Cultural Pit-Stops in Athens: From antiquities to Greece’s contemporary artistic scene
When in Athens, get up close and personal with the antiquities, explore Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman culture, and familiarise yourself with the contemporary artistic scene in Athens. Devote two days to museum hopping to get a feel for Greece’s layered history and end with a visual performance at one of the newer cultural venues in Athens.
The Acropolis Museum
Head for the Parthenon by noon before the blinding white light reflecting off millennia-old marble and the throngs of tourists get the better of you. Rising like a glass sphinx mirroring the Parthenon, the Acropolis Museum has received more visitors than the ancient temple, a resounding endorsement for the museum that celebrates its tenth anniversary this summer. Take in the meticulously curated ancient artefacts and themed exhibitions, followed by an epicurean lunch with touching-distance views of the Acropolis. The restaurant is open for lunch every day and on Friday evenings with a live jazz band for company.
Dionysiou Areopagitou St, Tel: 210.924.1043, Website
The Benaki Museum
Arguably one of the finest eclectic museums in Europe, the Benaki Museum offers a quick Greek history 101, covering everything from folk costumes to 20th-century paintings. Its three floors showcase impeccable treasures from the Bronze Age up to WWII. Especially impressive are the Byzantine icons and the extensive collection of Greek regional costumes, as well as intricately carved salons and boudoirs from Macedonian mansions. The museum has two annexes: one in Kerameikos housing the Museum of Islamic Art and the Pireos Avenue branch for contemporary art. The museum shop is a treasure-trove of creative, contemporary Greek design, inspired by traditional jewellery and motifs. Long a favoured haunt for the well-heeled, the Benaki café offers wholesome Greek meals with illustrator Antonis Kyriakoulis’ quirky caricatures gracing the walls and tableware.
Koumbari 1 & Vas. Sofias Avenue, Tel: 210.367.1000, Website
The Museum of Cycladic Art
This exceptional museum is dedicated to the iconic minimalist marble Cycladic figurines, dating back almost 5,000 years, a precursor to modern sculpture with their simplicity and purity of form inspiring 20th-century artists including Picasso and Modigliani. Other than its stunning Bronze Age figurines, the museum also features Greek and Cypriot art dating from 2000 BC to the 4th century AD, sharing space with works in temporary exhibitions by contemporary heavyweights like George Condo, Ai Weiwei and Paul Chan. The airy, light-filled café makes for a great pit stop for a light lunch or coffee.
Neofytou Douka 4, Tel: 2107228321, Website
The Byzantine and Christian Museum
A stunningly beautiful setting, in a sprawling garden with the heady scent of orange blossoms and jasmine permeating the air, the Byzantine and Christian Museum houses a treasure trove of sacred icons, mosaics and textiles. A must-stop for Byzantium fans, the museum stocks an impressive collection dating back to the 3rd century, a powerful reminder of the legacy and richness of the Byzantine era.
Vas. Sofias 22, Tel: 213 213. 9517, Website
The National Archaelogical Museum
Set in a stunning neo-classical building, the National Archaeological Museum ranks among the world’s most important museums. It houses the finest collection of Greek antiquities dating from the Neolithic era to Classical periods, including the Ptolemaic era in Egypt. Make time to take in its impressive collection of exquisite sculptures, pottery, jewellery, frescoes and artefacts from all over Greece. The museum’s beautifully presented exhibits are displayed by theme, while the temporary exhibitions make a terrific introduction to the rich legacy of early Greek art. The café provides shady respite, with its palm-fringed gardens evoking a different Greece.
Patission 44, Tel: 210.821.7724, Website
Stavros Niarchos Foundation
The new home of Greece’s National Opera and National Library, the Stavros Niarchos complex, surrounded by a 52-acre park dotted with olive orchards, running tracks and picnic spots, is where all the creative action is. Renzo Piano’s glass and steel landmark, which towers over the Athenian Riviera skyline with enviable views to the Saronic Gulf and to the Acropolis, delivers on its soaring promise of being the cultural epicentre of this vibrant city. An estimated 5 million Athenians visited it in its first year of operation, enthusiastically embracing its rich cultural repertoire and activities that range from yoga on its lawns, tango lessons and kayaking on the canal.
Syngrou Ave. 364, Tel: 216.809.1000, Website
The Onassis Cultural Centre
With intelligent programming and top-notch acts, the Onassis Cultural Centre has within nine years managed to provoke artistic debate among Athenians and tourists alike, starting with Tim Etchell’s bold neon sign that graces its exterior: ‘All we have is words, all we have is worlds’. Its opening in 2009 coincided with the lowest point in Greek morale, and its role as a catalyst has been transformative and uplifting, elevating Greeks to aspire for the sublime when everything else seemed to be crashing around them. The gourmet restaurant on the top floor matches the innovativeness and high aspirations of the centre’s cultural repertoire.
Syngrou Ave. 107-109, Tel: 213.017.8000, Website