Beyond the ancient history for which it is rightly famed, Athens is also a healing haven for health seekers who come here to luxuriate in stylish spas, get back to nature on a hike or partake of vitamin-rich organic local produce.
The Ancient Greek word sophrosyne, which means ‘healthy in mind, healthy in body’, is taken from the name of the Greek goddess of moderation and harmony. Athens is coming to embody this concept, making a name for itself as a destination for wellness seekers.
In addition to the abundant fruits, vegetables and extra virgin olive oil that are a health-enhancing feature of Greek cuisine, this fast-paced city has a huge hidden network of panoramic hiking paths and plentiful spots to practise mindfulness, as well as mineral-rich thermal springs and state-of-the-art hotel spas offering a host of natural therapies.
The best way to discover Athens – a city diverse in both culture and nature – is on foot. There are plenty of hiking trails criss-crossing the Greek capital: lone wolves will want to make the steep hike to the top of lofty Mount Lycabettus, or head half an hour out of town and hit the trail that winds through sweet-smelling forests to Mount Parnitha National Park. If you prefer company on your rambles, check out the epic strolls through ancient and modern Athens that are on offer with local company Trekking Hellas.
Rarely on travellers’ radars, Athens’s hammam baths are one of the city’s best-kept health secrets. Hammam Baths, near Plaka’s celebrated Bathhouse of the Winds, is a traditional oriental steam bath with a domed roof rising high above a central marble bench, where you relax as you’re pummelled by trained therapists; Kifissia hotspot Le Hammam has soothing music and gilded mosaics that set the scene for a raft of traditional treatments, including their signature toxin-busting Moroccan scrub. “These places are often packed with history, but they’re also such cool places to unwind after a hard day’s sightseeing,” says British actor Daniel Philpott, star of The Crown.
Organic products and a super-luxurious holistic spa with eucalyptus-scented grotto, ice fountain and relaxing herbal steam bath are just some of the health perks on offer at the Hotel Grande Bretagne. Alternatively, head to Astir Palace, Greece’s very first Four Seasons hotel, and chill in the stylish white-marble-lined spa where celebs such as Jackie Onassis and Frank Sinatra once came to chill. “We use only natural ingredients in our spa treatments and facials and we have some amazing water-cure treatments,” says Melissa Zormpa, the hotel’s public relations executive.
With the recent launch of the city’s first Foodathlon, where activities range from vegan cooking classes to gourmet bike tours, Athens is on the wave of a healthy locavore food craze. At the forefront of the city’s booming health-food trend is Nice n Easy, a bistro chain that uses only organic ingredients sourced from Greek producers. “We use love and respect for our body, with the traditional flavours of our childhood as our beacon,” say the owners. Other innovators are Yi (meaning ‘earth’ in Greek), serving vegan raw cuisine in a seaside setting, and raw-food experts Lime Bistro.
Beat the bustle and head for the beach to kitesurf, paddleboard or just take in some Vitamin D. Closest to the centre, Edem beach in Palaio Faliro near the funky Flisvos Marina signals the start of Athens’s ritzy 20-kilometre (12-mile) Riviera, stretching to Cape Sounio. Palm-beach lined Glyfada, famed for its top-notch nightlife, has some of the city’s most stylish beach bars, while laid back Varkiza’s string of glittering coves feature traditional tavernas serving fresh fish dishes.
In her boutique institute near the US embassy, innovative therapist Dimitra Goula creates masks and creams from all-natural ingredients. “Our organic, sustainable and fresh ingredients are hand-harvested by monks from the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos in northern Greece – you should use on your skin only what you would put in your mouth,” she explains.
Another one to watch is Beehive Spa in the Apivita Experience Store in upmarket Kolonaki, whose honey-coloured decor is the soothing backdrop for a nutrient-packed range of facials and detox treatments using bee pollen and beeswax to strengthen the body’s immune system.
Used since antiquity to revitalise the body and treat ailments ranging from arthritis to stress, some of Greece’s mineral-rich hot springs are within easy reach of Athens. Vouliagmeni Lake, a vivid pool of turquoise water heated by springs that bubble out of an underground cave, is closest to the city. Further afield, the charming Corinth Gulf town of Loutraki is home to half a dozen high-end spas that use the same legendary mineral spring waters Spartan soldiers once wallowed in to recuperate after battle.
Framed by forested mountains and fringed by turquoise sea, Athens has no shortage of picturesque places to work out. Jog over to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre for a run along the waterside esplanade, or sign up for one of the regular outdoor fitness classes, ranging from Tai Chi to yoga. Alternatively, prepare to feel the burn at Street Workout Athens, where fitness experts host intensive boot camp workouts, or get a spiritual boost by joining one of Soma Yoga’s custom sessions beneath the Acropolis.
Juice bars are popping up everywhere in the Greek capital. A favourite hangout for travellers, Romvis Street’s JOIN Juice bar has organic fruit smoothies and a funky soundtrack, while Fontana Living Well’s store-cum-cosy café bar near the Monastiraki flea market uses seeds, fruits and spices in a range of health-boosting smoothies (try their spinach, green apple and organic chia seed Popeye smoothie). For more substantial fare, head to Froots in Plaka where they serve organic juices and sumptuous raw soups.
To clear your head (and get spectacular views over the glittering Saronic Gulf), hike to the top of the lofty forested slopes of Philopappou Hill, known in antiquity as the Hill of the Muses. If you need some help finding your third eye, seek out the Athens Meditation and Mindfulness Meetup group, who host regular sessions around the city. Alternatively, sign up for one of Myrto Legaki’s dance and meditation mindfulness in motion classes. According to Legaki, “Free Movement is a way of getting back into the wisdom of our body, using movement as the object of our meditation to help us be more mindful.”