Athens is a vibrant city with a plethora of things to see and do during your vacation. Take in the ancient sites of the Acropolis, find a unique restaurant or taverna to eat like a local, or even take an island day trip.
Yet many people miss the Athens Riviera either because they’re not familiar with it or haven’t given Athens enough time to explore. The Riviera is close to the city, yet a world away. With 40 miles of coastline, the region proves you don’t need to head to an island to experience island lifestyle with its blue flag beaches, port towns, ancient sites, and a spa lake merely a 40-minute ride away from the center, all stretching along the southern coastal road from the large cruise and ferry port of Piraeus to its southernmost point at Cape Sounio.
Developed after World War II, planners, politicians, and businessmen transformed this scenic coast to provide locals their own Cote d’Azur a few miles from the city center. The 1960s saw the first public organized beaches developed in the Riviera towns of Vouliagmeni and Glyfada, and Athenians started to build second homes here.
Vouliagmeni soon became a luxury getaway in the 90s for politicians such as Thatcher and Gorbachev and movie stars like Joan Collins and Paul Newman. The 2004 Olympic Games transformed the beach facilities and nightspots here in order to meet the exacting standards, continuing to this day.
I hope this article will entice you to visit this unique and diverse destination and show you why I love it so much.
1. Astir Beach Club
One of the many reasons people come to the Athens Riviera is to relax on the beach and swim. There are several organized beaches along its 40 miles of coastline, one of the most exclusive being Astir Beach.
Set amongst 900 feet of coastline, facilities include beach beds or cabanas, massage therapists, paddleboarding and yoga classes, designer Greek shopping boutiques, and attentive food and drink service at your beach bedside.
It’s a hefty entrance fee that changes depending on season and time of the week, so do check their site. That said, it’s worth it to have a beach experience where you’re treated like royalty.
History lovers will also enjoy this destination as within Astir’s grounds is the archeological site of the 6th century B.C. The Temple of Apollo Zoster was discovered in 1924 when a group of children from an orphanage came to play and dig in the sand, unearthing more than they bargained for.
2. Take a Wine Tour of the region
As we know, wine is the ‘Nectar of the Gods’. Dionisos is the Greek God who discovered the vine and for over 6,500 years, Greece has been cultivating grapes to produce fine wines, appreciated worldwide.
The Athens Riviera boasts approx. 30 wineries that have 3000 years worth of tradition of fine wine production, so for a truly cultural and gastronomical experience, what better place to explore this by tailor making a fine wine tour. The Wine Connoisseurs offer several tours around the country, one being A Journey To The Legendary Wines of Attica. Learn about the wine and culinary history of the area as well as take part in wine tasting accompanied by lunch or dinner along the Riviera.
You can also combine this with a trip to Cape Sounio (see below). Note: Participants must be over the age of 18, but check if it’s ok to accompany them as part of a family trip.
Further along the coastline, you’ll come to one of the biggest beaches on the Athens Riviera. Varkiza Beach is popular with water sport enthusiasts with activities such as water skiing or windsurfing, and there’s a large selection of restaurants and clubs to choose from, even hosting the Hollywood elite.
Varkiza used to be a fishing village, so expect to find Greek fishing caiques bobbing along the shore, and the open-air fish market is an interesting place to visit for those seeking a more down-to-earth and traditional experience, even if you’re not buying.
Pro Tip: You’ll mainly find crabs and shrimps on market days, along with many cats seeking scraps from the kind fishermen who certainly don’t deprive them.
4. Lake Vouliagmeni
If you’re looking for a completely different swimming experience, this spa lake along the Riviera coast — a mere 30 minutes from the center of Athens — is right up your street. With a year-round temperature not dipping below 77 degrees Fahrenheit, Lake Vouliagmeni is a combination of a fresh and seawater lake, formed several years ago when it was originally a large cave, and the roof eroded and collapsed due to the high temperatures of the running water.
Today, it’s a unique spa experience, a pleasure to spend all day where you can relax on the many sunbeds and swim, book a massage, or stay in their “Prive” area – a private, sectioned-off area in grassland with luxury sunbeds and designated waiter service.
Pro Tips: The entry fees do change depending on the day of the week/season, so check their website. Be comfortable swimming within nature as there are many garra rufa fish in the lake – skin nibbling fish, making the experience an even more therapeutic one.
5. The Ellinikon Experience Park
New to Athens (as of late 2021), the Ellinikon Experience Park opened in over 70 acres of urban parkland that the old Athens Airport used to inhabit, located along the Riviera in the suburb of Ellinikon, hence the name. Abandoned for many years, the old airport site is undergoing a major transformation and regeneration that promises to give back to the local community and visitors alike.
