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Eat, drink, play: Where new meets old in Athens

Posted August 14

While the shuttered storefronts around downtown bespeak an economy still very much in recovery, make no mistake that Athens, the Greek capital, has a vibrant and fighting spirit.

Despite everything the country has been through since 2008, there are new restaurants, stores, cultural institutions and a strong artistic presence. One big coup: Documenta, the longstanding European contemporary art fair, held its first expansion of the exhibit outside of Germany in Athens from April to July.

On many fronts, Greece is mining -- and reviving -- its long, rich history to build on traditions of innovation, creativity, and culinary ingenuity. This is to say that Athens isn't a place to just pass through on your way to the islands. Stay a few days to take in an ancient metropolis that should not be brushed aside because of its economic woes.

Here's a brief guide, but certainly not a definitive list, of what's new and what's not to miss:

Beyond spanakopita: where to eat

Nolan

Opened in 2015, Nolan has already received a Michelin star for the Greek-influenced Japanese cooking of Sotiris Kontizas, who was raised, appropriately, by a Greek father and a Japanese mother.

But this isn't fusion of the early aughts with lots of sauces and too many flavors. These dishes are clean and simple, mirroring the minimalist space in which Nolan is located in the city center.

An ideal meal includes these items: zucchini and eggplant salad with miso, soba noodles with smoked salmon and shrimp with rice paper.

Sushimou

Around the corner from Nolan is the Sushi Nakazawa of Athens: in other words, the most competitive sushi reservation in town. (The bar only seats 12, and it can take four to six weeks to land a reservation.)

Sushimou lives up to the hype. The chef, Antonis Drakoularakos, was recently named one of the top 100 chefs in the world at the Chefs World Summit.

Drakoularakos has mastered Japanese sashimi knifework and presentation to perfection while relying primarily on local Mediterranean fish -- a winning combination.

His secret weapon is that he relies on one trusted fisherman to bring him the best quality fish, which he then hand selects from daily catch. The sashimi is silky, the atmosphere relaxed, and the whole meal is a work of mouth-watering genius.

The Funky Gourmet

In an unmarked building in the artsy area of Keramikos is one of two two-Michelin star restaurants in Greece.

The decor is aesthetically intense, creating a vibe that's half speakeasy, half temple. Chefs and co-owners Georgianna Hiliadaki and Nick Roussos call their food "Modern Greek Cuisine."

Over the span of four hours and 14 courses, diners enjoy dishes such as cuttlefish Oreo, sea urchin pasta, miniaturized picnic foods, picture-perfect sculpted dishes that are miniatures or reproductions of familiar items with a twist, and one of the most inventive Greek salads you'll ever eat.

The meal is for the culinarily adventurous -- one course is lamb brains -- but anyone who appreciates a good performance and beautifully conceived food will find this restaurant satisfying. The service flows like a well-conducted orchestra (145 euros per person; tasting menu only). Budget permitting, splurge for the alcohol pairings, which are almost as adventurous and varied as the food.

Papadakis

For more straightforward Greek cuisine, head to Papadakis in Kolonaki, a neighborhood that resembles the 16th arrondissement in Paris or New York's Upper East Side. Located on a quiet, shady residential street on a steep hillside, this is the perfect place to get away from the crowds.

Start with the stewed chickpeas and eggplant. If you're hungry, order a whole grilled fish, which can run close to 80 euros. The pastas are excellent. There's also good people-watching to be had in this refined, upscale establishment, where the posh Greek crowd starts pouring in, but only after 9:30 or 10 p.m.

Nolan, 33, Voulis 31, Athens 105 57, Greece, +30 21 0324 3545

Sushimou, Skoufou 6, Athens 105 57, Greece, +30 21 1407 8457

The Funky Gourmet, 13 Paramithias, Athens 104 35, Greece, +30 210 5242727

Papadakis, Fokilidou 15, Athens 106 73, Greece, +30 21 0360 8621

READ: Where to get the best street food in Athens

Sleep it off

Hotel Grande Bretagne

The grande dame of hotels in Athens sits opposite the Parliament on Syntagma Square and has been a beacon of luxury and sophistication in the city for many years.

There are many draws to this 1842-vintage building that used to be a private mansion. Today, the 321-room hotel boasts a rooftop restaurant and bar with some of the best views of the Acropolis, a spa with three kinds of steam rooms, a sauna, a large indoor pool and a gift store called GB Corner that carries a well-curated selection of luxury items.

The rooms have high ceilings and crown moldings, but with fully modern and updated bathrooms.

Next door is the Hotel Grande Bretagne's sister property, The King George, which has 102 rooms, including 39 suites, and has a more intimate feel and scale with a modern touch, but maintains the same level of elegance.

