Despite the cruel crisis that has made Athens suffer for almost 8 years now, the majestic capital of Greece still stands on her feet, and has a lot to offer to the traveller who is willing to get to know her better. The only risk one’s taking after landing in Athens is to stay there forever.
Have you already visited the thousands years old Acropolis, the terrific Archaeological Museum (free for students!) and the media-friendly Syntagma Place? Those are definitely a must-see in Athens. But what can you do in order to have the time of your life in this tremendous town and get the chance to feel like a real Athenian?
Athens has numerous neighbourhoods and areas, many of them small centres of dynamic activity. First advice: walk, as much as you can. It might be hard because of the summer heat but it is worth the effort: there are no other ways to really see the city, and discover all those hidden little streets in which you can go around and get a Greek coffee under a pergola, while looking at the cats passing by. And trust me, you will be rewarded for all calories you will burn during the day!
Start your day with a café frappé (sweet, medium or plain, with or without milk) and a Koulouri Thessalonikis (those disc-shaped sesame-covered breads, which you can usually buy with only 50 cents, cheap and delicious), not too late in the morning so you can enjoy the bright light and birds singing. Then, you have so many options, so here are some routes you can discover little by little in the heart Athens.
You can have a walk in the delightful area of Kolonaki, in the centre of Athens and wander among the designer boutiques, fill your lungs with the aroma of orange blossom covering the entire neighbourhood (especially around the months of April and May). Then, find a table on the terrace of Da Capo at the corner of Tsalakof and Patriarchou Ioakim streets, where you can enjoy a drink next to the Athenian elite: Da Capo is the place to be for journalists, politicians and other personalities in town. If you are not attracted to that posh atmosphere, you could walk up to Dexameni and have a fresh (and cheap!) orange juice as well as order some delicious food. If you’re there on a summer evening, you can watch a movie next at the Dexameni Cinema (have you ever been to an open-air cinema?)
From Kolonaki, walk all the way down to Syntagma and then to Ermou Street, the best place in town for shopping: remember to stop at Tiger, an amazing Danish brand that sells everything you need (when you get your future dream house in Athens, you will feel the urge to go back to Tiger every week). I suggest you have lunch at Avocado (Nikis street), a 100% vegan restaurant and coffee shop, where the quality and creativity of the food can convince even the most obstinate meat eaters.
Following Ermou, you will arrive at the packed and noisy Monastiraki Square next to the flea Market of Athens. This is a classic meeting point for many Athenians, as it is in the very heart of Athens. A word of caution: since this is the one of the most touristic of areas, beware of the tourist traps and pickpockets! Steer yourself away from the main square to weave through the smaller streets. On (the somewhat dark) Normanou Street, you will find Sta Paliadzidika, a typical taverna serving Greek food and wine, where you can also listen to traditional rebetiko musicians and to Athenians singing along (with a little practice, you will sing with them too very soon!). On the third floor, you can have a beer or cocktail at the Couleur Locale bar, with a beautiful view of the Acropolis. Careful, the place is often full on weekends, and you will have to wait a bit before finding a place to sit.
Greece is a country where music is omnipresent, so if you feel you have the soul of a musician, go to Thiseio, north-west of the Acropolis and look at the different music shops to find the perfect string instrument for you: bouzouki or baglama? If you’re planning to stay in Athens, why not take a few music lessons so you can accompany other Greek musicians by night? If the idea appeals to you, walk up to Exarcheia, the historical anarchist district of the city, where the nightlife is always upbeat until morning hours. Try the “Pame gi’alla” kafenoio on 99 Mavromixalis street, for a litre of red wine (at least) and some good music. If you are here on a Friday night, go to Akrotexno (Themistokleous street), for the musical Fridays with the Swing Strings, a hybrid artistic place where open jam sessions start just after the music performance, and go on until early morning. After so many hours drinking and singing, you might feel hungry, so just head up for the best 5am souvlaki with pita at Achilleas Vergina (1,60 euros only, at the corner of Valtetsiou street and Exarcheia place)!
Feeling curious? Let’s cross the ring road and have a trip to the suburbs! Take the trolley bus number 10 to the beautiful Halandri district, which is every bit as good at the centre of Athens in terms of coffee places, bars, restaurants and activities. Have a walk in the centre or even in the Halandri woods to get away from the bustling streets. Try some dry fruits, home-made granola and vegetables crisps (the best I have ever tasted) in the brand new Nuts & Berries boutique on Kosta Varnali Street. The staff is adorable and will help you find your heart’s desire. For a more relaxing experience, considerer trying Petite Fleur for a homemade hot (or cold) chocolate, and a sweet boukitsa, also you may be lucky enough to hear some live music, especially on their Wednesday evening jazz sessions. If you’re hungry, dine at the exquisite Psomi kai Alati on Eleftheroton Square, a modern gourmet tavern. If you are in a more adventurous mood, go for a cocktail at Stalin (yes, like the one from USSR) on Vasileos Georgiou street or Spiti Bar (“spiti” as in “home”) on 9 Andrea Papandreou Street.
I suggest a long walk under the floodlit Acropolis, on a late night or just before dawn, when it’s the most stunning. The nocturnal Acropolis will conjure up deep emotions, a sort two-thousand-year-old nostalgia. This coupled with birds tweeting and with the aroma of fresh bread from opening bakeries nearby, you will ask yourself “where have I been my entire life?”
In case you feel lost, look up to the mount Lycabettus, your guiding star, to show you the way home.
Everyday survival Tips:
Buy small bottles of water for only 50 cents from the periptero (local kiosk). You will also find some snacks, stamps, cigarettes, newspapers…
The one month unlimited card for all transportations (metro, bus and trolley) for Athens and the suburbs is €30 and €15 for students (you will need to provide a recent picture and your student card).
The metro from the airport to the city centre is around €8.
In case you want to move around in taxis, make sure to always have some cash on you (small bills are advised like €5 or €10, you shouldn’t need more around the city centre). Be attentive that the taxi driver puts on the taximeter as soon as he starts driving. Fixed prices are illegal and you can also ask for a receipt. It should cost you around €35 from the airport to the city centre.
About the author:
INÈS DE FERRAN
BORN AND RAISED IN PARIS, I STUDIED LANGUAGES, CIVILISATIONS & INTERCULTURAL RELATIONS IN PARIS AND EUROPEAN CULTURE AT UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON – I LIVED IN GREECE A FEW TIMES – I AM ALSO AN ANALOG PHOTOGRAPHER