As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to Athens, Clare Hargreaves picks out a selection of new and alternative attractions in the Greek Capital.
A visit to the iconic Acropolis is a must, so too is its new museum and the National Archaelogical Museum, but after that there are scores of lesser-known places to explore. Take in the tranquility of the ancient graveyard at Kerameikos, or across the road in Gazi, watch a theatrical rendition of the city’s gas-fired past at the Gas Museum inside the old gasworks, or pop into the nearby Museum of Cycladic Art to see the moving Early Bronze Age sculptures that inspired 20th-century artists from Giacometti to Picasso. Recent openings include the Goulandris gallery in town, and the no-expense-spared Stavros Niarchos cultural centre.
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (pictured above)
This shimmering glass-cased centre above Faliron bay was designed by architect Renzo Piano (The Shard, Whitney Museum of American Art) and funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, established by the multi-billionnaire shipping tycoon before his death in 1996. A beacon of sustainability, the €566 million project is not only a cultural and recreational hub but also provides an HQ for the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. Take time to explore its landscaped park, which hosts an incredible lineup of free events, from concerts to dance and exercise classes, and in summer, midnight movie marathons. snfcc.org and nationalopera.gr
Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation
This new gallery, housed in a gleaming Neo-classical-inspired building near Syntagma Square, houses the art collection assembled by Andros-born shipowner Basil Goulandris with his wife Elise. Most of the art is by European masters such as Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet, but the third and fourth floors contain contemporary Greek artists. Look out for cubist erotica by Yannis Moralis, the portrait of Basil and Elise by George Rorris, and the delightful depictions of sailors and Piraeus by Yannis Tsarouchis. There’s one painting by Alekos Fassianos - A Wonderful Day (The Morning Cyclist) - painted in his characteristic “Byzantine” style. goulandris.gr
Agios Eleftherios Byzantine church (or Little Metropolis)
This dinky domed Byzantine church, dedicated to St Eleftherios, stands next to the far moderner Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens (or Great Metropolis) so is often called Little Metropolis. Its date of construction is unclear, with scholars suggesting dates ranging from the 9th to the 15th centuries. After Independence the church was abandoned, but in 1863 it was re-dedicated as a church. Uniquely among Byzantine churches it’s constructed out of re-used marble spolia rather than bricks - which gives it its shiny translucent appearance.
Agios Sostis (The Holy Saviour) church
Constructed as Greece’s pavilion for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, it was designed by a French architect and although he gave it a traditional cruciform shape, its materials - like the wrought iron frame - were revolutionary. After the Exhibition the church was returned to Athens whose authorities decided to locate it on the spot where an (unsuccessful) assassination attempt on King George I of Greece had taken place two years earlier. It was dedicated to the Holy Saviour in thanks for his lucky escape. Unfortunately the king’s luck ran out in 1913 when he was assassinated in Thessaloniki. sostis.gr (Greek only)
Rebetika music at Kapnikareas Cafe
Rebetika is often described as Greece’s version of American blues and was ‘imported’ by refugees from Asia Minor who sheltered in Athens during the Greco-Turkish war in 1919-22. But finding somewhere to listen to live Rebetika isn’t easy, particularly if you’re not a night owl, as most bands don’t get going until the wee hours. This central spot, opened by ex-tailor Sotiris Sofos and now run by his son Dimitris, is an exception. Rebetika starts at around 2pm and ends at 11pm. As you listen, you can enjoy the cafe’s simple but tasty food, including meatballs made to Dimitris’ grandmother’s recipe.
This beautiful building now houses the Museum of the City of Athens and the enchanting Black Duck cafe. But its main claim to fame is for being one of the first houses built in liberated Athens in 1833, and one of the finest examples of austere classicism in Greece. Designed by German architects, the ornate mansion belonged to a banker from Chios called Stamatios Dekozis-Vouros. He helpfully lent it to newly installed King Otto and his new wife Amalia while they were waiting for their royal residence on Syntagma Square to be completed. Which is why Athenians often used to dub the place the ‘Old Palace.”
