Athens – A Reinvented, Trendy City Beyond Its Ancient and Troubled Past

You may, like many, make the mistake of thinking the city of Athens will be entirely coated in the golden hues of classic Greek column, statue and temple architecture. The vast layer of modern day grittiness and edgy local life is not necessary what people expect, but it’s what makes Athens a thriving and emerging European city.

Athens street

Athens is one of the world’s oldest cities, steeped in over 3,400 years of history. In short, it’s where modern day life as we know it essentially started – seen as the cradle of civilization, the birthplace of philosophy and where democracy was ignited.

It’s a city that has been continuously occupied, destroyed, rebuilt and reinvented. The city today is no exception to this rule.

More recently, economic turmoil is what has blighted Greece and its capital. We all heard about it and watched it happen; we wondered if it was ok to visit and if our holiday investment was worth it. In reality, people never gave up on visiting, contrary to what we heard or were advised. In 2013, as the ‘crisis’ was still in flow, nearly 18 million people visited the country and 2.6 million travellers visited the city of Athens. With a total country population of around 10 million people, that’s a lot of visitors to a tiny nation who needed the support.

Athens viewpoint

Just as it has happened many times before, what’s happening here now is a revival. Greece is a fighter, and Athens is at the helm.

It’s not often that I get to be involved with a marketing team’s PR strategy when attending a press trip (I do that kind of work separately). I was invited to Athens by Marketing Greece to learn more about their new tourism hub, Discover Greece, and how a team of us online influencers affectionately known as the BlogTrotters can inspire travellers to explore Greece differently and with alternative insight. My first solo holidays were to Greece (albeit the standard package holidays this region is all too well known for), so it’s a place close to my heart. Now that I too travel differently, I’m so happy to be a part of a project helping to ignite a new tourism drive to a country that has recently been very misunderstood.

blog trotters 2014 from WEDDREAM on Vimeo.

So while exploring ancient Greece HAS to be on the agenda when in Athens (missing the Acropolis is, of course, a cultural blasphemy) there’s more to this bourgeoning city than the past.

The ancient structure of the Parthenon may gloriously sit atop of the hill overlooking the city as a reminder of it, but below the layers of myth and legend, history and culture, antiquity and knowledge are intertwined with today’s entrepreneurial, cultural and artistic renaissance, which is transforming Athens… and the rest of the country.

Athens modern city

Beyond the Ancient Ruins – Trendy neighbourhoods, art, food, drink and coastal time

Funky neighbourhoods – merging historic districts and ancient ruins with modern enterprise – are waiting to be explored. Being a history geek here is all too easy, with the citadel of the Acropolis, ruins of ancient Agora, the theatre of Dionyssos and the Temple of Olympian Zeus surrounding and being scattered amongst the modern fun.

Ancient ruins of Athens

Acropolis, Athens

But surrounding them are the pedestrianised areas of Thissio, with its café culture, Monastiraki, known for its flea market and other shopping outlets, and the upmarket and trendy hangouts of Kolonaki and Psiri.

Athens

Neighbourhoods of Athens

Athens neighbourhood

Athens

Artistic transformations are happening all over the city, including the emergence of even more incredible street art (Athens is said to have more street art than any other European city) and the contemporary art museum getting a huge facelift.

Street Art Athens

Athens Street art

The ‘Re-think’ Athens project is transforming the city center with proposed green spaces, boulevards and urban squares, and hotels are being revamped with a stamp of ultra-funky design, like the super arty Grecotel Athena Pallas where I stayed.

Greek cuisine is being reinvented and outside cuisines are being brought in to cater for modern tastes. And when the sun goes down, Athens continues it’s cool vibe with a bustling nightlife I never expected. Be sure to check out the funky Drunk Sinatra and Six Dogs in the Psiri area to start.

Food in Athens, local cuisine

Coffee and ice cream in Athens

Athens isn’t just about being locked into a busy metropolis either. You also have the opportunity to hit the beach and enjoy some coastal time; Attica, the larger region surrounding Athens, is surrounded by sea. So if you don’t have time to day cruise to the islands of Poros. Hydra and Aegina, there’s a beach within short distance of the city centre – only 30 minutes away by car, public bus, tram or bike.

Beach in Athens

Seeing Athens From a New Perspective

The charm of this iconic city doesn’t only rest in its ancient history, but the optimism and passion of the local people to drive it forward as a must-visit European destination.This new generation is helping to rebuild the country, reinvesting their talents in their home country. Through these people you can explore Athens on a deeper level and I really enjoyed trying out the following walks and experience to uncover more of the local life and perspective here.

Athens Insiders

Set up by a small group of local travellers who wanted to “see Athens as a tourist”, Athens Insiders offers unique and tailor made experiences based on your interests, such as food, history, photography or even something specific like yoga.

This is also great for a general orientation tour of the city to get you started, which is what I did, learning about a brief history of specific areas and open squares as well as walking the length of Athen’s oldest street.

Local life in Athens

Athens city centre

Dopios

Dopios (which means ‘local’ in Greek) connects travellers with locals, so you have a truly personalised one-on-one travel experience. What I like most is that locals get to make an extra income while showing off their city. Although Dopios is worldwide, it is a Greek enterprise and obviously has great standing here.

