Brilliant Things to Do in Athens

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lycabettus hill via zoe whitfield

With a glowing nightlife scene and a rich food and drink culture, there is much to engage with throughout Athens, from art to island life

Introducing a series of alternative city guides, specially curated for the cultivated traveller.

Like a tourist arriving in LA might experience a ‘pinch me’ moment when physically aligned with the Hollywood sign, visiting Athens prompts a degree of rapture when aware of one’s proximity to the Acropolis (the citadel, and UNESCO world heritage site, on which the imposing Parthenon resides). The birthplace of democracy and home to the modern Olympics, and more recently, an uncomfortable relationship with gentrification – particularly in the anarchy-leaning, community-focused neighbourhood of Exarcheia – has been cause for protest. Away from the centre, the completion of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in 2017 has proved something of a gem in the city’s wider cultural landscape.

Best viewed from a hilltop at sunset – Lykavittos and Filopappou are guidebook favourites – there is also plenty to observe on the ground throughout the day, whether you’re in town to embrace the city properly, or just passing through en route to an island. Piraeus alone, from where regular ferries depart, boasts an impressive list of galleries, while the majestic Benaki Museum today has nine further satellite locations spread across Athens. Furthermore, with seasonal alfresco cinemas, a glowing nightlife scene and a rich food and drink culture, there is much to engage with throughout the city.

Below are some spots worth bookmarking, though in light of recent nearby wildfires highlighting the destination’s fragility, responsible travel plans are encouraged.

Hyper Hypo bookshop

Opened by Stathis Mitropoulos (a graphic designer and art director) and Andreas Kokkinos (a former editor and stylist) in 2021, Hyper Hypo has quickly become one of the city’s most coveted bookshops. All smart photo books and (sort of) Yves Klein blue walls on the ground floor – they also stock a strong selection of magazine titles and a range of lively postcards – downstairs the pair host regular exhibitions, while their first in-house publication, Michael McGregor’s The Greece Notebook, sold out (and was quickly restocked) before this summer officially got started.

Cine Thision open-air cinema

Despite not being recognised as a city for cinephiles, Athens does have a long-established film culture: case in point, the official preservation of Astor and Ideal earlier this year, saved from becoming hotels by an extensive campaign backed by Yorgos Lanthimos and Costa-Gavras. Cine Thision meanwhile, the oldest of Athens’ 60-plus open-air cinemas, having launched in 1935, is one of its most charming. Open from May through to October, its simple exterior announces its classic vintage, while its promise of homemade snacks and blockbuster titles feels like a winning date night formula.

Hot Wheels gallery

Since 2017, this contemporary gallery has been providing a space for experimentation, collaboration and critical development. Housed in a classical Athenian townhouse on Patisson – a historical street running through diverse neighbourhoods, in November 1973 it was the site of the Athens Polytechnic uprising – directors Hugo Wheeler and Julia Gardener are subsequently sympathetic to their surroundings and committed to engaging with the immediate community. With a soft focus on work by Greek and Cypriot practitioners, recent shows have included work by Marina Xenofontos, Yorgos Prinos and Jeff Wall Production.

Alekos Fassianos Museum

Even before this vibrant, beautifully curated space opened to the public in April of this year, the late artist Alekos Fassianos had a well-established relationship with the museum’s location: since 2000, The Myth of My Neighbourhood, a pair of murals recalling the area in the 1950s, have greeted commuters stepping off the tube at Metaxourgeio. One of Greece’s foremost painters, recognised for his singular aesthetic and vivid use of colour, Fassianos’ family owned a home on this same plot from the 30s through to the 70s, and in 1995 the artist, with architect Kyriakos Krokos, completed renovation work on the building that was subsequently erected. Sadly, Fassianos passed away at the start of 2022, but his unique eye is apparent throughout the gallery.

Kopria plant and garden stop

If you’re lucky enough to attend a wedding, private dining situation or some other glossy affair in the city, you might find yourself privy to the work of this Exarcheia-based plant and garden studio. Failing that, be sure to stop by the corner store as you weave your way through the neighbourhood’s consummate bar and coffee shop offering, or at the very least give them a follow on Instagram: most of their colourful bouquets, more dramatic arrangements, and work trips abroad are documented there on 36mm. Opened in 2018, they’ve been known to team up with other small businesses in the area, on occasion dishing out free flowers and fun stickers.

Seychelles restaurant

A gastronomic highlight on the Keramikos corner of Avdi Square, at this point Seychelles can barely claim to be even a badly kept secret, having arrived in 2014 to near immediate admiration. It has since built a solid reputation on word-of-mouth recommendations (and latterly, would-be coy Instagram stories from fans positioning the daily menu ‘just so’ in the corner of the frame). Despite a few changes in-house, the hype remains justified: a casual dining room with brown paper table settings, the restaurant marries contemporary ideas with a largely traditional offering (think bold iterations of plates like stuffed vine leaves), using fresh ingredients sourced from around the country.

Desired Walks

A walking tour might sound like an extreme episode of organised fun (pejorative), but this series from graphic designer, Desired Landscapes founder and editor, and Athens local Natassa Pappa, is strictly informed by visual culture, urbanism and the vernacular. With a focus on the city’s changing signage and subsequently, its disappearing typefaces, Pappa’s specially curated excursions make good use of Athens’ covered walkways, highlighting quiet pockets of the city that might otherwise appear out of bounds.

Taníni Agápi Mou natural wine bar

As with its museums and galleries, Athens has an abundance of bars, ranging from the wholly traditional (in which you’ll largely find terrazzo flooring and charming and/or unbothered older locals) to the utterly contemporary, where natural wine is king. Taníni Agápi Mou, which translates to ‘Tannins My Love’, is part of the latter crowd, boasting a décor of simple wooden furniture alongside transparent and primary coloured plastics, and a bold wine list of 100 wines. Offering several categories worth of information, such as variety, producer and region, the epic menu is presented on a slab of oversized plastic, issued with a ruler for ease.

DESTE Foundation

Employing various locations for its exhibitions across the city in the 80s and 90s, since 2006 DESTE has had a permanent venue in Nea Ionia, but it’s its Project Space on Hydra (an hour and a half by boat from Piraeus, so not technically Athens), that is perhaps most enticing. Housed in a former slaughterhouse, the space has previously hosted shows by Kara Walker and Doug Aitken, while last year’s Wind Spinner from Jeff Koons’ Apollo has since been given over to the island as a permanent installation. A golden sun of mammoth proportions, the motorised work is a striking but considered addition to the island’s stunning natural landscape. 

Bios bar and arts space

A cultural organisation founded in 2001 – at its primary venue in a Bauhaus-skewing building in Kerameikos – Bios boasts a rooftop bar and arts space that shares the vibrant disposition of south London’s Franks and Bold Tendencies format (albeit with a markedly different set of variables and aesthetics at play). On the terrace, deckchairs and a DJ accompany fine views of the Acropolis while films are projected onto a nearby wall, and downstairs the Tesla bar leans into the indulgent Greek practice of serving popcorn with your drink order as standard; elsewhere the venue’s performance programme is worth checking out, whether you identify as a thespian or simply a casual observer.