My first ever holiday abroad was in 1998 when I visited Greece on a school excursion. I remember I thought Metropolitan Athens was pretty gray, with too many monotone buildings from the 60s and the 70s. Eitan however always raved about the city. To him, it is the nicest of them all. That’s why when discussing moving to Athens, I told him I needed some time to explore it again, but without prejudice. After three months there I got to realize there is much more than what I remembered. I fell in love with its ancient ruins, old neighborhoods, large hills and parks, gorgeous pedestrian streets, beaches, food, music, cats, and of course, the people. Athenians tend to be low key, but they know how special their city is.
Athens is like a dense concrete jungle of roughly 39 km2 where more than 3 million people share their lives under the sun. It is home to the single most important architectural landmark in the western civilization, the Acropolis. Its historical, architectural and emotional importance is so great that the whole city oriented itself towards it. The structure is on a hill, surrounded by a lush green area, and low-rise buildings, so it can be easily seen from many different parts of the city. Athens is mostly flat with a couple of hills breaking the monotony: Philopappou, southwest of the Acropolis and Lycabettus, northeast of it. The city center lies roughly within a triangle made by three main squares: Monastiraki, Syntagma and Omonia.
It’s not clear when people first settled on what is present day Athens. What we know is that the Athenian Empire reached its golden age in the 5th Century BC. The City, inhabited by wise men and women, became the center of arts, science and culture. During that period two of the city’s main landmarks were built: the impressive monuments of the Acropolis of Athens (upper city) and the Ancient Agora of Athens (lower city square). Roughly 500 meters northwest of the Agora, Kerameikos is a former potters’ quarter and a large burial site. East of the Acropolis you’ll find one of the largest temples of the ancient world the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the reconstructed Panathenaic Stadium or Kallimarmaro.
One of our biggest discoveries in Athens were its wonderful Byzantine Churches. Though Athens wasn’t an important city within the Byzantine Empire (like Thessaloniki) it stills houses more than a dozen churches from that time. The most important one is the Daphni Monastery, a Unesco World Heritage Site, just outside of the city. Two churches that you will not miss are in Ermou Street: Kapnikarea, in the middle of the pedestrian part, and Saint Assomati, at the western end, next to Thisseio metro. Plaka is full of them: my favorites are Agia Aikaterini, surrounded by a beautiful garden and the Church of the Savior of Lykodemos (Russian Church), Athens’ largest medieval building.
Athens was part of the Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years, a period that marked its decline. The Turkish settlement was established in beautiful Plaka.The urban grid is still the same. Although the Ottomans were impressed by the Ancient ruins they did build an entire city within the Acropolis including a mosque inside the Parthenon. They did the same with the Agora. Of course, when the country gained its independence in the 19th Century, the local authorities destroy all ottoman heritage. Luckily, a couple of buildings have survived. The most notable ones are the 17th Century Fethiye Mosque, the 18th Century Tzistarakis Mosque and the 17th Century Bathhouse of the Winds.
Following the country’s independence in the 19th Century two German scholars were appointed to make a new city plan. The two main city squares of Syntagma and Omonia were built according to that plan. The most well-known neoclassical building is the Hellenic Parliament on Syntagma square. Three important institutions rise on the road that connects Syntagma and Omonia: the National Library of Greece, the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and the National Academy of Athens. Other important neoclassical buildings are the Old Parliament House (now the National Historical Museum of Greece), the monumental Zappeion and the National Archaeological Museum.
Over the second half of the 20th Century Athens grew enormously with endless monotonous buildings springing out like mushrooms. But at the beginning of the 20thCentury three new projects designed by world famous architects brought Athens back to the world architecture stage. The Athens Olympic Sports Complex was erected for the 2004 Olympic Games. Santiago Calatrava did a great job revamping the existing complex. In 2009 the new Acropolis Museum was built, under the design of Bernard Tschumi. The monumental Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, home to the National Library and Opera House was designed by Renzo Piano.
Just like in most European cities, the most important landmarks are in Athens center. Aside from the churches from the Byzantine times, there are several other more modern ones. The most important one is naturally the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens but Saint Irene (AgiaIrini) and the Church of Virgin Mary Chrissospliotissa (Panagia Chrissospliotissa) are pretty impressive too. On the upper slopes of Plaka, just under the Acropolis do not miss the tiny village of Anafiotika. It was built in the 19th Century by the workers from Anafi Island. East of Syntagma you’ll find the City’s most beautiful man made park: the National Garden. Also, don’t forget to visit the lavish 1stAthens Cemetery in Mets.
Central Athens is full of cool neighborhoods: the main street Ermou and the oldest neighborhood Plaka are located here. Northwest of Monastiraki you’ll find Psyri, home to many of the city’s live tavernas. Kerameikos is next, home of the city’s alternative bars. Gazi on the west is party central. Thisseio, on the slopes of Philoppaou is probably the city’s most beautiful neighborhood, while Petralona has a small-town feel. North of the city center you’ll find Exarcheia, an anarchist’s hotspot with cool bars and bookshops. Next to it Kolonaki is full of fancy bars and restaurants. Pangrati and Mets are to the south (of Kolonaki). Both more local neighborhoods,perfect to walk and have a coffee.
Piraeus is without a doubt the most famous municipality in Metropolitan Athens. Known for its gigantic port, it is also home to some wonderful ancient ruins, neoclassical heritage and two cool marinas. A couple of kilometers away, where the tram line from Syntagma touches the sea, Paleo Faliro is home to several wonderful city beaches and the nice Marina Flisvos. Further down south along the coast the elegant Glyfada is where rich Athenians go to the beach. It is known for its green areas, fancy shops, restaurants and beach clubs. On the opposite side of the city, at the end of the green metro line, Kifissia, is something else. Full of luxuriant mansions and again fancy shops and restaurants it is for car owners.
