As we approach our first anniversary of living with Covid-19, the word is out that Athens - with its winter sun and sea, warm nature, affordability and strategic location - makes an unbeatable base to weather the pandemic.
By Amanda Dardanis
Some call them digital nomads. To others, they are corona refugees or lockdown migrants. In this new era where remote-working is king, Athens has become one of the hottest tickets in Europe to ride out the epidemic and hit reset on your life.
Since we first reported on this emerging trend last summer, Greece’s comparatively manageable infection rates and decisive health protocols have kept this new breed of long-haul visitor coming. And with alluring new tax incentives for any foreigner willing to move their tax base to Greece for 7 years, we predict it’s just the beginning. As 2021 gets off the blocks, it seems that everyone knows someone who’s recently relocated to Athens in search of a more fulfilling existence and a fresh start.
We asked some second wave “corona nomads” to tell us in their own words how Athens has given them the personal and professional lift they were craving and why life is so much sweeter in the Greek capital. Even in lockdown.
A Fashionable Life on the Athens Riviera
Burak Cakmak, 46, Turkish: Global Fashion Executive for Kering (Gucci Group), Swarovski, Gap Inc.
I’d been living between London and New York when I came to stay with a Greek friend in Varkiza one summer. That’s how I discovered the Athens Riviera. I decided it would be a great spot to have a place along the Mediterranean coast. When I factored in the affordability, culture and hospitality I’d enjoyed in Athens, it struck me as a smart city to invest in. The minute travel started opening up again last June, Greece felt like the best place to be. I was able to return to finalise the purchase of an apartment right near the Varkiza esplanade, about half a block from Yabanaki beach.
London wasn’t doing very well with Covid, and with my tenure as Dean of Fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York officially finishing, there was no reason to be back in NY. I was building mini-businesses and already doing everything remotely so it made sense to stay and enjoy the extended summer here. I convinced my London business partner to come over too and she’s now renting nearby in Vouliagmeni. My life partner is originally from Crete so it’s wonderful to have a place together in Athens now. Over summer, the restrictions weren’t too tough and it was an exciting time. On weekends, the place was abuzz with Athenians coming down to enjoy the beaches and hardly any tourists.
"Athens is a great city for being able to mix business and pleasure."
I would wake up every day and put on my swimsuit. I wouldn’t even take a towel with me. I would just walk across the street, jump in the water for half an hour and then drip dry on my way back home, before starting work. It was perfect. To be able to do that in a big city is incredible to me. And when I want to feel the “real Athens” atmosphere, the city is just a 25-minute drive away. I was able to attend events like the Athens Democracy Forum in late September, and reach out to creative local fashion brands. Athens is a great city for being able to mix business and pleasure.
It’s unbelievable what you can do sitting in your own house around the world now. Currently I’m building a digital fashion education platform with two partners whom I’ve never met in person—both British nomads—one lives in Portugal, the other in Brussels. I’ve turned one of our bedrooms into my study and ordered new equipment for digital recordings. It’s easier to be in your own place rather than a co-working space or office. You have more control over your environment and don’t have to worry about masks.
Lockdown has given me the flexibility to manage my own schedule. My day might see me talking to clients in California or Africa; London or Asia. I’m busier than ever but now - even in winter and even in lockdown—I can still wake up to sunshine and have breakfast on my balcony overlooking the pine trees and the Aegean. I can still go out for a scenic hike or bike ride around the hills of Varkiza and Vouliagmeni; and most days around noon, when it’s warm enough, I can still jump into the sea. I’ve even discovered a large local surfing community that meets on the main public beach of Vouliagmeni, when the wind is right. I lived in California for 11 years but never expected to find something like that in Athens.
The Athens Riviera is incredible because the weather is around 15-18 degrees in winter and most days it’s sunny. It’s not that crowded, so you can find peace within yourself.
The crazy thing is I never planned to be in Athens full-time. I just wanted to spend the summer here because everything everywhere else was shut down. But when I returned to London briefly, I soon realised that the lifestyle here was so much better during a pandemic. I don’t see any reason to leave now. Is lockdown better in Athens? One hundred percent.
Iris Dumas, 29, French: Freelance Digital Marketing Consultant
I chose Athens because I am a city girl who likes to be at the centre of the action and I have a weird obsession with the Acropolis! Its history and energy are so beautiful to me. Years ago, I had a Greek boyfriend who introduced me to the neighbourhood of Koukaki. I fell in love with not just the Acropolis but the whole area and its vibe.
I moved here at the end of August from Montpelier because I know Athens has wonderful weather all year long. Even when it’s winter, it’s not really winter. Back in Montpelier, where my family and friends are, I lived just five minutes from the sea. Things were more relaxed there, and if I’m honest, they were also a bit boring.
My life in France was a lot more predictable. You wake up, you work and maybe once a week, you have dinner with friends. Here, there is so much more to see and do; places to go out. Things like parenthood don’t slow Athenians down; they keep on living.
The fact is you have everything in Athens: amazing people, a vibrant city and nightlife, the monuments and the beach. Everybody speaks English (thank God, because my Greek isn't up to scratch yet). Greek men are real gentlemen and handsome too!
