Vouliagmeni lake near Athens, Greece. Photograph: Alamy
A few miles from Athens lies a seaside idyll where great beaches and local charm are still undiscovered by British visitors
Wednesday evening, it's just before midnight and I'm in the Athenssuburb of Glyfada. At Lemoni in Kyprou Street – the most popular of the new, post-crisis breed of taverna – there are few vacant tables. Out on the pavement, four tall pine trees are corseted in gold lights. Lavender and sweet peas spill from planter boxes made from Artemis wine crates. Greek couples and groups are smoking, sipping cloudy ouzo over shared platters; there are families with young children busting curfews.
A hundred metres further down the road, at Soleto, cafe society is at full tilt. Cars are double-parked (a bit of a Hellenic habit) and the trees are lit up like it's Christmas as Athenians venerate the holy trinity of life: caffeine, cigarettes, mobile phone. It's a scene full of kefi, a Greek word that means joyful spirits.
Something has changed of late. Two years ago, every visit to Glyfada (25 minutes from the Acropolis) meant seeing a freshly abandoned shopfront; now, the tumbleweed feeling has gone and there's a tangible pulse of optimism in this cosmopolitan, seaside town, capital of the Athenian Riviera.
Few visitors to Greece realise that less than 10 miles south of the city centre – and still defined as Greater Athens – lies this photogenic stretch of mountains, mineral lakes, seaside resorts and sandy beaches with blue-flag certified clean waters. You won't find the "Athenian Riviera" on any Google map (yet); it's more of an idea. The words are local shorthand for the 35 miles of coastal road that connect the seaside retail hub of Glyfada to Cape Sounion and the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon on the Attica peninsula.
Between Glyfada and Cape Sounion is a run of characterful seaside towns, each with its own flavour, feeding directly off the coastline-hugging Poseidonos Avenue: Voula, Kavouri, Vouliagmeni, Varkiza, Agia Marina, Lagonissi, Anavysso, Saronida. At any one of them, you can experience the kind of island magic that many people come to Greece for, without having to set foot on a ferry: from shopping and nightlife in flamboyant Vouliagmeni to unspoiled craggy beaches in down-to-earth Agia Marina.
The drive from Glyfada to Sounion (just over an hour) has a coarse drama and stirring physicality reminiscent of Australia's Great Ocean Road. To your left, the landscape is by turns bucolic and resort-like. To your right, there's a constant, hypnotic sweep of Aegean Sea, the nearby Saronic Gulf islands etched coyly against the horizon.
Many of the most alluring stretches of this coast have been privatised, and beach access fees of €6-€8 are prohibitive to the average Greek on a monthly salary of €800 and one mayor went on a hunger strike against the carving up of prime coastline. So locals tend to seek out the free beaches (without facilities) or one of the numerous beach cafes, which will let you occupy a sun lounger for the price of a coffee or a toasted sandwich. Purists head for the scenic coves and headlands between Vouliagmeni and Agia Marina. In summer, look out for where Athenians have left their cars en masse by the side of the paraliaki (the main coast road) to reach the best local swimming spots below.
The Athenian Riviera's best asset is how off-grid it remains. Yes, there are the trophy venues such as Jackie Onassis's beloved Astir Palace resort in Vouliagmeni, but there is also a compelling rawness, an authenticity that you can't always find on more popular Greek islands, with their tourist hordes.
In most Athenian Riviera suburbs, ancient traditions such as the laiki agora (street markets), where you can come away with the week's news and a huge tub of Kalamata olives for a couple of euros, are still an essential way of life. And in theplateias (town squares), there are still places where two people can eat to bursting point and get change from €30.
I am frequently humbled by the generosity and neighbourly spirit of the working Greeks in the area. Recently, facing a €400 bill after a fulsome group dinner at one of our favourite spots, and a broken card machine, the owner shrugged easily. "Don't worry," he said. "Just come back and fix me up sometime next week." Shop owners almost always take the time to chat with children (and ply them with sweets), or to help with the (unfortunately frequent) parking space predicaments.
There's also the sense of singular spots yet to be discovered. Last summer, our eighth here, we stumbled upon a wonderful secluded beach cafe bracketed by a pine-studded cove in Vouliagmeni. Even long-time locals can't agree on its exact name. All you need to know is that you take the third left after the Margi hotel at 11 Litous Street, then a short drive down a dirt track until you reach a canopy of Moncafe umbrellas.
