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The Athens you love might not be the Athens you first expect

Athens from above

I have finally gotten the hang of Athens. I say this because for unthawed northern Europeans like me Athens can be a beguiling place to visit at first.

The sprawling neighbourhoods disorientate and the concrete apartment blocks feel defensive. As a result, Athens feels part stronghold and part labyrinth. But if you do the work then the barriers will melt away.

It sounds dramatic, yet I’m not alone in this impression. A year or two ago, I spent time on Agistri – an island about an hour’s ferry ride from Athens. I met a fellow ‘frosty’ northern European for dinner who described the city as “lawless” upon first impression.

I chuckled and nodded along because while that description uses a degree of creativity, it isn’t far off the mark.

Traffic, trams, buses and bustle are a hallmark of Athens

We adjust, of course. The chaos eventually makes sense, with the heat and hustle generating unique energy and momentum. It takes a little time and intention to tap into that, but Athens’ imperviousness changes – it lets you in if you do the work.

This is especially true for those who want to step out of the Acropolis’ imposing shadow. Because beyond the pretty old town of Plaka, a vibrant “lawless” city waits to be enjoyed.

See Athens on the terms it asks of you, and you will experience a European capital with far more to trade than its incredible history.

A modern treasure close to the ancient Panathenaic Stadium

I’ve visited Athens four times – nowhere near enough to have a full perspective on the metropolis’ charms and hidden gems. But it is enough to have gathered recommendations, tried most of them, and acquired a few of my own finds, too.

Recommendations are roughly grouped by proximity to one another rather than theme. So if you find yourself leaving the Acropolis and need a freddo (iced) cappuccino, you won’t need to scroll very far.

Speaking of the Acropolis, shall we begin there? …


Acropolis and Parthenon 

The Acropolis begs to be visited at least once

Without a doubt, your first visit to Athens should take in the Acropolis and the colossal structures that stand upon it – the Parthenon being the most iconic. From the top, you are granted panoramic views across Athens, to the mountains, and to the Aegean sea.

The Parthenon and neighbouring landmarks are undergoing extensive restoration efforts, so while the scaffolding may not look so pretty in your photos, it is proof that the site is very much alive and thriving.

Tips

  • For extra drama, visit at sunset. The hill and the city below will be bathed in golden-hour light and cast over by long shadows.
  • Book your tickets online! There is no excuse for standing in unpleasantly long queues at the on-site ticket office.

acropolis-tickets.com


Acropolis Museum 

The Acropolis Museum impresses even before you step inside

Athens’ historical landmarks need very little selling to the hoards of visitors who flock to the capital each year. Contemporary architecture still needs some airtime, though, because examples of it are few and far between. That’s where the Acropolis Museum comes in.

Tiptoeing above a live archaeological site, the crisply designed museum gives Athens some fittingly world-class architecture to display its extensive, large-scale antiquities.

Tips

  • Be weather-wise. Given Athens’ high temperatures, consider a visit to the air-conditioned museum after visiting the sun-baked Acropolis. The museum is just a few hundred meters away from the Acropolis and so it is very possible to do both in a day. Take heed and thank me later.
  • Combos. Discounts for entry to the museum are often available with your Acropolis ticket or multi-site pass. Consider your options in advance and you could save a few pennies to put toward an acropolis ashtray.
  • Just go. Even if you don’t expect to like it, the museum creates a grand backdrop for even grander exhibits.

theacropolismuseum.gr


Little Tree Books and Coffee 

Tranquil people-watching awaits at Little Tree Books and Coffee

This bookshop cafe is the perfect pitstop for anyone who finds themselves wandering the elegant Makrygianni neighbourhood. It also happens to be a mere javelin’s throw from the Acropolis and Acropolis Museum.

Take a seat on the small patio beneath the eponymous tree (which isn’t that little), and order a coffee, glass of wine or snack to recharge. Then watch the world go by. It’s a precious place and a regular highlight of my visits to Athens.

Google Maps: Little Tree Books and Coffee


Anafiotika: the old town behind the Old Town 

Discover the secret Cycladic architecture in the heart of Athens

Anafiotika is a neighbourhood hidden between Plaka (the old town) and the Acropolis. The network of alleyways creates an eerie quiet that’s remarkable given Anafiotika’s location. Let its whitewashed architecture transports you from the old town’s stone cladding and cobbles, straight to the Cycladic islands.

