I LOVE Athens! The sights, the history, the crazy, full-throttle energy of it that still weirdly manages to be more laid-back than home.
This is a city that will practically mow you down in traffic if you don't cross the street fast enough, but linger an hour and a half to drink a frappé in the middle of the day with friends.
When you go, there are the obvious things to do - the Acropolis, the changing of the guard at Syntagma, etc. You must do these things, naturally.
But once you've done the "greatest hits", what if you want to get a little off the beaten track?
Here's a list of some of my favorite places to see and things to do that aren't necessarily the first things you'd think of.
1. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus
Above - A perfectly interesting ancient ruin by day
Below - A rockin' music venue by night!
See a concert at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (May-October only). This is one of the venues of the annual Athens Epidavros Festival. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus (sometimes just called the Herodion) is a magnificent place to hear music. Built during the Roman era and renovated in 1950, the site sits at the base of the Acropolis.
I saw a concert there one summer - all big Greek stars like Yiorgos Dalaras, Kostas Makedonas, Melina Aslanidou, and more (the divine Charis Alexiou even came up for one song). The sound of 5000 Greeks in the amphitheater all singing along to the familiar songs, with the Temple of Nike lit up behind us on the Acropolis and a full moon rising between the arches of the Herodion's facade was an unforgettable, goose-bumpy experience.
But it's not just Greek music and ancient plays that are performed there - everything from operas and symphonies to Sting and productions of Sweeney Todd have graced it's stage. And depending on the show, tickets can be surprisingly cheap!
Whatever you see there, you won't soon forget it!
Above - Monastiraki Square, with the Acropolis beyond.
Below - Street views of Psirri.
Ok, so Monastiraki doesn't quite qualify as off-the-beaten-path, but it's still worth exploring, especially if you get out of the famous little square itself. Right next door is Psirri - a funky, gritty, colorful little swath of the city. I like these neighborhoods because they feel pretty authentic. Yes, there are some tourist shops, but you know that people live and work here, and it's not 100% catering to tourism.
You should check out Monastiraki's famous flea market, and the little shops along Adrianou St., right across from the ruins of Hadrian's Library.
We stayed just up the road on Athinas St. and somehow never quite had the time to visit Athens' Central Market at number 42 Athinas. It looks fascinating, although by some accounts, not for the squeamish. Still, I regret not getting to it. Next time, hopefully!
Right next to Monastiraki is Psirri (alternately spelled 'Psyri' and 'Psiri'). This used to be a rough neighborhood that has been turned into a colorful and lively area, with interesting shops, nightlife and great restaurants. Yes, there is graffiti everywhere, but some of it is actually amazing art! It's still a working-class neighborhood, but nighttime is when it really comes alive. Just use your normal "I'm in a big city" smarts and you'll be fine.
Consider eating at the charming "I Oraia Pendeli" restaurant. They have seating inside and outside in a small square, and some nights they have live music. We took the place over one night for a big party and they could not have been more accommodating. Great food, too!
A rooftop restaurant with a view of the Acropolis
3. Find any rooftop restaurant or bar with a view of the Acropolis. There are so many to choose from. If you're lucky enough to stay in a hotel that has one, problem solved! If not, check around the internet for some with great reviews. If it's raining and you still want the experience, I recommend the swanky Radisson Blu's St'Astra Restaurant or the Hera Hotel's Peacock.
4. The neighborhood of Anafiotika. I have a whole article about this hidden gem, which you get to from the Plaka. Cycladic-style homes cling to the ridges of the Acropolis' north face, and photo ops are everywhere you look. Worth hunting for.
This is a small shop on Makrigiannis St, almost across from the new Acropolis Museum. I've been here a couple of times. They have a wonderful selection of pastries, ice cream, wines and good things to bring if you're visiting someone's home or just want to indulge your sweet tooth.
Also - BAKLAVA ICE CREAM.
Yes, it is amazing. Yes, it's actually better than you're imagining right now. I don't really need to say more, do I?
A gorgeously-designed complex featuring a main building by famed architect Renzo Piano. It has performance spaces, a massive, modern library, and a roof garden featuring native Greek plants, complete with an olive grove. There are exhibits, classes and even dancing fountains. The entire complex is built with sustainability in mind, too. Go for a performance, or just to visit the main building and see the sights from the roof under the specially-designed energy canopy. It's a fascinating place to walk around.
Above: The roof garden, complete with olive grove. Note how the design even takes into consideration how the path between the olive trees lines up with the street beyond to continue an uninterrupted flow.
Below - The library and the roof.
This tiny shop and distillery is tucked away in the maze of alleys in the Plaka at 41 Kydathineon Street. Even if you don't drink at all, go to see it. It's possibly the most colorful place in Athens.
If you do enjoy an adult beverage now and then, however, treat yourself to one of their home-made products like tsipouro, ouzo, brandy, the delicious rakomelo (a favorite of mine!), and a dizzying array of liqueurs. It's a wildly photogenic place, as you can see from the photos.
Tourists enjoying a local libation, and me enjoying a warm rakomelo - a drink made with raki, honey and cinnamon.
8. The church of Panaghia Kapnikarea
This wonderful little Byzantine church dates from the 11th century, and is right in the middle of Ermou Street, Athens' busiest shopping area. The modern buildings were carefully built around it, so it sits like a tranquil little island among the bustle of the modern city. I fell in love with the mosaics around the arched doorways...
Those of you from places with sub-standard subway systems *coughBOSTONcough* will be gobsmacked by a couple of things.
First, how remarkably clean everything is. It's like a squadron of very fastidious yiayias (and really, is there any other kind?) is in there before dawn, energetically mopping and sweeping so that the floors shine and the glass is streak-free.
The walls are clear of the graffiti that litters almost everything else in the city, and best of all, it doesn't smell like hobo pants. (STILL looking at you, Boston!)
The other thing that will surprise you is it is full of antiquities. It's like a mini-museum of the artifacts, carefully preserved in glass cases, that were discovered during the excavation of the metro system. There is even a huge wall showing the substrata of the centuries, including the skeleton of a 4th century B.C. Athenian. (My only photo of this is blurred, so I'm not including it.
10. O Glykis
I'm including this place because it was a stumbled-upon oasis in the middle of the teeming Plaka. It feels like a little village taverna.
Down a little side street (Aggelou Geronta 2, Plaka ), under a gorgeous purple jacaranda tree (in May, anyway), sits this quiet little cafe. It's an excellent place to get lunch in the shade and away from the rush of the main areas of the Plaka. We had some delicious Cretan dakos and saganaki and nice cold beer. Lovely and surprisingly peaceful, it's a great spot to grab a bite out of the constant stream of tourists.
Do you have any places in and around Athens that you love and are a little under the radar? Let us know below in the Comments!
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