There, you can snorkel in clear shallow waters surrounded by darting fish. Sit all day unharried over a lone frappe coffee. Or enjoy a lunch of fresh calamari and Greek salad while fishing boats bob and children lure baby crabs into buckets at the shoreline. All the time not quite believing that you're still in Athens.
The upscale district of Glyfada, 16km from Athens, is the most commercial of the Riviera suburbs, thanks to the old airport and a former US military base, which cleared out in the 1990s. Because of its high density of cashed-up expats, pop stars and politicians, Glyfada is sometimes dubbed the Hellenic Hamptons. But its character is also strongly nuanced by the many Greek families who have lived here for generations – in the days when it was an unassuming seaside town (long before the tram line connected it to Syntagma Square and Piraeus in time for the 2004 Olympics).
What to do
The Balux leisure complex is one of the Riviera's best days out. Balux resembles something Richard Branson might have designed to entertain famous pals but with a democratic, welcoming feel and unexpectedly friendly rates (and door policy). The cavernous glass-fronted clubhouse is well-appointed for the "all-day hang", with rugs, rocking chairs, gaming stations and an inviting library annexe (and no one hassling you to buy anything). Entry and parking are free, although the plush loungers lining the beach (the best in Glyfada) cost about €8 to hire (including a drink). You can order wood-fired pizzas or sprawl on the lawn of the adults-only pool at the original Balux next door.
You'll definitely get a kick out of a night at one of the area's open-air cinemas. The main one, Alpha Odeon, has English-language screenings of mainstream films, usually starting around dusk at 9pm, with a second screening around 11pm. Just be prepared for the Greeks who see it as a social outing and continue to chat and use their phones.
Where to eat
A wave of enthusiastic, post-financial-crisis startups, particularly in the leafy side-pockets of Kyprou and Laodikis Streets and Esperidon Square, is creating a jazzy SoHo village heartbeat in Glyfada. Affordable and stylish new grillhouses such as Lemoni and Moouu Quality Meats, where a generous serving of sliced oyster blade steak costs just €10, are rapidly reinventing the straight-from-central-casting Greek taverna.
Springing up everywhere, too, are Manhattan-feel eateries and cosy microbars: Esperidon Square's Food Mafia, where the menu hero is the granulated burger; the Vein Cheese and Wine bar on Botsari (the baked katsikisio goat cheese with goji berry marmalade, €6, trumps all).
The main Glyfada laiki, held each Thursday along several blocks on Lazaraki Street, opposite Agiou Konstantinou cathedral, is a sensory – if chaotic – pleasure. Amid Mediterranean sound and fury, you will find Greek specialities such as mountain tea, honey, olive oil, or a dolmades roller for making your own stuffed vine leaves at home.
Where to stay
The modern, and bizarrely named, Congo Palace on Poseidonos Avenue, stands just across the road from the sea in central Glyfada. The pool area is large and lovely and there is a bus-stop directly outside the hotel with connections to Athens city centre.
Ten minutes down the coast is Vouliagmeni, the Riviera's crown jewel and probably the best place to base yourself for a longer holiday. With its manicured boulevards, private beaches and nautical clubs, compact Vouliagmeni is easily the most self-aware Riviera postcode. But it's also a great natural beauty that can be explored on foot.
What to do
There are numerous scenic trails: some on Mount Hymettus directly above the main cafe strip, another tracing the green curves of the Astir Palace peninsula. Meanwhile, Lake Vouliagmeni, almost hidden from view behind Poseidonos Avenue, is a natural treasure that is bewilderingly under-promoted. Open year-round, the lake is a vast sunken limestone cave fed by underground mineral currents, and at a constant 24C. Many locals gripe about the €8 entrance but wading through the brackish grottos, with tiny black fish (kalogries) nudging your toes, you feel like you're in an exclusive spa town.
Where to eat
Directly opposite the lake is Labros, a fish restaurant that has been a Vouliagmeni institution since 1889. You get get prime views of Vouliagmeni Bay from the roomy terrace. The statement dishes, midopilafo (mussel rice with raisins and pine nuts) and garithes saganaki (shrimp pan-fried with tomato and feta), are consistently good (a meal for two with wine costs around €45-€50) and there is the added entertainment of watching young Greeks cliff-bomb from the taverna's popular diving rocks.
