A day of health and wellness in the Greek capital
Athens may be full of temples, tombs and millennia-old artefacts, but it’s also long been a place of health and healing. From olive oil-drizzled food to green spaces and hidden hammams, the city has some surprising wellness options. Here’s how to spend a health-packed day in the home of the Mediterranean diet, says Heidi Fuller-love
The sun rises above the Acropolis in a yellow blush, gilding the Parthenon’s pale Pentelic marble pillars and casting its golden light on the stately palm trees lining the path ahead of me. I’m in the heart of Athens but here in the National Garden, the city’s 16-hectare green lung stretched between the chic shopping streets of Kolonaki and the boho café-lined alleys of Pangrati, it’s so quiet I could be in the countryside.
Backed by the pine-furred slopes of Mount Lycabettus and descending to the sandy beaches of Glyfada and Palaio Faliro, Athens has a surprising amount of hidden green places where it’s possible to reconnect with nature in the heart of this ancient city – and without paying a penny for the privilege. Apart from the National Garden, with its duck-dotted ponds and ancient archaeological sites, Filopappou Hill near the Acropolis is a natural haven of peace with spectacular views over the Saronic Gulf, whilst the vast Stavros Niarchos Park, just a 17-minute (free) shuttle ride from Syntagma Square, has landscaped walking paths, a web of bike lanes and a seawater canal complete with canoes that can be hired for very little.
Crossing the National Garden, I head for my first activity. The ancient Greeks believed that diet, exercise and calmness were the key to staying healthy, so I plan to spend the day seeking out the best spots for spiritual and physical wellness in this city whose inhabitants once worshipped Asclepius, the Greek god of health and healing.
Luckily, I have indulged in a healthy local breakfast before leaving the Hotel Grand Bretagne, one of the city’s best spa hotels, where I’m spending one night before moving to the less expensive, but equally stylish, Brown Kubic boutique hotel in the trendy Metaxourgeio district nearby. I’ll need all the energy that my sheep’s-milk yoghurt piled with fresh fruit and thyme honey can give me for my Olympic-themed workout with sports professional Tonia Gounitsioti from Alternative Athens.
We meet at 8.30 am outside the Zappeion Megaron, the Neoclassical building commissioned by philanthropist Evangelos Zappas, who devoted his life to the revival of the Olympic Games. As we jog through the tree-lined Zappeion gardens, Tonia explains that the intense training and discipline required for competing in the Olympics improves physical and mental wellbeing. After a spot of discus-throwing in the city’s Fokianos Sports Park, where many of the activities are free of charge, we end our two-hour tour with the ultimate thrill: sprinting around the tracks of the magnificent marble-built Panathenaic Stadium, where the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896.
The best, cheapest – and healthiest – way to get around in the home of the Athens Marathon is on foot. Ambling through the bustling streets of Plaka and the shop-lined lanes of Monastiraki, I reach Varvakeios market. Home of the Mediterranean diet, Greece is famed for its healthy dishes centred on fruit, grains, foraged greens and fish, which is why the stands of Athens’ central market are piled high with fresh fruit, vegetables and horta – wild greens – that are cultivated in the surrounding countryside. Hungry to taste some of that nutritious food I head for Nice n Easy, a cosy and competitively priced locavore-loved bistro just behind pine-furred Lycabettus hill, where they only use organic ingredients sourced from Greek producers.
Feeling energetic after my vitamin-packed platter of wild mushrooms dotted with slivers of pungent goat’s cheese, I make the steep circular hike to the top of 277m-high Mount Lycabettus, Athens’ highest hill, where I spend a healing hour sitting on the steps of 19th-century St George’s Church listening to crickets chirp in the pine trees and admiring breathtaking views over the city’s dazzling white roofs.
Feeling calm and refreshed after my lofty break, I hop onto the funicular and whizz back downhill to splurge on my next wellness activity. Combining Greek plant extracts with honey, pollen and other bee-derived products, The Apivita Experience Store in upmarket Kolonaki produces a groundbreaking range of treatments designed to strengthen the body’s immune system and rejuvenate the skin. In one of the candle-lit treatment rooms of this holistic beauty emporium I luxuriate in a deliciously sweet-scented Queen Bee facial with honey and royal jelly, which leaves my face feeling soft and smooth, before heading just around the corner to Coco-Mat Athens, an eco-friendly hotel that rents out its own range of wooden bikes.
The best, cheapest – and healthiest – way to get around in the home of the Athens Marathon is on foot
Once upon a time, it was rare to see push-bikes on Athens congested streets, but in the past decade cycle paths have sprung up all over the city and nowadays budget- and planet-friendly pedal power is becoming increasingly popular in the Greek capital.
Cycling past the monumental ruins of Roman Emperor Hadrian’s library built in 132AD, I turn into Monastiraki’s spice-scented warren of alleys packed with shops selling everything from handmade sandals to herbal soaps. At Fontana Living Well (Aiolou 17), a lively juice bar near Ermou, the city’s main shopping artery, I stop off for a sumptuous spinach, green apple and organic chia seed smoothie, before pedalling over to Al Hammam.
From the Hotel Grand Bretagne to the Grand Resort Lagonissi, Athens abounds in stunning spa hotels, but very few visitors seek out this traditional steam room overlooking one of Athens’ oldest streets, where treatments cost far less. Lying on a silk-smooth silky marble bench beneath the hammam’s high-domed roof, I relax as heat eliminates my body’s toxins. After a vigorous exfoliating body scrub, followed by an ancient Greek massage with hot oil and wild herbs based on healing techniques evolved by father of medicine Hippocrates, I feel relaxed and invigorated and ready for the last stop on my wellness itinerary.
An hour later, on a wooden deck beneath the Acropolis I join yoga experts from Acropolis Roof Deck, for a session of kundalini, a form of yoga based on chanting and breathing techniques whose purpose is to ease stress and anxiety while promoting physical wellbeing and spiritual enlightenment.
In the silence that follows our final chanting exercise, I gaze at the sun setting in a pool of scarlet over the Parthenon with its sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius and I give silent thanks for my happy, health-seeking day in this exhilarating Greek city where wellness has been a way of life since ancient times.
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