Exciting openings and a fresh energy are revitalising the Greek capital’s sunshine coast. Rachel Howard gets back into the water
“Every day is like a holiday living here,” says Cassie Anderson, squinting into the sunshine. You can see why: it’s February and Cassie is wearing nothing but a bikini and a smile. She is one of about 30 locals gathered for their Sunday morning swim on Vouliagmeni beach, a sweep of golden sand in the heart of the Athenian Riviera. Water-skiers are already cutting a dash across the bay and solo swimmers are wading nonchalantly into the shallow water. Along the beach, dozens of ageing hunks in tiny trunks are engaged in a frenzied racquetball tournament, while their wives sunbathe nearby.
“Vouliagmeni has its own microclimate. The sea doesn’t really get cold until March, but the water temperature never falls below 15C (59F),” says Petros Parthenis, the brawny, blue-eyed founder of WeSwim, an open-water swimming community that meets here every week, whatever the weather.
Traditionally, winter swimming clubs in Athens have been strictly for geriatrics, but this lot range from rock-hard triathletes to middle-aged mums. There are plenty of expats too, like Cassie, an Australian marketing consultant now based in Athens, and her friend Lynn, a yoga teacher who ditched a financial career in San Francisco to move to Athens on a whim. “My Airbnb guests ask me how long it takes to get to Santorini. I tell them there are better beaches less than an hour from the Acropolis. People are amazed to discover this whole coastal scene here.”
The Athens Riviera may not have the cachet of the Côte d’Azur or the sheer drama of the Amalfi Coast, but this 35-mile coastline is back in the spotlight. Stretching from metropolitan Paleo Faliro to Cape Sounion, a craggy headland crowned by the magnificent temple of Poseidon, the Riviera is where Athenians come to escape the clamour and concrete of the inner city. It’s where Greek shipping magnates reside in waterfront compounds, their yachts moored nearby. Since the Four Seasons unveiled its revival of the Astir Palace resort in spring 2019, a rush of flush Arabs, Russians, and Americans have got in on the act. Luxury lifestyle publisher Assouline even has a coffee-table book, Athens Riviera, coming out in June.
The book’s French author, Stephanie Artarit, once lived on the “bourgeois” Côte d’Azur. “The Athens Riviera has a wilder, more contemporary spirit. It is a lot younger and more authentic. It probably resembles what the French Riviera was in the Sixties, when people gravitated towards St Tropez for its parties and nightlife.”
At that time, the Athens Riviera was just on the brink of discovery. Konstantinos Karamanlis, the prime minister, recognised the area’s potential as a tourism destination: a string of seaside resorts within striking distance of one of the world’s great cultural capitals. Eero Saarinen’s new terminal at Hellinikon airport (so close to the waterfront that it seemed the plane might land in the sea) also promised to make this unspoilt coastline more accessible to international travellers.
Karamanlis greenlit the construction of the Astir Palace on the lush Lemos peninsula in Vouliagmeni. It became the summer playground of playboys and presidents. The Athenian elite would reserve the cabanas sprinkled among the pine groves for the entire summer. King Saud booked a whole floor for his harem. To dodge the paparazzi, Brigitte Bardot sent a head-scarfed lookalike to the beach.
“Everyone who stayed there was an internationally renowned figure. Onassis was probably the poorest of the lot,” recalls Grigoris Kasidokostas, a dashing local who ran Astir’s waterskiing school. In the summer of 1969, Kasidokostas fell in love with one of his students. Marianna happened to be the teenage daughter of Yiannis Latsis, one of Greece’s richest tycoons. As the (probably apocryphal) story goes, Latsis had a meeting with his advisers who said: “We have two choices – either we kill him or make him mayor.”
Kasidokostas served as mayor of Vouliagmeni for over 25 years. “His first priority was to stop excessive construction. That’s why Vouliagmeni has no bouzoukia [nightclubs], less buildings, more green spaces,” says Theo Agiostratitis, the managing director of the Margi Hotel, a laid-back favourite of the jet-set set since 1960. The hotel was founded by Theo’s grandfather, who discovered the area on a field trip as a medical student in the Forties. Back then, people would brave the dirt road to take the healing waters of Vouliagmeni lake, which is still a popular year-round swimming hole.
