Athens off the beaten track
With more than five million visitors in 2017 alone, Athens is one of the most popular destinations worldwide, and as a result one of the best covered in travel guidebooks and magazines. However, a number of its small treasures that truly convey the flavour of city life and best define the local culture often go unnoticed. Here are a few Athenian secrets for those keen to scratch a little under the Greek capital’s surface.
Tatoi royal estate
Home to Greece’s former royal family until 1967 and abandoned since, Tatoi estate extends to a 4000-hectare forest area on the slopes of Mt Parnitha, north of Athens. Just a half-hour drive from downtown (or a 20 to 25 euros taxi ride), the estate is a perfect destination for a day in the nature, a picnic, and some historical sightseeing to boot. The interior of the dilapidated palace is not accessible, but scattered in the woods are various interesting buildings that used to house the sovereign’s court and can be visited. There’s a winery, a dairy, the royal stables, as well as the royal cemetery where most of the former kings and queens of Greece are buried.
Museum of the Bank of Greece
Overlooked by most visitors, this small but interesting museum focuses on the monetary history of the country since the establishment of the Bank of Greece in 1927. All the banknotes circulated by the Bank (remember Greek drachma?) and old equipment such as scales and printing presses, together with the museum’s extensive audiovisual material, deserve – and will pleasantly fill – a couple of hours’ sightseeing in Athens.
Diomedes Botanical Garden
The largest botanical garden in the Balkans is located on the outskirts of the city and even many Athenians are not aware of its existence. Run by the University of Athens, it’s home to rare, wild and cultivated plants. The numerous themed sections include flora related to history, economy, medicine as well as plants and endangered species from around the world – a true paradise for nature buffs but also a perfect retreat for a cooling ramble, away from the city buzz.
Squeezed in a gritty courtyard and invisible from the street outside, during the day Cantina serves as a refuelling station for employees from the nearby workshops. In the evening, it transforms itself into a favourite meeting point for the city’s alternative and indie youth. Dance the night away in the small interior space or chill out with delicious cocktails in the yard.
Once a week, one street in every neighbourhood of Athens is transformed into an outdoor fruit and vegetable market where farmers offer their crops for sale and consumers stock up on their weekly supplies of fresh produce. The ones on Kerameikos (Tuesdays), Xenokratous (Fridays) and Kallidromiou (Saturdays) streets are quite central and are worth a morning stroll if you fancy savouring a quintessential Athenian experience.
Very popular during the past few years, both as business models and social hangouts, cooperative cafes keep springing up in every Athenian neighbourhood. They’re owned and run by groups of friends who make a point of selecting their suppliers among small local producers. The cafes favour organic, environmentally friendly and fair-trade products, often selling them to take away too. The atmosphere is laid-back and homey, menus are adjusted daily and prices are really low. Krikos, Potami and Syggrouomeno are among the oldest and most central spots and well worth a visit.
Koimtzis Cosmic Globes
Established in 1951 and already run by the third generation of the same family, this globes and maps workshop is one of the very few of its kind that have survived the flood of cheap, mass-produced imports. They design cartography for their own Cosmic line, but for the aficionados they also offer 100% hand-made globes, made to order. The prices are reasonable for items of such fine craftsmanship, and you don’t have to worry about carrying them home as the shop will be happy to put them safely in the post for you.
Triantafyllo tis Nostimias
Hidden in a small arcade near Syntagma square and unnoticed by most passers-by, Triantafyllo is an excellent, good-value, simple Greek taverna serving traditional fare. Everything is prepared with top-quality ingredients, including fresh fish and seafood. It only opens for lunch and caters to the local community of shop and office workers – no tourists here – which in Athens is often a fair indicator of a venue’s quality and pricing.
Jazz in Jazz
Located in the upmarket neighbourhood of Kolonaki, this is actually a small jazz museum passing for a bar. It was established in 1978 on the south coast of Crete by a legendary figure of the Greek jazz scene, Costas Spanos. Following his legacy, his nephew Vangelis continues to offer Athenians fine drinks and pure jazz in what is arguably the most atmospheric watering hole in the capital.
Tarassouleas Stamps & Coins
This store is a collector’s den and its owner has been the Greek authority on stamps, coins, banknotes and other collectible items for the past three decades. If you frown at cheap souvenirs and worthless memorabilia, this is the place to go; you’ll be taking home a keepsake from Greece that will never lose its value – quite the opposite.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.