The first time I visited Athens, I spent six hours on the Acropolis. Not kidding. Darius and I arrived in the evening and were the very first people to enter the site the next morning. The first hour thrilled me. Finally, I was standing in front of the Parthenon, conversing with the Caryatids, and walking around the Odeon. It waseverything I wanted to see since I was eight year olds. But Darius wanted more. By Hour 3, I turned into my mom and made friends with every visitor. By Hour 6, I decided to strike.
Don’t get me wrong, I love archaeology, the Acropolis and Athens. With its inimitable Acropolis and legends and myths, the Greek capital has always been the destination for classic culture vultures. But I needed a contemporary look at the city. Here’s my itinerary of contemporary art in Athens.
For art, I always head first to Piraeus, the four-square mile port city southwest of the city. In the 5th century BC, Piraeus was home to the strongest naval power in the Mediterranean. It was the inspiration for empires. Today, Piraeus is a bit dingy like any port but come evening, the warehouse neighborhood is scene for art.
It’s easy to fall in love with Piraeus. When it’s sunny, it shines. The water is captivating, and so are the leftover warehouses. These are a few of the reasons gallerist Artemis Baltoyanni moved her Istanbul gallery The Intermission here. Located in a former car repair workshop, the refurbished space is amazing – large, long and high ceilings.
Likewise, Sylvia Kouvali’s Rodeo – a 1,600-square-foot warehouse space that focuses on group and single shows. Around the corner is Carwan and its annex, a gallery slash showroom of contemporary art and design located in former office spaces – kind of perfect for the vibe as Carwan is incubator for designers.
Not to miss are DL Gallery, and later ENIA. In 2015 Dimitris Lymperopoulos took over his father’s factory to open conceptual art-focused spaces which launched Piraeus’ renaissance, bringing gallerists and investors from all over the world.
Foundations and Museums
Greek Magnates Fund Contemporary Art
On my way back from Piraeus, my taxi driver passed the Renzo Piano-designed Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center, a mega arts complex inaugurated in 2016. He happily told me that he loves parking his car here and listening to classical music while taking in the architecture. I totally got it. Piano’s landmark is a rectilinear melody of glass, metal and stone on a sloping green.
BOLO for Athens’ very cool arts foundations funded by a bastion of billionaires. These foundations are constantly pushing the contemporary landscape with out-of-this-world site cultural programming, and specific exhibitions and installations. DESTE Foundation, founded by the Greek Cypriot Dakis Joannous has a Athens outpost which hosts “flexible” schedule of exhibitions and an amazing project space in Hydra.
NEON,a cultural organization founded by collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos, keeps to its motto “our space is the city”, with dynamic temporary exhibitions in different locations. Latest in the line up is the former Public Tobacco Factory.
National Museum of Contemporary Art
For more than a decade, contemporary art aficionados have been eagerly awaiting the opening of National Museum of Contemporary Art,EMST. Established at the turn of the 21st century, EMST’s original incarnation was more like a nomadic happening. In the 2010s, they began work on renovating a former brewery building but it wasn’t until 2022 that EMST officially opened its doors.
I’ve had a few sneak peeks over the years, but primarily just glimpsed a temporary exhibition on the ground floor and a bit of the updated architecture. The renovated brewery has great lines and great possibilities for a future of dynamic exhibitions. Currently, the permanent collection, which includes works by Greek and international artists like Jannis Kounellis, Marina Abramovic, Costas Tsoclis and Paul McCarthy, is housed on the top three floors, while the bottom level is for temporary shows.
Walk anywhere in Athens and you find tags, posters, installations, kiosks, murals and street art. Art is everywhere and all over the neighborhoods, in particular Exarchia, Psyrri, Anafiotika, Gazi and Metaxourgeio. All just a little bit dodgy, with some still red light, these in-the-shade-of-the-Acropolis neighborhoods are slowly working gentrification. But the street art resists.
Gallery lovers looking for emerging artists flock to Metaxourgeio, whose side streets and alleys are home to lots of galleries. The pioneering stalwarts are The Breeder 45, Iasonos St, and Rebecca Camhi Art Gallery , Leonidou st, and the human figure-focused cultural organization Atopos Contemporary Visual Culture 2, Salaminos st.
The Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis Museum is one of the wonders of the contemporary world and must be included in my contemporary itinerary for Athens. Designed by Bernard Tschumi Architects with Michael Photiadis, this gorgeous glass museum was designed to showcase the treasures of the Acropolis and look up to it.
150,000 square feet of exhibition space in very cool contemporary design, this is the pretty stage to show off Greece’s beautiful collection of classical antiquities. Each time I visit, I get (more than) a little choked up at all the amazing art, and all the art that isn’t there. Caryatids, the glowing group of six women who, for more than 2000 years, who propped up the Erechtheion on the Acropolis have a home here.
The Parthenon Marbles
What really makes me tear up is the glass-enclosed, top floor, a luminous rectangular space tilted 23 degrees from the rest of the building so it aligns with the Parthenon for an uninterrupted the temple.
The true purpose of the Acropolis Museum is to house the Parthenon frieze, in the exact same arrangement and orientation as it was when on the monument, and perhaps remind the British that it’s time to send those marbles home. “To paraphrase an iconic quote of the 1980s, “Mr. Sunak, give back those marbles!”
Where to Stay
For a night out: Lighthouse Hotel Athens Brown Hotel group’s beacon in Omnia Square is where you want to stay if you want to get out, even if it means dancing ‘til dawn at Lighthouse’s panoramic rooftop or underground nightclub/event space.
Flash back to the 20th century from its facade, original white marble design now lined with vertical brass stripes that are illuminated at night. Interiors are jewel tone hues with midcentury design pieces and velvet upholstery. Sultry and sexy, along with a bit of a “party girl” vibe.220 rooms. Near Psirri and Metaxourgeio.
For a night in: Hotel Grande Bretagne, Marriott Luxury Collection, one of the original Grand Hotels, Grande Bretagna maintains yesteryear elegance in the incredible address in Syntagma Square.
Classic and elegant in design and style, with gorgeous marbles and personal butler service, this 320-room hotel is a city landmark, and within easy walking distance to Kolonaki and Acropolis.
A version of this article appeared in Forbes Travel (December 2022).