New Hotel

At this 79-room hip boutique hotel in the centrally located neighborhood of Syntagma, it's all about the design. After all, the hotel is owned by Dakis Joannou, one of the most famous art collectors in Greece.

The decor includes work from the Venice Biennale and an area called the "New Art Lounge," a space that includes 2,000 art book titles. There's an excellent ground level cafe, as well as a stunning rooftop that serves an excellent salmon tartare.

The rooms are sleek and minimalist, and there's a gym, Jacuzzi and steam bath.

Electra Metropolis Hotel

The Electra Metropolis Hotel opened last year, joining two other Electra hotel locations in Athens.

This 216-room hotel has sweeping views of the Parthenon, an outdoor pool, and is centrally located near Syntagma Square. There are three restaurants, a rooftop bar, a sauna and a Turkish bath. Bathrooms amenities come from Korres, a Greek skincare company that makes products such as Greek yogurt sun care.

Hotel Grand Bretagne, Vasileos Georgiou A 1, Athens 105 64, Greece, +30 21 0333 0000

New Hotel, Filellinon 16, Athens 105 57, Greece, +30 21 0327 3000

Electra Metropolis Hotel, Mitropoleos 15, Athens 105 57, Greece, +30 21 4100 6200

READ: How to run the Greek islands

What to see

Even if you can't afford the famed jewelry designers' weighty gold pieces, visit the Ilia Lalaounis Jewelry Museum near the Acropolis.

This not-be-missed museum showcases 3,000 jewelry items from 50 collections done between 1940 and 2002. It's equal part feast for the eyes and history museum, not to mention the only jewelry museum in Greece.

There's also a great gift shop that sells beautiful, well-priced scarves. Also, don't miss the tranquil outdoor cafe that's the perfect place to gather your strength to climb up to the Acropolis.

Last year, The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center was unveiled, heralding one of the city's most ambitious projects in the past decade. The $867 million Renzo Piano-designed structure that has vistas of Athens and the Aegean Sea is one of the most sustainable buildings of its size.

This fall, the center will become the official home of the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera. The complex boats a 40-acre landscaped park, a much-needed addition to Athens, which has the lowest green space per capita of any city in Europe. The park includes playgrounds, water fountains, an esplanade for running, biking and walking and a glass-walled lighthouse at the park summit.

The Acropolis Museum, opened in 2009, is a must-visit before heading to the actual site.

This airy space frames the antiquity exhibitions and puts the Acropolis in historical context. In fact, the museum tracks the entire history of Athens. Another highlight is the antiquities themselves, which are very attractively presented, from statues, caryatids and columns to friezes, marble busts and gold coins. A bonus: a superb cafe on the ground floor.

Ilia Lalounis Jewelry Museum, Kallisperi 12, Athens 117 42, Greece, +30 21 0922 1044

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, Leof. Andrea Siggrou 364, Kallithea 176 74, Greece, +30 21 6809 1000

The Acropolis Museum, Dionysiou Areopagitou 15, Athens 117 42, Greece, +30 21 0900 0900

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Souvenir hunting

Celia Kritharioti, who is best known for her custom couture dresses (Gwyneth Paltrow wore one in a photo for Vogue Mexico), has a pr-t---porter, or ready to wear, line that is elegant, chic and feminine.

To get access to this much more affordable line (her couture pieces start at 5,000 euros), head to her only store in Athens, which opened in 2014 at the Golden Hall, an upscale shopping center on the city's outskirts. This is a rare opportunity to shop for one of the best and most talented designers in the country at a price point that won't break the bank.

Five years ago, friends Dimitra Kolotoura and Mareva Grabowski, neither of whom came from the fashion world, hired a former designer at Celine and launched a brand of ultra-chic Greek-designed and -inspired accessories and clothes called Zeus and Dione that now have a cult following around the world.

In Athens, you can find the brand's latest at the GB Corner shop inside the Hotel Grande Bretagne.

Greece is a jewelry paradise. After all, there is a tradition, stretching back to Alexander the Great, of the craft. So take a tour of the top jewelry designers in Athens, even just to look and admire their modern-day craftsmanship and baubles.

Here are three designers to look out for:

-- Ileana Makri, who is known for her colorful designs that often incorporate the evil eye, can be found in three locations in Athens.

-- Yannis Sergakis, who descends from a family of Greek diamond traders, has a shop not too far from Syntaga Square that sells his simple, architecturally themed pieces

-- Nikos Koulis, who also comes from a lineage who worked in the gem industry, uses many colorful stones in his pieces, which are inspired by ancient Greek culture.

Golden Hall, Leof. Kifisias 37A, Marousi 151 23, Greece, +30 21 0680 3450

Yannis Sergakis, Valaoritou 5, Athina 106 71, Greece, +30 21 0363 0041

Nikos Koulis, Filikis Eterias 15, Kolonaki Square, Athens, +30 210-7233783

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