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Athens is in the midst of a renaissance, with a slew of trendy restaurants and bars livening up the city center, giving the capital a much-needed Grecian gastronomic element despite the recession. Yet Greece’s capital — and largest city — is often seen as a stopover en route to the islands in the summertime with most tourists overlooking one of the world’s oldest cities and birthplace of democracy in favor of flashy beach clubs on the islands.

I was once among them. Greece has been on my list of must-visit places for years, but when I finally decided to head to the homeland of part of my family, I immediately thought not of the capital but of the thousands of islands to choose from. Santorini? Paros? Crete? That’s when a friend living in Athens stepped in and asked why the city wasn’t part of the plan — I went and ended up falling head over heels during the week I spent there. Here’s why you should go, too, and where to eat, drink and shop around Athens in between all that magnificent sightseeing.

1. The Long Hauls From North America Are Easy

Living in Nice, I had a tricky time making my way to Athens, connecting through Frankfurt (FRA) on Lufthansa, but there are plenty of nonstop flights into Athens International Airport (ATH) from the US and Canada. United flies nonstop from Newark (EWR) and Delta flies from New York (JFK), while American Airlines offers flights from Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). Things don’t really heat up (both tourist- and weather-wise) until July, so you’ll have less time to wait in lines at landmarks like the Acropolis then. And speaking of the Acropolis…

Fly nonstop to Athens from New York, Philadelphia, Toronto and Montreal. Image courtesy of <a href="http://Juan Salmoral" target="_blank">Juan Salmoral via Flickr</a>.
Image courtesy of Juan Salmoral via Flickr.

2. The Acropolis Rocks!

With news of Greece’s flailing economy continuously making headlines, it’s easy to forget what the country is actually known for, like the Parthenon. If you’re staying around Syntagma Square or Plaka, the historical neighborhood, you’re in prime walking distance of this historic site. The former temple dates back to 447 BC and offers sweeping views over all of Athens and the Aegean Sea from the top of the Acropolis. The area is also home to the Olympieion, the Temple of Olympian Zeus; the Arch of Hadrian, built to honor the arrival of Roman Emperor Hadrian in 131 BC; and the Panathenaic Stadium (also known as Kallimarmaro Stadium), where the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896. Even if you make a wrong turn in Athens, you’re guaranteed to stumble upon some sort of beautiful ruin sitting in the middle of a square or street.

Set off and explore Athens
Image courtesy of Washed Over via Flickr.

3. There’s Plenty to Eat and Drink, Organically Speaking

At the height of the recession in 2008, chefs Dimitris Christoforidis and Christos Athanasiadis opened the first of three outposts named Nice n Easy, after the Frank Sinatra song. At the time, the concept was a crazy one — not only were they starting a business, they were starting a trend, crafting a menu of organic dishes that paved the way for the organic wave in Athens. Their vegan-friendly and gluten-free dishes are chock-full of superfoods and named after stars like Audrey Hepburn and Bruce Lee. Some items add a modern spin to Greek favorites, using homemade halva as a dessert crumble over Greek yogurt ice cream and water buffalo yogurt and kefir dressing as a drizzle over salads — the water buffalo are an important part of the concept, grown on the restaurant’s farm on Lake Kerkini. The Marvin Gaye, made of water buffalo meatballs and white-beans, the special of the day when I visited the restaurant, is pictured below.

The Marvin Gaye (water buffalo meatballs) and white-bean special of the day at Nice n Easy. Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

Also in the neighborhood, celebrity chef Argiro Barbarigou at Papadakis is known for adding a modern touch to Greek cuisine, weaving in healthy elements like multigrain blends and quinoa over salad. Hailing from the island of Paros, Argiro likes to share traditional recipes from home that are simple but filled with flavor thanks to her hand-selected ingredients. Case in point: the cherry tomato salad topped with caper leaves and traditional Xynomyzithra, a sour Greek whey cheese that’s a favorite on the menu and just needs a drizzle of olive oil before it’s good to go.

You can go the organic route with Greek wine, but why not spice things up a bit with gin? One of the city’s top craft cocktail bars, the award-winning Gin Joint, is set in the center off Karitsi Square — pretty much any type of gin cocktail you can imagine is on the list or can easily be crafted on the spot, but the other libations are just as good. While my friend sampled a series of gin cocktails, I went for the tequila-fueled Buena Libra mixed with lime, rose-petal preserve, chili and cardamom for a cocktail with a kick that still looks quite pretty.

4. These Wondrous Rooms With Views Can Be Yours

If you’ve been waiting to cash in those Starpoints, now’s the time. Five-star Hotel Grande Bretagne, A Luxury Collection Hotel, sits right on Syntagma Square with views of Parliament, Olympic Stadium and the Acropolis both from the rooms and the Roof Garden restaurant. Rates at the SPG Category 6 property start at 230 euros (about $239) or 25,000 Starpoints per night.

A five-minute walk away in Plaka, the 79-room NEW Hotel is a member of Design Hotels, offering a Brazilian-influenced look by Brazilian designer brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana. Art lines the walls and sprouts from the floor, with columns mimicking trees in the dining room and chairs with backs that extend upward as ladders. Staying in one of the studios here, I found that the design was just one of the draws: I also loved waking up to a view of the Acropolis from my side balcony, as well as the Greek bath products by O.live, crafted with organic olive oil, lime, mandarin and basil. Rates at the SPG Category 5 hotel start at 131 euros (about $136) or 16,000 Starpoints per night.

New Hotel
Image courtesy of the author.

5. You Can Go Gaga Over Gucci and Greek Fashion

Not far from Syntagma Square, you’ll come across the neighborhood of Kolonaki, the swankier part of town where you’ll find all the major designer boutiques, from Giorgio Armani to Gucci. But don’t think the city’s only home to international designers. The Greek brand Zeus+Dione offers a collection of handwoven designs crafted in Crete and by craftswomen in the Cyclades islands, with items sold in many of the local shops, as well as in its Kolonaki showroom. Barneys New York was the first store to stock Greek designer Ileana Makri’s collection of evil eyes and Fatima hands back in 1999, but now boutiques and luxe department shops around the globe feature Makri’s pieces. I happened to run into the designer at her namesake concept store in Kolonaki, a bazaar of carefully curated designer jewelry and fashion, as well as a showroom for gorgeous, gem-encrusted pieces that sit beautifully in glass cases.

What are your favorite things to do in Athens? Let us know in the comments, below.

Featured image courtesy of Konstantinos Dafalias via Flickr.

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