Where to stay
If you like staying at hotels, you’ll find most options around underwhelming Omonia square. While the area is quite safe it is full of unpleasant sites, so we advise you to avoid it. If your thing is luxury you’ll find several five star hotels at Syntagma square. The location is outstanding and the hotels on the spot. Other great locations to stay are either in beautiful Plaka or around Makrigianni neighborhood, south of the Acropolis. If you prefer renting an apartment you’ll find plenty of options all around the city. Again, I wouldn’t recommend Omonia or Metaxourgio. If you want to mix with the young crowd stay in Koukaki or Gazi. If you want something more authentic, yet central, choose Thisseio, Mets or Pangrati.
Athens is a fairly large city, with a slightly hilly terrain. Aside from large streets, where traffic lights seem to ignore pedestrians, walking about is quite rewarding. Nevertheless, you can’t cross the whole city on foot. Biking is still an unusual way of discovering Athens. Not many locals do it, there are few bike lines and cars are not used to them. Traffic jams in Athens are quite common, thus buses and trolleybuses tend to get stuck with cars. Trams are in a bit better position as they have some segregated lanes, but still not fast enough. By far the fastest way of transport is Metro. It consists of only three lines, but they reach many tourist sites and even the airport, port and the railway station.
Food & Coffee
This is one of Athens’ biggest assets. The vast majority of restaurants offer fresh high-quality ingredient food prepared in the most diverse ways. We travel a lot, so it gets to a point we get tired of eating out. But not in Athens, where we enjoyed having lunch or dinner out every day! In the city center next to Monastiraki we absolutely loved Savvas with excellent Gyros, Kebap (minced meat fingers) and the best view over the Acropolis. In Koukaki our favorite is Kalyvas in a beautiful pedestrian street. You’ll find many cool bars to have a drink in the same street (Georgiou Olimpiou), but also around Varnava Square in Pangrati, and all around Kerameikos. For good coffee and people watching we would go to Exarcheia. Our two favorite bars in the center:Six Dogs and Brettos, Athens’ oldest bar.
Gazi is Athens nightlife hotspot. Everybody is here: young, old, gay, straight, rich and poor. One of the reasons we love Athens is because people mix everywhere. There is no real segregation and everybody is welcomed. A couple of mixed places offer a nice view over Acropolis: Gaziview from the Inside, Tramp from an open-air terrace. During our three months in Athens we checked three Gazi gay clubs. Big, across the railroad is a place for big and older guys. Shamone next to the railroad is a great place to have a drink on its beautiful terrace and dance the night away. Sodade 2 is popular amongst a younger crowd. Another place you shouldn’t miss is the mythical Koukles in Koukaki.
In Athens art is everywhere: impressive Street art galore, great museums, musical venues and cool artistic clubs. There is plenty of street art all around the city. The main neighborhoods to search for are: Psyri, especially around Iroon Square; Gazi, around Kerameikos metro; and Exarcheia. Athens’ most interesting museums are the Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum for ancient heritage and Benaki Museum for something a bit more modern. The large Megaro Moussikis is the main venue for classical music. Around Gazi there are two cool cultural centers: Technopolis and the Athinais Cultural Centre. Don’t miss the Niarchos Stavros Cultural Center with its superb garden overlooking the city and sea.
There is so much more in Athens to like. We were just overwhelmed by the amount of cute cats on every corner. In Koukaki, in Georgiou Olimpiou Street there is even a café where cats are regular guests! The other thing that completely enchanted me as an urban planner, are the numerous beautiful pedestrian streets. Unlike Barcelona’s full of concrete and noise, these ones are full of greenery. Sometimes even without shops or bars. We also loved the village-alike spirit of its neighborhoods and the splendid weekly markets. Once a week they close a street in every neighborhood to open up space for numerous food stalls with shouting vendors and excited buyers. How could we not fall in love with Athens?
Insider Tips: what to see and do
The Olympic Complex is perfect to bike. You can reach it via the green metro line from Monastiraki Station. You can take your bike on the train, enjoy the ride and hop off at the complex. Biking beneath the arches is cool, with views over the entire city. You can next take the same train to the posh Kifissia north of the city. It’s nice, but most houses are big secluded places.
One of Eitan’s favorite places sits right on Syntagma square, opposite the Hellenic Parliament: Public, a fantastic bookstore. Thought it’s a chain they have a huge selection of books in English and a great rooftop café with views to the Parliament. Be sure to check the nut shop just a block away on Pericleous street and the pita place right across. They are very good.
For the best view of the Acropolis we recommend A for Athens, where you should book a table and Couleur Locale, more popular among locals. Both are located around Monastiraki. Be sure to check the countless bakeries all over the city. What they offer is surreal: delicious cookies, cakes, sandwiches, pitas, chocolates, juices, ice cream, candy, and coffee. Veneti, Attica and Apollonion are fantastic.
Climb the Philopappou Hill: at its peak you can indulge in views to the Acropolis to one side and to the sea to the other. There’s the Philopappu Monument, an observatory that opens on working days and the Pnyx amphitheater. Bushes and trees complete the feast.
A quick note
Eitan is driving me nuts. He insists we must be honest and state the truth. What is really sad and embarrassing is the British theft. The British Museum houses the Parthenon and other stolen pieces. As a kid, he fell in love with the museum. Then he went to Greece. How tacky and ignorant can you be to rip off one of humanity’s masterpieces, keep it under a roof and refuse to return it. One can only imagine how grandiose the Acropolis could truly be if the United Kingdom had some shame or at least taste. In the meantime, he truly believes that UK citizens should pay three times as much to enter Athenian monuments.