Athens Riviera; “Enjoy a city break in Athens for its ancient sights and Mediterranean gastronomy. Things to see and do in Athens are numerous, yet as the city center is hectic and hot in the summer months, most people spend a short time here then head to the islands for the beauty and quieter pace of life.
But you’ve never experienced the Athens Riviera. A region close enough to the city to be considered a part of it, yet a world away, time spent here proves you don’t need to head to an island to experience island lifestyle. Blue flag beaches, port towns, and ancient sites await you a mere 30 to 40-minute drive or taxi ride away, stretching along the southern coastal road from the large cruise and ferry port of Piraeus to its southernmost point at Cape Sounio. The restaurants, hotels, and nightlife attract a great crowd to rival that of Mykonos, yet it’s also possible to find quieter spots.
History of the Athens Riviera
The area started to develop after World War II when urban planners, politicians, and businessmen were keen to transform the scenic, yet underdeveloped Saronic Athenian coast. The name came about due to the location of this Athens coastline to the Saronic islands, as locals wanted their own Cote d’Azur a few miles from the city center where locals could come to relax, to forget the impoverished war years.
In the 1950s, many would pack buses to spend the day at the region’s natural beaches and eat in the tavernas before heading back to the city. Then, in the 60s, the first public organized beaches developed in the towns of Vouliagmeni and Glyfada. More restaurants and nightclubs sprung up, and Athenians, keen on a more permanent weekend escape, started to build second homes. This period of modernization began to attract to the area an international star base such as Frank Sinatra and The Beatles.
This carried on well on through the ’90s, as Vouliagmeni developed into a luxury getaway for everyone from politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Michael Gorbachev to movie stars such as Joan Collins and Paul Newman. Finally, it was the 2004 Olympic Games that transformed the beach facilities and nightspots of the Riviera to meet the standards of the demanding clientele—continuing to this day.
Things to See & Do
From port towns to blue flag beaches, café lifestyle and Michelin-starred restaurants to ancient monuments; the Riviera has something for everyone.
A gateway to Greece for those arriving by cruise ship and exit point to the islands, many people merely transit Piraeus, the starting point of the Riviera. With cafés in the swanky Zea Port offering views across the Saronic Gulf and luxury yachts moored, it’s a perfect place to relax and sip your frappe. The hilltop neighborhood of Castella is a great place to wander around the colorful neoclassical buildings, culminating in the smaller port of Microlimano with its selection of quality fish restaurants by the water. Here you can dine at the Michelin-starred Varoulko, a seafood restaurant.
On the other side of the Riviera peninsular, Lavrio is a much smaller and prettier port town, enticing the visitor with its yachts bobbing by the pedestrianized harbor. Ferry schedules here are limited to Cycladic islands such as Kea and Andros, resulting in less hustle and bustle. If museums are your thing, go to the small Archeological Museum and the Mineralogical Museum that showcases the area’s once famed mining district. Several mines can be found in the surrounding villages.
You’ll find several places to stop and take a quick swim. The beach inlet of Limanakia is one such place, along the coast road to Vouliagmeni, where you’ll find small coves and deep blue waters reached by walking down rocky paths. The second inlet in this area features Lefteris’ Canteen, a rustic place to have a Greek coffee and small snack and a place that attracts young Athenians who come to swim and party.
Organized beaches, however, are the main attraction of the Riviera, in keeping with its glitzy crowd appeal.
Akti Vouliagmeni is in Vouliagmeni and for a 5 euro entry fee you’ll find beach and lawn areas, sun loungers, a children’s play area plus tennis, volley and basketball courts—and also free Wi-Fi. Drinks and small snacks available. During the summer, the beach is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The Astir Beach Club is one of the most exclusive organized beaches of the Riviera. Set along 900 feet of coastline, it offers beach beds and cabanas, massage therapists, sports such as paddleboarding and yoga classes, designer Greek shopping boutiques, and attentive food and drink service at your beach bedside. There’s also a selection of fine dining restaurants, including the farm-to-table nice ‘n’ easy Seaside Restaurant.
Here you’ll also see the ruins of the 6th century B.C. Temple of Apollo. Its pricy entry fee of 15 to 40 euros (depending on season and day of the week) is justified with all the facilities on offer—plus, it includes a beach towel and bed. The beach is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the summer, although the nightclub stays open until midnight.
Nine miles from the center of Athens, near Glyfada, you’ll find the well-priced luxurious complex of Asteras Beach, Balux & the House Project. Great for families, this beach has sunbeds and umbrellas, showers, trampolines, a children’s playground, self-service restaurant, three bars, and water sports. The beach is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., while the restaurant closes at 3 a.m. There is a 7 euro entry fee to the beach.
A bit further from central Athens, you’ll find Varkitza, one of the biggest beaches on the Riviera and one that’s popular with water sport enthusiasts for water skiing and windsurfing. This organized beach has a 5 euro entry fee midweek and costs 6 euros on the weekend. It’s open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
For a completely different swimming experience, try Vouliagmeni Lake, an hour outside of central Athens. It’s a natural spa lake with fresh spring and seawater and a summer temperature of 81 Fahrenheit, at its lowest in winter 64 Fahrenheit, making year-round swimming possible. It’s full of garru rufa fish—also known as the Dr. Fish that nibble the dead skin from you. The completely natural spa experience costs 12 to 15 euros.
Temple of Poseidon
At the southernmost tip of the Riviera at Cape Sounion lies the Temple of Poseidon, built in 444 B.C. atop the headland to honor the sea god. About 40 miles from Athens’ city center, people frequent Cape Sounion and the Temple particularly at sunset to witness and applaud it sinking into the Aegean Sea.
For something completely different, Margi Farm, in the countryside of the Riviera at Kalivia, 13 miles from Vouliagmeni beach, showcases fresh vegetables and herbs, grown to provide produce for their hotel, a true farm-to-table experience. The farm also has goats and a rescue donkey and is free to visit, but call ahead to arrange. Evening meals for families and groups, weddings, and baptisms are hosted here.
Where to Stay
Hotels tend to reflect the area’s luxurious reputation, so expect expense and style.
The newly restored Astir Palace is now a Four Seasons hotel. Its location on 75 acres of pine forest and three private beaches and spa is luxury indeed with 200 rooms, 42 suites, and 61 bungalows ranging from $690 per night up to more than $6,000 per night.
The 88-room Margi offers more affordable luxury with prices starting from $400 to $1,880 per night depending on room or suite, and is located on a small quiet side road in an area of preserved natural beauty. It’s a seven-minute walk from Vouliagmeni beach and has an outdoor and indoor pool and spa facilities.
If camping’s your thing, Camping Bacchus—three minutes from a small natural swimming cove—offers tent pitches from $5.50 up to $28 depending on size and facilities.
When to Visit
With magnificent blue flag beaches on offer, naturally, one would assume that summer and early autumn are the best seasons to frequent the Riviera. And yet with so much else on offer—pretty harbor towns, ancient ruins, and the spa waters of Lake Vouliagmeni—the Riviera is a year-round destination.
From Athens airport, it’s a mere 14 miles—30 minutes by taxi or car, and a similar distance from the city center. Although buses do run from the airport and city center to the main spots, they are few and far between, therefore to reach out of the way places, car hire is advisable.”
By REBECCA HALL