Why You Need to Visit Athens Off-Season or On
There’s a lot to be said for traveling to Athens, Greece in the off-season. Fewer tourists, more personal attention, and mild weather are a few of the reasons an early March trip to this tourist-mecca turned out to be a winner for my family of three, including my husband and 16-year-old son, who were visiting the country for the first time.
The justifiably famous Parthenon at the Acropolis.
I hadn’t traveled to Greece since living in the country as a teenager, and my reunion with this incredible country was everything I’d hoped for and more. Even better, my son loved it, especially the unique blend of a European and Middle Eastern sensibility that felt totally different to him from our travels to Western Europe.
This trip was a bit of a sentimental homecoming for me. The warm, affectionate people, amazing food and beautiful collision of the ancient and modern I remembered were all still there. But those assets were amplified and enlarged with an incredible foodie scene, bargain exchange rates thanks to a strong dollar and the perspective of adulthood adding to my experience. It pains me that so many view Athens as a mere stopover and jumping off point to the Greek islands, when this vibrant, sublime city has so many treasures that make it a worthwhile destination in itself, an equal to New York or Paris. Athens at the moment is also a bargain in terms of food, shopping and museum entry than what people see in Western Europe. Though Greece's imperiled economy has wreaked havoc, hardship has not affected Greeks' hospitality or their joie de vivre. I was happy to see that going out for a meal, or just a drink, seeing friends and living life remain obvious priorities despite legitimate deprivations.
Greece is also a country that depends on tourism for its livelihood and the months of July and August are when that industry explodes. Though the real tourism rush doesn’t ramp up until May, our early March trip convinced me of the value of traveling off-season beyond just cheaper air fares and hotel rooms.
One of the biggest pluses on our trip was the good fortune of sunny, blue-sky days and mild temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s. A light jacket and scarf were all that were needed during the day with the addition of a sweater at night and hiking the steep hill to the Acropolis or wandering the winding streets of the Plaka were far easier without intense heat. Fewer tourists also meant the ever-hospitable locals had time to make connections, chat and ask about our trip and nationality. I had conversations with taxi drivers, waiters, shop keepers, all of whom displayed the warmth and generosity of spirit that makes visiting the country such a life-affirming pleasure. “We love Americans!” our taxi driver George told us on a day trip to the Temple of Poseidon at the tip of Greece, launching into a history of the camaraderie between the Greek and American military during World War II.
The famously handsome evzone guards whose weekly changing-of-the-guard each Sunday at 11 a.m. is a celebration of national pride, masculinity and pageantry.
Our launching pad for the trip was the understatedly plush Electra Palace Hotel which boasts a rooftop view of the Acropolis; a gorgeous vision all lit up at night. The rooftop also features a restaurant and a stunning outdoor pool. The pool doesn’t open until April but there is always a price to pay…The incredible cultural mash-up breakfast buffet alone was worth the price of a night’s stay at the Electra Palace: American staples like eggs and bacon and DIY waffles, but also Greek yogurt with fruit, rice pudding (for breakfast?!), marmalades, spanakopita, stewed tomatoes, Greek cheese and cold cuts. I’m not normally a breakfast person, but who could resist that international bounty? And we needed the daily fuel for long walks around the city. Beyond that taxi ride to the Temple of Poseidon and a much-needed ride from Monasteraki to the highest point in Athens, Lycabettus Hill after a long day of hiking, we walked everywhere thanks to the city’s very accessible, dense layout.
A Metaxa mint julep made with mint from the Electra Palace's garden.
The Electra Palace occupies the Plaka neighborhood, the charming, vibrant historical zone on the northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis. The area has a bohemian, hip spirit that reminded me of Paris’s Saint Germain neighborhood, dense with young people and iconoclastic foodie establishments, from speakeasies and cute shops to Tiki bars (Blue Bird was recommended by one of the cool Athenians we met, though we'll have to check it out next time).
The area is walking distance to Athens’ iconic attractions included the Agora, the Acropolis, the Benaki Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art, Parliament and also the main shopping thoroughfare Ermou Street, home to Zara, H&M, the wonderful Greek skincare and beauty shop Korres.
