A couple of days before Greece’s August 15 Assumption of Mary religious holiday, Athens suddenly emptied, turning the capital into a near ghost town.
As tradition dictates, city dwellers decamped to their home towns and villages for a brief respite from the relentless summer heat and mental stress of the pandemic, leaving Athens quieter than it has been in years.
By early September, the vast majority will have returned, reinvigorating the city with the intoxicating buzz that has transformed it into one of Europe’s most visitor-friendly destinations, where ancient monuments comfortably co-exist with a youthful, live-in-the-now attitude.
What makes Athens particularly attractive in the coronavirus era is that life is lived outdoors pretty much year-round – from its historical sites and squares to its open-air restaurants and cafés. Add to that the fact that the pocket-sized city centre is easily walkable, so public transport can mostly be avoided.
As Athenians go back to work, British travellers can explore at their leisure, though they should be aware of measures recently implemented in light of a rise in Covid-19 cases in and around the city since August 1, linked mostly to holidaymakers returning from Greece’s islands.
Municipal authorities have stepped up sanitation efforts, disinfecting streets and squares, as well as around high-risk areas such as hospitals and supermarkets.
Wake up the ancients
When the Acropolis reopened in mid-May, along with the city’s other archaeological sites, the smart Athenians who took the opportunity to scramble up the marble steps to the Parthenon had the fifth-century BC monument almost completely to themselves.
In the absence of cruise passengers, visitor numbers to the sacred rock dedicated to goddess Athena remain low – well below the 2,200-person limit imposed as part of Covid-19 precautions, particularly in the early morning. Grab a sesame-flecked, bagel-like koulouri for breakfast from a street vendor and arrive at 8am for the site’s opening, while it’s still comfortably cool.
Book tickets for the Acropolis (odysseus.culture.gr; open daily 8am-8pm April to October, €20/£18, €10/£9 for those aged six to 25; November to March, €10/£9) and six other ancient sites located within the city’s historic centre online (etickets.tap.gr). A combined five-day ticket (€30/£27) affords admission to all seven. Disinfection procedures are regularly carried out at all archaeological sites, however wearing a mask and carrying hand sanitiser is highly recommended.
See how modern-day Greek and global artists are redefining their reality with a visit to the recently opened National Museum of Contemporary Art (emst.gr, open Tue, Wed, Fri-Sun, 11am-7pm and Thursday, 11am-10pm; €10/£9, €5/£4.50 for children and students). Its permanent collection features 172 artworks by 78 artists. Masks are mandatory for visitors, whose numbers cannot exceed 250.
• The best things to do in Athens
Walk this way
Rebecca Skevaki, the Greek-Australian owner-operator of Athens Urban Adventures (athensurbanadventures.com), says the company, normally fully booked with group and private walking tours at this time of year, runs just a few each week at the moment in response to low demand.
Their Bohemian Tales of the City, Twilight Athens and Hipsters’ Walk options, geared mostly toward clientele aged 25 to 45, are proving the most popular for now, with prices starting from €71 (£64) per person. Book the latter and support young artists, including the jeweller crafting one-of-a-kind pieces at her workshop in a repurposed building.
Each tour comprises multiple outdoor stops, for instance, to taste Greek delicacies at retro meze joints and decipher street art commentary on a GDP-sapping, decade-long economic crisis, from which the country was just starting to recover.
“During the tours our guides wear masks and we provide masks and hand sanitiser for all of our guests. Everyone wears masks indoors and we are very strict when it comes to social distancing measures,” Skevaki notes.
• The best restaurants in Athens
Hotels as spotless as home
Following the delayed launch of the tourism season on June 1, hotels gingerly reopened, however some have opted to stay closed this year, concerned about low occupancy rates and high running costs.
In the first half of 2020, hotels in greater Athens lost €300million (£272million) in revenue, compared to the same period last year, according to one study.
Those that are open have implemented strict health and tourism ministry-certified measures, including deep cleaning and disinfection of rooms between stays, to ensure guests feel at ease.
Against all odds, new hotels are still popping up around town. The hip Thissio neighbourhood, a short walk away from haggler heaven Monastiraki’s endless shops, is home to Asomaton (asomaton.com, doubles from €150/£135), the city’s intriguing newest opening.
The hotel is housed in a late 19th-century listed building, whose ground floor initially served as a carriage wheel repair shop, and features Acropolis views. New York City-based Greek-American artist Philip Tsiaras created pop art portraits of celebrities, like opera diva Maria Callas, for the property’s 19 rooms. Exposed original stone has been carefully restored and there’s also an ethereal indoor pool.
• The best hotels in Athens
Cafés and bars go low-key
At Yiasemi (yiasemi.gr), a light-filled, laidback café-bistro on old town Plaka’s jasmine-laced Mnisikleous Street, ebullient pianist Vaya Nassi performs classic and contemporary works between 9am and 11am. Before you start the pavement-pounding, fuel up on a €10 (£9) brunch of homemade-style pies, quiche and cakes. It’s usually impossible to find a spare cushion on the whitewashed steps outside, with fewer tables now in order to meet Covid-19 rules, so bookings are essential.
