In Athens, History Shapes the Future

After hovering for a millennium at the crossroads of past and present and braving a series of recent crises, the ancient metropolis is ascendant once again.
In Athens History Shapes the Future
Yiorgos Kordakis

Everywhere I turn in Athens, my past rises up to meet me. That café was once a pastry shop where our babysitter would buy us treats when I lived here as a child—pain au chocolat for my brother, lemon-filled doughnut for me. We moved to the US when I was seven, but I've returned to Greece nearly every summer since I was 14. This square is where I scored scalped tickets to the 2004 Olympics. That church is where I lit candles every year on my annual trip, in hope or gratitude: Let me do well on that exam, find a job, get pregnant.

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Zappeion, the monumental exhibition space at the National Garden of Athens.

Yiorgos Kordakis

The hip vegetarian spot Joshua Tree Café.

Yiorgos Kordakis

When I was single, my trips always included a stop in Athens to see friends and museums and drink in open-air bars under the illuminated Acropolis. But then I had children, and the city, with its cobbled walkways and hectic streets, proved challenging to navigate with strollers in tow. On top of that, it was hit hard by the international financial crisis of 2008, followed by a decade of austerity; restaurants I'd been visiting for 20 years shuttered, friends moved abroad, storefronts stood empty. I couldn't justify dragging the kids away from our family's village in the mountains to stand on baking marble, waiting to see the Acropolis.

Then, slowly, things changed again. My children grew up and became obsessed with Greek mythology. (Thank you, Percy Jackson.) During the pandemic, several Greek American friends moved to Athens, where life could be lived outdoors and strict controls kept the virus in check. By the time the world reopened, even people I knew who weren't Greek were hitching their fortunes to the city. Foreign investment and tourists are pouring in—with 30 million visitors, 2022 almost reached 2019's record of 33 million—and, after decades of financial instability, both are welcome. The hope is that the newcomers lead to an evolution of the city, not an erasure of it. In the summer of 2022, before things changed too much, I decided it was time to show the kids where Mama spent her preschool years.

A painting at the Allouche Benias gallery by the Chilean artist Humberto Poblete- Bustamante hangs above a piece by the German sculptor Stefan Rinck.

Yiorgos Kordakis

Descending the marble stairs of the millennia-old Kallimarmaro, or Panathenaic Stadium.

Yiorgos Kordakis

This being Athens, it's not just my past that's everywhere, but also The Past. One evening, early on in our trip, I met a friend for a drink at the rooftop bar of a new hotel, the Foundry Urban Suites, and found the Parthenon staring down. I strolled from the Central Market, past coolers full of head-on fish, down Athinas Street, walking by the city's smallest convent, where one of the two resident nuns swept the courtyard with her cell phone tucked into her wimple, chatting away. I spent one parched afternoon showing the kids Kapnikarea, a church built in the 11th century, which now sits several feet below street level. When Athens burned during the 1821 revolution, the debris added an extra yard of ground above the church. Today people walk over it, hitting the sales in surrounding shops, descending a few steps if they feel moved to light a candle.

I had expected to encounter this meeting of past and present in Athens; what surprised me were the signs of the future. A 15-minute taxi ride from downtown, one of the world's largest urban regeneration projects is unfolding on the site of the old airport, which was phased out before the 2004 Olympics. A work in progress, the Ellinikon complex already touts a public park with a playground, a splash fountain, and a zip line. It's where my Athenian friends bring their kids to watch puppet shows in summer and see the holiday lights in winter. Over the next 20 years, it will expand to include a marina, a beach, 10,000 homes, and 650 acres of green space that will be the continent's largest coastal park. A few miles south, the One&Only Aesthesis, the second European outpost of the luxury spa resort, just opened in Glyfada, on the Athenian Riviera. That sparkling coast is now closer to the city's core, thanks to two new subway lines to the port of Piraeus.

At the restaurant Soil, an earthy dish
of shrimp, orange, pecans, and marigold.

Yiorgos Kordakis

A staffer outside Teras, a café, cocktail bar, and furniture showroom in Neos Kosmos.

