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Athens, Greece neighborhoods with the creative vibe of Berlin

A few steps from our lodgings in the Pláka area of ​​Athens is a beautiful rundown villa. The sort you imagine tumbling out of the pages of a book… shutters hanging off, masonry crumbling, garden overrun with weeds.

It’s impossible not to dream: you buy the place for pennies, living like a bohemian while you slowly patch up the house; all to the amusement of a cast of colorful locals, who quickly become your best pals. And on warm Athens evenings they gather to drink ouzo with you, out under the vines…

Actually, as we walked the Pláka, this was a recurring fantasy, because the derelict or abandoned villas, mansions and apartments are everywhere. Inquiries to our lively host, Sakis Gerodimos of the Acro&Polis guest house, revealed the story.

The properties typically belong to families who left Greece when times were tough. Now their descendants live in America, Australia or Canada and they can’t agree what to do with the old family home. So it quietly disintegrates, the city’s ubiquitous stray cats are the only residents.

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Abandoned villa in Plaka, Athens, Greece.

Michael Lamb

Abandoned villa in Plaka, Athens, Greece.

Although newcomers to Athens may not have the ambition of restoring a deserted villa, the city is certainly on the radar for creatives, doers and digital nomads who want an affordable lifestyle, a great climate and an alternative vibe.

And, of course, lashings of history. The birthplace of democracy, the home of Homer… while the ‘[insert city name here]… is the new Berlin’ tag gets trotted out every now and then, and Athens is no stranger to being name-checked, some serious players are now backing the city to grab the mantle of the place to drop anchor.

Like Leon Avigad, prominent Israeli hotelier and a man with a noted eye for the next big thing. His company, Brown Hotels, is building not one, but five new boutique hotels in Athens. That’s some statement. And curiously, Avigad believes the pandemic has actually boosted the city’s progress.

Leon Avigad CEO of Brown Hotels.

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Leon Avigad CEO of Brown Hotels.

“While the rest of the world was locked up, Athens saw an impressive flurry of creativity and innovation,” he says. “There were so many new restaurants, hotels and art venues, an overall blossoming of the cultural landscape.”

“We saw it particularly around the Omonoia Square area, which has been restored and lovingly transformed with a focus on a young, urban audience.”

“So now we see Athens as offering so much more than a mere layover to the Greek islands; it’s a city that is really becoming a destination of its own.”

Sakis, our host at the Acro&Polis, agrees.

“After Covid, Athens has sprung back as a winter destination for Europeans and other nationalities. The renovation of old houses and the opening of new businesses are now a daily phenomenon and there has been some restructuring of the economy around tourism. Plus extension of the Metro (subway) to almost every corner of the city, ports and other areas is an important factor. I’m seeing Israelis, Americans, Chinese and others investing in the real estate market and looking to make a permanent home in Greece.”

Abandoned villa in Athens.

Michael Lamb

Abandoned villa in Athens.

It’s all helped by the Greek ‘Golden Visa’, offering immediate five-year residency (and giving you unfettered access to Europe). All you have to do is buy a property worth at least €500k or stick €400k in a Greek bank.

So, classical ruins and a ready supply of retsina aside, which areas of Athens are the new go-to spots for digital nomads and the globetrotting glitterati – not to mention the savvy traveler?

Here’s a selection of ‘hip’ neighborhoods that offer the creative vibe of Berlin but with better weather, complete with my top accommodation tips:

Derelict villas, mansions and apartments are everywhere.

Michael Lamb

Derelict villas, mansions and apartments are everywhere.

Exarcheia

The dulling tentacles of gentrification haven’t quite impinged on the anarchic grunge of Exarcheia yet, so head here to check out the grittier side of Athens. Loads of jazz, rock and blues clubs and remember to visit the Exarcheia Farmers Market on a Saturday morning.

Stay: The Dryades & Orion Hotel – romantically pretty rooms, great views, rooftop terrace and sharp prices – what’s not to love?

Omonoia Square

Once the romantic idyll of Athens tourism, the faded glory of Omonoia Square has been largely restored (check out old photos of the place back in its heyday in the metro station).

Stay: Brown Acropol – retro chic is the pitch here and the hotel delivers. Add a great restaurant, bar, jacuzzis, great views and walking distance to many key Athens sites.

Metaxourgeio

Metaxourgeio, Athens.

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Metaxourgeio, Athens.

When they cleaned up Omonoia, the druggies and prostitutes migrated to Metaxourgeio, but now this neighborhood too is being reclaimed by makers and creators. Eat at the Mironi, it’s doing some of the best Greek food in town.

Stay: M&D Luxury Suites – wallet-friendly, nicely appointed suite with a balcony and lovely Athens views makes this the perfect base.

Thank you

Back on the hip list, there’s loads of arts and culture to absorb in Pangrati – and some beautiful buildings. Check out the oldest cinema in Athens, the Pallas, which dates from 1925 – in summer they show movies on the romantic terrace. Dine at Magemenos Avlos taverna is a time-warp restaurant that’s been a magnet for writers, artists, rebels and dreamers since 1961.

Stay: Athens Green Apartments – Eclectic rooms that blend a classic Athenian vibe with modern flourishes; great location and a super cute courtyard where you can hang with other visitors.

Makrigianni & Koukaki

View towards Philopappos Hill, Athens.

Michael Lamb

View towards Philopappos Hill, Athens.

Two buzzy ‘hoods that roll into one. If the Acropolis looks crowded, head to the Philopappos Hill, a beautiful sanctuary-in-the-city, where in amongst the pines and olive trees are several archaeological sites, like the mysterious Caves Of Socrates. For libations, check out Bel Ray Bar, a former car wash now vintage-tinged bar and cafe. The brunches are epic and late in the day coffees are traded for beers and cocktails.

Stay: Cohort Koukaki – gem of a hotel in a beautifully renovated 1930s building.

Plate

The oldest part of Athens is hardly a re-discovered area but the scattering of empty houses makes it enticing for some Athens dreaming. With so many ancient sites, great bars and restaurants, and dreamy lanes to wander, it’s the perfect base for any Athens adventure. Try Yiasemi, a definitive Pláka cafe/bistro on Mnisikleous Street, where the tables are sprinkled down steps and the people watching is second to none.

Stay: Acro&Polis – Sakis Gerodimos runs his point perfect guest house in a fabulous location, agreeably priced with a handful of rooms and a wonderful rooftop terrace.

Psiri

The original home of Athens ‘street art’ and a long history of being anti-establishment, Psiri was ‘cleaned up’ for the 2004 Olympics but still has a quirky edge. Buy a ‘bougatsa’ (Greek filo pastry filled with sweet semolina custard) in Iroon Square, browse the plentiful antique shops or take an art walking tour of the colorful murals.

Stay: L’Aventura Athens – ‘hidden gem’ is a bit of cliché in the travel writing game but this place really is: gorgeous fit-out, top location and the great views (make sure you get a balcony room).

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