Google Maps: Anafiotika


Yiasemi cafe-restaurant

A cafe and bar popular with tourists and Athenians alike, Yiasemi is nestled into the warren of terraced streets that cascade from the Acropolis and the elusive Anafiotika area (see above). Cushions and low tables outside allow you to cram onto the steps of the narrow side street and survey the masses from a unique vantage point.

Google maps: Yiasemi


To Kafeneio restaurant

Mezze restaurant, To Kafeneio, is a hit for many reasons. For one, it is located in Plaka’s cobbled streets. For another, the menu of small dishes allows diners to sample a variety of Greek mezze classics. Bigger plates are also available, but why not enjoy a little of everything?

Tips

  • The aubergine salad is a standout.
  • To Kafeneio is popular, so busy, but turnover is high and the staff are helpful and accommodating. They always do their best to find a table for walk-ins.

Google Maps: To Kafeneio


Protogynous area  

Just act cool, you’re walking Protogynous

Protogynous is a small street bordering Athens’ tourist centre. Blink and you might miss it. But missing it would be a shame. The Prime Timers boutique is worth popping into for a good selection of clothing, there’s a skate shop and a record store, too.

Meanwhile, bars and cafes like Barrett provide refreshments and opportunities for people-watching.

Google Maps: Protogynous


Rakor restaurant

Head to Rakor for casual modern dining away from the tourists

Want to feel like a local and vibe with cool Athenians away from the sock’n’sandal tourists? Then go to Rakor – my favourite place to eat in Athens. The food is that good.

Situated at the southern side of edgy Metaxourgeio, Rakor serves thoroughly delicious fayre that keeps trendy locals coming back time and again. The menu convincingly spins traditional dishes and ingredients into modern marvels. The prices are very reasonable, and – as with most greek menus – vegetarian options are aplenty.

Tips

  • Make a reservation (+30 21 1710 8877). Rakor is a popular spot so avoid disappointment by calling a couple of days ahead. Especially if you are planning a Friday or Saturday night dinner.
  • Drink local. Greek wines are very good and inexpensive, too. The selection at Rakor is excellent. The same is true for the craft beers on offer (Try Noctua brewery).

Google Maps: Rakor


Latraac Skate Park and Cafe 

Hang with some of the cool kids at Latraac Skate Cafe

The name is a giveaway. Latraac is indeed a skate park… and a cafe. By night, the half-pipe is lined with a young crowd who sit quaffing craft beers. Patrons arriving later are bound to the large terrace near the entrance, which is no hardship.

I visited with friends on a Friday night. The DJ played excellent soul that soundtracked the hum of friendly banter across the venue.

Tips

  • Make a night of it. Latraac is a short walk from Rakor, so why not combine them into one evening?
  • Be prepared to queue for the bar at busy times. The bar is small but in high demand during weekend nights. Get your orders in multiples!

Google Maps: Latraac Skate Park and Cafe


Panathenaic Stadium

Get competitive at the Panathenaic Stadium

The ancient Olympics took place far from Athens at Olympia, but don’t let that stop you from living out your Olympiad fantasies in the capital. Specifically, at the awe-inducing Panathenaic Stadium.

The site dates back to 330 BC but was mostly abandoned from the 4th Century onwards. The stadium was excavated and restored in the late 1800s and became the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

The stadium (the only fully marble stadium in the world) is still in use today and provides an impressive opportunity to immerse yourself in Greece’s cultural and sporting heritage while in Athens.

Climb to the top of the 50,000-seat stadium … explore its cold, cavernous tunnels … maybe even run a lap or two?

Tips

  • If the winner’s podium is out, remember to take a photo in that first place spot.
  • As with all open-air exhibits in Athens, prepare for the sun and if you can, avoid early afternoon completely.

Visit the website: panathenaicstadium.gr


Railway Carriage Theatre

Otherwise known as To Treno sto Rouf, this theatre does exactly as you might expect – it provides theatrical entertainment from inside a (stationary) train carriage. Aside from the theatre carriage, the train and its station have spaces for a bar, restaurant, cinema and live music.

Visit the website: click here


Exarcheia neighbourhood 

Kopria store is a worthy stop for the green-fingered in Exarchaeia

Some people say that Exarcheia is trash. They really do. Others, like me, extoll its virtues as a treasured destination.