The daily rhythm of working in Athens was intense at first but I've come to love it. You never know how your day is going to end here! My working schedule has definitely changed. I used to get up at 5am. Now my day rarely starts before 10 and I go to bed much later. I don’t have breakfast anymore; I have coffee. I’ve forgotten the idea of making plans. In Athens, you better be ready to have an open house at the last minute; or meet friends for dinner instead of lunch. Greek people are very creative too when it comes to entertaining themselves: you don’t need a lot of money to do that here. Athens is definitely teaching me to balance my personal and work existence better, and to stop more often to enjoy life.
My main clients are small businesses in France but I have Greek clients too now. That was another reason I picked Athens. A lot of smaller Greek companies haven’t yet jumped on the train of digital marketing which is what I do. Greece is so beautiful but not always advertised as well as it could be. I see Athens as full of possibilities and huge potential. People here are eager to try new things and experiment: an attitude we completely lack back in France.
"Athens is definitely teaching me to balance my personal and work existence better, and to stop more often to enjoy life."
Working from home in Koukaki.
Photo: Thomas Gravanis
At the moment, I’m subletting the apartment of a friend in Koukaki (Makrygianni), one street down from the Acropolis Museum. I have a little balcony and if I put myself in just the right position, I can see the Parthenon. When I’m not working, you’ll usually find me climbing up on one of the big rocks on Philopappou Hill; admiring the Acropolis and taking a moment to reflect on life.
I’ve made some great new friends; a mix of locals and expatriates. When lockdown lifts, I can’t wait to go clubbing again. I love the beach clubs like Bolivar in Alimos. Last time I went, I took my laptop and spent the whole day lounging by the sea with friends, doing some work—and then clubbing into the night.
I try to live like an Athenian. The mindset and lifestyle is different from the French. There’s more of a community feel here. You build a little daily routine of visiting your local deli and bakery, the markets. Everything just flows. Even in lockdown, the life in Athens is so amazing that I don’t feel locked in. I feel reborn.
A Family Affair
Keita Yamada, 33, Japanese: Customer Support at global remote work facilitator Doist
One day last year, while I was working in Costa Rica, an overseas colleague and I started talking about which one place we could both move to where we could work together and enjoy a better lifestyle during the pandemic. She’s Italian but her boyfriend is Greek. They chose Athens and relocated in July. My ex-wife and daughter are also Greek, so we agreed that with Covid, it would be better for us all to be in Athens too, near her parents, to have the extra family support. We bought a one-way ticket and moved in September. I’m renting an air bnb in Piraeus within walking distance of Marina Zea, with a typically Athenian view of rooftops—and a bit of the sea too. I have no plans to leave Athens anytime soon. Working for a company that promotes more fulfilling ways to work and live, I’m very grateful for my job, because it really doesn’t matter where I am—or which hours I work.
"Any place you go in Athens they take pride in what they do. I can see passion in every aspect of Athenian life."
In Costa Rica, we lived with similar restrictions to Greece, but when we first arrived in Athens, things felt freer and more normal. Our daughter was able to go to daycare again and I went to work each day at Impact Hub (a popular co-working space in Psirri). Compared to Costa Rica, Athens has a good bus and train system. That has really helped me to move around and see the city, and travel to work.
Before the lockdown, one of the things I enjoyed most about my new Athens life was walking around the different neighbourhoods after work and trying out restaurants and bars that I liked the look of. I must have been to the Strange Brew Taproom in Koukaki about 4 times, sampling all their local craft beers! Now, during lockdown, I am working from home, but I can still enjoy a walk around the sea and visit open places like Marina Zea and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre parklands.
Going to my local laiki down the street to get fresh fish, fruit and vegetables—and pick up a few new Greek words with locals while I’m there—has become my new routine; and I can still get easy access to take-away souvlaki! I also enjoy watching my daughter engage with her Greek identity and the language, and spend quality time with her grandparents.
When lockdown is over, I want to get back to walking around the city; checking out all the great street art, and exploring the ruins. I’m originally from Miyazaki, in south Japan, and also lived in Tokyo for 3 years where it’s far more crowded and busy than Athens. Tourism is much more advanced here than Tokyo. Everything is available in English: signs, menus in restaurants. That’s an important advantage for the Japanese.
Because so many people speak English, compared to other European cities, getting around Athens and getting to know the city is easy. I have found the locals friendly and happy to help, once you ask questions. Any place you go in Athens they take pride in what they do, and explain things in detail. When I went to get my haircut recently, for example, the barber really threw himself into it. I can see that passion in every aspect of Athenian life.
Safiya Mary Rose, 35, British-Indian: Conscious Copywriter & Creatress
One of the main reasons we wanted to get out of the UK was the low light levels. I’m a sun worshipper, so Athens is perfect for me. There are so many days like today with flawless blue skies. It opens up something inside me creatively and makes me want to go for nature walks and gaze at ancient temples and buildings. London can make you want to huddle indoors; Athens inspires you to go out and become more expansive.
