This is a city where centuries-old wonders are nipped and yapped at by a snarly city of buzzing motorbikes, chaotic pavements and locals intent on riding roughshod over anti-smoking laws. There is, however, plenty of personality amid the grit. Gasworks have become giant cultural centres, and street art fills the gaps between al fresco bars and old-school souvlaki joints. Among all this are constant reminders of the past. Byzantine churches take centre stage in the middle of cafe-lined squares, roped-off ruins stand at the side of busy streets, and Metro stations are mini-museums to the relics discovered while they were excavated. The city’s hotel scene is surprisingly invigorating, too, spurred on to a great extent by the 2004 Olympics. New hotels opened, and some of the old guard had to raise their game in response to the competition. While many have had to differentiate through design, the old staple battleground of providing the best rooftop views of the Acropolis continues to be fiercely contested.
For living like a local: Fresh Hotel
The Fresh Hotel was one of the glut that arrived in time for the city’s hosting of the 2004 Olympics, bringing a bit of style to Omonia — the somewhat rough-and-ready neighbourhood that’s home to buzzing local markets yet also borders bar-packed Psirri. Some 14 years later, it still feels fresh. The rooftop pool has a chic, Balearic chillout vibe by day and becomes a popular bar-restaurant by night. There’s a considerable amount of sass throughout: the lift comes with cartoonish images of fishing nets; the lobby is home to 3D model cityscapes in glass cubes; and ‘secret’ guides to luxury Athens are knowingly placed in the rooms. Feature walls above the low-rise beds have big, bold spots of paint splodged across them, and every table and mirror seems to be custom-designed.
Rooms: Doubles from €103.
For offbeat design: New Hotel
The decor of the New Hotel is outré from the off: the entrance has a collection of cacti in clay pots, while inside, walls are covered in bits of old wooden furniture. The supporting pillars in the restaurant, interestingly, are made to look like trees. The rooms have various themes and often ludicrous furniture, such as the chair with a back that doubles as a ladder stretching to the ceiling. It’s clearly pitching towards a young Instagram-friendly crowd, but the New also does a nice line in old-fashioned service.
Rooms: Doubles from €155 (£137).
For postcode envy: The Hera
There’s an old school elegance about the Hera. It exudes the confidence of a discerningly classy neighbourhood hotel, one the cognoscenti choose every time they visit. The lobby comes with a gorgeous stained-glass ceiling and rich dark wood panelling, stout doors have brass knockers and headboards are plumply padded. Things get slightly out of hand in the bathroom, perhaps, where the green marble overload is a touch too strong. Still, the Hera is a short amble from the Acropolis and New Acropolis Museum, and it also offers rather cool, wooden-framed bikes for €20 (£18) a day for those who want to explore further afield.
Rooms: Doubles from €72 (£64).
For making a splash: Electra Palace
The bedrooms at the Electra Palace may not be much to get excited about, but you’re probably not going to spend time watching TV in bed when you could head up to the hotel’s rooftop instead. There’s an indoor pool and spa, however, it’s the outdoor pool that’s the real showstopper. Admire the Parthenon and surrounding Plaka while you swim lengths — or just lie back on a sunbed, cocktail in hand. And, after dark, bag a table at the rooftop restaurant, where you can dine in the glow of the illuminated Acropolis.
Rooms: Doubles from €156 (£138).
For an arty escape: The King George
On Syntagma Square, home of the Greek Parliament, the King George invites you in with art nouveau awnings, then turns the lobby into an art gallery. A giant tapestry hangs by the reception desk, paintings curated by an in-house art advisor are for sale on the back walls, and an extraordinary portrait of David Bowie by the lifts is made from thousands of test tubes. Upstairs, the Tudor House restaurant has A-grade Acropolis views, and bright rooms that get more interesting the more you nosy around. Creamy marble bathrooms have leaf-shaped art nouveau lamps, while beds stand on parquet floors and glass cabinets filled with oddities such as Victorian stopwatches.
Rooms: Doubles from €225 (£200).
For going all-out: The Grande Bretagne
Nobody seriously debates the Grande Bretagne’s status as the top address in town. It’s the sort of place where afternoon tea is served under the gaze of the winter garden’s stained-glass windows, while the Indian President’s delegation flits between the function rooms, and the gazebo-esque cigar lounge serves barrel-aged cocktails. Bedrooms come with big bronze chandeliers, plus custom-made, peacock-and-fountain-emblazoned fabric bedheads. Big drape curtains, golden Olympic laurel wreaths and marble-topped bedside tables add to the decor’s sense of grandeur. The proper wow factor comes with the bathroom’s black marble blitz. Or, maybe at sundown in the rooftop restaurant, where — you guessed it — the Acropolis views take centre stage.
Rooms: Doubles from €275 (£244).
For a hidden gem: InnAthens
Good luck finding it — InnAthens hides in a courtyard and requires walking through a fairy-lit atrium next to a wine bar. But when you get there, the service is friendly and the whole place looks effortlessly cool, too. Low-rise super king beds sit next to tables with huge chunks of stone underneath them — a nod to Athens’ omnipresent ruins. Little balconies overlook the courtyard, and the lobby is full of comfy sofas and shelves stacked with books.
Rooms: Doubles from €99 (£88), B&B.
For budget bunks: Nubian Hostel
Banish all memories of hideous, noisy, rattling hostel beds — that’s certainly not what you’ll find at this particularly hip hostel. The Nubian Hostel, which opened in March 2018, has beds that were made to spec: they’re sizable, solid wooden things, bordering on capsules, with lockers built into the bottom and individual lights and plug sockets. All but one dorm is en suite, and the look of the place is livened up considerably by a determined street art aesthetic. The walls are turned into artworks, as are the beds themselves, and the cute, pot plant-fringed terrace, which has a whimsical giant giraffe decorating one side and wry-looking vultures on the other. Despite the jovial look, this isn’t a party joint — a plus for some, a minus for others — and the private rooms are somewhat spartan, but overall the Nubian makes for a thoughtful budget sanctuary in the buzzy, studenty Exarhia district.
Rooms: En suite dorm beds from €21 (£19), private doubles from €45 (£40).
For pure pampering: Melia
On the edge of grungily-hip Exarchia, the Melia may veer towards business hotel territory, but cool touches here and there — flip-up mirrors built into the desks, jacuzzi baths in the superior rooms, corridors full of black and white photography of old Athens — give it a personality boost. And where the Melia really excels, is on the rooftop. As well as a 72ft pool, there’s also a sauna and hammam up there. A tip: request one of the recently renovated rooms between the fifth and eighth floors — they’re available at no extra cost.
Rooms: Doubles from €94 (£84).
For a quirky stay: Hotel Frida
The playful and mildly eccentric two-star Hotel Frida is superb value. The lounge area comes with a piano, amphorae and disc-shaped pictures of Duran Duran and Tina Turner. Air-conditioned bedrooms have stylised paintings of global landmarks such as the Chrysler Building and the Eiffel Tower, while soon after you check in, the man behind the desk will bring you up some fresh water and a bowl of quince. Yes, it’s quirky — odd, even — but this is a budget hotel that’s way better than it needs to be.
Rooms: Doubles from €46 (£41).
Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)