Considered the ‘anarchist’ area of Athens, a trip by day will show you students calling into the area’s many bookstores, and maybe even a peaceful demonstration marching its streets.

Doc Marten’s, flannel shirts and black jeans are Exarcheia’s wardrobe. Graffiti, flyposters and wild foliage are its decor. The area is a vibe and it can be fun to just wander and watch its inhabitants … inhabiting.

The neighbourhood’s social hub centres around Valtetsiou and its intersections. By night, venues such as Luxus, Warehouse, Ama Lachei and Giantes come alive with winers and diners (more on those next).

Tips

  • Kopria Store (see picture) is a curio for the green-fingered. While flora is not really suitable for flying home with, the store well-represents the daytime vibe of Exarcheia. Kopria is well stocked with other treats for the horticulturists in your life so perhaps you can find a memento or two here.
  • Hidden views. If you are in the area by day, keep walking uphill and you will likely find yourself at Lofos Strefi, a hilltop park with views toward the Acropolis.

Google Maps: Exarcheia


Valtetsiou, Warehouse wine bar and Luxus cocktail bar 

Time for a drink? You can definitely find your beverage of choice on (or around) the lively street called Valtetsiou. Standouts are Warehouse, which specializes in wine, and Luxus, which mixes a mean cocktail. But if they’re busy there are various other cafes and choose from nearby.

Google Maps: Valtetsiou


Giantes restaurant

Highly recommended eats in Exarcheia

Situated in a former garage space, Giantes is partly open air and, partly indoor. it mixes the rough with the smooth to create an ambience that is altogether a bit special. The food follows a similar theme with dishes that are carefully prepared and presented using well-sourced local ingredients.

I went for a late lunch after exploring Exarcheia for an afternoon, so I was seated easily. But as with many a place that comes with a recommendation, a booking is always advised.

Tips

  • Book ahead: +30 21 0330 1369
  • The nearby Ama Lachei is on many a list of recommended restaurants. However, its popularity leads to a busyness that generates rushed service and, dare I say, a ‘schtick’ from waitstaff. This isn’t a dealbreaker, but it is why Ama Lachei is my first runner up in this area, and not the main event.

Google Maps: Giantes


Kolonaki neighbourhood

Kolonaki is a relative stone’s throw from Exarcheia (see above). And while the two neighbourhoods rub shoulders in the shadow of Lycabettus Hill, their vibes are altogether different: Exarcheia embraces defiance, and Kolonaki exudes affluence.

The traffic and tree canopies are as dominant as elsewhere. But wipe the perspiration from your eyes and you’ll quickly notice the grand consulate buildings, law firms and museums beyond.

Suited workers move through Kolonaki’s streets, and while you’ll hear international voices, this area is definitely a place of Athenians. Moneyed Athenians, at that.

This is where you’ll find luxury brands such as Gucci, Balenciaga and Chanel accompanying high-end Greek designers, along with more affordable independent boutiques. The food and drink scene strikes a similar tone, with fine-dining galore, but plenty of mid-range eateries, hip bars, and trendy cafes, too.

Tips

  • A street called Tsakalof is a good place from which to orientate yourself. The street and its corners hum with lunchtime business. And while there, you might as well pop into a lovely little boutique called Block 21.

Google Maps: Kolonaki


Redd Coffee

Your coffee fix with Scandi style at Redd Coffee in Kolonaki

Japan and the Scandi nations have the jump on the World’s coolest coffee spots (Sorry, Italy), but Kolonaki’s Redd Coffee proves that Greece is ready to hold its own.

Redd Coffee is more about take-out than sit-in, but the slick, open-fronted nook offers great design and delicious brews for coffee novices and cold-brew ninjas alike.


Me Kolonaki restaurant

Ever-busy Me Kolonaki is ever-vibrant and delicious, too

Me Kolonaki is a popular mainstay of the neighbourhood. Its breakfast bowls and brunch dishes offer fresh flavours catering to health-conscious diners. Combined with excellent service and a buzzy atmosphere, Me Kolonaki is a tough place to let pass by.

Tips

Me Kolonaki is in high demand, so book ahead if you can. That said, the friendly staff might accommodate a party of two at short notice (and even store your luggage, as they did for me).

Book online: click here


Do you have your own tips for Athens? I’d love to hear about them for future updates and posts. Let me know in the comments!


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