Night owls should know that bars, restaurants and clubs in the European city which never sleeps must abide by a government-mandated midnight curfew through to August 31, and possibly longer. Many have hidden courtyards and rooftop terraces, which provide relief from the heat and a heightened sense of safety.
Slick all-day brunch and cocktail bar Ciel (cielathensliving.com), which sits atop a clutch of rooms on central Mitropoleos Street, has 360-degree city views that take in the Parthenon and Mount Lycabettus.
Meanwhile, Noah (facebook.com/noahlife.athens), the coolest new opening in town, has everyone talking. Situated in the shade of plane trees in Eleftherias Park near the Athens Concert Hall, the richly coloured open-air bar-restaurant, featuring rattan light fixtures and a sculpture of a giant hand gesturing “I love you” in sign language, will make you feel like you’ve stumbled onto a breezy, anything-goes Mexican summer estate. Blue spirulina smoothies and free yoga sessions are par for the course.
• The best nightlife in Athens
Get out of town
Athens may be best known for its bevy of ancient sites but take a day or two to venture beyond the city centre to rest and recuperate in thermal springs, splash out on a little open-air solo sport action or sail to a nearby island. Aim to reserve a weekday for activities, when fewer city dwellers will be around, making social distancing somewhat easier. Alternatively, spend a few days at a resort on the city’s southern coast, dubbed the Athens Rivera.
Sail to a Cycladic isle
Slicing through the Aegean on a sailboat is a life-affirming experience bar none. Take a private day trip on a roomy catamaran with Perfect Yachts (perfectyachts.gr, from €1,600/£1440, including lunch for up to 10 guests) to two nearby islands, departing from the port town of Lavrio, an hour’s drive southeast of Athens. Leave the sailing to the skipper and cool down in the cerulean waters of Gialiskari Bay off the Cycladic island of Kea. The next swim stop is the uninhabited and otherwise inaccessible Makronissos islet, where Helen of Troy and Paris purportedly made a stop, though nowadays it’s better known for hosting political exiles from the 1940s to 1970s.
• The best Greek islands
Hire a car and head south along coastal Posidonos road, stopping in at any beach that takes your fancy. At Alykes in Anavyssos, northerly winds ensure flat seas easy for first-time windsurfers. Kouros Club (kourosclub.gr) provides hour-long lessons for two to four people at €35 (£32) per person and windsurf rental at €20 (£18) an hour. Turn up early to nab sun loungers at one of two beach bars at long, lithe Harakas, whose soft sand and shallow waters make it ideal for families. Lunch on chargrilled picarel and other freshly caught delights at taverna Marida (facebook.com/maridasounio), a local favourite since 1930. Catch sunset at the fifth-century BC Temple of Poseidon (odysseus.culture.gr; open 9.30am-sundown; admission €10/£9, €5/£4.50 for those aged six to 25).
Wind down with wine
Winemaking in greater Athens has a history harking back more than 4,000 years, attracting many a Dionysian worshipper. However, few visitors to the capital are aware of the handful of excellent family-run estates, infused with the enthusiasm of a new generation of vintners, in easy reach. Grape Escape (grapeescape.gr) runs sommelier-led tasting tours, where you can sample hard-to-find, small-scale producer labels, even a smooth retsina, made with indigenous varieties including native Savatiano. A six-hour small group tour, including lunch, starts at €149 (£134) per person. If you prefer to visit the estates on your own by car, get in touch to book ahead (winesofathens.com).
If you’ve done the classics downtown and are in search of swish seaside seclusion with room to move and sweeping views of the Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounio Grecotel Exclusive Resort (capesounio.com; doubles from €235/£212) delivers in spades. The pine-surrounded, child-friendly five-star hotel is offering complimentary half-board for stays of five nights or more, starting at €320 (£289) per night until October 10. With two beaches providing well spaced-out umbrellas and gazebos, tranquil waters where youngsters can snorkel happily for hours and al fresco dining waterfront or in the privacy of your villa, it’s no wonder Greeks are flocking there this summer. There’s no need to even check in at reception.
Harness the healing power of water
The mineral-rich thermal waters of Lake Vouliagmeni, half an hour’s drive south of the city, have long been a local secret among ladies who bathe. This geological wonder hidden amid rust-hued rocky cliffs continues to baffle scientists, who have yet to figure out how deep its undersea caverns run. Spending time in the doctor fish-filled brackish waters, whose temperature remains a steady 22 to 29C year-round, is thought to treat various conditions. Stretch out with a gin and mastic cocktail beneath a canopy of trees in the private space, where bookings are essential (limnivouliagmenis.gr; €40/£36 covers weekday admission and main deck sun loungers for two, €50/£45 on weekends; €35/£32 per person for weekday admission and a privé area sun lounger, €45/£41 on weekends).
• Inside the Athens Riviera, Greece’s playground for the super rich
Checklist for a safer visit
- Masks are required in many indoor spaces, including pharmacies and museums
- Explore Athens on foot
- Purchase tickets to ancient sites online
- Book restaurants in advance