Things to do in Athens

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Athens, a city that is known for its ancient importance and modern disrepair. From the airport it is easy to jump straight onto a train into the centre of town, where I felt instantly immersed in the frenzied tourist-driven activity. There is a crumbling charm to this city. After you have admired the obvious historical ruins there is plenty of contemporary culture to get involved in… Late night rooftop bars and addictive street food, iced coffees and impressive museums – there is always plenty to do. The sunlight that brightens Athens for a lot of the year fuels the local lifestyle and encourages cafés and restaurants to spill out onto the streets. When the hot heat of summer hits there are plenty of nearby islands to escape to.

To stay

Fresh Hotel – this centrally-located Design Hotel offers sleek minimalist rooms at affordable prices. The modern hotel is decorated with bursts of bright colours and features pieces by Philippe Starck and Zaha Hadid. There is a rooftop bar and pool for hotter days, and in the bold bedrooms I noticed toiletries by popular local brand Korres

To eat

Kosta – Souvlaki is the most typical Greek fast food and is found on every street corner. At its simplest it consists of a skewer of grilled pork wrapped in pita bread with tomato, onions and a sauce, but every outlet has their own variation. Everyone has a different opinion about the best Souvlaki in Athens. We tried a few and to be honest, anywhere you see locals eating is likely to be tasty. Be sure to stop by Kosta for their take on this classic.

Funky Gourmet – this innovative two Michelin star establishment is lightyears ahead of the rest of the food scene in Athens. Setup by chefs Georgianna Hiliadaki and Nikos Roussos in 2009, their creative modern Greek cuisine is influenced by past experience working in the El Bulli kitchen. Their tasting menus are imaginative and unusual – particularly memorable was the white sorbet containing all of the flavours of a Greek salad, and the dramatic Orange Explosion.

Tzitzikas and Mermigas – this popular taverna is a great spot for lunch; a welcome and hearty break from sightseeing. The menu offers all the Greek specialities you would expect, we particularly enjoyed the traditional meatballs, and the deliciously soft and sweet Aubergine dish.

Le Greche – this artisan parlour serves the best gelato in town. On a sunny afternoon there is nothing better than a scoop of their Mascarpone and Caramelised Fig ice cream.

Spondi – this renowned and civilised eatery has long been considered one of the finest restaurants in Europe. With two stars under its belt and a place in Les Grandes Tables du Monde, it has high standards to uphold. We enjoyed a lavish four-course menu; highlights were Morels with Amaretto Sabayon and bitter cocoa, and Mousse of Grouper with onions and wild herb broth. The food was light but full of vibrant flavours.

Lukumades – visit this chic cafe to try the authentic Greek snack of sweet dough balls. Especially good with the traditional topping of honey and cinnamon. One portion (€2.90) will get you 12 of the little delights.

Butcher Shop – book or arrive early at this popular neighbourhood restaurant as tables fill fast. Greece has many psitopoleia (grill houses) and this modern version serves seriously delicious meat and fish dishes at good prices. We ordered a selection of their smaller ‘item’ offerings to try as much as possible. Our favourites included the Three Meat meatball, Giaourtlou (kebab) with yoghurt and tomato sauce and fried Ladotyri (Greek hard cheese).

To Drink

Tailor Made – coffee by day, cocktails by night, this micro-roastery serves one of the best cups of caffeine in the city. Drink like the Greeks and ask for it iced (freddo cappucino).

Baba au Rum – this speciality rum and tiki bar has previously been voted as one of the best cocktail bars in the world. We went for a pre-dinner aperitif and enjoyed the laid back al-fresco ambience. Ray Barientos is a short, balanced drink with rum, cherry brandy and fruit juice.

Brettos – Greece is well known for its wine and ouzo, however Brettos bar has made a name for itself offering the finest homemade flavoured Greek liqueurs. Despite being in one of the most touristy areas of the city, this colourful emporium is often overlooked by tourists. For €4.50 you can try a glass of one of the vibrant flavours on ice, or for a little more buy a bottle to take home and use in exotic cocktails recipes. We tried Coconut and Parfums d’amour (a mix of rose, orange and vanilla).

