Athenian Rhapsody: the Perfect City Break

Don’t get me wrong, the splendor of nature has given me much solace and joy on my travels throughout the last 24 months. However, I have a confession to make: there are few things that make me feel more alive than exploring a foreign city by myself… and boy, have I missed it!

For my much-yearned-for trip to Athens, I was keen to find the perfect bolt hole – something characterful, a little decadent; but also homey enough to allow me to indulge in the fantasy that this is my life and I do have a chic little apartment on the borders of Kolonaki and Exarchia, in a storied, elegant townhouse, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono once stayed in the late 1960s… Allow me to introduce you to Monsieur Didot.

This glorious six-room boutique hotel, where a century-old sweeping staircase of polished wood welcomes you inside the building’s original plaster pink walls, has been meticulously and sensitively restored by best friends and owners Natalia Georgopoulou and Margarita Papaioannou. Each room is exquisitely decorated, riffing on the building’s links to the world of writing, poetry and song. I stayed in “The Sonnet,” where inky blue walls set off shelves of carefully selected vintage books (in Greek and English), interesting artworks and pleasingly organic-shaped, sculptural ceramic bowls, cups and other essentials. Service is attentive, but light-touch: breakfast (creamy Greek yogurts, wholesome cereals, eggs and coffee) comes delivered to your room on a little tray, looking so stylish it could be a page torn from an interior design magazine. Oh, did I mention that the name “Didot’ is an homage to the neoclassical typeface created in the 19th century, which is indeed the very font that Vogue magazine uses for its logo? Really, is it any wonder that I loved it so…?

The neighborhood’s strong ties with bohemian intelligentsia and bookishness is exhilarating and everywhere to behold, with independent bookshops seemingly on every corner. Before I embarked on my trip, my next door neighbor in London (a Greek intellectual) told me that his late mother, a leading Greek feminist by the name of Eleni Pamboukionce ran a bookshop at No. 38 Sina Street (just a few doors down from Monsieur Didot). This was the first feminist bookshop, selling women’s literature and books for children, and the setting for many feminist gatherings and debate.

I make a pilgrimage to the address; Sadly, the bookshop is no longer there. But across the road, I am thrilled to discover the bookstore of the publishing house Melissa, and particularly their collection of boldly graphic Art Deco/Futurist illustrated books for children (in Greek and English). I buy one about the Griffin for my youngest son.

As I weave through the bohemian streets of Exarchia, I take in the dynamic collision of old and new among the mélange of antiques shops, hipster boutiques, coffee joints, barber shops and independent galleries. I like the street-inspired menswear and skateboarder vibes of Playroomwhere I buy a cool oversized T-shirt from the selection of ironic dusty pastel sportswear for my eldest boy.

Another gem of a boutique is the quirky concept store – It’s all, oh so souvenir to me! at 44 Sina Street, where hipster humor meets the contemporary craft movement and where you can buy fabulous feminist “Rosie the Riveter’ earrings.” Do I snag myself a pair? Hell, yes.

Potentially more dangerous to my bank balance is Rodios Industrial, a thrilling vintage emporium that reflects the discerning eye of Fiona Rodios (daughter of antique dealer Constantine Rodios) specializing in items from the 1960s to ’90s – a fizzy blend of Pop Art exuberance, mixed with industrial chic.

Kolonaki is the place. My shop is the pointt” read the words chalked onto the blackboard paint of the ceiling, and I’m inclined to agree! While I’m contemplating the wisdom of shipping an original Tolix chair back to London, I know it’s time to seek out a coffee and head to Samba Coffee Roastersa java joint recommended to me by colleagues. I order an flat white with oat milk. Frankly, dear readers, it is sublime.

My Sina Street base is perfect for venturing further afield to experience the historic glories of the city by foot (as long as you pack your thick-soled walking shoes – the pavements are steep and bumpy). And so, the next morning, I rise early to walk to the Acropolis as the city starts to awake, threading in and out of the darting scooters as I stride out.

My walk takes around 30 minutes; or it would have done, had I not been distracted by the busy hum of pavement cafés, the clusters of people at newspaper kiosks, and then the orange trees and pastel doorways as my route gives way to picturesque tavernas and color-washed cottages on my vertiginous climb to the citadel. It is utterly magical to be up here, taking in the panorama of the city in the morning light. From the Sacred Rock, I climb down to the Acropolis Museum. In the winter, the museum hours are Monday to Thursday 09:00-17:00, Friday 09:00-22:00 and weekends 09:00-20:00. But I can’t help dreaming about planning a return visit to coincide with the August full moon, when the museum stays open until midnight.

I am a Modern Art fanatic and, as I traverse winding streets back into the city, curator friends ping me with their recommendations. I love the bold, cartoonish swagger of the (Hypebeast-approved) exhibition program at Allouche Beniasbut for an hour or so of refined, soul-lifting artistic enrichment in the company of works by some of the world’s most famous modern masters, a visit to the Picassos and the Cézannes at the Basile and Elise Goulandris Foundation cannot be equaled.

For an exhilarating experience of contemporary art and monumental modernist architecture, catch the Metro to Piraeus 138 Benaki Museum. The cool urban extension of the Benaki Museum is the perfect venue to round off a busy day as a culture vulture, taking in a photography show and then dissecting it over a cocktail between the sharp lines of the museum’s vast courtyard, in the company of the black-clad downtown art crowd.

Dinner, you say? On my first night, I dine at the famous Athenee, the 1939 landmark restaurant, where fashion editors eat brunch on Sundays (along with the rest of the Athens chic set). By night, the spirit of fabulous diners of yore, such as Melina Mercouri and Sophia Loren, as well as the swinging suppertime jazz, gives the sumptuous menu and clubby interior an air of irresistible old-school glamor. On my second night, I stay closer to my home-away-from-home and dine at the cozy, scrubbed-table neighborhood trattoria Capanna where plates of farm-fresh antipasti and simple, just-so pasta bowls are the order of the day. Oh, and I indulge in a tiramisudusted in bitter chocolate, that is so delicious it should probably be illegal.

It feels like my Athenian adventure has only just begun. Monsieur Didot – I will be back!

Sarah Bailey is a writer, podcast host, and International Editor-at-Large at Vogue Greece.

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