Athens Street Art tour, Dopios

I took a half-day street art tour with a local artist. While it’s easy to meander the endless number of artistic displays that fill nearly every empty space, wall and shop front in the city, having an expert on board to tell you the history and meaning and scope out the hidden gems was a true insight into what this gritty layer of Athens (that puts many off) really means.

Museum of Greek Gastronomy

Rather than just set up a museum detailing the history of Greek food and cultivation, these guys at the Museum of Greek Gastronomy merge knowledge with entertainment. With means you can browse the exhibition space before taking some cooking classes or enjoying a feast at the restaurant. They call it social gastronomy, and it’s fascinating while being delicious.

Museum of Greek Gastronomy

Athens is an ancient modern metropolis and while the sprawling city will always reflect and celebrate its classic past, it is quickly moving towards becoming one of the Europe’s most exciting and lively contemporary cities.

Not everything is as black and white as we think when we hear something negative about a destination – digging a little deeper uncovers a whole new side to it. With the aid of the distinct hospitality that Greek people are both known for (and are very proud of), Athens, and Greece as a whole, are more open for your visit than ever before.

Greek people, local Athens

I know my preconceptions of this city were rapidly shattered… will yours be?

Things To Note:

  • You can reach the city of Athens from the airport via a 40 minute Metro (or a taxi if you want to splurge), where you will arrive at Constitution Square
  • New attractions coming to Athens soon include Aristotle’s Lyceum – a new archeological site to open after 15 years excavations – and a new cultural center set to open in 2015
  • Athens makes for a good starting point from which to launch your island hopping adventures. For those wanting to spend more time at sea, check out Incrediblue, another Greek startup which connects travellers with boat owners – a top location choice with so many coastal highlights to explore
  • For more information, hints, tips and travel insight on Athens and all of Greece visit the Discover Greece resource.

Comments

  1. julien says

    Looks interesting , judging by your photos it looks like a nice mix of not quite Europe and not quite the Middle East , all it’s buildings look like their falling in on each other , these type of cities are far more interesting to me than the manicured boulevard / with 6 story neo classical buildings you get, like Paris . I hope they get the economy in order , one wonders how things turned so bad so quickly ?

    • says

      I couldn’t agree more. Athens, quite simply, has character…and that gives it a unique edge over many cities. The economy is in order… I was informed that Greece has been on the mend fully for a few months now. Its spirit hasn’t died though… it’s just got stronger :)

  2. julien says

    Yes character that’s the word , when people tell me how “beautiful” my homeland Switzerland is well I think to myself if “perfection” is your thing well yes it is , where is the grit , the grime , even Jeramy Clarkson (Top Gear ) jokes about it eg a snow flake dropped on a Swiss Road , it got promptly arrested , or when he reviews a German car he will say it built like Zurich airport ,, give me character any day , funnily the very few cities in Switzerland that have it is poo pooed or not mentioned at all by the Lonely Planets of this world , different strokes for different folks .

  3. says

    Your insights are brilliant and love the post. Agree, it’s character and soul that feels right about Athens these days – Athens is an old soul I feel and you summed this all up beautifully L x

  4. says

    I’m an expat in Athens and I’m soo happy to see people who ‘get’ it. It’s an amazing place to live, and completely different to what I expected when I first arrived. Really enjoyed your post and the idea that people are seeing it in a different way!

  5. says

    I know you must have heard this a thousand times but that movie Mamma Mia made me want to visit Greece a thousand times more! :)

    Athens is a short flight from Dubai (well, shorter than when we go to our home in Japan) so it is in our travel bucket list!

    • says

      I’ve met too many travellers now who have chosen not to go at all based on the misunderstood perception of others that has come of a result of being shocked by the lack of ‘ancient’ landscape. I say go and make your own mind up over the contention.

  6. says

    Athens is certainly an interesting and diverse City. I don’t think that many people realise that there is actually a beach there, the only reason I went out there was to visit a cemetery overlooking the water where my Great Uncle is buried. It was primarily Greek families on the beach and it was an alternative Athens experience which I thoroughly enjoyed

  7. says

    I’m going to be in Athens for a couple afternoons before and after a trip to Santorini and now I’m kicking myself for not booking more time there! Hopefully I’ll be able to enjoy a few things you’ve mentioned and get a feel for the city even with a short amount of time. Edgy, urban, and sometimes even “dirty” cities are my favorite!

  8. Tina says

    Athens is such a beautiful city, Your picture tells it all. Definitely a must visit, when you find your feet in Greece.

  9. Laura says

    So glad I fell upon this article. Friends from the states kept warning me to get out of Athens as quickly as possible as it was a dirty city. I kept an open mind–I was excited to visit Athens. And sure enough, it blew me away when I traveled there this past July. The vibe of Athens was unlike any other city and definitely one of my favourites.

    • says

      I kept hearing the same thing. I think people expect too much and think it’s something it isn’t… and then find themselves disappointed. I have a few friends who want to return now to see it differently.

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