It’s always hard to understand why a majority of people dislike somewhere you find really interesting. “I didn’t like Athens” is something I hear all too often. I soon worked out why people couldn’t summon up much love for it – they simply hadn’t spent enough time getting to know it.
While Athens is not your typical ‘enchanting’ city, we all know charm isn’t always about looks, but revealed through character.
My recent ‘surveys’ have put the average time spent here at 24 hours, two days at a push. Its ancient ambience is the main draw and the modern grittiness alongside just confuses people. Then I hear the word “dirty” and get defensive. Dirty is only relative to your definition of it – what some find unkempt and filthy, others find genuine and edgy.
People stay in the heart of the tourist area of Monastiraki without straying far, not knowing that just a few streets away is the real Athens and the allure of an emerging, changing city. I know because I tried it. Social experiments are key to understanding a difference of opinion, so I deliberately put myself in a similar position, staying in a hostel two minutes walk from the Monastiraki Metro station. I went no further than a coffee chain bar, falafel shop and the touristic shopping street, and wandered the crowded streets approaching the Acropolis.
I didn’t find it that enticing either. But I know Athens better than that. Confining yourself to a small area isn’t representative of the whole, and you can’t formulate a strong opinion based just on that.
It all starts here at the Monastiraki metro
Those who told me they liked Athens showed me on a map where they ventured, and they ventured far. A true explorer always finds the treasure and I’ve loved nothing more than to wander the city’s MANY neighbourhoods – from the upmarket and more residential areas to the politically outspoken and those formerly run-down and avoided, but now in regeneration. Even the little side streets off the popular tourism hub conceal windows into local life.
Inquisitiveness soon shows you a different side of Athens. Attempting to understand it in the context of its recent plight makes you appreciate it even more so.
CENTRAL ATHENS NEIGHBOURHOODS
- 1 Monastiraki
- 2 Thissio / Keramikos
- 3 Psirri
- 4 Gazi
- 5 Petralona
- 6 Plaka
- 7 Kolonaki
- 8 Exarchia
- 9 Gizi
- 10 Pangrati / Mets
- 11 Mavili Square
- 12 Neighbourhoods in Athens – Learn to Love the City
Monastiraki is the pivotal point for everything ‘Ancient Greece’. From here you’ll get your great views of the Acropolis standing mighty on the hill, and wander the buzzing Adrianou street to access the ground level ruins. It’s historical blasphemy not to do so, regardless of the intense crowds they draw.
But you don’t always have to go completely off-grid in Athens to see its true persona. Deliberately shoot off into the side streets that line the main market thoroughfares, even if they look nondescript (Athens is a safe city).
You’ll soon find yourself in quieter, local spots; alleyways with local restaurants and hangouts, and family-run stores with not a tourist t-shirt insight. Greeks are very welcoming and will appreciate your curiosity, and you will get to see Athenian life away from those bound to the heaviest tourist traffic in the city.
Monastiraki Local Recommendations
A souvlaki favourite. (St Irinis Square)
The most historical sweet treats shop. This place opened in 1923 and boasts excellent loukoumades (dough with honey and cinnamon) but the traditional Thessaloniki bougatsa will leave you with a difficult choice. Just take both. (87 Aiolou street)
Μάνας Κουζίνα / Mother’s Kitchen
For a quick traditional foodie fix. (St Irinis Square)
A modern, more hip sweet shop. Bold and funky, you won’t miss it as you walk past. (21 Aiolou street)
I loved this bar on my first visit to Athens and it’s a place has to be checked out, tucked away on an arty side street. Open all day as a coffee and cocktail bar, the atmosphere is electric at night as locals gather to hang out in this large open space – a hidden paradise in the centre of the city. (Avramiotou 6-8)
Although it gets crowded, space here is fantastic. It is located in an old building with a courtyard and regularly hosts cultural events and exhibitions. (Normanou 5)
Athens’ first outdoor cinema (a trend that caught on quickly elsewhere) and a rooftop garden with an incredible Acropolis backdrop. Open in the summer and showing popular movies. (Kidathineon 22)
WEST OF MONASTIRAKI
Thissio / Keramikos
Don’t jump on a Metro to Thissio station, walk there on the Adrianou road. You then have two options.
Walk south towards Filopappos Hill, where you will pass through local neighbourhoods and some of the old stone houses of the city that sit alongside or which are factored into the modern apartment buildings, or venture North toward the Southwest of the Keramikos neighbourhood.