Taf Coffee – this little coffee company aims to provide Greece with the highest quality coffee beans and encourage the progression of modern coffee culture in the country. In Athens the cafe is widely regarded as the best place to get a cappuccino. I enjoyed my daily morning coffee here, a perfectly made smooth flat white.

TAF (The Art Foundation) – this hipster outdoor bar is found in the covered courtyard of a dilapidated neoclassical building. In the daytime it is a welcome shade from the heat, serving delicious iced coffees and it comes to life around midnight. Make sure you look upstairs to see the Metamatic gallery space.

To See/Do

Acropolis & the Parthenon – many visit Athens just to witness this great Unesco world heritage site. Walk up the rocky path to the impressive remains, marvel at the impressive historic columns built in the 5th century BC, and imagine the splendour of Ancient Greece. The current restoration project (which began in 1975) is now nearing its completion but there is still some scaffolding in place.

Filopappou Hill – if you want to see the ancient ruins from slightly further afield climb the winding steps to the peak of Filopappou hill and admire the Acropolis from the best vantage point in Athens.

Acropolis Museum – this contemporary building houses many sculptures and artefacts that once adorned the walls and terraces of the Parthenon. It is a wonderful collection and a great place to learn about the story of the Acropolis. Now they just await a reunion with the Elgin marbles, currently residing in England.

National Gardens – this peaceful public park is a haven in the centre of the city. When we walked around we even spotted a few tortoises!

Monastiraki Flea Market – a minute from the main Monastiraki metro station is a tourist tat marketplace. On Sundays, however, the antique dealers come out to sell in Avissynias Square and you may just find a dusty treasure.

Central Market – this covered market is where the food traders sell all kinds of Greek specialities, ranging from olives and cheese to seafood, meat and vegetables. Open Monday to Saturday, make sure you wear soled shoes to walk among the meat and fish halls.

Benaki Museum – this interesting museum houses wonderful artefacts dating back to 7th century BC. There are 40,000 items in the permanent collection, including an immaculately preserved set of jewellery.

Penathenaic Stadium – this impressive stone structure was the venue for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. For €3 you can take a tour and go for a sprint on the track.

Temple of Olympian Zeus – this temple was dedicated to Zeus, ruler of the Olympians. Building started in 6th century BC but wasn’t completed until 700 years later. Only 15 of the original 104 columns remain but the ruins still offer an insight into the scale of this once magnificent building.

To Shop

Forget Me Not – a cultural gift store that sells carefully selected Greek-made items, in contrast to the surrounding shops selling cheap tourist tat.

Melissinos Art Poet Sandal Maker – Since 1920 this family of expert sandal makers have been providing stylish made-to-fit leather sandals for celebrities and those in the know. Squeeze into the tiny cluttered shop, choose from the menu of styles and let Pantelis fit them to your feet. Ranging from €33-€39, it is a small price to pay for the same shoes as John Lennon, Sarah Jessica Parker and the Princesses of Greece.

Vassilis Zoulias – walking into this candy coloured shop I felt like I was in wonderland. Zoulias really knows how to make a woman feel like a princess with his sophisticated yet fun dresses and high-heel shoes. The elegant creations have a vintage feel thanks to the timeless tailoring and standout patterns. The colours are rich and the materials luxurious; I’ve definitely never seen neon colours used in such a grown-up way.

Ioanna Korbella – this popular Greek designer has two shops next door to each other on Charimichali Street selling ready-to-wear and couture clothing. Kourbela’s main inspiration are elements of nature and her collections are minimalist and classically simple. Block colours and flowing, natural, organic fabrics flatter the figure and are very comfortable to wear – perfect for the hot Greek weather.

Lito Cabinet de Curiosites – Lito Karakostanoglou is a self-taught jeweller who has previously designed catwalk pieces for many renowned designers. She opened this lovely little boutique in 2006 showcasing her sensational designs in attractive glass cabinets. I loved the insect-inspired collection which uses real iridescent beetles encased in gold, which are priced at €4,600. There is also a lovely range of hand painted ‘evil eye’ necklaces, dainty, unique and a bit more affordable.

Thoroughly Modern Milly stayed at Fresh Hotel.

Many thanks to the Greece Tourist board for their help with this trip, more information here.