Escape Plan: Where to stay and play in Athens this summer

By Alia Akkam 5 June, 2024

New luxury hotels, innovative restaurants, and five-star shopping have finally made Athens more than a quick stop on the way to the islands

Not long ago, Athens was falling apart. The 2008 sovereign debt crisis left public services and infrastructure in tatters; it was the city that almost broke the eurozone’s back. Now, a sort of miracle has occurred.

While Greece still faces pressing issues (unemployment for one), its economy is growing at twice the average of other EU nations, the IMF reported last year. That sounds nice as a concept, but it means something very tangible for travelers, who have returned to the city in unprecedented numbers since the pandemic. It means a new, rapidly expanding high-end hospitality sector that’s not only competitive with the rest of Europe, but Greece itself.

While the Greek isles have always attracted hoards of boldface names hidden behind oversize sunglasses, Athens was an afterthought at best. You might deign to stay the night on your way to somewhere, anywhere, else. Now new luxury openings—most notable among them the seafront One&Only Aesthesis, which opened last November—are allowing visitors to rediscover Athenian culture in a fresh light.

“Athens invites you to sit and enjoy a cappuccino freddo rather than run with a to-go cup,” Tatiana Blatnik, Princess of Greece, tells Robb Report. “I can go from the quiet of a morning hike, to the top of Mount Parnitha, to a restaurant with freshly caught fish on the Athens Riviera—and in the middle of it is the organized chaos of the center. The extremes of silence and noise and tradition and innovation, that’s where the magic truly lives.”

Looking for a fresh introduction to Athens? Here’s a look at the best of everything animating the pleasure-loving and optimistic scene.

It’s nothing new, but the Hotel Grande Bretagne is still one of the city’s best stays. Photo by Hotel Grande Bretagne

Where to stay

If you’re someone who yachts, jets, or dog-sleds straight to Mykonos or Santorini, you’ll want to start your reintroduction to Athens on the shore. So check-in to One&Only Aesthesis, which is currently racking up accolades. Just a half-hour drive from the Acropolis, it’s the brand’s first outpost in Greece, on a private, paparazzi-free stretch of coastline. All 95 bungalows, 18 residences, and two villas come with terraces, private pools, botanical gardens, outdoor showers, and fireplaces. July rates start at US$1,650 per night.

Also on the Athens Riviera in nearby Vouliagmeni, the 303-key Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel Athens opened in 2019. It offers private beaches, sleek cruisers that whisk guests across the Saronic Gulf, and accommodations that pull from a maritime palette. Settle into one of the breezy Nafsika rooms, complete with lounger-bedecked balcony, and wake up to the Aegean Sea through expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass. Rates start at US$725 per night.

But to really get to know the city, you’ll want to head back to leafy Syntagma Square, the heart of Athens. It’s home to the Hotel Grande Bretagne, part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection. This classy dowager debuted in 1874 and began swelling with foreign dignitaries during the inaugural 1896 Summer Olympic Games. Today, it still wows with 320 palatial rooms and buttled suites done up in hues of taupe and creamy yellow. Past the lobby is the stained-glass ceiling-crowned Winter Garden, just the place for postprandial live jazz. Rates start at US$628 per night

For modern luxury the Dolli is worth checking-in to. Photo by The Dolli

For a more intimate urban experience, the Dolli is a reprieve from hectic Monastiraki Square. Most recently housing a fabric store, the neoclassical building dating from 1925 was transformed last year and now sports 46 snowy-white rooms. Opt for one looking directly onto the Acropolis, then head up to the greenery-drenched rooftop restaurant and pool for even more classically classical views. The hotel’s staggering collection of art is the vision of owner Mari Daskalantonakis, the CEO of hotel company Grecotel. The lofty lobby unites ancient ceramics with pieces from Jean Cocteau and Les Lalanne. Rates begin at US$560 per night.

Where to eat

Next door to Hotel Grande Bretagne is its sister property, King George. Inside, on the seventh floor, the Michelin-starred Tudor Hall Restaurant serves offbeat dishes like salt-baked celery root, bolstered with apple butter miso. Parthenon vistas are on the patio, but inside the earth-toned dining room exudes its own grandeur with a corner piano, ornate mouldings, and fireplace flanked by paintings.

