ANCIENT WONDER: The Acropolis dominates the skyline of Athens
KICK-START THE DAY
The Greeks invented the frappé but these days they’re all about the freddo, espresso shaken with ice and served with or without foamed milk.
Start your day like an Athenian, with chilled caffeine at one of the many speciality coffee shops and micro-roasteries that continue to pop up here like mushrooms, despite the economic turbulence; aficionados love Mind The Cup (mindthecup.gr) and Tailor Made (Platia Agias Irinis 2) offering al fresco drinks under a wroughtiron canopy in a tiny square.
At Queen Bee (Patriarchou Ioakim 45) up on the bitter orange tree-lined hillside roads of glossy Kolonaki, the coffee is pricier but comes with a side order of pastries and croissants from renowned French baker Kamel Saci.
ANCIENT AND MODERN
Athens is a walkable city, although too hot – or “zesti” as the Athenians call it – in high season for long odysseys.
Build up a breeze instead on a three-and-a-half-hour vintage bike tour (vintagebiketours.gr) through the city centre with an English-speaking guide.
You’ll want to see the Acropolis while you’re here but that’s not hard as it rises up behind everything, everywhere you go.
The Acropolis rises up behind everything, everywhere you go
If you do head up to the site itself, via the sweeping cobbled Archaeological Promenade lined with market stalls, do it early; any later than 10am and the heat reflecting off the white marble makes the experience rather gruelling.
Then cool off in the superb Acropolis Museum (theacropolismuseum.gr) on your way back down.
While you’ll trip over classical bookmarks all across Athens – an unexpected arch here, a crumbling Doric column there – the Temple of Hephaestus in the ancient Agora assembly area deserves a special visit as one of the most perfectly preserved ancient buildings in Greece.
At the other end of the centuries, the 2018 Riba award-winning Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (snfcc.org) has become the new favourite spot for Athenians to meet, relax and people-watch.
The Acropolis Museum is home to nearly 4,000 artefacts
Catch the free shuttle bus from Syntagma Square to wander under the olive trees in this 17-hectare park, go sailing or kayaking in the canal or you could even catch a performance by the Greek National Opera which has its headquarters there.
The cobblestone shopping streets in central Athens are pedestrianised and an easy stroll, offering up the usual high street and designer suspects, as well as local international success stories such as skincare brand Korres which began here at the Korres Pharmacy (Eratosthenous 8, at Ivikou).
You will find surprisingly good – if generic – leather bags and olive wood backgammon boards in the Monastiraki Flea Market.
Monastiraki Flea Market
For more unique gifts, seek out home-grown artisans; Stavros Melissinos, Athens’ “poet sandal maker”, created renowned literary work and sandals for Jackie O and The Beatles.
His son Pantelis follows in his footsteps at his workshop off Monastiraki Square (melissinossandals-poet.com).
And don’t miss the giant Sunday junk market, where every inch of pavement between Monastiraki and Thiseio metro stations is covered with candelabra, boxes of old watches, Second World War newspapers and vinyl until 2pm.
Come with plenty of change and a will to rummage for treasure.
Head to the beach on a weekday for relatively uncrowded sands and bathtub Med waters – the Athenian Riviera, roughly running from the suburb of Glyfada to Cape Sounio, is a 25-minute tram ride from Syntagma Square.
All along this 35-mile stretch you’ll find beach culture, although you’ll need to pay to use the prime sandy spots. Purists head for undisturbed coves with few amenities between Vouliagmeni and Agia Marina.
Those looking for watersports and beach beds with billowing white muslin hit Astir in Vouliagmeni for beach bar fun.
Or hop on an hour-long ferry ride from Lavrio, one of Athens’ three ports, to the nearest Cycladic island of Kea, a favourite Athenian getaway.
Stylish Kea Village (dialling from the UK: 0030 697 224 3330, keavillage.gr. Doubles from £84), high in the mountains has spectacular views of labyrinthine mountainside capital Loulida, the grinning 600BC hillside Lion of Kea sculpture and extensive hiking trail network through the terraced landscape.
Athen’s adventurous contemporary restaurant scene is adding fresh energy to the city
A TASTE OF THE CITY
Don’t be hypnotised by the bouzouki sounds and tavernas in the heaving tourist streets of Monastiraki – this is not the place to find the best souvlaki in town (although the square itself is great for picking up grilled corn on the cob and fresh figs on the go).
For that, you have to go where the Athenians eat. No-frills Kostas (5 Pentelis St, Syntagma) has been serving up fresh, simple souvlaki for lunch for over 65 years – get there early to pick up a pitta filled with succulent pork and salad before he runs out (as he always does).
Athens dining is not just about the tried and tested though and its adventurous contemporary restaurant scene is adding fresh energy to the city.
Start your journey at Cookoovaya (cookoovaya.gr), where five top Greek chefs have put a modern spin on national classics and end up at Nolan (nolanrestaurant.gr), run by MasterChef Greece judge Sotiris Kontizas, whose Greek-Asian fusion menu will leave your taste buds faintly bewildered but happy.
CULTURAL HUB: Athenians love to gather at the award-winning Stavros Niarchos centre
Athens was made for balmy evenings and rooftop bars like locals’ favourite Couleur Locale (couleurlocale athens.com), with its widescreen Acropolis view.
But you get an equally engaging snapshot of the city at ground level in the side streets of Koukaki, Monastiraki and Thiseio.
Get into the spirit at the Four Twenty bar (Lepeniotou 19) with G&Ts under twinkling lights strung across a ruined building.
Craft beer fans should head for Brew Str (50 A Nikis), offering pointers to this growing Greek scene; blow the froth off a Flaros IPA from Sifnos or a Red Donkey from Santorini.
Outdoor cinemas are as much a part of Athenian summer nightlife as a cool drink, with some 90 pop-up and permanent venues across the city.
Island of Kea
Cine Aegli (aeglizappiou.gr) in the Zappeion Garden, shows popular releases accompanied by the scent of jasmine and sound of crickets.
Enjoy live performances at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a 161AD theatre on the Acropolis’ south-west slope which has hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra to national treasure Nana Mouskouri.
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Athens in February starting at £60 return (ba.com).
Thission Luxury Homes offers seven self-catered apartments in a listed 1930s corner building in Thiseio, north-west of the Acropolis, from £148 a night (uniqueholidayhomes.gr).
Tourist info: visitgreece.gr