The park itself is the first part of a much larger regeneration project which will see, once complete, a total of 6.2 million square meters transformed into a green oasis urban project.
For the moment, you can visit the Ellinikon Experience Park and wander the paths with over 55,000 plants, four plazas to relax in, water fountains, a Zen lavender garden, and outdoor fitness equipment.
The entrance is free of charge and for the time being, the park is open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. every day and has various rotating shows such as the Stalactite show – a kinetic light installation.
Pro Tip: Take the Metro to the end of the Red Line to Ellinikon, where there’s a free shuttle bus with the park’s name and logo on it: the Glyfada Metro exit.
6. Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center
Stavros Niarchos was a Greek billionaire shipping tycoon whose foundation is one of the world’s leading private, international philanthropic organizations in the world of arts and culture, education, health and sports, and social welfare.
In 2017, the foundation opened its biggest project to date, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC), in Athens en-route from the center of the city to the Riviera, along Syggrou Avenue.
The site is laid out over 52 acres of public space and includes the new National Library, home of the Greek National Opera. It also features architectural delights such as the Dancing Fountains, which are 59 water jets and 10 fountains that line the canal in front of the building forming a light, sound, and water display to music in the morning and the evening.
If you come in the daytime, be sure to visit the “Lighthouse” atop the Greek National Opera building, which is really a large area encased in glass offering panoramic views across to the port of Piraeus and the Saronic Islands in one direction and the Acropolis in the other.
Other outdoor spaces are the Lavender Garden and the outside cafe by the fountains.
With good Wi-Fi, the SNFCC is a gift to the Athenians and tourists alike who want to come and relax in nature so near the city. Many students or remote workers come to study in the library, and it’s a unique location to treat yourself to a National Opera performance.
Pro Tip: Take the Metro on the Blue or Red Line to Syntagma where a free shuttle bus takes you to and from the Center.
The bustling port of Piraeus shouldn’t just be considered a place to merely hop on a ferry to the Greek Islands. It’s the starting point of the Athens Riviera and in addition to the cruise and ferry terminal, the swanky Zea Port is where you’ll find the private yachts, both large and small, hence facilities here reflect the exclusive clientele. Expect a laid-back cafe lifestyle with gorgeous views across the harbor.
Piraeus is also home to the luxury upscale hilltop neighborhood of Kastella, “Little Fort,” sitting above and overlooking the smaller port of Mikrolimano. It offers tree-shaded parkland, a very “British” bowling green, renovated and abandoned neo-classical mansions, and the church of Profitis Elias (the Prophet Elijah). Kastella is unarguably one of the loveliest neighborhoods in the whole of Athens.
Pro Tip: If you’re after Michelin star seafood dining, you’ll find Varoulko here.
8. Cape Sounio
Cape Sounio, a 45-minute drive or bus journey from Central Athens to the southernmost tip, has to be up there amongst my favorite experiences. It’s where you’ll find the Temple of Poseidon, which gives the Acropolis a run for its money. Cape Sounio was the place where Aegeus, King of Athens, fell to his death. Myth tells us that his son, Theseus, traveled to Crete to kill the feared Minotaur and told his father that if he was successful, he would fly a white flag from his ship upon arrival at the Sounio peninsular. Theseus successfully killed the Minotaur, yet forgot to hoist the white sail. Hence Aegeus, upon seeing the ship, assuming his son wasn’t successful and had been killed, threw himself from the cliff to his own death.
The temple is made of 38 fluted marble columns standing 20 feet high and was built between 444 and 440 B.C. It’s surrounded by nature with sweeping views across the Saronic Gulf and lone olive trees shaped by the wind.
Pro Tip: It’s a beautiful place to visit at sunset, offering amazing views. While possible to catch a bus from Central Athens, for the sake of freedom and not relying on a slightly irregular schedule, hiring a car or even taking a taxi is the best way to go.
Where To Stay
Base yourself at the Four Season Astir Palace along the coast, attracting a plethora of guests, including celebrities. Another option is the more boutique Margi Hotel in Vouliagmeni, near Lake Vouliagmeni. It has an outdoor pool and indoor spa as well as the cute Margi Farm, a day trip within itself during which you can visit their 20,000 square meters of olive groves, farm animals, and herb and vegetable gardens to see where your breakfast produce is grown – a real farm-to-table experience.
Enjoy your Athens Riviera experience after your time in the city.