When I tell people I lived in Athens they ask about the Acropolis, which museums were my favorite, and how the food was. Next, they ask if I enjoyed the nightlife, and whether the traffic was a nightmare, and all the other questions that come up when you mention big cities. Standard stuff, easily answered, but there was always a glaring omission in the conversation—no one ever asked about the beach.
The beach isn’t something that comes to mind when you think of Athens. But I love to swim and couldn’t imagine spending winter in a place without a warm beach to go swimming. Glyfada—the Greek capital’s seaside offering—is an absolute stunner.
Rewind a little though, to what brought me there. I’d been scouring the world for almost two decades in search of the perfect place to spend the rest of my life’s winters. After years of research on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, France’s Cote d’Azur, the Portuguese island of Madeira, the Portuguese ex-colony of Goa, the Cambodian resort of Kampot, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, the Elqui Valley in Chile, Chiang Mai in the Thai highlands, and even the Andean foothills in Bolivia… my list hadn’t narrowed. I loved the research, but there was a part of me that was disheartened and daunted by a life of eternal wandering. That was before I spent a year living in Glyfada on the Athens Riviera, and, like the sparkling waters of the Aegean Sea, everything became crystal clear.
The slower pace of this seaside suburb and its proudly displayed Blue Flag beach could convince you that you’ve been transported, not 15 minutes from the heart of downtown Athens, but to a dazzling Greek island instead. The pretty marina bustles with fishermen untangling octopus and squid from their nets, while sailboats prepare for a trip around the Cyclades islands. The waterfront is the focal point of the Glyfada coast. But a short walk down a multi-use path busy with joggers and bicycles brings you to a gorgeous whitesand beach, complete with sublime blue water and tan Greek men playing paddle tennis in Speedos. The perfect place to sit on a park bench and let the gentle Mediterranean sun warm you until it’s time for lunch.
Greek tavernas, psarotavernas (fish houses), ouzo bars, and cafés festoon the lively downtown, and you’d have to try very hard to avoid seeing a souvlatzidika (a restaurant specializing in gyros—a shwarma-style wrap costing about $3.50) for even two minutes. For a change of pace, you can opt for upscale Italian, Lebanese, or even an Irish pub. A main course at Divan, a swanky middle-Eastern restaurant, ranges from $15 to $25. Or B&A, tucked in a quiet neighborhood off the tram line, serves liters of Belgian ales and giant plates of grilled meats. It feels more like a bierhaus in Munich than an authentic Greek restaurant. That is, until the live music begins and boisterous Greek families stream in the door.
The variety of restaurants and pubs reminds me of a major melting pot city in the U.S., and Glyfada may owe that influence to the heavy expat population that fell in love and stuck around after the nearby U.S. military base closed in 1993. Sitting at a café with an icy mug of Czech Pilsner or craft IPA, having a conversation with a Californian, is not uncommon in Glyfada.
That’s not to say you aren’t living in the most authentic Greece you can imagine. Walk three blocks up from the main square and you’re in a maze of sunbleached condos with blue-haired Greek grandmothers on their terrace, beating rugs with broomsticks and hanging clothes out to dry in the sea breeze. Tiny hole-in-the-wall cafés—kafenios—waft clouds of cigarette smoke and the muted skitter of tavli (backgammon) dice echoes between orange trees. A butcher shop stands open next to an elementary school. The neighborhood olive oil producer helps carry five liters of cold-pressed virgin gold to the trunk of a car. Dogs bark and pizza delivery men on scooters zip through narrow streets.
Every Thursday, the best farmers’ market in the Mediterranean kicks off. It’s a spectacle, with mountains of tomatoes and scores of old ladies pulling comically overfilled carts of oranges. A white-mustached winemaker dances to Demotiko music and insists that everyone taste his wares. It is total immersion in Greek life.
The Athens Riviera
The Athens Riviera, of which Glyfada is a part, is a quiet weekend getaway for Greeks-in-the-know who want high-class restaurants overlooking a world-class beach without a tourist in sight. The younger crowd is drawn to some of the best nightclubs in Greece, adding a pulse to the town that ebbs and flows with the position of the sun. Daytime temperatures stay around the lower end of the 60s F for the winter months of December, January, and February, then climb steadily to a summer average of around 85 F.