Just around the bay in Kavouri, beachfront Garbi restaurant has a loyal following thanks to its potent sunset views and outstanding meze. High notes are the wined eggplant, zucchini balls with avocado sauce, and grilled octopus (dinner for two with wine costs around €40). Two of the Riviera's nicest free beaches (Megalo Kavouri and Mikro Kavouri) are also in Kavouri, within walking distance of Vouliagmeni.
Where to stay
The Vouliagmeni Suites have a great central location, a nice pool and contemporary rooms. The Margi boutique hotel, in central Vouliagmeni, remains a top pick for glamour minus the price tag. In summer, the slick pool bar with its louche double loungers and super-size-me pillows becomes a destination in itself. Its just-launched Baku taverna also provides a welcome time-out, serving "new Greek gourmet" dishes such as lamb with chickpea puree and kalamon olives.
People do swim in the sea in Glyfada. But most Greeks prefer to go further afield where the beaches face south and are more protected from Athens. In the shabby-chic fishing port of Varkiza, 17 miles south-east of Athens, you will find two of the best private beaches: Yabanaki and its neighbour, Varkiza Resort, both easily accessed by the E22 bus. They form a 500-metre sprawl of sandy beach with clean, shallow water. Yabanaki is a family-pleaser with excellent watersports, wide, grassy flanks and a superb taverna, Yalo Yalo (no phone, don't miss the €7 octopus meatballs). The smaller, hipper Varkiza Resort attracts more of a Mykonos crowd. At each beach, you pay around €7 to get in (less on weekdays). There's not much else to do here but that's part of the charm.
A rowdy long lunch by the sea is a summer weekend staple for Athenians and Anavyssos, 32 miles from the city, is a popular Sunday destination. The relaxed town is famous for two things: windsurfing and its seafront fish tavernas. You're in the right place when you spot the waiters endangering their lives by dashing across the street to collect orders from the kitchens.
The kingpin taverna is Akrogiali, where the hospitable Panayotis prides himself on the freshness of his barbouni (red mullet). Given its price of around €55 a kilo, though, you may want to stick with cheaper fish such as kolios (mackerel) orgavros (anchovies) – both delicious grilled or fried.
When ancient Athenians sailed home from battle, their first glimpse of civilisation was the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, erected around 440BC. With the actual temple now roped off, you may not be able to get close enough to read the swooning graffiti of Lord Byron, still visible among the Doric columns. But standing up there on a clear day, you can see the other two points of the Greeks' "ancient holy triangle", formed by the Acropolis, 44 miles away, and the Temple of Athena on the island of Aegina. There is a magnificent stillness at Sounion that you don't experience at the Parthenon.
Most Greeks avoid the temple cafe, scenic though it is, and eat at one of two tavernas on the small crescent of beach below. The upper one, Elias, gets the taxi drivers' vote. As you sit there at sunset, watching the seagulls wheel against Poseidon's silhouette, the contrast with Athens could not be greater. (Entrance to the Sounion ruins is €4.)
This is a sleepy, mostly residential, place, where the only overnighters tend to be honeymooners staying at the ritzy, modern Aegeon beach hoteldoubles from €110), sometimes after marrying in the shadow of the temple.
Riviera fish restaurants price their speciality fish by the kilo (bones and all), which can blow the bill unexpectedly high. Most people find that half a kilo of fish, rather than a whole kilo, is sufficient for two people.
When dining in fish tavernas, avoid ordering anything that once walked on land: the meat dishes here are often average. Carnivores should stick to the grill houses – where they use the best cuts for souvlaki, kontosouvli(rotisserie-cooked pork hunks) and kokoretsi (organ meats wrapped in intestines).
• Taxis in Athens are cheap and plentiful and most drivers speak basic English. Generally speaking, you should pay about €1 per minute. Taxi Beat is a free Greek phone app which you can use to contact your preferred driver. Several council-run bus lines also serve the coastal road. Pick up the Athens public transport pocket map at the airport when you land.
• The coast road gets jammed during summer weekends – especially on the sections around Varkiza and Vouliagmeni. Avoid typical Greek travel times by setting out from the capital no later than 9am.
• Some establishments claim not to accept credit cards and will insist on being paid in cash. Ask before ordering to spare embarrassment.
From Amanda Dardanis, www.theguardian.com