Athens Is Where It’s At

Want to eat well, experience a cultural resurgence, and just maybe restore your faith in humanity? Head to the Greek capital, now.

Athens Is Where It’s At

Photo by Marco Argüello

It was our first walk around Pangrati, the genteel-shabby Athens neighborhood where my boyfriend, Barry, and I rented a flat last spring. I was there researching a book. Orange blossoms and car fumes scented the air. In one of those cozy squares called plateias that give a village-like feel to this sprawling metropolis, we came upon a small group of women and men cheerfully tending a vast simmering pot of fasolada (a traditional bean soup). We were greeted, offered a pour from a plastic bottle of tsipouro, the throat-searing Greek pomace brandy. Street party? we asked. Someone’s birthday? “No,” a woman replied, “we’re here each weekend cooking for the hungry. Refugees, pensioners. Whoever’s in need.” Oh, a government program? “No government,” a guy smiled. “Just us. Just write . . . philoxenia.”

Philoxenia. Greek for kindness to strangers.

That night, Pangrati did resemble a street party. The laughter could have shaken plaster off the blocky white apartment buildings where balconies burbled with family gatherings. At street level, grandmas in housedresses munched loukoumades (honey-drenched doughnuts) on benches. Fairy lights festooned café facades. And every ouzeri and kafeneío, every taverna and mezedopoleío (meze spot), seemed jam-packed with Athenians ignoring the smoking ban, swiping bread into garlicky dips, and spinning political conspiracy theories over wine and Fix Hellas lager.


Photo by Marco Argüello

This was Athens? Had our flight landed in some Brigadoon instead of the urban dystopia that, according to all press reports, was ravaged by decay and despair? How to reconcile the difficult facts about Greece—more than 20 percent unemployment, brain drain, crippling debt, a refugee influx—with this vision of kefi, a word that encapsulates the Greek zest for life.

Later that night, squeezed into a boho bar called Hotel Chelsea on still another plateia, we shouted our ouzo order over the live jazz. “Athens is, umm, fun,” I mumbled to a woman in big clunky jewelry. She shot me a look. “You were expecting Caracas? Aleppo? Sure, Schäuble wants us all committing mass suicide on Syntagma Square,” she snorted, invoking the ruthless outgoing German finance minister, Greece’s arch-tormentor. “But here we are—completely alive!” She unfurled a manicured middle finger—“To Schäuble!”

The kefi, the gritty defiance, the renewed flame of philoxenia are why you should rush to Athens—right now. Our month there unfolded as a sometimes chaotic but always inspiring case study of how a society refuses to give in to despair. Shorn of their welfare state, deceived by their boyish prime minister, choked by international creditors, Athenians are taking matters into their own hands through bottom-up solidarity actions, community activism, grassroots initiatives, and feats of DIY improvisation. The energy here is loud, young, creative, urgent, and profoundly human.


Photo by Marco Argüello

Another reason to come is the food—and not just the Good Samaritan soup kitchens. Call it Greek Revival Cuisine: the renewed embrace of everything homegrown and Hellenic following the pre-crisis era of Eurotrashy international dining.

Me? I’m still daydreaming about chickpeas—the chickpeas gone exalted at Papadakis, a chic Aegean restaurant in the upscale Kolonaki district. Nutty, creamy, faintly smoky from 15 hours of simmering, these garbanzos were the handiwork of Argiro Barbarigou, the salt-of-the-earth Greek cooking goddess who runs Papadakis with her ingredient-obsessed husband, Manolis. Barry and I shared the chickpeas—along with diaphanous fresh mullet and shrimp—one evening with our new friend Mariana, a sharp-eyed political journalist. “Can’t the foreign press drop that damn word crisis?” she sighed, dabbing bread into a pool of grassy green olive oil. “We’ve had a severe eight-year recession. And a newly developing civil society that’s learning to cope and adapt.

“Ten years ago,” chuckled Barbarigou, stopping by our table, “the chickpeas on my menu got me called—” She made a “crazy” sign. “Athenians back then only wanted sushi. Truffles!” She let out the exuberant laugh adored by the myriad fans of her TV show celebrating traditional home cooking. “Us Greeks! Took a catastrophe for us to appreciate our roots.”


Photo by Marco Argüello

Bolstering her point, a rootsy deli had recently opened right near her restaurant. Before dinner I’d browsed its prettily packaged legumes, cheeses from island cooperatives, and artisanal yogurts and jams. A cute organic boutique would seem counterintuitive during a fiscal collapse, but such tiny hubs of patriotic consumerism now thrive in Athenian neighborhoods. “Lost my job, decided to do something inspiring,” the owner’s story always begins. And customers happily pay for belly-filling heirloom phake (lentils), favas, and ancient grains such as the earthy star of the current austerity diet, zea (emmer).

“Understand, Greeks suffered terribly during the 20th century,” explained Dimitrios Antonopoulos, the nattily dressed editor of the influential Athinorama city guide; we met for sensuous Chios sea urchins and pink curls of bottarga (salted fish roe) at Vezené, a sleek New Hellenic bistro across from the Hilton Hotel. Here in the birthplace of the Mediterranean Diet, the staples of global locavorism—grains, greens, pulses—had been shunned because they brought back memories of hunger and war. “Now they’re . . .” He grinned. “The new black?”

Each day in Athens brought a flavor surprise, a hospitality gesture, a lesson in social responsibility.

