Art thrives in this ancient city
Athens is a cultured European hub. The city gets a bad rap as a place to fly into before departing as fast as possible. Perhaps that’s because the gorgeous Greek islands beckon like sirens, but, in fact, the city has an undeniably artistic soul. Here, even the shops, cafes and vibrant bustling street life have a poetic edge. Art lovers won’t for a moment regret planning a long weekend in Athens to delve into Greece’s artistic pulse before (or after) hitting the idyllic beaches and Instagram-worthy views the islands offer.
Base yourself in Plaka, the old town, at the base of the Acropolis. The ancient site dominates the skyline, commanding the hilltop above the city. By day, Grecian blue skies and a strong sun set the Parthenon in stark relief and come nightfall, when it’s strategically bathed in golden light, it becomes downright otherworldly. The well-placed and incredibly hospitable Plaka Hotel has a large rooftop bar with unobstructed views, as do narrow balconies perched outside many guest rooms. Nearby, the Art Gallery Hotel, a homey spot owned by the family of a local impressionist painter, has unobstructed views of the Parthenon from the common fourth floor balcony.
The chicly designed Acropolis Museum located on the southern slope houses a trove of archeological finds from the site, including the Caryatids that acted as pillars guarding the temple of Athena Nike, which have been painstakingly restored using cutting-edge laser technology (take a careful look at the back of their heads to check out their intricately carved braided hairstyles). For those looking to return home with a piece reflecting Greece’s artistic tradition, the Acropolis gift shop, while not inexpensive, offers some very fine copies of original art.
The original Greek Agora (marketplace and general center of life for ancient Greeks) is within puttering distance of the Acropolis. Stroll the site and weave amid the beautiful ruins, which will toss you back in time to the days when Socrates picked up provocative conversation along a stone wall.
Downtown at the National Archeological Museum, you’ll find some of the ancient world’s greatest treasures. The collection is so large and substantial that real history buffs will want to spend a full day (or even two) here. Stand-out pieces include the gold Mask of Agamemnon, which dates to 1500 BC and a fragment of Acropolis law etched into marble.
EMST National Museum of Contemporary Art offers a completely unique opportunity to take in work by (mostly) Greek artists, many which address current events, such as the impact of the European Union on the islands. Note: A complete reconstruction is underway, so exhibits are limited until 2019.
At the compact Museum of Cycladic Art you’re more likely to see locals than tourists. Here, spread out on the museum’s four floors is some of the most important works of art from the islands, some dating back to the Bronze Age. This museum also has an excellent gift shop, especially appealing for fans of abstract art, thanks to the replicas of minimalist prehistoric pieces.
Benaki, one of Greece’s most celebrated art centers, housed in an elegant white townhouse, traces the cultural development of Greece until the country’s independence in 1821. Highlighted are the artistic contributions like textiles and jewelry. (The intricately rendered gold pieces are particularly spectacular).
For those who want to do a deeper dive into Greek art, there are a number of other museums with meaningful collections. The National Gallery of Art, which is spread over two buildings, spans centuries from the Byzantine era to present day. The Municipal Gallery of Athens is the city’s collection of mostly 19th and 20th century Greek artists. And, the Cartoon Museum is a highly relevant space, founded in 1994, that’s dedicated to cartoonists, especially those who tackle the political issues of the day.
Beyond the museums, the streets are teeming with artistry, especially in Plaka. Take in the neighborhood’s whitewashed architecture, steep steps and stony hills as you shop for hand-made leather sandals, artisanal olive oil soaps and antiques. The heartbeat of the area is Monastiraki, a sprawling market, where stores stay open well past nightfall, some as late as midnight.
Come evening, take a seat outdoors beside locals gathered at the lively cafes that stud the market to talk politics, art and sport. Follow the Athenian lead and order Mythos beer, a shot of ouzo or a frothy cappuccino freddo while you gaze up at the Acropolis, where civilization as we know it started. You may have a ferry to catch to a gorgeous Greek isle in the morning, but for now, you can rest assured you are right where you should be.
Art lovers won’t for a moment regret planning a long weekend in Athens to delve into Greece’s artistic pulse before (or after) hitting the idyllic beaches and Instagram-worthy views the islands offer.