Athens looms large in history and legend, but its main sights are clustered in one area, and the central neighborhoods are tiny. It’s possible to walk from a museum in Kolonaki in the east to a nightclub in Gazi – a neighborhood long considered to be on the western “fringe” – in a brisk half-hour. In practice, though, each district you pass through is so interesting, you might easily spend a day making your way across town.
The big asset to Athens’s density is more leeway in your choice of hotels: pick where you want to end up at night without an hour-long slog in the morning to see the sights. And although central Athens teems with unhosted short-term rentals, they have skewed the economy against Athenians. For actual “living like a local” and the hospitality Greeks are famous for, rent a room in a shared apartment — or stay in a good old hotel.
Best for early starts and late-day vibes
If your primary mission is beating the tour groups to the Acropolis, book a hotel in Makrygianni, near the site’s east entrance and the Acropolis Museum. Contrary to expectations, this area isn’t all tourist tat, but a nice mix of old-school residential, extremely upmarket residential (big-money flex: walking your tiny dog on Dionysiou Areopagitou at sunset) and hotels at all price points.
The farther you walk from the Acropolis, the more you’ll find nice cafes and restaurants with no claim to fame other than being some neighborhood denizens’ regular joint.
Walk a bit farther south and you reach Koukaki, which often tops lists of quintessential Athens neighborhoods. And deservedly so, especially on the pedestrian strip of Olimpiou where bar-cafes like Bel Rey burst with casual kefi (atmosphere) on a summer night. The National Museum of Contemporary Art, in the old Fix brewery, lends the area style points.
Syntagma and the Commercial Triangle
Best for market browsing and bar crawls
In front of the parliament and the pompom-footed soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the broad square of Plateia Syntagmatos is the unofficial center of the city: a key landmark that draws a big mix of people in the evenings.
Syntagma is one point in the emporiko trigono (commercial triangle) as the central business district is known. The other two points of the triangle are Omonia (north) and Monastiraki (west). Even though many of the buildings are ’60s-era concrete, centuries-old churches pop up in odd spots, and old-style micro-business districts persist, so you can buy, say, all your gardening supplies in one block. And after the offices, shops and central market close, people flock to some fabulously designed drinking holes with renowned bartenders – look especially on and around Kolokotroni, which leads into the adjoining neighborhood of Psyrri.
Monastiraki and Psyrri
Best for old things and new bars
Named for a little monastery-turned-church on a broad square, Monastiraki is the district where you’ll find the vast Ancient Agora and the smaller Roman Agora – but also plenty of opportunities to take a break from sightseeing. Adrianou picks up again west of Hadrian’s Library with a long row of cafes and restaurants and views of the ruins. The so-called Flea Market is mostly tourist knickknacks, but Sunday mornings, junk dealers lay out their wares, and permanent antique shops – both pristine and dust-covered – are tucked away on side streets.
North of Ermou (the Sunday market bleeds over here too) is Psyrri, where vestiges of old trades (look for the cane-chair maker) and city essentials (the bakery specializing in sesame rings) sit side-by-side with art galleries and cool cafe-bars. It might be the best neighborhood to combine atmosphere, convenience and cool factor – but if you get a room at one of the cute boutique hotels here, commit to joining the party, or pack earplugs. Also note that the closer you get to Omonia in the north, the scruffier the streets.
Best for photo ops and scenic strolls
South from Syntagma is one of Athens’ older districts, with suitably grand neoclassical mansions and historic churches to match. Many of the stone-paved streets are closed to cars, and stairs lead up the hillside toward the Acropolis. It’s all exceedingly picturesque – especially Anafiotika, a small patch of whitewashed island-style architecture. But the combination of eye candy and proximity to the Acropolis and the other big ancient sites naturally makes this tourist central, especially along the shopping strip of Adrianou. Still, it’s possible to find good restaurants and cafes – Athenians love the scenery too.
Gazi, Keramikos & Metaxourgio
Best for nightclubs and crumbling cool
Cross over Pireos from Psyrri, and you’re in the aforementioned “fringe” area of Gazi, named for an old gas plant. In the past two decades, it has developed into a major – if now somewhat slick – nightlife district, including the old gasworks, which hosts outdoor shows. The Benaki museum’s modern art branch, 138 Pireos St, is one rare reason visitors come here during the day.
North and east of Gazi, past Iera Odos, is Keramikos district, followed by Metaxourgio. If you’ve read about a cool new bar, an indie designer or a restaurant with a rock-and-roll vibe – it’s probably on or near one of the long pedestrian strips in this area, where abandoned 19th-century homes alternate with convivial nightspots like Alphaville. By day, there are resoundingly practical businesses in the form of moped dealerships and Chinese import companies. (Keep an eye out for unsigned Chinese restaurants and an informal street produce market.)
Metaxourgio has a somewhat sketchy reputation, largely due to the area between Plateia Avdi and Omonia, where two streets are lined with low-budget brothels. Hotels around Plateia Karaïskaki can be good value, but solo travelers may not feel comfortable walking back from the center at night.
Best for shade and chic
Tree-lined Kolonaki, east and north of Syntagma, is the ritziest district in central Athens. But even if you’re not aiming to drop €400 on a pair of shoes, you’ll come here for excellent museums – the Museum of Cycladic Art and the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture, among others – as well as Lykavittos Hill, with its green slopes and gorgeous view. Kolonaki hotels are on the pricier side, but they’re also the quietest you’ll find near the center. If you want to stay in easier walking distance of the Acropolis, focus on the lowlands closer to Vasilissis Sofias; the Lykavittos slopes can be rough at the end of a long day.
Best for street art and solidarity
North of Omonia and behind the university and the National Archaeological Museum, Exarhia has become (in)famous for its anarchist politics. Real estate speculation since the 2008 financial crash, as well as the clearance of many long-established squats, has turned this area over to the highest number of short-term rentals in the city – and, in turn, cringe Insta snaps of tourists posing with lefty graffiti. Still, this is a very lively area, and the friendly bars are geared to student budgets. Stop by self-organized Navarino Park, the laïki agora (weekly produce market) on Saturdays, and immigrant-run cafe Steki Metanaston to really catch the neighborhood’s committed spirit. If you stay here, you’re also committing to riding the bus a bit more.
Other residential neighborhoods
These areas don’t have much in the way of lodging, but they’re great places to get a sense of Athens' life away from the ancient monuments.
Mets & Pangrati
The hillside behind the Panathenaic Stadium is a great slice of Athens, tree-shaded and relaxed. It’s a nice area to stroll, including in Athens’ First Cemetery, and has some reservation-worthy restaurants, such as Mavro Provato and Spondi.
Thisio & Petralona
Put the Acropolis to your back and walk into these quieter districts around Filopappou Hill.
A solid bus ride from the center, but another vibrant part of Athens, built-in grand style after World War II and now a bustling immigrant area. Fokionos Negri is a pretty, tree-lined pedestrian avenue, with the revamped Kypseli Municipal Market alongside.