Editor’s note: Traveller Notes aims to uncover the spots that local residents love, providing you with an insider’s guide to cities around the world. Our Traveller Notes guide to Athens is written by Becki Enright ofBorders of Adventure For practical information and a basic Athens itinerary, check out Expedia’s 72-hour guide to Athens, also written by Becki.
Like any bustling metropolis, Athens presents enough activity and spontaneity to keep me interested. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and much of it is hardly spoken about or rarely trodden by first-time visitors. It may be an ancient city, where people meander through the sleepy ruins, but its gritty modern-day offering is constantly changing with a creative force, garnering positive attention away from a crisis-ridden reputation.
In the year I lived there, I learned something new every single day. Every day I tried to walk a new route to find a new street, a new store, or a detail I’d never observed – Athens is a complex and multi-layered city outside of its ‘cradle of civilization’ and Acropolis fame.
You only realize just how big Athens in when you stand at the aforementioned hilltop, marveling the mighty Parthenon, and look over the walls at the old neighborhoods and the sprawling metropolis that spills around the sporadic mounds that dot the city until it reaches the curves of the mountains.
This perspective makes you want to explore more of the present-day city below. The one thing I tell any visitor to Athens is this: “give it time”. Don’t pass through and cast an opinion based on a few flashes of gritty streets and crowded tourist hubs; of streets covered more in graffiti than classical golden hues.
Contemporary Athens suffers from an identity crisis of sorts – the birthplace of democracy has seen its fair share of change and charge. First came Roman rule, then Byzantine and then Ottoman. On top of that, you have a wave of seven wars including those in the Balkans, World War II, alongside civil war.
The Renaissance, that shaped the artistic face of France and Italy, amongst others, never happened here. The architecture is mostly a reflection of Neo-Classicism and post-war functionality. Overall, the city remains a blend of monuments and cultures that neither makes it predominantly pretty or easy to define. Rather, more misunderstood.
So in the hours I spent wandering through these cracks, I managed to find the beauty within. The places where generations-old culture thrives and where contemporary life pulsates. Where the political voice of street art sits alongside the spattering of architectural splendor including triangular pediments and classical columns. I like to untangle it so that your visit can be more enjoyable, better-rounded, and with the context needed to keep you in the city for more than the 24 hours normally granted to it as a stopover to the many glorious islands.
Thanasis (Mitropoleos 69) or Kostas (Pentelis 5)… which is the best souvlaki? Asking where is the best souvlaki in Athens could results in a multitude of answers. Some may argue until they are blue in the face. You see, souvlaki is a food institution and everyone has their favorites – and these two establishments are just covering the very center of town. My advice? Go to both. You can never eat too much souvlaki.
I love brunching and gossiping over the week’s events, and while Mama Roux (Aiolou 48) is perfect on any day of the week, it’s especially popular on the weekend. We all love to make the most of those days! The colorful umbrella décor can’t be missed on busy Aiolou street. The wait for a table is a testament to its tasty menu, from tasty salads to succulent salmon souvlaki.
With so many neo-classical mansions in decay, there’s nothing more exquisite than being able to dine in one that has been restored and revived, especially in lesser-known Metaxourghio. I believe we all need to support such efforts, especially in a city where so much beauty has gone to waste. For a touch of class, incredible modern-Greek cuisine with rich flavor, paired with the finest wines in the region, head to Aleria(Meg. Alexandrou 57).
BARS AND CAFÉS
TAF (Normanou 5): I like to feel like I’m hiding in here, within the walls of this old wooden structure tucked away in a side alley off busy Ermou street, and always feel proud to show someone a secret door. The Art Foundation may be a co-working space for artists, but this cozy café and bar space is open to everyone. Absorb the history of why perusing modern art. It’s a perfect example of the old-new creativity of Athens.
Kimolia Art Café (Iperidou 5): Young, funky and colorful, this café is housed within a restored 1925 house, brought to life by an Athenian artist. Any café based on revival and artistic rejuvenation gets my vote, which sometimes means stumbling upon a small exhibition while sipping your coffee or stopping for a snack.
Couleur Locale (Normanou 3): A couple of doors down from TAF is Couleur Locale – I come here to meet friends for a coffee and a catch up because it’s contemporary and bright. To get here, first, enter a stoa (arcade) on Normanou street before climbing the stairs to this contemporary rooftop café-bar space for an atmospheric view of the Acropolis.
Black Duck Garden (loannou Paparrigopoulou 5): I’ve recently become accustomed to spending one day of the weekend perusing a gallery or exhibition of some kind, followed by a thoughtful rest in a café. In this case, you can do it in one place – a quaint setting for a concealed café set within the Museum of the City of Athens. The perfect combinations of culture, art, and atmosphere.
360 (Ifestou 2) and A is for Athens (Miaouli 2): I always take visitors to one of these bars so they can marvel at the Acropolis with a cocktail in hand (Aperol Spritz is my sunny drink of choice). Both rooftop bars and restaurants overlook Monastiraki Square and are perfect for an easy accessible ancient view. A is for Athens is higher and attracts those wanting a romantic evening viewing spot, but it also funs to hang out with a group of friends and has a rooftop gathering.
Athenians party until the early hours, and by early hours I mean until 6 or 7 am. It took a while for my body to contemplate that time shift, but this is the way it is done in Athens, so be sure to have your ‘disco nap’ before your late dinner, in preparation for the early morning. Even then, you may be invited to continue on…
Six Dogs (Avramiotou 6-8): This is always where I take first-time visitors. It’s concealed in a side alley just off the main road, which makes people really excited. The bright light of the logo immediately breaks a smile, before we enter a basement that turns into a huge bar and outdoor garden space. It has become one of Athens’ most popular and much-loved bars and gig spaces.
Drunk Sinatra (Thiseos 16): I normally have a ‘bar routine’ and this place is usually the second place I visit on a bar hop. Why? 60’s style class, with a modern and funky vibe, right in the historical center of Athens. Dine all day and drink all night, but at night it’s especially vibrant.
Old Fashioned (Miaouli 16): It’s super local, but everyone is welcome. A small space with welcoming staff and a DJ playing tracks from bygone eras – often a place where I swing by and say hey, although have often found myself in there until closing.
Tranzistor (Protogenous 10): When I want to be in a super-crowded space and meet many, many new faces, I come here. A colorful café bistro by day and a bustling club bar by night, this place draws in the crowds from laid-back socialites to the real party crowd. Brace yourself for its overflowing