Athens is a city of artists. From the galleries and museums stocked with collectibles old and new, to the buildings awash with graffiti and murals. As a first-timer here, I’m struck by how much art is woven into the city’s fabric.
Our hotel – the five-star Grecotel Pallas Athena – only opened in 2014, but has already made a splash. Located right in the heart of town, it makes the perfect launch pad for a cultural weekend. The sleek, light-filled lobby is dotted with sculptures, installations and taxidermy, and you can even stay in a special Graffiti Suite, decorated by a local street artist.
Mine had golden trees and swirling clouds all over the walls, as well as a satin sofa, two bathrooms and a big round bed. Other themes available are Skyfall, Spiderman, Wild West, Octopussy and Batman. Kids love it.
After a dreamy night’s sleep and an exquisite breakfast of fresh fruits and cheeses, specially blended herbal teas and possibly some of the best yoghurt I’ve ever tasted – all from Grecotel’s organic farm in Crete – we hit the streets.
Alternative Athens organises a number of different tours around the city, but we opt for the street art tour, and get to explore a relatively little known side to Athens.
The graffiti scene here kicked off in the ’90s, but really gathered pace after the city hosted the Olympic games in 2004. Much of Athens has become a communal canvas ever since, with artists painting over each other in an ongoing dialogue of colour, statement and motif.
Around 2,000 people currently emblazon the urban landscape. Our guide – a prominent street artist named Achilles – takes us around the neighbourhood of Metaxourgio.
“Artists here are a mix of graffitists, taggers, muralists and anarchists,” he says. “Sometimes we ask permission before we paint, sometimes not. Sometimes we even get paid for our work.” He points to a local school yard, decorated with a huge mural on one side. “They liked my style, so… they commissioned me. It was fun!”
As we wander around, we regularly spot his calling card – half a lady’s face – sprayed on doors, shutters, crumbling brickwork. It’s a memorable image. Who’s the girl? I ask. “Oh, just someone I used to know…” says Achilles, mysteriously.
That same afternoon, we check out a different side to the city – the up-and-coming areas of Monastiraki, Psiri, Gazi, and then Syntagma. It’s a veritable feast of food, drink, art and history.
Athens recently saw a number of new wine bars spring up. It’s a growing trend, says our guide, and they make perfect pit stops for a glass of something while out exploring – though many of the cooler joints only open at night.
From the rooftop of Couleur Locale – one of the more popular hangouts – the sight of the Parthenon is breathtaking. On ground level, we stop in at Drunk Sinatra, Heteroclito, Taf and Abariza Cafe. In each, hip young Athenians enjoy the weekend, and I want to linger longer. I make a mental note to come back and give these drinking dens more of my time.
Back at the hotel, we sample the hotel’s aphrodisiac menu – a must-try for weekending couples. Men are served dishes such as ginger-sautéed prawns – said to stimulate the thyroid and circulation – and women seafood and chilli, which apparently makes the heart race and face flush. This being Greece, I don’t think we need much help in that department, but the food is incredible, and it just keeps coming, as does the wine.
One of the Graffiti Suite artists joins us for a drink. Known simply as b. he’s gone on to international acclaim – selling his brightly coloured artwork as far afield as Rio and New York.
“I got into graffiti in ’96,” he tells me. “Before that I studied architecture. Now I exhibit and sell my work all over the world. But I still sometimes hit the streets.” I spy a set of small canvases and some paints, and in one of the hotel rooms, he teaches us the basics of street art.
“The trick is you have to come up with a really distinctive character,” he tells us as we try and master his craft, which is harder than it looks, even after so much wine. My character begins life as a sun, then morphs quickly into a lion, or a cat… or… I think I’ll leave tagging to the pros.
The next day, we drive out to Cape Sounion on the Athenian riviera. The coastal road is not only stunning, it also winds up at the temple of Poseidon – an atmospheric ruin, built in 444-440 BC to honour the god of the sea.
We stand on the cliff-top, gazing out across the Aegean. A single shaft of light bursts through the rain clouds and hits a lone fishing boat bobbing in the water. It’s probably the exact same view the ancient Greeks took in, thousands of years earlier. And from here, it’s easy to imagine worshipping beauty and gods and art and the ocean.
The details: Grecotel Pallas Athena has doubles from €109, www.grecotelpallasathena.com, + 30 210 3250900.
Return flights from London to Athens from £54 with Aegean Airways. Alternative Athens and Discover Greece can organise a similar street art tour, or a tour on any subject, such as art, design, shopping or food.