Hankering for something fine? Head to savoury Tudor Hall. Photo by Tudor Hall

You’re in ancient Athens, so you’re bound to end up at the National Archaeological Museum at some point. The streets surrounding it may be a little scruffy, but they make a fitting backdrop for Pharaoh. Local food and travel writer Fotis Vallatos opened the mosaic- and cement-adorned restaurant in late 2022 with chef Manolis Papoutsakis, Perry Panagiotakopoulos, and opera singer Dimitri Platanias, and its fusion of wood-fired cooking, more than 400 natural wines, and upbeat vinyl DJ sets instantly made it a hit. It’s emblematic of the city’s booming gastro-tavernas that illuminate style and imagination as much as homey recipes for the likes of wild greens strewn with anthotyros cheese.

Likewise, after visiting the modern and contemporary works at the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation in artsy Pangrati, stop and replenish. The district is full of fine dining, with Michelin-starred Soil and Spondi paving the way to such laidback newcomers as Ex Machina. The lively gastro-taverna arrived in 2023, reeling in patrons with a comfy blue banquette and open kitchen revolving around Greek produce and spices snagged in Cairo. Here, scallops are buoyed with amaranth popcorn, omelets stuffed with blue crab, and organic young rooster finished over blazing charcoals. There’s also the morning-into-night hot spot Akra. At turns a restaurant, bakery, and wine bar, it has a minimalist, industrial sheen with too-crammed tables and berry-rife tarts.

“These new places are taking away the folklore image of Greece,” says Thanos Prunarus, proprietor of the local cocktail bar Baba Au Rum. “Experimenting is important, blending heritage with the cutting-edge.”

Prunarus attempts that literally at Baba Au Rum, which he opened back in 2009 in central Athens: e.g. his signature daiquiri is layered with notes of oak and sherry.

Celebrity chef Argiro Barbarigou is behind a reborn Papadakis. Photo by Papadakis

For fine-dining fare, visit celebrity chef Argiro Barbarigou’s Papadakis in the posh neighborhood of Kolonaki. It’s a revival of the restaurant her father opened on the island of Paros in 1996—it introduced seafood specialties including grouper over orzo pasta to Athenians back in 2005. And on the Athens Riviera, dinner at chef Luca Piscazzi’s Michelin-starred Pelagos, the jewel of the Four Seasons Astir Palace, is a must. Here’s all you need to know: caviar-topped coils of spaghetti.

Where to shop

Just up the street from Nora’s Deli, the petite shop that Kolonaki residents pop into for feta cheese, is the atelier of artist Irene Krimizi, who makes sculptural, otherworldly clay vases.

Krimizi isn’t far from the black oak door of Ileana Makri Fine Jewelry’s flagship. Makri’s pieces—like her graceful 18-karat gold Fallen Leaves earrings with pavé yellow diamonds—have glittered on celebrities from Rihanna to Heidi Klum. Nikos Koulis, another jewellery designer in the neighbourhood, is also popular with the stars—Beyoncé donned one of his statement emeralds in the spring. Peep his Art Deco–style black enamel and white diamond bracelets.

Krimizi was one of the featured talents at Mon Coin Studio’s “Women Ceramic Artists of Greece” exhibition this spring. Visit the studio’s bright Monostiraki gallery for candle holders, teapots, plates, and drinking vessels from contemporary Greek ceramists. It’s a short stroll from there to Hyper Hypo, the specialty bookstore art and design aficionados have gravitated to since 2021. An homage to visual culture, it’s lined with tomes dedicated to the oeuvres of groundbreaking artists like Judy Chicago, Saul Leiter, and Keith Haring.

Plaka’s labyrinthine streets teem with kitschy souvenir shops, but the neighborhood is also home to Mouki Mou, a concept store that opened in London in 2013, before arriving in Athens last year. Although there are objects from Greek makers—behold the ceramic pomegranates from Manousos Chalkiadakis—to round out the clothing and jewelry, there’s plenty from international artisans, too—including gorgeously misshapen glassware mouth-blown in Germany by Vogel Studio.

Anthologist is a one shop stop for eclectic high-design. Photo by Anthologist

Finally, shabby Vathis Square received a jolt of glamour in 2023 when the appointment-only Anthologist moved into a 1912 building. Owned by Andria Mitsakos, it showcases Mitsakos’s designs in diverse media such as brass, stained glass, batik prints, and crochet embroidery.

Think fringed clutches that pair leather with Greek textiles and pillowcases with Armenian and Greek kilim motifs.

 “Athens—once again—is coming into her own,” says Mitsakos. “A peppering of people doing great things is emerging. I like to call us modern-day ancients, giving back to this city that has given the world so much, but in a new light.”