destination.
“Athens is not just about the Acropolis, good weather and beaches just a stone’s throw from the center,” says Alexis Galinos, CEO of the Athens Development and Destination Management Agency. “The challenge now is for it to be transformed into a ‘smart’ city and for it to acquire a digital character.”
THE GASTRONOMY SCENE
If the best way to a tourist’s heart is through the stomach, then Athens must be one of the most loved cities in the world. From unassuming tavernas to Michelin–starred restaurants, you’re bound to taste something original, delicious and a great value for money. Though brunch may be the latest trend, the most noteworthy development in recent years has been the turn towards Greek products and quality street food.
“Little by little, chefs are entering the street-food game, and this is the trend we’ll be seeing for the next couple of years,” says Michelin-starred chef Nikos Karathanos, co-owner of Cookoovaya Restaurant. “Gone are the days when good restaurants were stilted and served French cuisine. Athens is now aware that visitors are asking for what they’ve never seen before: dishes on the table shared by all, well sought-out Greek raw ingredients, a beautiful ambiance – not degustation.”
THE COFFEE EXPERTS
Athenians love coffee and, in the past five years, drinking it in this city has turned into a unique experience. “There has been a shift towards toward better coffees, which pushes the market to evolve” says George Koustoumpardis, World Coffee in Good Spirits Champion 2015.
“Single-origin and single-estate varieties are being served in cafés dedicated to specialty coffees, and there are various festivals and expos promoting excellence in coffee, attracting coffee lovers and professionals from Greece as well as from around the globe. Year after year, our country is ranked among the best in the World Championships held by the Specialty Coffee Association.”
Athens by night will leave an indelible impression on you, whatever you choose to do with your evening. A good starting point would be an exploration of the Athenian cocktail scene; head to bars such as The Clumsies, ranked sixth on the list of the World’s 50 Best Bars. Its mixologists have researched their ingredients and employ techniques such as sous vide and vacuum infusion.
“The bars in Athens are on par with the best of Europe,” says Giorgos Kaisaris, co-founder of The Clumsies. “What we’ve been seeing in recent years is that both the training and equipment in cocktail bars are evolving, the menus are becoming more international, and there’s a shift in focus to foreign customers, which is reflected in both the ambiance and the drink selection on offer.”
Another option would be one of the wine bars that have conquered the downtown area, proving themselves to be more than a passing fad. Combining a casual atmosphere with exceptional Greek wines by the glass, they serve as de facto ambassadors for the local wine industry.
After a full day, with a slight numbness in your feet from all the walking, and perhaps even a bit sun-kissed, why not raise your glass and, in accordance with the phrase “in vino veritas,” be honest with yourself: haven’t you already fallen in love with Athens?