A long weekend in Athens with Mary Katrantzou

Breathtaking views, ancient ruins and a fresh wave of creativity – the acclaimed designer shows Mark C O’Flaherty how her home city is back in the ascendant. Portrait by Bill Georgoussis

Mary Katrantzou on the roof terrace at Hotel Grande Bretagne
Mary Katrantzou on the roof terrace at Hotel Grande Bretagne | Image: Bill Georgoussis

Greece is very different from the country I left in 2003 to study abroad. Athens has changed radically. It’s a city enjoying its recovery and its need for newness. It was quiet for a time, and people didn’t go out. Now there’s such energy, with new neighbourhoods emerging. Artists have moved here from Germany and the UK, and the city has become a lot younger, which is exciting to see. There is a real sense of community. It’s a very open place, with lots of hubs of creativity. 

However, some things remain the same. Athens has a distinctive landscape that mixes so many different elements together. It’s easy to immerse yourself in classical architecture and then be on a mountain walk within 20 minutes. I love to drive to Vouliagmeni, the journey there is beautiful. It’s only 35 minutes by car from Athens and it has a lot of beach clubs. Balux is one of my favourites – it serves sushi and has a chilled-out seaside vibe. It’s great to visit in the summer because I love to swim and escape the heat of the city. I’m also really looking forward to the Astir Palace Hotel reopening this spring. There is still nothing to beat it and its prime position on the Athenian Riviera. It had cabanas on the beach and a real sense of old-school glamour, which I’m sure the Four Seasons will bring back now it has taken over. 

The private pool of the King George hotel’s penthouse suite, which has views of the Acropolis
The private pool of the King George hotel’s penthouse suite, which has views of the Acropolis

Back in the heart of Athens, I’d encourage everyone to stay at Hotel Grande Bretagne, because of its roof terrace next to the parliament building. It has such a wonderful view overlooking the Acropolis and the Parthenon. I remember going there with my parents when I was about nine or 10 years old. We used to eat at the hotel’s GB Corner restaurant on Saturdays – it was one of my father’s favourite places. The dining room has been there since the 19th century. I also recommend the King George, which is smaller but also a classic hotel. It dates back to the 1930s and has great views too. Both Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe were guests.

As long as the temperature isn’t too punishing, Athens is a place for walking and taking in the views. Although it’s possibly the city’s number-one tourist destination, the neighbourhood of Plaka is still a beautiful place to stroll, nestled around the northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis. Any first-timers really have to start here. The area has a lot of historic ambience and there are plenty of opportunities to buy traditional crafts and vintage clothes or just sit outside for a coffee or lunch. Another must-see is the Acropolis Museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi; it’s a dramatic, modern counterpoint to the Acropolis itself. I like to explore nearby Gazi; although not the prettiest neighbourhood, it has totally changed since its old gasworks (gazi is Greek for gasworks) reopened as the Technopolis cultural centre. The streets are now filled with trendy bars, arts spaces and cool places to dine. 

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One of my favourite museums in the city is the Benaki, which recently staged a fundraising show featuring work by Jean Paul Gaultier from his 2006 Tribute To Greece haute couture collection. The museum has an incredible perspective on Cycladic art. When I look at those figurines from Greek history, they still feel so relevant. The best part of the museum, for me, is the jewellery collection – it’s wonderful. 

Athens is the perfect place to experience design old and new. Ileana Makri’s store is a treasure trove of contemporary jewellery inspired by Greek mythology. Philos, which is like Colette – the Paris concept store – has some clothing, but mostly it’s about the curation of design objects. It’s great for a shopping lunch date too. Another favourite store is Enny Monaco. I’ve known the Enny Monaco name since my childhood – our home was very close to its first store and now there are several. The brand has always been supportive of new fashion designers too. 

Enny Monaco is one of Katranzou’s favourite Athens fashion stores
Enny Monaco is one of Katranzou’s favourite Athens fashion stores

A place I always recommend to friends is Varvakios Agora, Athens’ central food market on Athinas Street. It’s the highlight of the market district, and so hectic and colourful. It’s visually impressive, with hanging carcasses illuminated by swinging lightbulbs. Walking through its busy halls is a unique experience as it feels so exotic.

There’s so much new architecture and regeneration in Athens. There’s a stunning park, garden and cultural complex funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation in the suburb of Kallithea – which means “the best view”. A key feature is the Great Lawn, which hosts outdoor festivals. Surrounded by olive trees and indigenous herbs, it’s a beautiful place to enjoy an afternoon in the sun. The centre is by Renzo Piano and the whole complex was gifted to the city last year. It’s an opera house, library and international hub for the arts, the scale of which Athens has never had before. It’s transforming a neighbourhood that was once unremarkable. I think it’s the perfect cultural centre for Greece. The architecture incorporates a solar canopy that powers the buildings below. It’s all driven by sustainability, which I really admire, and the roof is one big green slope.

Ileana Makri gold and diamond earrings, €8,345
Ileana Makri gold and diamond earrings, €8,345

There are other cultural spaces definitely worth a visit. Megaron is Athens’ concert hall, one of the main spaces for live classical music and opera. It’s a really incredible modernist building. I always look forward to seeing The Nutcracker there when I visit my parents at Christmas. Then there is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which hosts a lot of Greek tragedies in the summer months. The real draw of the Odeon is the architecture – it’s an amphitheatre with ancient ruins – and at night, in the open air, the breeze is really fragrant. There’s a grand sense of occasion and ceremony that helps to elevate all its productions.

When it’s really hot during the day it’s good to go for lunch at Jimmy’s Fish, which used to be called Jimmy and the Fish. It’s out in the port of Piraeus, a 20-minute drive from the city centre. I believe it serves the best fish in Athens. If you go for a dinner date rather than lunch – or a late, late lunch as they do in Greece – then you should go to Mary Pickford next door. It’s one of my favourite cocktail bars with a Cuban style to the drinks and interior, and a nice view of the marina. Back in the middle of Athens I like to go for drinks at The Hilton’s Galaxy Bar and also A for Athens – both are classic rooftop bars with amazing views. 

Varvakios Agora market
Varvakios Agora market | Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Another great eatery with a view is Dionysos Zonar’s. I’ve been eating there since I was very young. I used to go with my parents a lot. It’s been refurbished since I was a child, but it’s still very special because of the view across to the Acropolis. I like that it changes through the day, from coffee to lunch to dinner. They do an incredible traditional lamb stew and the best taramasalata you’ll find anywhere. I also really like Ratka, which is an Asian fusion restaurant in the middle of Kolonaki, close to the centre of town. It’s been there for around 40 years. You can get a lot of different styles of food, from sushi to truffle spaghetti, and a fantastic caramelised almond mocha cake. A couple of streets away is L’Abreuvoir, which is a French restaurant I used to go to every Sunday with my parents. It’s very old school and charming. It has the best garlic bread in the world and the finest veal Milanese I have ever had in Greece. They also do fantastic crêpes Suzette.

In the past few years I’ve enjoyed finishing evenings at Salon de Bricolage, which is a private members’ club with a bar and restaurant in an old townhouse. It’s intimate, cosy and feels like the place to be. It’s very much the new Athens. 

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This is such an exciting time for the city. Within fashion and art in particular, a new generation is finding a platform. And I don’t mean my generation – it’s the next one coming up. It’s so exciting to see Athens changing to accommodate their creativity and passion.

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