Think of a beachside city break and your mind probably springs to Barcelona, Lisbon or Nice. But Athens? The Greek capital has been curiously left out of the action due, in part, to last year’s devastating forest fires, and a nationwide economic crisis that resulted in huge unemployment and three EU bailouts.
But that’s all changing. There are murmurings of an “Athens Revival”; between 2017 and 2018 there was a 10 per cent increase in the number of tourists in Greece, a trend that’s continuing this year. Greece is getting its groove back — and Athens is in the spotlight. The Athens Riviera, in particular.
This sheltered coastline, which stretches for 70km along the Saronic Gulf, is where Athenians flee in summer to escape the oppressive city heat. Some €8 billion of Greek and foreign investment is being ploughed into the Athenian seaside but it’s relatively free of tourists for now.
After two days wandering around the Acropolis and stuffing myself with street-side souvlaki in the city centre, I took a 20-minute Uber to Glyfada on the coast. This pretty whitewashed town, hemmed in by pine trees, has all the pros of a Greek island holiday without having to leave the mainland.
I meet Glyfada local Katelina Alpe in the marina, where yachts rub sails. “There is so much development,” she says as we venture into town, strolling past pavement cafés. “The Four Seasons just opened in Vouliagmeni at Astir Palace and boutique hotels are springing up — it’s great for our economy.”
You can spend the whole day at one of the upmarket beach clubs, such as Balux with its white loungers and soundtrack of throbbing house music. Or while away an evening in one of many restaurants, such as Louizidis Taverna in Vouliagmeni, where plates arrive stacked with what Katelina calls “Greek fish and chips”: freshly caught charred octopus and crispy calamari.
In the afternoon I make the 30-minute cycle ride to Vouliagmeni (the Greek for “sunken”) on a bike lane that runs parallel to the seafront. I make a pitstop at Lake Vouliagmeni, a thermal spring you can swim in year-round, with a backdrop of chiselled cliff-faces. Guides The Greek Key put on free walking tours around the Athenian Riviera, including excursions to this turquoise lake.
Back on the bike, I cycle along the promenade into Vouliagmeni, which follows a typically Greek white-and-blue colour scheme. I pull up to a cute cabana on the beach for a drink. From there I wander up to the honey-hued modernist Greek Orthodox church of Panagia Faneromeni — its minimal curves make it look like a Star Wars bunker from the outside but inside it boasts intricate frescoes of heralding angels.
The talk of the town has to be the newly opened Astir Palace, a grand dame of a hotel that’s been around since the Sixties and has undergone a €650 million overhaul. I walk past crumbling Greek ruins in the hotel’s grounds and down a steep bank to a sheltered pebble beach, with waves quietly lapping the shore. It’s hard to believe that in 30 minutes’ time I’ll be checking in for my flight at Athens airport.
Barcelona, Lisbon and Nice, eat your heart out. Athens’s recent setbacks may just have paved the way for the ultimate.
Athens. Wizz Air (wizzair.com) flies direct from London Luton to Athens from £45.
Astir Palace Hotel (fourseasons.com/athens) offers doubles from £470, B&B.