Yiorgos Kordakis

In the center, “hotels are springing up like mushrooms,” one cabdriver told me. Even areas once considered so dodgy that my father wouldn't let me bring my kids there, such as Omonia Square, are grounds for investment. The Israel-based Brown Hotels opened six properties on Omonia, and there's a new Moxy Athens City by Marriott too.

In central Athens, Pangrati, a large, oddly laid-out neighborhood, has gone from being a working-class residential area to a hip hub of cafés, bars, bookstores, and innovative restaurants. One perfect Athenian night, my husband and I set out just before sunset, walking behind the Hellenic Parliament past the high-stepping evzones, the building's ceremonial guards, changing shifts in a flurry of pom-poms and pleats, then past the Kallimarmaro stadium, whose marble benches glowed in the pink light, and up some steps to eat at Soil, which opened in December 2021 and received a Michelin star one year later. Dinner, a 14-course tasting of what chef Tasos Mantis calls “earthy gastronomy,” was as delicious as it was beautiful, from the bouquet of white asparagus and eel sliders all the way down to the poker-chip-size pine tart. Although the menu would have fit in at any modernist restaurant, the meal maintained a singular sense of place. We sat in the courtyard of someone's home, watching kittens jump between rooftops as we ate and eavesdropping on a family celebrating their patriarch's 69th birthday.

On the steps of the National Bank of Greece

Yiorgos Kordakis

A guest room at the hotel Xenodocheio Milos

Yiorgos Kordakis

The next day I returned to Pangrati to visit the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation, which opened in October 2019 only to be quickly shuttered by the pandemic. Though it reopened in late 2020, it still felt new to the city, and definitely to me. A cleverly expanded neoclassical mansion, it houses the personal collection of the ship-owning couple, who seemed to know or collect every major name of the late 19th and early 20th century—Picasso! Gauguin! Botero! All are displayed alongside Greek artists who aren't as widely known—yet—on the international stage. In the intimate setting, what could have felt like a sprint through an art history textbook was more like a visit to the home of a well-connected friend.

Kosta, a new acquaintance, met me in the rehabilitated pocket park in front of the museum. We paused at its newfangled water fountain, testing the different levels—one for adults, one for kids, and one, activated with a foot pedal, for dogs. As Kosta kicked it unsuccessfully, an old man on a nearby park bench yelled, “There's water, press harder!” Nodding at the old man, Kosta, who is half French and was raised in France, said, “That's why I moved here. That would never happen in Paris. It's the spirit of the place.”

The bright façade of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST).

Yiorgos Kordakis

Visitors stroll the lush grounds of the National Gardens of Athens.

Yiorgos Kordakis

By which he meant not that the soul of Athens is an old man yelling from a park bench, but that it's a collective of people trying to help each other get the sustenance they need. Eager to learn more about the new Athens, I arranged to meet with the mayor, Kostas Bakoyannis. He shared Kosta's sentiment. “People see Athens from 15,000 feet, and they think that it's a huge, endless city, where everyone is lost and no one is found,” he said. “In reality, Athens is 129 neighborhoods, compact and dense. If you work here, it has to be bottom-up, on a community level.”

The trick is to preserve that community—to sustain a balance between the boutique museum with its doggy water fountain and the old guys on their park benches. Roaming Athens's center, I found buzzy new spots that seem to meet that challenge: hotels and restaurants that would fit in all over the world but stand out because they embrace the qualities that make them quintessentially Greek. It's a marked shift in a city where, for decades, most of the fine-dining restaurants were French or Japanese.

We stayed at Xenodocheio Milos, an elegant boutique hotel opposite the Academy of Athens, a block from Syntagma Square. The central location was perfection—every morning before the kids woke, my husband would walk and return with updates: “I found a rock where Socrates taught and Saint Paul preached. Are you ready for breakfast?” But what struck me most were the touches that made us feel like we were staying with family or friends. A pitcher of iced herbal tea awaited us at the front desk for cooling off after coming in from the dusty street. Afternoon treats were left in each room daily: spoon sweets, nut cookies, loukoumi, poached pears.

inside the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation.

