Three Athenian hotels
My trio of Athens hotels began with the Grande Bretagne, a neoclassical Starwood Luxury Collection property long popular with Americans. Its central location on Syntagma (Constitution) Square meant I was a two-minute dash from the hourly changing of the synchronized Evzone guards in front of the Parliament building and within walking distance of just about everything.
Since 1874, its guest book has included everyone from Winston Churchill to Sting, and after people-watching in its stylish lobby, I would add 30-somethings with young children and French Riviera types. Its covered Roof Garden Restaurant & Bar offers incomparable Acropolis views, but it was dinner next door at the King George's rooftop Tudor Hall restaurant where innovative takes on Greek food effortlessly rivaled the view.
The New Hotel, strikingly modern for such an ancient city, is the newest addition to the small but well-regarded Yes Hotel chain. A complete reinvention of the 1950s Olympic Palace hotel, it is located just a few blocks from Syntagma Square on the perimeter of the Plaka, Athens' oldest neighborhood, at the foot of the Acropolis and an easy stroll to everything of note.
The Brazilian Campana brothers have imbued their not-for-everyone design aesthetic in a startling lobby lined with recycled wooden pieces and in a street-level restaurant serving great breakfasts (their Sunday brunch is Athens' finest) and a rooftop restaurant that are popular with locals. The 79 spacious guestrooms with airy bathrooms are pared down and sun-flooded but stay refreshingly hip and stylish without alienating travelers of a more conservative bent.
Among other fresh-faced arrivals to Athens' contemporary hotel scene is the Grecotel Pallas Athena, just off the central Omonia Square and adjacent to Town Hall. A bright and fun lobby will appeal to young and young-at-heart guests with its quirky modernity, made comfortable and enjoyable by a great staff and amenities such as a terraced restaurant whose breakfast of fresh Greek specialties, and a corner dedicated to traditional dishes from Crete (a nod to the home of the hotels' owner) was one of the best I had in town.
The Grecotel chain celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and now runs 30 properties, mostly in Greece and mostly waterfront, such as the Cape Sounio Exclusive Resort outside town in what is being dubbed the Athens Riviera, promising an island experience without leaving terra firma.
So ubiquitous is the street-art scene throughout Athens that the Pallas Athena hired five prominent graffiti artists to cover the walls in beautiful murals of different palettes and styles in most of the guest rooms.
The graffiti found just about everywhere in town inspired the Huffington Post to recently call Athens "one of the 21st century's emerging street-art meccas." Graffiti is nothing new in town: the word can be traced to the ancient Greek word graphi, meaning to write, and some of it can be impressively beautiful. In fact, professional artists are sometimes hired by local authorities to cover empty two- and three-story walls.
Much of it, however, is the result of discouraged teens (unemployment for those under age 24 is 48%, and many are leaving the country) who deface everything with their "tags," while a new wave of graffiti is more socially and politically aware.
I signed up with Athens Insiders to further explore the city's street art scene and evolving cultural vibe, stroll the vibrant neighborhoods, find the best customized sandal maker and, in short, see the city through a local's eyes.
Walking tours might not be unusual in other big cities, but until recently they were scarce in Athens. I loved the idea behind Athens Insiders: that well-educated, entrepreneurial young people are choosing not to leave, to stay in the city they love and -- more proof that crisis can breed creativity -- founding this small company that offers visitors a wide range of walking tours both organized and tailor-made.
A 'Grecovore' vacation
Greek cuisine must be one of the world's most underrated, and I joined a walking tour offered by Culinary Backstreets to experience the real deal along the little-visited backstreets of the atmospheric Plaka neighborhood.
An insightful and delicious experience for first-timers and return visitors, it offered us all kinds of trivia from our highly knowledgeable and passionate chef/guide. (Did you know the average Greek consumes about 50 pounds of cheese a year? Most of it is feta, which is eaten with everything.) We sampled countless delectables, ranging from the completely unknown to the very familiar: delicate handmade goat yogurt with honey (the Greek yogurt carried in American stores is pathetic by comparison) to a scrumptious array of warm-from-the-oven sweets to what must be the finest souvlaki ever, served at a third-generation, impossible-to-find hole-in-the-wall.
I asked Argiro Barbaragiou, the TV personality and author of multiple cookbooks, why the world isn't clamoring for Greek food.
"The biggest misconception is that Greek cuisine is just about moussaka, tzatiki, souvlaki and lamb" she said, when in fact, "It is the very basis of the Mediterranean diet and based on excellent raw and home-grown materials you find everywhere in this country."
Barbaragiou went on to list olives and extra virgin olive oil from the Peloponnese peninsula, sweet tomatoes from Santorini, thyme honey from the Aegean islands and fish caught just that morning. We experienced all of this and more at her stylish restaurant, Papadakis, in the upscale neighborhood of Kolonaki, where we sat outside under orange trees.
"You always remember what you eat on vacation" she told me, "especially when it is paired with Greek hospitality, which is unparalleled."
Food lovers call the Peloponnese a Greek Tuscany. It is an ancient land of kalamata olives, the orange groves of Sparta and Argos and the rolling vineyards of Nemea, whose wines are impressing many on the international awards circuit. Overlooked by those who head for the islands, the Wales-size peninsula enjoys fewer crowds. "This is the real Greece," friends had told us.