An insider’s guide to the real Athens. Do yourself a favor and make sure you experience Athens like Athenians do. Here are the 5 experiences I truly wish you not to miss in Athens:
Like with New York, I have a love-hate relationship with Athens. Because I lived in Santorini for so many years (and we are talking about a 73 km2 island), going to “the city” was always hard. Having to deal with all those people walking around, the cars honking loudly… the chaotic pulsing vibe around was… too much.
One can say that Athens is intense. Very. But it has changed so much over the past 10 years. Home of more than a fourth of the greek population, it was very much damaged by the giant crisis that hit Greece on the past decade. On the other hand the difficult times did bring people together, and what one will see today when in Athens is a blooming, energizing and energetic hype city.
So as you can suspect, my current relationship status with Athens rose from “it’s complicated” to “getting to know each other better”. Yes, I do know Athens pretty well. But yes, it still surprises the hell out of me. And so the last times I’ve been there I decided to properly investigate the city which so many of my best friends will fervently stand up for.
This is what I found, and those are the 5 experiences I truly wish you do not miss when in Athens:
The Exarchia Neighborhood
Anarchy. Immigrant protection. Squad houses. Not probably the place you would want to be hanging around, right? Wrong. This is where you will find the authentic sense of community so many places have lacked over the world’s past decades.
Here you will meet people who truly care about each other, and about how to help unfortunate human beings. The feelings that surround hospitality are deeply incrusted into Greece’s culture. And what’s in Exarchia for you? Great traditional soul music, delicious mezzedes (greek appetizers) being served together with quality Raki or Ouzo; political-oriented street art; Athenians hanging out sipping coffee under the sun; second-hand shops; incredible guitar and hand-made instruments workshops; rock clubs; cheap beer and yes, a couple of drug-addicts, many, many stray (but well fed) cats – mostly everything but policemen. It’s just that, the lack of police in Athens can actually be a good sign. Greece is known to have a police force among the most discriminative and racist in the world.
One can safely affirm that Exarchia is a neighborhood under siege. But, really – it is surely not any more violent than your city. Unless you live in Japan, or Scandinavia… But then, Exarchia is fairly also known as the most intellectual district of Athens. A very cool mix, if you ask me. So just like in any big city, keep your eyes open to what happens around you. And go see the real world!
Don’t miss: Rozalia Tavern – one of Athens’ best known and celebrated taverns.
One can safely affirm that Exarchia is a neighborhood under siege. But then, Exarchia is also known as the most intellectual district of Athens.
A street food market
In very few lands you will find fresh-food aficionados like in Greece. Try and serve anything that has been frozen to a Greek as an experiment. The look on their faces! So, off course the street markets will offer a delightful variety of local produces. And Athens, being Greece’s capital and economic pole, brings to markets samples of products from many islands and regions.
Thing is, in Greece, every different place carries the pride of their local production specialities. Like the islands: Graviera cheese from Naxos; lamb from Ios; pistachio nuts from Egina; Vinsanto wine from Santorini; snails from Crete. And so on, the fresh food and local specialty tradition are strong in the regions of Greece’s mainland – olive oil from the Peloponnese, meat cuts from Grevena…
Although the best unquestionable way of finding what shines on each place is at the place itself (da!), Athenian street market’s gather a fair choice of deliciousness. The love for fresh and local food extends also to the new generations. So don’t be surprised to find out that street markets are among the most-loved local joints in Greece.
Don’t miss: The greek honey, the yogurt and the olive oil. I guarantee you won’t find any better nowhere else on this planet.
In very few lands you will find fresh-food aficionados like in Greece. So don’t be surprised finding out that street markets are among the most-loved local joints in Greece.
Psirri & Gazi nightlife
Probably the neighborhood with the greatest mix of international and greek crowd today is Psirri. But it was not always like this. Psirri is a former anti-establishment area, home of the revolutionaries during the Independence time, a place where even policemen were afraid to set foot on. Any similarity with today’s Exarchia is not a coincidence.
Psirri was back then sort of what Eksarcheia is now – haven to the Athenian underworld. On the beginning of the century Psirri was the base where the so-called “Manges” used to play the probably most celebrated Greek music rhythm, the Rempetiko; to smoke tons of hash; to spread their political beliefs and yes, to terrify the city a bit. But then, as the East Village, the place’s history can be divided as before and after a huge police operation that cleared the area from society’s fringes. Psirri’s Giuliani was a Greek prime minister who would arrest the Manges and cut the toes of their pointed boots, and shave their long mustaches – elements of their high proud.
