Six reasons why Athens rocks

Beyond the historical marvels – itself a central reason to visit the city – Athens has plenty more to offer on a weekend away

Hit the heights
Rising above Athens’ sprawl lies Lycabettus mountain, whose 277-metre height makes it the city’s highest point and the perfect spot to watch day turn into night. An energetic walk (or funicular ride for the leg-weary) will take you to the summit where you’ll find Orizontes restaurant offering high-end food in an unbeatable setting. Across the city to the south you’ll find Filopappou hill, where among the pine forests and winding paths you’ll find a solitude rare amid Athens’ hustle and bustle.

Besides the monuments, shrines and the Hill of the Nymphs, you’ll find a stunning view of the Acropolis to the north and the port of Piraeus and beyond to the south. And once the sun has set, one of the world’s most stunning outdoor cinemas lies just a stone’s throw away. From the gardens of the ivy-clad cinema Thisio, which carries everything from arthouse to Big Momma’s House, you can sip on an Alpha beer as the looming view of the Acropolis threatens to distract from the on-screen action.

Try a revitalised tipple

Distilled in Athens but taking its distinctive flavour from the muscat grapes of the island of Samos, Metaxa is a Greek spirit that has existed for generations yet is now enjoying something of a renaissance among the city’s bars. Placed somewhere close to a cognac or a brandy, its blend of oak-aged muscat, distillate and a carefully guarded bouquet of botanicals and rose petals gives rise to a deep amber colour and smooth distinctive taste. Although a characterful drink neat over ice, its mixability means a vivid range of cocktails have given it fresh impetus, with the city’s chicest bars offering Metaxa mojitos and molecular Metaxa creations well worth familiarising yourself with.

Eat like the locals

Down in the heart of the historical district of Plaka you’ll find the so-called “souvlaki alley” just off Monastiraki Square and the time-honoured grilled-meat sandwich is indeed an Athenian essential. But Greek cuisine is far more than the meat-feast one might imagine. Vegetarian offerings (including the macrobiotic menu, soups and dahls at Avocado) hint at modernisation and the fresh ingredients the country is blessed with – from honey and herbs to nuts and olive oil – find their way into a range of sumptuous dishes.  Meanwhile the central market is one of the city’s must-try experiences – brave the crowds for a visceral journey through Athen’s food culture at its rawest.

Put your foot on the gas

Further evidence of Athens’ modern evolution exists to the west of the centre. The Gazi gasworks – previously the epitome of the city’s heavy industry – was regenerated in the 1990s and the hulking industrial storage towers have been incorporated into Technopolis: a civic space that comes alive after dark. Bars, nightclubs, restaurants and galleries jostle for attention with cultural events that range from flea markets to global conferences. Beyond the gasworks the Gazi area is host to a vibrant array of bars that – although hectic at weekends – has redefined the map of the city’s nightlife. Of those on offer, the Hoxton bar – think freshly hung art and industrial chic – and the creative cocktails on offer at Gazarte are standouts.

Hit the beach

Given Athens’ intensity and sprawl, an escape to the Athens Riviera is a perfect way to calm the senses and – thanks to an effective public transport network – easily accessible. And from archaeological ruins to respite after the night before, the city’s coastline has something for everyone. For a touch of glamour, head to the glitzy Astir Beach, with its members’ club vibe and white linen and mattresses lining the Aegean Sea, while the back-to-nature surrounds of the therapeutic lake at Vouliagmeni will make you feel like you’re miles from the metropolis.

Embrace anarchy

Recent events have not painted the suburb of Exarchia in a great light for the would-be visitor with its countercultural aesthetic under the spotlight during recent riots and political demonstrations. Yet with its colourful Saturday markets, explosion of street art and a wealth of cafes, restaurants and ad-hoc music performances make Exarchia an essential exploration of what it is to be young and Greek in 2014. The main square is where you’ll find a vibrant cross-section of Exarchia’s residents among the outdoor cafes while the fragrant, pine tree-clad walkways towards Mount Lycabettus host myriad options for dining. Live music options are strong throughout Exarchia, too, while Kallidromiou Steki (Kallidromiou 94) is at the centre of the city’s after-dark scene with an eclectic mix of underground DJs.

by Ben Olsen