Prices at Korres in Athens are substantially lower in Athens than on their American site and some products aren’t available at all in the States, something I learned the hard way after discovering the perfect yogurt SPF 50 sunscreen) and the additional surprise of a shop with a wide selection of English-language books, Public, featuring many titles not available in the States, a special treat for my bibliophile son.
A discovery on this trip lost on my cocktail-illiterate teenage self were the many local wines and spirits unique to Greece, far more diverse than the often hyped regional spirits ouzo (not a fan) and Metaxa, which it turns out is great in a mint julep with fresh mint plucked from the courtyard garden of the Electra Palace. I highly recommend you sample raki, if you can find it, a kind of Greek moonshine often served in shot glasses at local restaurants. More of a wallop, but also sipped neat, tsipouro is a Greek version of grappa often served with a small bucket of ice to cut the liquor. A special favorite was the sweet after-dinner sip, the liqueur mastika, made from mastiha. A Protected Designation of Origin Product, mastiha is a tree resin from the Greek island of Chios said to have amazing health benefits and incorporated into everything from chewing gum, to beauty products to toothpaste.
Some of our best meals were recommended by a longtime friend Anastasia from my high school days attending the American Community Schools of Athens. On our first day in the city we had an incredible meal of small plates at the cozy delicatessen-restaurant Kapamanlidika-Ta where a delicious ragout of aubergines and zucchini, fried cheese and a heaping sampler platter of the restaurant’s sausages made a triumphant first meal in-country. We finished off Day 1 with a night cap at the inventive speakeasy The Clumsies, an unmarked space that you will know by the neon pink glow emanating from the interior.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens.
You can make a reservation at The Clumsies, and ours nabbed us a table on a balcony overlooking all of the action: a mix of cool young Athenians enjoying the conceptual cocktail menu with drinks like the Metamorphosis, Hypnotic, Chaos and Euphoria and my delicious deconstructed spin on the Old-Fashioned.
One of our most memorable meals was our last night in town in preparation for a 6 a.m. flight the next morning. My family has a unique idiosyncrasy of wanting sushi no matter where we travel, like a memorable Thanksgiving Day sushi dinner in London in 2014. I had wandered by a minimalist, very cool looking spot, tiny but well-appointed in our many strolls around the Plaka neighborhood.
We stood outside Sushimou debating going in when a well-dressed man on the street smoking a cigarette told us it was the “best sushi in Athens,” and impossible to get in without a reservation made months in advance. But the man was friends with the chef/owner and offered to put in a word for us. After some negotiating, he and his friend moved down a seat to make room for the three of us and we were in. Chef Antonis Drakoularakos trained in Japan and makes sushi with some remarkable Greek flourishes like a brush of olive oil, a sprinkle of spring onions or a hint of lemon. Our mystery host recommended we skip the menu and let Drakoularakos prepare a selection of dishes for us, which felt like a scene from the wonderful sushi documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
In addition to incredible sushi, Sushimou has a wonderfully curated music play list and its customers ranged from hip, well-off Greeks to a succession of Japanese students and businessmen. Our mystery man blew us a kiss and we thanked him—and the owner—for squeezing us in.
It was the perfect cap to our trip and an exercise in the kind of selfless, remarkable kindness and hospitality that defined our trip. Can a trip restore your faith in humanity? Make you believe that there is such a thing as a universal good will despite all the talk of the many divides between people? By the end of our journey I felt more like a resident of some borderless land occupied by people who care more for conversation, for experiences and sharing what makes their country special than simply a tourist window-gazing into another culture.
The highest point in Athens, with a gorgeous view of the Acropolis and the city’s rooftop collection of pools, gardens, dog runs and even a trampoline, Lycabettus is your recommended venue for watching the sun set. There are several restaurants if you need a coffee, cocktail or meal after the long hike up the mountain. Or take it easy and find a taxi driver, or ride the funicular to the peak (though if there are enough of you, a taxi might be the better, cheaper option).