Psirri went through another big change that helped set the vivid vibe that it has today: several years ago, a greek minister managed to pass a law that transformed a neighborhood dominated by leather workshops into an area designated for nightlife. Real state prices quickly emerged, the leather workers weren’t so pleased, but the city gained an area that was suddenly alive. If it’s something positive or negative, I’ll leave you to judge. But Psirri is for sure worth the visit. Make sure you check also the neighbor area, Gazi – the homonym square is among the most vibrant places of Athens’ night.
Don’t miss: Liosporos Jazz Cafe Bar on Maoulis Street, a small cafe / ouzeri that plays jazz and swing, a fresh choice in Psirri – most of the other places will be playing Rempetiko, which is awesome but not the best soundtrack for a drinking session. But don’t you worry, fellow local music lover, you will be listening to Rempetiko like, everywhere else you step into in Greece.
As the East Village, Psirri’s history can be divided as before and after a huge police operation that cleared the area from society’s fringes. The city gained an area that was suddenly alive.
Mount Lykavitos and the Kolonaki area
Now that I soaked you with the authentic hard-coreness of vintage and modern greek revolutionaries, how about taking a stroll around one of the fanciest and more expensive square meters in the whole of Greece? Well, I for instance love going from extremes when I visit a place. I could easily spend a morning walking around the slums of Mumbai and then dining at Colaba, the city’s finest area. So Kolonaki is your Colaba here.
It’s got this european feeling spread over the pretty streets and luxury stores. The National Gardens. Vassilias Sophias, the blue space you really pray you stop on, when rolling the dice of Greek’s Monopoly (true story). It’s got the cafes of Kolonaki square, Athens’ little Paris. You fancy seeing street style photography-worth people? I know I do. Then Kolonaki is your hood. Together with Syntagma, they were the only two areas not dominated by the communists during the civil war. Think of West Berlin. And finally… it’s got Lykavitos Mount. You can drive or take a cab all the way to the peak so to enjoy a Mount Olympus-like view of Athens: the Peloponnese’s Mountains, the Piraeus port ships, and if the atmosphere is really clear, the islands of the Aegean Sea.
On top of Lykavitos’ Mount there’s also an outdoor amphitheater playing mostly pieces spoken in Greek, but sometimes big names come to play at the Lykavitos amphitheater, and then you will know you’ve hit Jackpot: James Brown playing at one of the finest spots to watch a concert in the world? Yes, please! Check Athinorama, the weekly entertainment magazine of Athens and the bible of any culture-oriented Athenian, for the Mount Lykavitos schedule.
Don’t miss: The tons of museums around the area. Benaki Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art have two of the best private collections of the world. The Museum of The History of Greek Costume and The Theater Museum are also close by, as The War Museum of Athens and the National Gallery. Uf! So much knowledge, such a short life!
It’s got Vassilias Sophias, the blue space you really pray you stop on, when rolling the dice of Greek’s Monopoly.
An open-air experience
Not so many people know but open-air cinemas are one of the long-lasting Greek traditions. Actually, it was where it was invented. Yes, believe it! Since the ancient eyes staring at Plato cave’s shadows, summer means Outdoor Cinemas in Greece.
Even though there aren’t anymore 600 outdoor cinemas popping out in the city as it used to happen during the 60’s, there’s still 90 blessed places that offer a whole range of films for everyone’s tastes (they open between May to September, the long Greek’s summer period, when the weather is more than pleasant even during the night). But old Hollywood is still the apple of the eyes to the open-cinema-night-lovers. Just recently, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest had a long run at Athens’ probably most famous open air cinema: The Thision Open Air. Their repertoire orbits around classic Hollywood loved gems and European-produced features.
So, although you can surely find some, don’t expect to watch the last loud-action launching of the year. They do have really good sound surrounding equipment, but open-air cinemas were not designed for the sudden explosions and quick visual bombardment of this genre. Cine Paris is also a very well-known open-air. It was built on the 20’s by a Greek hairdresser who had lived in Paris. Besides the cinemas, there are plenty rooftop bars that offer a magical view to the city, to the Acropolis and to the usually starry Greek skies, be them summer or winter skies.
Check this article for 3 options of rooftop bars (I know, it’s all Greek for you, but you can have a glimpse of the places, their names, and addresses). And here you can find photos and a list of the best Athenian open-air cinemas.
Since the ancient eyes staring at Plato cave’s shadows, summer means Outdoor Cinemas in Greece. Actually, it was where it was invented.
Now, if you are in Athens for a layover, check the best tips on planning your visit!
And any questions or help you need while planning your trip to Greece, let me know on the comments, or contact me by email!
Tatiana Bastos words and photography – More at www.instagram.com/efzinblissfullife