I found some great murals here, more on the graffiti side of the street art spectrum, as well as quirky old houses, where I found some older people chilling one Saturday afternoon selling every old piece of junk imaginable. But interesting junk nonetheless.
Thissio / Keramikos Local Recommendations
For good coffee, delicious food and drinks set within a wonderful green courtyard. (Kerameikou 110)
A funky bar within an arcade that is home to many alternative music DJs. (Leokoriou 6)
A quirky former pottery shop made of stone and wood with a huge backyard you can lounge in while the loud music plays. (Plateon 26)
Ah Psirri – the Athens street art havem and the long streets and buzzing squares of restaurants and cafes. Psirri has a unique buzz, but it isn’t a secret. However, it’s likely you’ll find yourself gravitating straight to one of the eateries on the squares and dining for hours.
One of the things I like doing here is heading away from the main squares and finding old stores with retro signage, local bakeries, stairways leading down to funky boutiques and giant artworks hidden around corners.
There’s a lot to uncover here in such a short space, and exploring further will simply give you a better excuse to work up an appetite and chow down later on.
Don’t miss out on a visit to the sensory overload that is the Central Market on Athinas Street and the surrounding speciality food stores and eateries. This is a tasty area to get lost within (actually everywhere pretty much is).
Thesseion, Monastiraki and Omonia
Psirri Local Recommendations
A traditional tavern since 1967 with good prices, fast service and welcoming locals. (Agion Anargiron 19)
A delightful sweet shop favourite in the area, where the profiteroles and ice cream feature heavily in reviews. (Heroes Square 1 & Karaiskaki St)
Koulouri Tou Psirri
A tasty bakery and coffee shop, best known for those who like indulging in tasty traditional ‘Koulouri’ (Greek Sesame Bread rings). (Agias Theklas 23)
Gazi is a new neighbourhood, lined with funky restaurants and bars, yet dominated by the old gasworks, now a cultural centre, better known as the Technopolis. You can walk through it (it is also a museum about the old gas industry in Athens) and admire the old architecture, which has now given a modern and edgy makeover. It’s particularly impressive at night when the gas chimneys shine with a red glow and the streets are heaving with busy bars.
Petralona is a tranquil and beautiful hideout over in the West of the city and is split, (roughly by the metro train line that runs through it) into Kato Petralona and Ano Petralona.
The former is the quieter of the two, which is great to lose yourself in and have conversations with locals, and the latter (head over the rail bridge) is a little more hip and happening, with local tavernas, which soon fill up in the evenings (Greeks dine for HOURS and I love it) and bohemian café hangouts. Mercouri Square (Platia Mercouri) is said to be the place to be.
Petralona Local Recommendations
To Perivolaki café
A beautiful café with plenty of outdoor space right in the heart of a local neighbourhood. A collective of six people (now eight) pooled together their resources after the crisis to form this new business – a real local success story. (7 Athineou St & Ious Square)
A cute and cosy taverna that served some of the best Greek food I’ve had here so far. It fills up quick, so get here early to land yourself a good table and wine and dine for hours, just as the Greeks do. (48 Troon St)
EAST / NORTH EAST OF MONASTIRAKI
Plaka may draw the crowds, but it a truly beautiful stroll and one of my favourite places to wander freely, without a plan or a map. A historical district Northeast of the Acropolis, wedged between the built-up Syntagma Square and Monastiraki, it retains its traditional charm, with neoclassical architecture, old winding streets… and high rents to boot.
Adrianou Street runs all the way through here, so it’s easy to navigate from Monastiraki, but cut away from this main lane and climb the sloping streets and hidden alleys. Voulis street, in particular, is easy to find and hosts some great wine bars like Oinoscent, alongside hip cafés and restaurants.
Head further south, to the edge of the Acropolis area, and you will find a small and scenic ‘village within the city’. Known as Anafiotika, this secluded, scenic hideout was built by masons from the island of Anafi who came over to Athens as construction workers back in the 1800s. Standing there, looking up at the Acropolis, feels like stepping back in time.
Over 40 houses remain and once you wind up through the floral terraces, small corridors and narrow staircases, you are rewarded with one of the most spectacular views of Athens.
Syntagma and Monastiraki
Acropolis (for Anafiotika)
Plaka Local Recommendations
A stunning wine bar right in the centre of Athens, and popular for wine tastings. (Voulis street)
An adjacent street is known for its collection of really cool bars.
Upmarket and with an air of discreet snobbery, Kolonaki is as far removed from the general ‘rough’ vision of Athens as you can possibly imagine. Here’s where the rich have got richer (while the poor got poorer), and you only have to walk past or through some of the alfresco coffee shops to see a different class of Athenian, mainly older and rather more… refined.