In London, I was working in ethical finance in a very corporate setting and felt very removed from the real world so I decided to go freelance about 2 years ago. Now I do copywriting and editing and my focus is on ethical organisations and individuals working to make a difference in the world. I also have a textiles practice, do embroidery, make clothes and paint. My partner is Indian and works with medicinal spices from India, so he can do that remotely from anywhere.
Even though we had never stepped foot in Athens before, when we saw a short window between lockdowns in the UK and Greece, we decided to jump through it. We’d wanted to relocate to Europe for a while, and while we visited many places in France, Italy and Spain, we never really found ‘our place’. Athens felt a bit below radar, but we’d heard some great things about it from people who’ve been. So in late October—simply guided by an inner intuition that Athens might just be the city for us—we packed up our stuff and drove all the way here to escape the London winter.
We are renting a gorgeous neoclassical flat in Thissio near the Acropolis Museum, with two big bedrooms and a banana tree outside our window, for half of what we were paying in Crystal Palace in London. Our place is so nice and spacious, we don’t need to go hunting down cafes or co-working spaces. I do think we have the lockdown to thank for that. Otherwise it would have been full of air bnb guests.
I love wandering around Athens during lockdown. You can somehow feel the architecture more and connect with the monuments on a deeper level. Athens is full of light and colour—even in the winter, even in quarantine! The creative energy is palpable: from the street art to the cafe culture and galleries. It’s an inspiring and highly multicultural place: with all the modernity of a capital city, yet there are ancient temples literally peppered all over the place. There’s also this deep sense of history, culture and spirituality. I love seeing people sitting together, drinking coffee, playing music or chess. For me, the sun, blue skies and all those olive trees provide endless creative inspiration. The lower cost of living also means there’s more time and space to breathe.
"We are renting a gorgeous neoclassical flat in Thissio near the Acropolis Museum, with two big bedrooms and a banana tree outside our window, for half of what we were paying in Crystal Palace in London."
Soaking up the creative energy of Athens.
Photo: Thomas Gravanis
It’s brilliant to have the central food markets of Athens so close to us with all their wonderful flavours, textures and spices. We cook every day. My morning walk right up to the top of Philopappou Hill with my coffee to receive the light of the sun also makes me feel like a proper Athenian. Being able to see the wide horizon and the sea eases that feeling of enclosure that lockdown gives us all. I go up there on the full moon and new moon as well to get a sense of time passing. Summer will return and when it does, we’ll be in a really beautiful place.
My parents and sister are still back in the UK. It can be quite overwhelming at times to know how much more difficult things are back home. But we both just got our residency permits last week so we’re planning to stay in Athens until at least the spring. Then we might check out some parts of the mainland; buy a place and settle down.
Chasing a Bright Urban Culture
Letizia Sebregondi, 36, Italian: Digital wine consultant
I was in Athens for two months last summer, staying in Mets, near the Kallimarmaro Stadium, and loved it so much. I went back to Milan a bit sad and spent the next month or so wondering, “Should I go back?”. One day, I woke up and said, “I’m going!”. I returned in late October, two weeks before the second lockdown, and plan to stay until July. Then I’ll travel around the Peloponnese and the islands.
I’ve lived abroad a lot: Brazil, the United States, France. What I find amazing about Athens is that it’s an urban city but you can still feel a human touch. Even if it’s not always an easy city, it has a really strong identity that connects you with Greek culture. But on the other hand, there are many young people relocating from Europe, even more so now because of Covid, so there’s this feeling that things are changing. People are coming to Athens to enjoy the exciting energy here.
"What I find amazing about Athens is that it’s an urban city but you can still feel a human touch."
I come from Florence, but was based in Milan, doing digital marketing for Italian and French wines; helping to create wine clubs and collectives. I still have a lot to learn about the Greek wine scene but I do see great potential in terms of the quality of the production and opportunities for local wineries to develop their sales.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how good Greek wines are. I’ve discovered a wonderful wine bar in the city centre that focuses exclusively on Greek wines and I tried some really good value wines from the north of Greece there, including a well-balanced Assyrtiko from Ktima Voyatsi. I can’t wait to go back when quarantine is over.
Milan is probably the most European city in Italy, but it’s somehow too classic; a little too buttoned up, compared to Athens. Athens to me has a young and vibrant spirit, with a laid back quality of life—like maybe Lisbon ten years ago. The urban culture here feels fresh.
So far, the experience of remote-working in Athens has been easy. Athens is an open-hearted city. I made some good friends during the summer: foreign girls like me who all share the same love and appetite for the city. This has helped me feel at home. Every Friday, I go to the farmer’s markets in Koukaki, next to my favourite bakery ever, Mama Psomi in Zaharitsa Street, for their amazing hand-made pies. At the markets, I pick up delicious local honey and have become friends with the fishmongers and the ladies who sell the lovely lemons and capers that I like to cook with. I’ve even managed to get to the seaside a few times during lockdown by walking up through Neos Kosmos to Palio Faliro.
There’s so much more light in my working day here than in Milan. My apartment in Exarchia has a great balcony that gets the sun most of the day. I take my laptop out there to work and enjoy the warm weather and the Athenian blue sky. It’s a luxury that makes me feel so happy every day.