“It used to be a traditional municipal spa, with only a circle of old ladies talking about their operations and their cooking,” says British author Sofka Zinovieff, who has lived nearby with her Greek husband, Vassilis Papadimitriou, for almost 20 years – an experience chronicled in her beguiling memoir, Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens. “Now it’s much swankier, but the water is still quite murky. Locals say there are monsters lurking in the underwater caverns.”
This mix of the mythical and fashionable is what makes this coastline so appealing. On exclusive Astir Beach, the stunted columns of an ancient temple are surrounded by striped sunbeds and big-brand boutiques. Below the shipowners’ barb-wired bunkers on the Kavouri headland are hidden coves where you can swim naked.
Saturday mornings can be spent snacking on dried figs, walnuts and cold-pressed juice at Voula’s organic farmer’s market or zipping off to a nearby island on a speedboat. You could toast the epic sunset at one of Glyfada’s bling beach bars, or commune with Lord Byron on “Sunium’s marbled steep”, where Mary Katrantzou staged her SS 2020 fashion show. At Island bar-restaurant, trust fund teenagers dance until dawn, just as fishermen are untangling their nets in nearby Varkiza. You can buy the day’s catch straight from their colourful wooden boats.
“Ah good, you got the red mullet. I caught those this morning,” says Andonis, bounding over to our table as we enjoy lunch at Latini, a first-rate restaurant overlooking Varkiza harbour. Andonis has been fishing in these waters since he was 12. When I ask him how the Athenian Riviera has changed over the years, Andonis scoffs: “Athenian graviera, more like!” (Graviera is a Greek cheese).
To locals, these coastal communities are known as “Nou-Pou”, short for notia proastia, or southern suburbs – a jumble of suburban sprawl, flashy marinas and organised beaches that give way to wide-open landscapes, sleepy seaside towns, and quiet bays.
This low-key, haphazard development is set to change, with several regeneration projects in the pipeline: the $240 million (£191 million) redevelopment of Faliro bay to a masterplan by Renzo Piano; a major upgrade of Alimos, the biggest marina in the Balkans; a new 400-key hotel in Glyfada; and a radical makeover of Voula beach. But the most drastic changes will happen at the former Hellinikon airport, one of many state assets the Greek government had to sell off as a condition of its international bail-out to private investors since 2010. A high-rise casino, hotels, condos, shopping malls, sports facilities, and a waterfront park will emerge from what is currently a wasteland roughly the size of Monaco. Renderings suggest the result will look more like the love child of Las Vegas and Dubai.
“Five years from now, this place might look really different and it will be hard to remember how it was before,” says Kalia Konstantinidis, a glamorous hotelier who has spent her whole life on the Athens Riviera. While these affluent seaside suburbs were cushioned from the worst of Greece’s crisis, lifestyles have already changed. “Ten years ago, the coastal highway was full of huge nightclubs that would come and go every season,” says Kalia. “Now there are more juice bars, day spas and vegan cafés, which really suits the DNA of the place.”
In early springtime, there’s more of a wellness scene than a party vibe. The beaches and boardwalks are full of locals working out or just hanging out. When the south winds roll in, surfers in wetsuits dash across the coastal highway with their surfboards and you could almost be in Miami Beach.
“Like snails, we come out of our shells as soon as the sun appears,” Kalia smiles. “You see people swimming, jogging or strolling along the seaside in their flip-flops, drinking coffee by the sea for hours, and it feels like a never-ending summer.”
But when the temperature rises, Athenians still know how to party. Summer starts when Island, a club dangling on the rocky shore near Varkiza, opens in May – and they’ll be dancing from sunset to sunrise.
Do it like a local
Take a dip in Vouliagmeni Lake
Year-round, Athenians take to the briny green waters of this thermal lake (limnivouliagmenis.gr/en), which is said to heal all manner of ailments. You might catch fearless cliff divers hurtling off the surrounding ridges or divers emerging from the underwater tunnels – so deep nobody knows where they end.
Team up with winter swimmers
WeSwim is a welcoming community of open-water swimmers of all ages and abilities. From October to May, they meet every Sunday at noon at Akti Vouliagmenis for a brisk swim across the bay, followed by a potluck picnic. From June to September, they gather on Wednesdays at 6pm.