Chef/owner Antonis Drakoularakos trained in Japan and brings an incredible mix of classic technique and Greek ingredients to his exceptional, novel take on sushi. Just ask and Drakoularakos will curate a selection of sushi, sashimi and nigiri for you highlighting the incredible seafood that defines the country. The only seating is at the restaurant’s high sushi bar so Drakoularakos is right there, chatting as he prepares each customer’s sushi, making for a uniquely intimate, enlightening experience. Reservations are hard to come by, so your second move—right after you book your flight to Athens—should be to make a reservation at Sushimou for what could be the best sushi in Greece.
For a hip, locally made T-shirt, print or indie craft, check out this postage stamp-sized Plaka boutique for an artful souvenir.
Located near bustling Ermou Street and Syntagma Square at Karagiorgi Servias 1, this multi-level shop features a fair number of English-language book titles not available in the United States as well as electronics, gifts and more.
Inventive foodie takes on Greek classics include a reconceptualized gyro with its meat filling and French fries packed into pita rolled like an overstuffed burrito. The meal ends with a traditional Greek dessert, a wooden stick with the sweet, nut-flavored local delicacy mastiha served in a shot glass. You eat the gooey mastiha paste from the stick and then drink the sweetened water. Ergon is also the ideal place to pick up a foodie souvenir for yourself or a friend. The onsite shop features a variety of Greek artisanal goods from paprika salt to halvah, pastas, vinegars, condiments and spreads and bottles of mastika, the potent, sweet liqueur made from mastiha.
31-33 Arrianou, Pagkrati, Athens
A cool, bright, intimate foodie spot with plenty of outdoor tables, Black Sheep rivals any gastronomy-driven hipster boite you’d find in a major international city. Food is reasonably priced and every dish we sampled at Black Sheep, from spins on Greek classics to more adventurous fare, was a winner, including the great house wine. The meal starts with a complimentary shot of the Greek version of moonshine, raki, distilled from grapes. This place is popular, so reservations are highly recommended.
Temple of Poseidon
The stunning view of the Aegean from the Temple of Poseidon.
Only an hour and 15 minutes outside of Athens if you travel the coast—a lovely seaside drive from the city center, you’ll find British Romantic poet Lord Byron’s name carved into the pillars of this Sounion marvel bordered on three sides by the sea, making for a striking, gorgeous sunset and photo op at the Southern-most tip of Greece.
A hip Athens speakeasy filled with a vibrant, cool but not too-cool crowd, this atmospheric watering hole features exceptionally creative cocktails (my deconstructed Old-Fashioned was a winner) and small bites.
This tucked-away, buzzing combination gourmet cheese and charcuterie shop-and-restaurant features an incredible array of cheeses, meats and packaged goods. You can eat surrounded by all of that goodness, in the cozy, busy main dining area with all of the wares on full view. But my money is on the long, narrow outdoor space where a variety of deli-to-table delicacies can be enjoyed in the open air.
A fascinating break from the classical era of Greek culture and design, this museum focuses on the ancient cultural artifacts from the group of Aegean islands known as the Cyclades. A fascinating insight into this prehistoric culture, the four floors contain over 3,000 objects of ancient Greek, Cypriot and Cycladic origin in darkened spaces that can make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, to embrace the ancient.
A beautiful neoclassical museum close to Syntagma Square, the Benaki is dedicated to the history of Greece in objects, from Neolithic antiquities to traditional Greek costumes. An incredible selection of icons will delight lovers of this art form, including some whose phantasmagoric visual style gives Hieronymus Bosch a run for his money. A lovely café at the top level is a nice place to finish after climbing the five levels. Founded in his family’s mansion by Antonis Benaki, this survey of Greek works from prehistoric to contemporary times also featuring traveling exhibitions is an endless treasure trove.
A great selection of both Greek and international beers, spirits, craft cocktails and local favorites like tsipouro and raki are highlights of this friendly spot deep in the Plaka district with an amiable, fun staff who can expertly match your preferences to one of their beer offerings.
Some topical Greek graffiti in the Plaka.