From the iconic Acropolis rising majestically above the city to charming neighbourhood squares, modern art galleries and lively bars, bustling Athens is a delightfully quirky clash of past and present, a city that confronts and surprises. Visitors are drawn by ancient monuments bathed in the famous light, but it’s Athens’ infectious, creative vibe that enamours and enlivens.
After visiting the magnificent ancient wonders it’s time to experience neighbourhood life. Here’s our guide through the downtown hurly-burly to Athens’ top districts and their quiet shaded cafes, favourite dining haunts, local shopping spots, galleries and bars.
Monastiraki and Psyrri
Busy Monastiraki’s central square opens onto its jam-packed flea market, a warren of antique shops and great people-watching. To the south, the Ancient Agora (the city’s original civic meeting place) remains a wonderful site to explore. Just north of Monastiraki lies Psyrri, where dilapidated facades belie the lively quarter where restaurants and bars coexist with warehouse conversions and workshops.
Morning: Start the day wandering the Ancient Agora and examining the priceless artefacts in its excellent museum housed in the Stoa of Attalos. If time permits, check out the elaborately carved Tower of the Winds at the Roman Agora.
Afternoon: Break for lunch along Adrianou at Kuzina or another of the plethora of cafes and restaurants, or find your way to Café Avyssinia for Acropolis views and old-world elegance. Then cruise the Monastiraki flea market and shop for souvenirs in its wild array of shops, or swing into Spiliopoulos for discount designer duds and Olgianna Melissinos for handcrafted sandals and leather goods.
Evening: Wrap up your day at Magaze for pre-dinner cocktails, then choose between great local music with your dinner at Akordeon (Hristokopidou 7) or savoury street fare at Thanasis. As it nears midnight, make your way to Booze Cooperativa, Baba Au Rum, Six DOGS, Faust or other myriad bars to party the night away.
Syntagma and Plaka
Syntagma is the heart of modern Athens, with Plateia Syntagmatos (Syntagma Sq) its historic meeting point and political centre. The National Gardens offer a welcome respite from the hustle, or it’s a short walk to Plaka, which has undeniable charm. Plaka’s narrow, paved streets pass by ancient sites, restored and crumbling neoclassical mansions, fascinating small museums, Byzantine churches and ambient tavernas.
Morning: Begin by exploring Athens’ main shopping districts in Plaka and Syntagma. From creative jewellery at Apriati to handicrafts at Aidini or natural beauty supplies at Korres, there’s so much to see your head will be spinning. Stop for lunch at a simple taverna like Paradosiako, or eat organic at Pure Bliss.
Afternoon: Visit the vast array of museums of Greek culture, such as Kanellopoulos Museum or the Greek Folk Art Museum, or watch the Changing of the Guard and hide from the heat in the verdant National Gardens.
Evening: Dine at Tzitzikas & Mermingas or 2 Mazi (Nikis 48), then go bar-hopping around Syntagma – try Seven Jokers or Galaxy Bar. For a more sedate evening, catch a flick at Cine Paris, Plaka’s outdoor cinema.
Kolonaki is an adjective as much as a district: it best epitomises the Athenian elite. Undeniably chic, Kolonaki is where old money mixes with the nouveau-riche and wannabes. Named after a tiny obscure column in the central Plateia Kolonakiou (Kolonaki Sq), Kolonaki stretches from Syntagma to the foothills of Lykavittos Hill, and is home to consistently popular cafes, restaurants, galleries, museums, boutiques and stylish apartment blocks.
Morning: Watch the world go by while fuelling up with coffee on Plateia Kolonakiou or at nearby Filion. Once you’re sated, head out to three of the best museums in Athens: Museum of Cycladic Art, Byzantine & Christian Museum and Benaki Museum. These could easily fill your day.
Afternoon: After lunch at the Benaki Museum with its terrace cafe, refreshing garden and Acropolis views, the browsing begins. Kolonaki is the haunt of fashionistas, so if you’re after haute couture, you’ve come to the right place. Even just visiting Fanourakis, the stellar jeweller, or Vassilis Zoulias, the coutourier, will thrill. Or simply cruise the streets, window-shopping, gallery-hopping and watching Athenians do their thing.
Evening: Dine out at one of the local Italian restaurants such as Capanna or Il Postino, or people-watch at Kalamaki Kolonaki. Then join the fray at the bars and clubs on Plateia Kolonakiou, Ploutarhou street or pedestrianised Haritos, such as Mai Tai.
Near the National Archaeological Museum, bohemian Exarhia has an alternative culture and history that sets it apart from Athens’ trendier districts. Although partly gentrified, particularly towards Strefi Hill, the neighbourhood retains a youthful and unconventional identity, thanks to a resident population of students, anarchists, artists, actors, old lefties and intellectuals. Fantastic flights of omnipresent graffiti and occasional riot police highlight its revolutionary role.
Morning: The magnificent collections at the National Archaeological Museum could easily fill a whole day – wander its rooms examining priceless Greek art and artefacts. While you’re there, zip alongside to the Epigraphical Museum for ancient inscribed tablets.
Afternoon: Break for lunch at any of Exarhia’s great restaurants, such as Yiantes for a rather genteel setting, or Rozalia for taverna-style family fare. Then take a stroll to look at the most modern of arts: fantastical and pointedly messaged graffiti.
Evening: After a solid rest, go for a late night bar-hopping Exarhia’s renowned drinking holes: Alexandrino for classic cocktails, Tralala for a bohemian scene, and Blue Fox for retro style. Alternatively, settle in for a round of edgy live music at Ginger Ale or a late-night rembetika session at Kavouras.
Keramikos and Gazi
Like a beacon, the illuminated red chimneys of the old Athens gasworks lead you to Gazi, one of the city’s best nightlife districts. Cool restaurants, bars and nightclubs alternate with museums, theatres and art spaces. If you go by foot from Thisio via pedestrianised Ermou, you pass Keramikos, the archaeological site of Athens’ ancient cemetery and home of an excellent museum.
Morning: Begin at Keramikos and explore the extensive grounds and elaborate monuments early in the day – before it gets too hot. Then pop into its museum for superior sculptural artefacts. The nearby Museum of Islamic Art is the showcase of an extensive, exquisite collection and is well worth a visit.
Afternoon: Have lunch in Gazi at any number of fine eateries, such as Kanella, a contemporary taverna with tasty basics. Then head down to the modern-art museum, Benaki Museum Pireos Annexe for top exhibitions, and wrap up with a coffee in its spacious cafe.
Evening: Be sure to take a long nap so you can be out all night. For dinner, head to Gazi for one of the tavernas near the square, or Keramikos for fun Athiri with its verdant courtyard. When you're ready, the bar crawl begins...start at Hoxton and see what happens.