Following Greece's financial meltdown, a wave of young Athenian entrepreneurs are fighting rising unemployment with new ventures. Their aim: to lure back visitors and reinvigorate the local scene
It's been a bumpy few years for Athens. Grinding austerity has sparked riots, strikes and political turbulence, bringing tourism in the city to a shuddering halt. But as Greece makes tentative steps towards recovery, Athenians are championing the capital's revival with creative start-ups that focus on the affordable and authentic.
While most of the souvenirs in Pláka - Athens's old town - are imported from China, Forget Me Not stocks witty updates on Greek classics including evil-eye coasters and tote bags made from recycled feta tins. At B38, Mirella Manta and Ioli Michalopoulou sell accessories from local designers alongside own-label womenswear. And while many high-end boutiques have closed, Mohnblümchen has evolved; reborn as a pizza restaurant, it's packed with the fashionable crowd once more.
Off gritty Omonia Square, Romantso is named after the pulp magazine once printed there. The top floors have cheap studios for creatives, while hipsters hang out in the bar and performance spaces downstairs. Less self-consciously cool is cosy neighbourhood bar Kyrios Hou, the latest hotspot in Ano Petralona, a residential area that has morphed into a late-night street party. Don't confuse it with Kyrios, another newcomer, where a stuffed gorilla guards the DJ booth, and the staff in their leather aprons are as good-looking as the clientele.
Once overpriced and underwhelming, the Athens hotel scene is being freshened up by DIY hoteliers. A group of friends are behind Live in Athens (from about £40), 11 cool apartments scattered around vibrant Thisei and Psirri, and Dimosthenis Misentzis and Nondas Skorpideas quit corporate careers to set up hip hostel City Circus (beds from about £15), which recently added nine rooms and a bar/restaurant. More smart new hotels are set to open next year: Emporikon, a neoclassical landmark on Agia Irini Square; and Athenswas, a Design Hotel by the Acropolis Museum, with Parthenon views from the top three floors.
Even the sclerotic Greek state is breathing new life into public spaces. Fourteen years in the making, the National Museum of Contemporary Artfinally welcomes the public this summer on the site of the former Fix brewery. And Aristotle's Lyceum has just reopened near the beautifully restored Byzantine Museum, although the city's modern-day philosophers congregate at Free Thinking Zone, a lively bookshop, events space and think tank rolled into one.
There are even grander projects on the horizon. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, designed by Renzo Piano, will house the National Library and Greek National Opera when it opens in 2016. Until then, the Visitors' Center hosts concerts and workshops, with guided tours of the site every Sunday. Nearby, the vast old Hellinikon Airport is being transformed into a waterfront park, marina and residences, with Norman Foster tipped for the job. Like the mythological phoenix, Athens is reborn.
Contributed by RACHEL HOWARD
This feature first appeared in Condé Nast Traveller, www.cntraveller.com, September 2014
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