Athens has a Riviera? Yes, and it's best seen by car
Did you know that just beyond Athens a world of seaside charms beckons, less than 15 kilometers south of the Acropolis? It’s true: the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea greet the whole of the Attica shore from the southern Athenian suburbs all the way to Cape Sounion and its iconic Temple of Poseidon. This ravishing stretch of coastline is called the Athens Riviera, and it includes all manner of posh yacht marinas, secluded coves, ancient ruins and first-rate beaches.
Add plenty of sunshine and sea breezes to the mix and it’s hardly any wonder that Athenians are such passionate acolytes of their gorgeous coast. Indeed, in summer the 60 or so kilometers of riviera coast can get a little crowded, but if you can avoid weekends and know how to pace yourself, you can get more than a decent fix of “vitamin sea” whilst getting into the glamorous groove of this Greek mainland version of Mykonos.
Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you can see it all with public transport — you can, to a degree, but that will make discovering this unique area feel more like endurance test than holiday indulgence. Better idea: rent a car from our preferred company, Kosmos, and explore at your own pace.
In the southernmost reaches of Athens proper and almost directly in front of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center you’ll find a little slice of St Tropez: Flisvos Marina. It’s technically part of Paleo Faliro, where in addition to moorings for megayachts there are plenty of bars and restaurants where you can eat away an afternoon or evening near the water’s edge. Both Paleo Faliro and adjacent Alimos are home to numerous restaurants located right by the sea.
Now, if you’re a fan of zombie airports, it’s worth a roadside detour to the former airport of Athens, Ellinikon International, located at the vast Elliniko site adjacent to upscale Glyfada. Ellinikon closed in 2001 (to be replaced by Athens International Airport), but drive along the southeastern perimeter and you’ll catch sight of an aging Olympic Airways 747-200 as well as a number of smaller planes, all trapped in atmospheric ghost airport amber.
Glyfada’s beaches don’t necessarily amaze but the town entices with its breezy, tree-lined streets that stand in contrast to the congestion and concrete of downtown Athens only 12 km or so away. There’s a great array of swanky boutiques and bars like Mosaiko Cocktail Espresso Bar, a good choice for libations either alcoholic or caffeinated, which paired with an eclectic acoustic menu packs the locals in nightly. One of the best spots for brunch is Blends, with nibbles best savoured on the large, see-and-be-seen terrace. You can select the size of your cocktail at popular Holy Spirit or tuck into a tasty pizza at Vittoria Gati.
Astir Beach and Vouliagmeni
Astir Beach, the most famous sliver of sand in Greece, once played host to the likes of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Brigitte Bardot. That was the 1960s, but the glamour never really left this corner of the Athens Riviera — in fact, it reaches its zenith on this little peninsula, which is part of the seaside town of Vouliagmeni.
Midway down the beach there are ruins of the sixth-century Temple of Apollo Zoster. The southern half, meanwhile, plays host on summer Thursdays and Saturdays to the Sunteria series of DJ sets. This pine-clad peninsula is also the home of the new Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel Athens. Take a water ski lesson from Lolos Stamatis at Vouliagmeni’s excellent beach.
Lake Vouliagmeni is a natural brackish lake at the edge of Mount Hymettus that formed some 2,000 years ago when an underwater spring caused the roof of an enormous cave to come tumbling down. The dramatic setting and the lake’s warm therapeutic waters that still flow up from an underground channel draw a loyal following, as does the relaxed lakeside al fresco Nero restaurant — you may have to pinch yourself to recall that from here, you’re only 24 km from the center of Athens. There’s a modest entrance fee.
Limanakia and Varkiza
After Lake Vouliagmeni, the landscape becomes rockier. You can’t see the cove of “Limanakia A” from the road, but do stop where you see the other cars parked and check out one of the most iconic places to take a dip on the Athens Riviera. After Limanakia, the next town up the scenic coasal road is Varkiza, with a fine broad beach and numerous casual beach clubs.
Inviting rocky coves are in ample supply along the stretch of Attica coastline between Varkiza and Cape Sounion, as are some longer beaches such as the lovely Legrena Beach. There’s only one tiny sign pointing to it, but turn right onto the dirt path and you’ll behold a broad sweep of sand where no souvenir shops or restaurants will come between you and the gentle surf. The coastal road around here is a stunner:
The star of the Athens Riviera, the Temple of Poseidon, seems to float atop the summit of Cape Sounion, a rocky promontory that rises 60 meters above the Mediterranean Sea. This seaside version of the Parthenon has stood sentry over the Attica coast since around 440 BC. The temple’s towering marble Doric columns were the last things seafaring ancient Athenians saw of their homeland before sailing off to the wider blue yonder.
But first, let's find your car!