Creativity in art, food and more is growing in Athens

Here’s a surprise: while the Athenians were shut down because of the pandemic, a wave of creative and entrepreneurial activity swept through. The result? A total of 272 new restaurants, according to the local industry association, as well as hundreds of other cafes and bars. The city has also acquired 34 new hotels, offering 1982 rooms in the last two years. And its cultural landscape blossomed, with the realization of major national projects.

“We are witnessing a cultural renaissance and a growing gastronomic scene that demonstrates the new dynamics of the city,” said Vassilis Kikilias, Greece’s tourism minister. Adding the construction of new hotels and the renovation of older ones, Mr Kikilias said he was “optimistic about the season”.

As of May, the number of foreign visitors to the city is still below 2019 levels, but only by about 12 percent, and since then crowds have returned to central squares and landmarks in numbers reminiscent of days before the pandemic.

Vaccination certificates against Covid are no longer required to enter the country or to visit shops, restaurants and museums, and as of June 1, face masks are no longer required in enclosed public places except hospitals, pharmacies, public transportation and ferries.

The newest cultural gem of the Greek capital (or rather an impressively polished old one), the National Gallery opened last year after an eight-year renovation worth 60m euros. Twice the size of the original, the elegant new building has a glass façade that allows natural light to illuminate the exhibits and offers visitors a view of the city from every angle. You can spend hours exploring the three floors, outlining the evolution of Greek art over almost seven centuries. But even for a short visit, you should not miss the arresting works of the modernist Greek artists Konstantinos Partenis and Yannis Tsaruchis with their dreamy symbolism, as well as the glowing paintings of the orientalist Theodoros Ralis and the post-impressionist Jacobs Rizos.

The fourth floor, dedicated to Western European art, is set to open in the coming weeks and will include paintings by Picasso and Mondrian, stolen in a daring robbery by a man in 2012 and restored last year.

Another treasure for art lovers is the National Museum of Contemporary Art, a former brewery that opened in late February 2020 after a lengthy renovation, but closed almost immediately with the country’s first blockade. Five floors of thought-provoking sculptures, videos and installations by Greek and foreign artists – new exhibitions tackling nation-building, mass protests and the environment – are covered by a rooftop terrace overlooking the Acropolis to the south coastline.

The capital’s independent art scene, fueled by a wave of creativity fueled by the social unrest that came with the decade-long financial crisis, blossomed again during the pandemic, opening exciting new spaces to see art. One of the most exciting is a former tobacco factory in Athens’ sandy Kolonos district, whose pink-and-yellow façade compares to a giant Battenberg cake. After a debut exhibition last summer, the space reopened in June with a show featuring 18 large-scale installations from the collection of entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos, founder of Neon, the cultural organization that overhauled the factory, which recently donated hundreds of works to museums, including the Guggenheim.

There has been noise around Linou Soumpasis & Co. since it opened in December in the lively central district of Psyrri. Rejecting the labels of neo-tavern and bistronomy, the self-proclaimed “simple restaurant” offers high-quality dishes with a contemporary flavor of a lively open kitchen. The emphasis is on fresh food, especially fish, and the menu is updated daily depending on the day’s extraction. Recent dishes include light tartar John Dori with seaweed in cucumber juice and tender grilled fish in zucchini puree. The stew with beef cheeks in chickpea soup is also popular, as is the selection of home-made breads and organic wines from small Greek producers. Expect to pay about 110 euros (about $ 116) for a three-course dinner with wine for two. Wines range from 22 to 150 bottles and all are available by the glass.

A few blocks away, Gastone, the latest venture of the people behind Cookoovaya (recommended by Michelin’s guide), serves Mediterranean flavors and street food in a lively retro setting that is part of a classic Greek tavern, partly an American diner. Dinner for two is around 30 euros, and highlights include a crispy pork sandwich and a tzaddiki twist made with Gorgonzola cheese.