Yiorgos Kordakis

Fresh bread at the restaurant Linou Soumpasis.

Yiorgos Kordakis

One night we strolled to LS and Sia, which bills itself as a “simple restaurant and candle factory” at the back of St. Demetrios church in Psyrri, a neighborhood not far from the Acropolis that seems to be perpetually both down at the heels and full of gentrifying hipsters. The restaurant is simple, as in reliant on tried-and-true Greek moves—tables on the pavement, classic dishes, a treat brought out at the end. But there was so much attention paid to every detail. The chairs' back legs had been shortened to rest comfortably on the sidewalk surrounding the church. The butter arrived in a column with a wick that was lit to melt it. Instead of a traditional fruit or digestif to cap the meal, the thanks-for-coming gift was a package of candles made on-site, with a note describing them as an offering and a dedication, a godparent's gift, “the answer to a power cut…the bright light of life.” We took ours and strolled over to Monastiraki, passing the church of St. Demetrios, then walked under the Acropolis, all manner of temples gleaming in the moonlight.

“The Acropolis is the epicenter of the city. It's the heartbeat,” Andria Mitsakos told me at her apartment the next day, the Parthenon visible from her dining room. “That's why I live here. It's a concentration of beauty and serenity that you don't often get in a city center, but it's also residential, artistic, chaotic.”

Outside Aster, a Cretan restaurant in Petralona.

Yiorgos Kordakis

The spare Melas Martinos gallery.

Yiorgos Kordakis

A Greek American who had visited once or twice as a child, Mitsakos came to Athens in 2013 to find manufacturers for the handbag line she was designing. She fell in love with the city and never left, becoming a Greek citizen and launching Anthologist, a brand selling locally produced ceramics, jewelry, furniture, and home accessories. There was a time when it would have been difficult for someone who didn't speak the language to start a life in Athens, but, Mitsakos says, the country is making it easier for entrepreneurs to do just that.

In part, that's through legal channels: digital nomad visas for foreigners who want to spend a year in Greece, investment visas for outsiders looking to open a business. But the shift is also a carryover from the way the country managed the COVID-19 lockdown, with an efficiency and professionalism that was almost shocking in a place where one used to have to go to the post office and wait in three different lines to pay a utility bill. There are also foreign investors drawn by prices that plummeted during the economic crisis and a growing community of artists who appreciate the lower rent, but also, perhaps, the fact that inspiration is everywhere; one only has to look up to see the street art, funded by private foundations and the city's Public Murals Program. A giant tree built by the artist Stephan Goldrajch dominates the ground floor of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, or EMST. Inspired by the Arbre à Palabres, a meeting place where stories are shared in African villages, it is wrapped in crochet pieces and evil eye talismans knit primarily by people in surrounding neighborhoods.

A mural adorns the Foundry Suites hotel.

Yiorgos Kordakis

The most profound innovation by the museum's new director, Katerina Gregos, may be her insistence on paying artists. When she arrived, she says, three quarters of the museum's collection, 96 percent of which is work by Greek artists, were donations. It's a move that signals a shift in attitudes towards homegrown talent, as are the residencies being offered by public and private institutions—the Onassis Stegi, the Neon Foundation, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Georgia Liapi, a curator at the Zoumboulakis Galleries and other artist-run spaces, traces the movement back to 2017, when Documenta, the German modern art festival held every five years, took place in Athens. “So many artists came then and stayed,” she says. They were drawn by a lifestyle that was more affordable than what they might find in other European capitals, and also, she suspects, by “having access to all this light.”

Liapi herself worked in Canada and secured her residency there before returning to Athens. “In order to maintain my permanent resident card, I'll have to go back soon,” she said as we sat in the café in the garden of the Numismatic Museum of Athens, a buttercup-yellow mansion that was once home to the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who excavated Troy. “But it's this moment, now, that I'm actually believing that things are happening in Athens.”

This article appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.