Think of Athens, and the first thing that comes to mind for most visitors is the Acropolis topped by the Parthenon. The icon is hard to escape as you can see it from almost everywhere in the city, but Athens is actually a collection of colorful, lively neighborhoods to explore. Here are the best to look for on your next trip.
Plaka, below the eastern slopes of the Acropolis Hill, is the heart of old Athens. There’s no escaping the fact that this is a very touristy district, packed with souvenir shops and lots of mediocre tavernas. But it is also a delightful place to walk around, to wander through the narrow lanes and admire the pastel-colored houses. Adrianou Street, which basically separates Plaka from another district, Monastiraki, has the best shops. Take some time to find the neighborhood within a neighborhood, Anafiotika. It was built in the 19th century by settlers from the island of Anafi. They came to Athens for work and created their Cycladic island, complete with boxy, whitewashed houses, lining streets that are really winding staircases, on the slopes of the Acropolis.
Where to Eat: Psaras claims to be Plaka’s oldest restaurant. It has a huge menu, of traditional classics and fish, and a picturesque setting on steps leading up to Anafiotika.
Nearest Metro: Acropoli on the Red Line
Kolonaki is where well-heeled Athenians live, shop and dine. Since Greece’s economic troubles and disagreements with the EU several years ago, a few shops have closed and perhaps a few bistros have disappeared, but all the major global designer names plus exclusive Greek jewelers and designers are present here. Art galleries, shoe shops, and boutiques are scattered across the side streets. Head for Skoufa for Gucci and Louis Vuitton but also koukoutsi, a shop that sells hip, originally designed T-shirts and backpacks for men. Also good for shopping and window shopping: Solonos, Likavittou, Pindarou, Ippokratous and Tsakalof streets. Earn that shopping trip and all the frappés you;ll drink in Kolonaki’s sidewalk cafés with a bracing morning walk up Lycabettus Hill (Kolonaki spreads across its lower slopes).
Where to Eat: This district is full of French, Italian and Japanese restaurants. But one of the best neighborhood locals is Kalamaki Kolonaki, at 32 Ploutarchou. Their souvlaki is legendary.
Nearest Metro: Evangelismos on the Blue Line
Syntagma Square is the political and ceremonial heart of modern Athens. It is dominated by the lemon-yellow Greek Parliament building, a royal palace until the mid 19th century. The Evzones, an elite military unit who serve as the Presidential Guard, perform a “changing of the guard” ceremony at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, in front of the parliament. Their high stepping choreography, coupled with their uniform of white skirts, white leggings, red berets and shoes with pompoms, is one of the main reasons tourists gather in Syntagma Square. Another reason is that it usually the place they first fetch up in the city when they arrive from either the port at Piraeus or the Airport — Syntagma is the central stop on the Metro Lines and the buses serving both. The square is surrounded by banks, hotels and most of the travel agencies in Athens (where you can pick up ferry tickets to the islands). It also has the most popular taxi stand in Athens.
Where to Drink: This is not a great area for dining out, though there are several cafes and bistros facing the square. Instead, stop for a drink and enjoy the view of the Acropolis at the GB Roof Garden Bar in the Hotel Grande Bretagne.
Nearest Metro: Syntagma on the Blue and Red Lines
Monastiraki & Psyrri
Monastiraki is yet another central Athens district with a completely different vibe than its neighbors. The heart of it is its market — a flea market that operates every day where you can buy almost anything — clothes, jewelry, pottery, artwork, sweets, baked goods, electronics, antiques. Its narrow lanes are a constant blur of tourists and Athenians.
On the northwest corner of Monastiraki is Psyrri, a trendy residential and entertainment neighborhood that is popular with young Athenians. Until the 1990s, Psyrri had been an area of run down and derelict houses. But as with many cities, artists, musicians, and anti-establishment types were, followed by trendy cafes, bars, and shops. Today, the rough edges have been rubbed smooth and Psyrri is pretty well gentrified. But it is still a youthful quarter with a lively nightlife scene that includes live music venues.
Where to Eat: Go for something completely different at Gostijo, a kosher restaurant that specializes in Sephardic cuisine, the Jewish culture of Spain, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Nearest Metro: Monastiraki on the Green or the Blue Lines