athenscitymuseum.gr (Greek only)
Keramikos cemetery and museum
This tranquil site, uncovered in the 19th century during the construction of the main road, is named after the potters who populated it around 3,000 BC, using the clay from the banks of the (now mainly buried) Eridanous River. Today it’s better known as a 6th-century AD cemetery that’s effectively a museum of the ancient way of death. On the Street of the Tombs you’ll see the plots of wealthy Athenians, many touching monuments to loss, such as the statue of a girl with her pet dog and a grandmother with her grandchild on her knee. There’s a museum too. odysseus.culture.gr
Museum of Cycladic Art
The first floor of this museum houses one of the world’s finest private collections of Cycladic art, including marble figurines and vases, tools, weapons, and pottery produced by the Cycladic island culture that flourished in the central Aegean during the 3rd millennium BC (Early Bronze Age). The pure, abstract forms of its figurines have influenced many modern artists such as Hepworth, Moore and Modigliani and Giacometti. Other floors house ancient Greek and Cypriot art from 2000 BC to the 4th century AD. There’s a stunning garden-style cafe with an eye-catching white floating facade-sculpture too. cycladic.gr/en
Technopolis Industrial Gas Museum
This innovative and fun museum is housed in the old gasworks at Gazi, a complex of furnaces and industrial buildings that were built in the mid 19th century to provide Athens with gas lighting. Take part in an interactive tour using all your senses - smell, see, feel, hear, even taste, the history of these historic gasworks. Or join one of the hour-long “Have a Gas!” theatrical tours (in English) that bring the gasworks to life. The area around the gasworks, known as Technopolis, is a buzzing cultural hub, hosting bands, orchestras and dance troupes, and in May/June runs a jazz festival. gasmuseum.gr
Museum of Greek Popular Instruments
It might sound esoteric but this collection of Greek musical instruments, superbly displayed over three floors of a Neo-classical building in Plaka, is fascinating. If it’s played in Greece, it’ll be there. There’s everything from lyres and dulcimers to defi (tambourines), goat-stomach bagpipes, lutes and guitars, each telling its story as part of Greece’s history and culture. There are also festival and liturgical instruments such as triangles, livestock bells, and the wood planks priests on Mount Athos use call prayer. You don’t only look at them either; headphone sets allow you to listen to them playing too. odysseus.culture.gr
If the cubist white-washed houses and steep narrow alleyways of this neighbourhood sandwiched between the Acropolis and Plaka remind you of a Cycladic island, it’s no surprise. The haphazard constructions, clinging to the hillside, were erected by builders who in the mid-19th century were brought over from the island of Anafi to build a palace for King Otto. Today it’s still populated by stray cats, bourganvillea, and men in string vests who sit outside their front doors as the telly blasts away inside. There are two atmospheric chapels too. A wonderful refuge from the hubbub of the city.
Benaki Museum of Greek Culture
Antonis Benakis was a politician’s son, born in Egypt in the late 19th century. After decades of collecting, in 1930 he turned the family’s private mansion into this museum. See paintings of him in the entrance hall - including a delightful one of him aged eight by Dimitris Mytaras. The museum exhibits facets of Greek culture from all periods over three floors. It’s also worth visiting its offshoots, including the Toy Museum (separate entry); the Museum of Islamic Art (separate entry); and its modern/contemporary Pireos annexe, hosting rotating temporary exhibitions. Buy a pass to visit each of the museums over a three-month period. benaki.gr
The eclectic turreted 19th-century villa housing this museum is as enchanting as the collection itself. The latter includes children’s toys from antiquity to modern times assembled by Greek collector Maria Argyriadi from all over the world. Its 20,000 exhibits include handmade traditional toys, fairground and commercially produced toys and board games. Look out too for mechanical monkeys, puppets and finely dressed porcelain dolls. The European collection includes urban and folk toys between the 18th and 20th centuries, mostly from England, France and Germany, as well as European-made dolls dressed in traditional costume from different areas of Greece. benaki.gr
Museum of Islamic Art
This outstanding museum, accommodated in two listed mansions in Athens’ Keramikos quarter, houses one of the world’s most important collections of Islamic art, including examples from India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Arabia and Spain. Its four floors display over 8,000 works of art, from ceramics to gold, metalwork, textiles and jewellery, as well as a marble-floored reception room from a 17th-century Cairo mansion. It’s all arranged chronologically. The basement exposes part of the ancient city wall of Athens, uncovered during work to preserve the two mansions, while the top floor houses a small cafe. benaki.gr