It’s the area where the designer stores are concentrated and buildings are more classical. It reminds me of a cross between LA’s Rhodo Drive and London’s Mayfair, with the typical Athens neighbourhood layout thrown in. Explore, discover, and then leave with the ‘I would love to live here’ dream. Those locals in the coffee shop do know you are not from around here.
Syntagma and Evangelismos
Expressive Exarchia – the centre of anarchy and political outspokenness – can be quick to put people off with its edgy grime and assertive artistic messages. When there’s a riot or a face-off with the police, it normally starts here and its residents are proud to fight for their rights.
Yet this area is said to have changed a lot over the years, where local residents called upon their more rebellious neighbours to help clean up its image, make it more enjoyable to live in and be accessible to all. Now a student hub, lively evening hangout, and a space for the alternative ‘cool’, it still remains at the core of everything ‘anti’, which I find more fascinating than fearful.
Panepistimio and Omonia
Exarchia Local Recommendations
A small but colourful self-service tavern where you can choose from a number of Greek dishes and salads. Great prices, with a small plate at 3 Euro and a large at 6 Euro. (Harilaou Trikoupi & Baltetsioy Streets)
I ended up living in Gizi through an Airbnb rental and found myself enjoying local living, with my own balcony overlooking the sloping street. Like many other neighbourhoods, it has a main square, super cheap coffee shops, all the local amenities you need and random boutique stores where you can find yourself some bargains.
The most interesting thing here is the run-down but graffiti-covered residential building blocks on Alexandras Avenue.
The eight blocks of Bauhaus style apartments were constructed back in the 1930s to house refugees from Asia Minor – those residents gaining rights to the property and passing down to their children. As generations moved out, the properties soon became abandoned and the state planned to demolish them in 2001, before declaring that they should be preserved because of their historical legacy.
However, since then, nothing much has been done to restore the properties, which are now said to be home to original owners, political asylum seekers from the Middle East, squatters and those who came here in need following the economic crisis. They may be rotting, but there really is a distinct vibe and character to this area, which immediately catches your eye when you walk past it. You’ll find them just minutes away from the sport’s stadium outside the Metro.
SOUTH OF MONASTIRAKI
Pangrati / Mets
Through further Airbnb rentals, I lived south of the Mets area that sits right behind the original Olympic Stadium (Panathinaikon Stadium) and right in the heart of up and coming Pangrati, behind the Megaro Moussikis metro station in a leafy neighbourhood.
There’s nothing of significant interest here, except being a picturesque area of full of lovely properties where you can escape it all (or hang out in a cafe) and find a cheap rental within walking distance to the historical sites – if you like living locally.
Just North of Pangrati is the lively inner-city suburb of Mavili Square – a small but buzzing area, especially in the evenings with alfresco dining spots and a couple of cosy local bars, including lesser-known underground places. There’s also a big food truck that’s parked right next to the main road, which commanded a big queue every night that I walked past it on my way home.
I stayed in the Alexandros Hotel which is located on a quieter side street right next to all the Square’s action. For an elegant hotel so centrally located (without being right in the touristic hub), it’s great value for money with spacious rooms starting from 75 Euros (including a large breakfast buffet). It’s also only a five-minute walk to the metro station, which is one of the handiest additions for travel here.
Just further down the road in The Athens Concert Hall (Megaron Mousikis) that attracts a hip crowd. The Megaron Plus programme features Sunday Morning Events and an annual series of lectures delivered by renowned architects, writers and other individuals, for which admission is free. Behind that you have a beautiful park and the highest hill in Athens to conquer – Lycabettus Hill.
Megaro Moussikis and Evangelismos
Pangrati Local Recommendations
Look out for the random house next to the Alexandros Hotel on Mavili Square featuring a dog logo. A local informed me the owner cooks for people in the early hours after a heavy night out.
Neighbourhoods in Athens – Learn to Love the City
“You ACTUALLY really like Athens!” many still say. I’m still confused as to why this is said with a tone of impossibility. But, as much as I love my time spent in the countryside or outdoors haven, I’m a city girl drawn to places that are, in parts, frenetic and in flux and which constantly surprise or offer something new.
For me, this perfectly sums up Athens – a place where creativity and a determination not to falter in the face of adversity have aided the regeneration of a city and given it a new and unique vibe.
My challenge to you is to come and see for yourself, spent more than 24 hours in the city, and dig a little further… with the guarantee of seeing the real Athens. Will I see you here?