Two newcomers to the favored industrial areas of Athens are also attracting crowds. Tzoutzouka in Ruf offers an adventurous approach to traditional Greek dishes, such as a rich sheep casserole in red sauce with homemade pasta and spicy hard cheese for about 30 euros per person with wine. Proveleggios in nearby Kerameikos is the latest brainstorming behind the super-popular Nolan restaurant, offering innovative cuisine such as hand-crafted noodles with sweet wild greens in a dipping sauce and cocktails on a wood-paneled terrace opposite the indie rock soundtrack. Dinner is around € 35 per person without drinks.

For cocktail lovers, Athens offers a dizzying selection of new places to drink. In the bar in front of the bar, on a lively pedestrian promenade near the central Syntagma Square, the energetic young staff prepare twists of classic cocktails using locally produced ingredients priced at 7 euros. Those looking for a drink with city views can join the bohemian crowd at the Attic Urban Rooftop in the lively Monastiraki district, one of several new rooftop terraces where cocktails range in price from 11 to 13 euros.

In the new Petralona district is Line Athens (Clumsies ’world-class sister bar), where staff shake homemade vermouth cocktails, the highest price of 10 euros.

The same area is home to Hervé, the discreet new restaurant of Paris-born Hervé Pronzato, whose experience as a chef in Athens includes a stay at the star-studded Michelin Spondi and Hytra. Hervé has a 17-item tasting menu offering a mix of dishes that reflect Mr Pronzato’s view of international cuisine for 95 euros per person. There is no sign – to log in, enter the code received with your reservation.

In Soil, in the Pangrati district, Tasos Mantis, also formerly a chef at Hytra, serves “earthy gastronomy” using vegetables and herbs grown on his own farm in a renovated neoclassical building with a peaceful garden. The € 86 tasting menu includes shrimp in orange sauce, pecans and dill and mussels with juzo kosho, grapefruit and lemon confit.

High-end options for both food and lodging include the understated Xenodocheio Milos, which is touted as the first “gastronomic 5-star hotel” in the capital – the newest venture of renowned chef Costas Spiliadis, who created his own Milos restaurant. places including New York, Montreal and London. Rooms start at around 230 euros per night, while dinner starts at around 60 euros per person, with specialties that include sea bass, roasted in sea salt and thin fried zucchini and eggplant.

One of the newest places for hotels is the so-called Athens Riviera, a 60-kilometer stretch of coastline dotted with marinas, beaches and secluded bays, which is about 30 minutes by taxi from the city center. Four Seasons Astir Palace opened its doors on a pine-covered peninsula there in 2019, offering 303 rooms (starting at 1,700 euros in July and 1,100 euros in August) and fine sea-view dishes at its Michelin-starred Pelagos restaurant. Nine-course tasting menu, including Crystal caviar, red shrimp and risotto with octopus ink for 160 euros per person.

Wyndham’s Ramada Attica Riviera recently opened in a quiet location on the Riviera, offering spacious rooms with sea views of € 120 per night, with more hotels to open in the coming months.

There is no shortage of accommodation choices in Athens itself. Of the 34 hotels that opened in most of Athens during the pandemic, 26 are in the city center. New arrivals in the renovated central Omonia Square include the Brown Acropolis with its modern look at the aesthetics of Athens from the 1960s (it has 165 rooms at a price of 130 euros per night). This is one of the four hotels opened in the capital by the fast-growing Israeli chain Brown. On the same square, in the heart of the historical and commercial area of ​​the capital, is the ultra-modern Moxy Athens City of Marriott, with its bright interior, cheerful staff and comfortable rooms at a price of 170 euros per night.

A few blocks away, close to Psyrri’s nightlife, the quaint Selina Athens Theater, part of the global hospitality brand, features bright, frescoed rooms and spacious common areas from € 90 to € 120 per night.

And in the heart of the city, near the Greek parliament, Athens Capital – MGallery has a rooftop infinity pool overlooking the Acropolis and prices starting at around 300 euros per night.

The pandemic has also led to some closures, especially the iconic Hilton in the capital, which closed earlier this year after nearly six decades, although it is expected to reopen in 2024 as part of the Conrad chain’s luxury line.

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