Our dinner, outrageously good, also featured trachana (sun-dried clumps of wheat and fermented milk) moistened with smoked lamb broth; and fish grilled in fig leaves, straight out of the works of Archestratus, the 4th century b.c.e. poet-gastronome. Born and raised in the States, Ari Vezené, the Greek American chef-owner, repatriated to his roots in the aughts and is one of the most exciting chefs in the region. He’s a selfless champion of philoxenia who every day cooks 150 meals for the poor in his vast basement kitchen. “What’s your career dream?” I asked him one day, over grilled sardines at Diporto, his favorite old-school taverna near the Central Market. “To give away everything I earn to the needy,” he replied softly, then ordered another tin pitcher of rustic retsina wine.

Each day in Athens brought a flavor surprise, a hospitality gesture, a lesson in social responsibility. We discovered a “Suspended Coffee” initiative in cafés—buy your cup, and another for someone less fortunate—and sweet nonprofits such as Wise Greece, which donates proceeds from its artisanal chutneys and jams to the poor. We came across volunteer-run health clinics, parking lots transformed into guerrilla gardens by neighborhood associations, street demonstrations blazing slogans like “Refugees Welcome.”


Photo by Marco Argüello

Every night, it seemed, brought us to another funky big-hearted neo-taverna in another burgeoning arts district. “They say Greeks are lazy?” scoffed chef Fotis Fotinoglu, after plying us with cured tuna and onions plump with a stuffing of bulgur and oxtails. The fortyish Fotinoglu runs Seychelles, a cult spot surrounded by Chinese wholesale shops in the grungy-boho Metaxourgeio district. “But our doctors work 18 hours a day at decimated hospitals,” he exclaimed. “Our chefs work triple shifts to make something super delicious to justify people spending their money.” His own Herculean overtime pays off: Athenian cool kids pack his loud, rustic space where an open kitchen churns out black-eyed pea and smoked eel salad, and brawny veal cheeks served over eggy Greek pasta. Cheap house rosé and vintage reggae on the sound system fuel a nonstop party vibe. “Pre-crisis, food was conspicuous consumption,” Fotinoglu reflected, looking completely exhausted. “Now it’s a social force that brings us together.”

En route to Seychelles we’d explored the Metaxourgeio-Kerameikos district with Carolina Doriti, a former chef who guides Culinary Backstreets tours of Athens. On scrappy plateias, immigrant children kicked soccer balls. Graffitied alleys led to ramshackle avant-garde theaters, ad hoc bars, and major art galleries such as Breeder. A progressive arts hub for over a decade, the neighborhood still retains that scruffy on-the-verge energy that took me back to Berlin in the 1990s, or Manhattan’s East Village in the 1980s. “What Parthenon?” laughed Doriti. “This is Athens.”


Photo by Marco Argüello

In fact, the Athenian cultural scene is more exciting than ever. On the edge of Koukaki, the unselfconsciously charming district under the Acropolis hill, theNational Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) finally opened, in a 1950s former Fix brewery building, after 19 years of delays and Greek dramas. Fifteen minutes southwest by taxi, on a hill above 42 acres of parkland, rises the recently launched Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, a Renzo Piano−designed lollapalooza containing the national library and opera house.

Northeast of EMST, we explored the loud, feral street art in the Exarcheia neighborhood—a bastion of anarchist activism—before savoring Cretan sausages and ouzo-spiked meatballs in the garden of the modern Ama LaChei taverna. Philologika kafeneia (literary cafés) and secondhand bookstores keep company here with migrant aid centers. Farther north still, past the vast, neoclassical National Archaeological Museum, lies Victoria Square, the hardscrabble symbol of refugee Athens. Over the last three years, more than a million asylum-seekers have entered debt-stricken Greece; many are still here in anxious limbo while Europe tightens its borders. In 2015, at the influx peak, hundreds of souls fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere camped on cardboard under flimsy blankets in Victoria Square.


Photo by Marco Argüello

I spent much time in this neighborhood with Nadina Christopoulou. A dynamo visionary with a PhD from Cambridge and inspirational reserves of compassion and energy, Christopoulou cofounded Melissa Network, a community center for women where established immigrants help newer arrivals. Housed in a graceful 20th-century mansion a block from Victoria Square, Melissa (“honeybee” in Greek) is one of the city’s most uplifting spaces: a light-filled sanctuary of empowerment and empathy for 100-plus women and children who come daily from refugee camps outside Athens. It offers poetry workshops, yoga, and art classes on a sun-dappled terrace, and luscious cakes baked by Nigerian cofounder Maria Ohilebo, a former actress turned chef. “Culture and cakes aren’t luxuries,” Christopoulou insisted to me. “Our aim is to humanize the dehumanizing journey our women endure.”

The twin crises of refugees and austerity have brought out the best and the worst in their society, Greeks often told me. The district around Victoria Square also happens to be a stronghold of the xenophobic neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. And yet Christopoulou was overwhelmed by support when Melissa opened at the peak of the troubles. Struggling tavernas and bakeries donated provisions. Old people came to offer 10 euros from their slashed pensions. Such philoxenia, such kindness to strangers, she mused, isn’t philanthropy. It is human solidarity in pure, basic form—a society faced with its own hardships offering what little it has to those who are even worse off. Compassion and kindness. Roots we could all stand to rediscover.

Ladies in Syntagma Square

Ladies in Syntagma Square

Photo by Marco Argüello

>>Next: The Best Things to Do in Athens

Anya von Bremzen is a three-time James Beard Award–winning author and a contributing writer at AFAR. Anya has published seven acclaimed cookbooks and a memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. Her new book, National Dish, was published in June 2023.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR