Eating and drinking is a huge part of Athenian culture. Perhaps that’s why so many museums in Athens have such excellent cafés, where you can snack and sip on everything from traditional Greek food to cocktails and coffees.
By Cordelia Madden Kanellopoulou
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For too long, Athens museum cafés were an afterthought: a poky room next to the WCs where, if you were lucky, you could get a tired cup of filter coffee or tepid bottle of water. Those days are past; now, museum cafés are a delicious place to grab a bite or a drink. The Acropolis Museum was a game-changer, offering eclectic Greek eats, wines by the glass, reasonable prices, and that intoxicating view. Other museums soon stepped up. The city’s ‘Museum Mile’ is now dotted with little oases to enjoy delicious light meals or expertly-prepared iced coffees while resting exhibit-weary legs. The Cycladic Museum Café has had a discreetly extravagant facelift of its premises and menu, and the Numismatic Museum boasts live jazz evenings with drinks and finger food. Meanwhile, in northern Kifissia, a celebrity chef designs the fare served at the old-world Natural History Museum. Have we whetted your appetite? Read on for more.
Acropolis Museum Restaurant
The Acropolis Museum itself is, of course, magnificent. Years in development, Bernard Tschumi’s concrete and glass colossus rose between Koukaki apartment buildings to emerge on a level with the Acropolis, the top-floor gallery of Parthenon statues lined up with where they once stood. Whether or not you have time to do the full museum tour, don’t miss the restaurant/café. Get a restaurant ticket at the foyer (no charge), zoom up in the lift, walk through the somewhat corporate canteen-style interior, and emerge onto the verandah face-to-face with the Parthenon. Gleaming cool alabaster by day, it’s ethereal after dark (on Fridays the café is open till midnight). Even without that million-dollar view, there would still be reason to visit the Acropolis museum restaurant. It serves creative dishes that highlight regional produce and add a spin to overworked classics, accompanied by an inspiring wine list, at prices that are modest given the location. Compared to the frankly dispiriting mass-produced and microwaved fare prevalent around Plaka, the museum restaurant comes near top of any best-restaurant list in the area. Think Cycladic cherry tomato salad with capers and pickled artichokes, smoked trout from Epirus with taramosalata (fish roe dip) and rocket, or Cretan butter risotto with cured lamb, accompanied by a glass of aromatic Moschofilero wine. There’s a children’s menu too, and a variety of soft drinks and coffees if you just wish to sit and sip while feasting your eyes on the vista.
Courtesy: The Acropolis Museum. Photo by Giorgos Vitsaropoulos.
Outside at the Ilisia Café.
Photo: Georgios Makkas
Byzantine & Christian Museum: Ilisia Café
Walk through the arched entrance on Vasilissis Sofias and suddenly you are a world away from the traffic streaming down Athens’ main thoroughfare. A vast courtyard opens up, flanked by low-lying buildings and, behind a towering cypress tree, the palace of the Duchess of Plaisance. To your right is Ilisia Café, with a few tables on the courtyard and a more extensive seating area at the back, where acres of landscaped Mediterranean gardens stretch away towards the Athens Conservatory and the posh penthouses of Rigillis Street. Sit in the courtyard for the slightly surreal view of a biplane suspended above the wall (on display in the neighbouring War Museum), while the gentle curve of Mount Ymittos looms in the distance. The café menu ranges from finger food and salads to traditional Greek dishes like stuffed vine leaves and grilled meat. But the serene setting lends itself more to a quiet cold drink with a guidebook or app to plan your next steps.
The Museum of Cycladic Art engaged the services of prominent architect Stelios Kois and his team to revamp their café space—and they’ve made the absolute most of it. Without the obvious advantages of a balcony or courtyard with a view, this nook between the neoclassical heart of the museum and its more modern annex enjoys an outdoor feel (with comfortable weather conditions all year round) thanks to a cleverly concertina-shaded glass roof and walls of plants. It’s super-stylish, minimalist and light, with a menu to match. Come for a delicious brunch, with dishes like smashed avocado on toast dressed with chili flakes and coriander and topped off with an organic egg, or enjoy a slice of savoury pie or freshly baked cake with a pot of tea or coffee.
Cool and classy, this verandah looking towards the treetops of the National Garden and the Kallimarmaro stadium beyond was once the preserve of French-speaking Kolonaki ladies and their upper-crust circle. It still has perhaps more gravitas than others on this list, in both atmosphere and clientele, but that doesn’t take away from its excellent setting and good food. The compact menu is designed by a respected Athenian catering company, with tasty, unfussy salads, quiches, and mains like grilled mastelo cheese or fish, and various Greek wines by the glass. Just the ticket for a light lunch break from sightseeing.
It’s the test of any museum or gallery café. Would you go there even without the art? For the sleek eaterie at the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation’s new museum in Pangrati, it’s an easy yes. This ‘urban garden’ opened in October 2019 to refuel those who come to marvel at one of the world’s most impressive private art collections. But the café has quickly become a destination in its right, especially since it’s run by the team behind local favourite, Ohh Boy. The fulsome menu here has the same clean cuisine focus. There are plenty of vegan and vegetarian options, like a whole-wheat wrap with aubergine, avocado cream, chickpeas and cherry tomatoes, or an open sandwich heaped with hummus, mushrooms, hazelnuts and feta. Healthy all-day breakfasts and salads are as colourful as the Jackson Pollack hanging upstairs (try the black lentils with quinoa, sweet potato and pomegranate). The café shares the same contemporary curves as the purpose-built museum (as do the female wait staff, adorned with geometric jewellery by Athenian designer, Bela Louloudaki). Enclosed in a high-walled courtyard with bronze benches and climbing greenery, it’s a lovely spot to digest the wondrous art you’ve just seen without any outside distraction.
Tucked behind Ernst Ziller’s neoclassical pearl that houses the Numismatic Museum, and bounded on the other three sides by high-rise blocks from the 1960s, you’ll find this quintessential central Athens hideaway. Between the flowerbeds thick with Mediterranean flora, including some rare species, plus not so rare fauna in the form of a few lounging cats, a small hut housing a bar/kitchen serves simple fare like sandwiches, salads, platters of cold cuts or cheese, sweet and savoury pies, as well as hot and cold drinks. Its location right in the city’s commercial heart, combined with its laid-back, time-stands-still vibe, makes this café one of the city’s best hidden oases. If you’re a jazz fan, don’t miss the live music on Thursday nights, when the drumbeats reverberate off the office blocks and the sax cries over the hooting traffic for an Athenian take on surround-sound.
If you’re staying towards the north of Athens, or you have time for a day-trip to explore the breezy, leafy suburb of Kifissia, do add this museum and its eatery to your agenda. Children will love the triceratops on display within, while the garden offers plenty of shady nooks between mature trees, a lily-covered pond, and flowerbeds of aromatic herbs. The dishes served at this al fresco café/restaurant are created by Greek celebrity chef Dimitris Skarmoutsos to showcase characteristic ingredients gathered from various regions of Greece, as well as quality meat cuts from around the world. A salad of yellow beetroot, asparagus, radish, sunflower seeds and watermelon dressing, topped with manouri cheese; a peinirli (oval Greek pizza) with smoked metsovone cheese, truffleand poached egg; or wagyu beef striploin served with mashed potato, summer vegetables and truffle béarnaise sauce. It’s on the pricey side, but a tranquil and atmospheric place to enjoy the glories of the natural world, all around you and on your plate.
Courtesy: The Goulandris Museum of Natural History.
This café is a little-known favourite that you absolutely shouldn't miss.
Courtesy: Benaki Museum of Islamic Art
Benaki Museum of Islamic Art Café
A well-guarded secret among in-the-know locals, this small cafe has one of the finest views in downtown Athens. Located on the top floor of the fascinating, curiously under-the-radar Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, the rooftop terrace overlooks the ancient cemetery of Keramikos, with the Acropolis shimmering overhead. Inside, the walls are decorated by a joyful, colourful mural by British artist Navine Khan-Dossos, Imagine a Palm Tree. Peaceful and rarely crowded, this museum cafe is a lovely spot for a coffee break with a good book. The menu is basic (coffee, toasted sandwiches, fresh orange juice), but it’s all about the location. Closed Monday through Wednesday, the cafe stays open until 11 pm on Saturdays from early June to late September.