Serene weekend mornings on your sunny terrace start with an iced and frothed freddo espresso and a warm pastry, followed by a stroll to the beach to watch swimmers bob in the calm water (water temperatures stay in the mid-6os F all winter).
Grab lunch at your favorite café with a fresh-squeezed fruit juice and spend the afternoon browsing clothing boutiques and art galleries until the sun dips below the horizon. Find a quiet table and order the catch-of-the-day and a half liter of crisp white wine, and if the waiter talks you into it, a shot of ouzo and chocolate gelato for dessert. Hours after the sun has gone down, patios fill with groups of young Greeks, or smartly dressed couples sipping red wine and laughing in the salty air. If you linger any longer you may be tempted to join the revelers when the music begins spilling out of the clubs and the pulse quickens. Or, call it an early night so you can do it all again tomorrow.
Some of the most luxurious seaside homes on mainland Greece line the promenade in Glyfada, and the high-end shopping options remind me of the Champs-Elysées in Paris, but affordable living can be found an avenue or two away from the sea. Authentic Greece is all over Glyfada if you venture away from the yachts and the glitter of the shopping district—a Greece full of working-class families, young couples in their first apartment, retirees living on pensions, and everyone else.
The diversity makes the place lively, genuine, and, fortunately, a completely attainable winter escape. If you can forgo a sea view, two-bedroom condos in the Attica neighborhood can be had for under $200,000. As for rentals, a ground floor, two-bedroom condo with large terrace in the Ano Glyfada district—about a mile from the beach, about half that to the golf club—can be had for €470 (about $550) a month. That’s a fairly typical price.
An easily overlooked perk of living south of the big city is your proximity to Athens airport. A quick, traffic-free drive gets you to the gates of any European destination you can think of. A weekend ski trip to Switzerland? $150, round-trip. Snorkeling in Cyprus? $100. Rome for Christmas? $100. Paris? Budapest? Istanbul? The possibilities are endless. Living in Glyfada also gives you a head start on the Athenians heading to Rafina, the main port for ferries to Mykonos, Ios, Naxos, Paros, or one of thousands of smaller Greek islands.
But don’t hurry to leave the mainland. Greece is a place where you could spend a lifetime exploring ancient ruins, lost cities, and hidden beaches. Most visitors never see anything outside of the Acropolis and one or two luxurious islands, or they whirl through the tourist circuit in 10 days, not sure if it was at Delphi or Mount Olympus where they had the best Greek coffee ever.Ancient ruins and hidden beaches.A longer stay, or part-time living in Greece, gives you the opportunity to see the places buried in the back of the guidebook, at your own leisure. A full day walking through downtown Athens only scratches the surface of what the city has to offer. Dedicate one day a week to exploring a new neighborhood and you’ll be surprised at how much diversity and excitement there is outside of the tourist zone. Plaka, Monastiraki, Kolonaki, Exarchia, Psiri—each district is full of cafés, bars, restaurants, and shopping, and each is fascinating in its own way—vibrant, inviting, and easily accessible.
For your first excursion away from Glyfada beach, after you’ve seen the Acropolis 10 times, drive out to the Temple of Poseidon perched at the edge of the Attica peninsula, and watch the sunset (Homer describes the same view in The Odyssey). Pack a weekend bag and take the regional train to Kalabaka and experience the immensity of the Meteora monastery, perched on a pinnacle of rock so precipitously that it defies belief. Pack for three days and go farther north to stay a night in the village of Papingo, and feel your soul stir as you peer into the geological slash of Vikos Gorge.
If you’re really feeling adventurous, make it a week and continue even farther to Lake Prespa and dip your feet in spring-fed water shared by Albania and North Macedonia. You’ll be the only English-speaking person within 50 miles. If you brought your passport, cross the border and canoe across one of the oldest lakes in Europe in Lake Ohrid. Cobblestoned, Venetian-influenced Nafplio, with its rich history and charming old town can be the first stop on your two week tour of the Peloponnese. Explore each finger of the peninsula and compare the cuisine, culture, and temper of the Mycenaean and Spartan descendants as they size you up and wonder what winds brought you to their secret land.
Once you get a taste of old Greece—the ancient, time-capsule village set in stone, as vibrant and alive as ever before— you’ll perhaps think that spending only winters here isn’t enough.