With one foot rooted in the past, and the other striding out into the future, Athens is breathing life into its classical heritage and Greek traditions with high-octane culture, conscious brands and blossoming creative scene.
Thoughts of Athens are likely to elicit images of crumbling classical edifices, unrelenting traffic and financial turmoil. Yet a decade on from the Greek government-debt crisis, the city has undergone something of a renaissance. Today a potent blend of earthy, high-octane culture, conscious brands and hip restaurants has risen from Athens' economic ashes, attracting a multicultural creative crowd that has breathed new life into the urban landscape.
Along with artists and young entrepreneurs lured in by the low rents, a string of culturally sympathetic philanthropists is driving Athens' regeneration, painting a dynamic and optimistic picture for the capital that is reconciling its mesmerising ancient history, traditions and architecture with modern philosophies and a fresh hipster groove. Small wonder the city was crowned the European Capital of Innovation in 2018.
Beyond the Benaki Museum and National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens has only recently woken up to the modern art world, hosting Documenta 14, an international art fair, last year and launching its own Athens Biennale. The art crowd will soon be able to feast on the Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art, which is set to open in late 2019 and will house treasures from the personal collection of the late ship-owner and art lover Basil Goulandris.
Yet it's the non-profit, progressive organisations, cultural collectives and galleries such as The Breeder (set in a former ice cream factory gallery in Metaxourgio) that are playing a seminal role in Athens' emerging contemporary art scene, championing Greek talent with global cultural gravitas. Similarly, non-profit organisations including the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art and the CAN Christina Androulidaki Gallery promote both emerging and established artists, and broaden the audience for contemporary art in the city.
In a curious blend of noblesse oblige and creative "proletarian" endeavour, Athens' steep cultural renovations and revived landmarks (such as city's historic Olympia Theatre) run parallel to a more rugged, grassroots movement, the latter influencing this renaissance with progressive ideas on cafés, workspaces, ethics and community. Take the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, a contemporary architectural masterpiece inspired by its patron's shipping heritage; it houses the acclaimed Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. The centre hosts an impressive roster of opera, ballet, contemporary dance and theatre, peppered with more enlightened and immersive workshops and classes, including cosmology lectures in the library and yoga classes in the pristine olive grove.
Where in London, this sort of dystopian-style, progressive centre would be the preserve of the millennials and freelancers, at the SNFCC, Athenians of all ages work, watch, eat and read in civilised harmony until closing time (12am), as befitting their Hellenic culture. In the evening, the rooftop and restaurants teem with families and friends enjoying dinner, a pianist's rehearsal and sweeping views across their glistening city.
As part of an urban regeneration project, Athens' authorities have collaborated with contemporary local architects to rescue the downtrodden Plateia Theatrou municipality, transforming it into a bohemian hotbed of cultural collectives and cooperatives that reconcile traditional Greek artisanal methods with contemporary aesthetics.
Similarly, the multicultural Kypseli neighbourhood with its tired 30s Municipal Market has been given a modern face-lift. New spaces and neo-classical renovations play host to workshops and training sessions for locals while the marketplace supports small-scale food producers across the country. The neighbourhood has fast become a creative hub and microcosm for the progressive philosophies driving the city's rebirth. Even the eight stores that have reopened in The Stoa Emporon (Merchant Arcade), overtly support and promote social entrepreneurship and creativity. Only after an economic storm of Greece's scale can the very core and ethics of capitalism and lifestyle be re-evaluated and refined to such an extent.
This plays out throughout the country's fashion industry which, despite the long-existing production and design talent, was dealt a huge blowback in 2010. Charity, social awareness and sustainable practices are driving forces behind many of the brands that have cropped up in the wake of the Greek crisis. One such brand is Zeus+Dione founded in 2011 by Dimitra Kolotoura and Mareva Grabowski. Having just opened its first flagship store in central Athens, the brand is defined by its dedication to fostering local industry, blending Greek heritage and artisanal traditions with contemporary aesthetics, while donating a percentage of profits to sustainability campaigns.
The Greek riff on global influences powering Athens' budding art and fashion culture naturally spills into its culinary and hospitality scene. Hipster-style restaurants inhabiting the tired bones of the city's once magnificent buildings offer eclectic, multicultural menus with locally sourced produce. There's the cheap-and-cheerful vegan restaurant Cookoomela Grill in Themistokleous and Frater & Soror, a lively hipster joint with polished gin cocktails and imaginative small plates. Athens' first food court, Str. Eaters, throbs with an abundance of gourmet street food options. Meanwhile, coffee shops such as Yiasemi in the quaint Plaka neighbourhood are combining LA staples - think matcha almond milk - with a hearty Greek twist.
Asian cuisine (particularly bao buns) seems to have infiltrated the Athenian food scene with the likes of Mr Pug's Canteen in Halandri and Birdman, a Japanese pub serving yakitori and small dishes in Syntagma Square.
If you want to dodge the run-of-the-hipster-mill, avocado-on-toast haunts, Culinary Backstreets food tours offer an insider scoop on Athens' eclectic gastro-scene and with a history lesson to boot. From deep-fried dough balls in nondescript, generations-old cafés to Triantofyllo Tis Nostimias, a hidden seafood restaurant at the end of an old arcade, packed with locals.
The boutique hotel trend has caught on in the city, with the likes of Perianth Hotel, its enchanting 1930s interiors awash with sleek contemporary furnishings, pastel hues and abstract art. The hotel's acclaimed Athenian designers, K-studio embody a fresh appetite for easy, uncluttered indulgence and modern travelling patterns, as does the hotel's free yoga, meditation and martial arts classes in the Zen Centre. In the well-heeled neighbourhood of Kolonaki, concept hotel Coco-Mat typifies this new trend in the capital for design-led, unfussy and eco-friendly hotels, rolling out its popular eco-mattresses and Scandi-style furniture to three properties across the city. In Autumn, Athens Townhouse Hotel will open its polished, downtown boutique doors with a mantra of elevated simplicity and a relaxed dining experience as befitting Athens' new wave epicurean culture.
The old-time hotels are having to keep up and innovate, without compromising on their identity as an institution, a good example being Divani Palace Acropolis - the classic, marble-clad side of Athens, not worlds away from the grand dames of the Cote D'Azur, yet close enough to the Parthenon to almost touch its ancient charm. A gilded yesteryear feel may govern the restaurants, bars and near-Italianate courtyard here but the rooms have been upgraded with a more contemporary, global-chic - think geometric coffee tables and airy hues - while the rooftop Acropolis Secret restaurant adds experimental, modern riffs to traditional Greek cuisine. Below, ancient Greek ruins discovered beneath the hotel glow behind glass cases for guests to marvel at.
It's innovation such as this which is symbolic of the mentality that is driving change in Athens. With one foot rooted in the past, and the other striding out into the future, the city is able to spin its classical heritage and proud Greek traditions into new and exciting global concepts.
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