Learn to windsurf or SUP
Part-time model and national windsurfing champion Pavlos Cheiladakis can coax anyone to master a surfboard or stand-up paddleboard. You’ll find him shaking his curls and flashing his grin at Yasurfaki (yasurfaki.gr), his windsurfing and watersports centre on lively Varkiza beach, from May to October.
Go foraging on Faskomilia
A footpath above Lake Vouliagmeni leads into Faskomilia, a little-known nature reserve that covers the entire peninsula between Vouliagmeni and Varkiza. You’ll spot more hawks and partridges than joggers and dog-walkers as you wander along the trails, with sea views on all sides; though you might find locals foraging for bitter radikia greens, wild sage or camomile flowers.
Beat the traffic – take a boat
Both Poseidonos Avenue (the scenic coastal road) and Leoforos Vouliagmenis (the rather ugly highway that connects central Athens to the southern suburbs) are gridlocked on summer weekends. The tram that trundles along the seaside strip from Faliro to Voula is a cheap alternative to a taxi and you are able to hop off wherever you fancy. For a supercharged sightseeing experience, charter a speedboat (ribvoyages.gr) or catamaran (athensrivierayachting.com). Ask your skipper to take you snorkelling for sea urchins on Fleves, for lunch at Perdika on the island of Aegina, or a sunset spin around the temple of Poseidon at Sounion.
Where to eat
Glamorous waterfront restaurants abound, but you pay a premium for those sea views. Ithaki (ithakirestaurantbar.gr), a Med-Asian seafood restaurant overlooking Vouliagmeni Bay, is an enduring classic where high rollers go to impress foreigners or first dates.
Pick out a whole fish at Blue Fish (facebook.com/bluefishvouliagmeni), and it will be carved into sushi, ceviche, tataki and tartare, and served quayside.
At Latini (latini.gr), the fish comes straight from the boats moored below the terrace. Order the “port salad”, baby shrimp, and palest pink taramasalata.
Tables-in-the-sand tavernas are a rarity along the Athens Riviera; at Aperanto Galazio (facebook.com/aperanto.galazio.varkiza) on lively Varkiza beach, the food doesn’t quite live up to the setting; but that doesn’t stop gaggles of Greeks settling in for round after round of chilled beer and grilled octopus.
There’s no view at Louizidis (2 Ermou, Vouliagmeni), but this family-run taverna has perfected classic comfort food like moussaka and fish soup since 1961.
Where to play
When it comes to beach clubs on the Athens Riveria, for big spenders, there are only two places to park your Porsche:
Astir Beach (astir.gr/beach), all slinky resortwear and loud beats, and Island (islandclubrestaurant.gr), where the waiters are as entitled as the clientele and the party doesn’t start before midnight. At Krabo (krabo.gr), hidden on a rocky bay in Kavouri, suave waiters deliver crab burgers and Alitalias (Greek vermouth and tonic) to your lounger and lazy afternoons easily slide into late nights.
Zen Beach (zen-beach.gr), just around the headland, is less glossy and more low-key – a good option for families. Tanned youths divebomb off the wooden decks surrounding Lefteris, a beach shack that’s perfect for a rum and coke as the moon rises. To find it, clamber down the rocks at Limanakia A, one of several luminous coves between Vouliagmeni and Varkiza. At Skipper’s (skippersbar.gr), a “yacht & roll bar” on Pier 1 of Alimos marina, the menu and music are as retro as the Eighties decor.
Where to stay
The Four Seasons Astir Palace (fourseasons.com/athens; sea-view doubles from €300/£266) has left the other resorts along the Athens Riviera in the shade. From the glitzy restaurants to the white marble spa, it’s a bubble of privilege that’s hard to resist.
Set back from the waterfront, The Margi (themargi.gr; double rooms from €180) is more intimate. Peaceful rooms are enveloped by pine trees or overlook the seductive poolside restaurant, Malabar; many ingredients come from the hotel’s organic farm.
For residences on the outer reaches of the Riviera, check out White Key Villas (whitekeyvillas.com).