Athens is a big city that's a collection of many different neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive flair. Here are some of the neighborhoods that await you. If you have the time, why not just stroll, get lost, and be pleasantly surprised when you discover that you're on a street where almost all of the shops sell only icons or sugared almonds (an essential gift for guests at weddings and baptisms), or where there's a little park with a bench where you can sit and watch the world go by. Don't forget to take in the Archaeological Promenade, the walkways that stretch from Hadrian's Gate past the Acropolis on Dionissiou Areopagitou to the Ancient Agora, past Thissio and on to the Kerameikos.
Commercial Center: The commercial center (a bureaucratic name no one uses, and that appears on no map) lies between Omonia, Syntagma, and Monastiraki squares, and includes the Plaka and Psirri districts. Certain streets are designated pedestrian-only, but consider that many motorists and almost all motorcycle riders assume that pedestrian-only regulations do not apply to them.
Omonia Square: My grandmother always used to tell me how beautiful Omonia Square used to be; a grand plateia (square) surrounded by neoclassical buildings and couples strolling along. I never got to see that. For me, Omonia was never a destination, but a place you couldn't avoid. There wasn't anything in particular to see (except some good Acropolis views); it was gritty, grungy, and not pretty, but interesting to wander through. Omonia today is in its worst shape ever. The latest redesign is a disappointment, and though the pre-Olympic cleanup got rid of the unsightly billboards, restored buildings' neoclassical facades, and paved the way for trendy hotels, the area remains gritty and attracts less desirable elements at night—it's best avoided after 9pm. The government has promised to clean up and redo the square once more, along with pedestrianizing the entire Panepistimiou Avenue. Athinas Street (or better yet, pedestrianized Aiolou—also spelled Eolou—with its charming cafes and shops) will lead you away from the grunge and into Monastiraki. For a look at grand old Athens of the 19th century, check out the beautifully restored Kotzia Square with its grand neoclassical buildings including the Athens City Hall designed in 1874 and the National Bank of Greece Cultural Center. In the middle of the square a large portion of an ancient road has been uncovered, and can be seen in a fenced-off area where several ancient tombs and small buildings are also visible. The square is even more beautiful at night when it is dramatically lit, so be sure to include it in an evening stroll. The area near the Athens Stock Exchange is now home to an Asian quarter and several Bangladeshi shops.
Athinas Street: This street links Omonia and Monastiraki squares, and has Athens's Central Market. Here you can browse fish and meat halls, buy vegetables and fruit from all over Greece, sample cheeses from distant islands, or buy a pair of shoes or sunglasses from a street vendor. Across from the markets, formerly bleak Varvakeios Square is now landscaped, has several cafes, and offers an opportunity to take a break from the frenzy of the market. Another nearby square, Klaftmonos has been redesigned and from it you can see the Neoclassical University Trilogy—another glimpse at grand and elegant 19th-century Athens.
Syntagma (Constitution) Square:The heart of Athens, Syntagma Square is the focal point of the city's political and civic life, from protest rallies to New Year's celebrations. This is also where you'll find the major banks, travel agencies, and several fine hotels, including the Grande Bretagne, the grande dame of Greek hotels. If you are not staying here, take a peek at the magnificent Beaux Arts lobby, head into Alexander's Bar for a drink (dress smartly), and take in the old-world elegance and glamour. The excellent GB restaurant on the terrace has some of the most stunning views of the city, but to enjoy the sweeping view and tempting menu you will need a reservation and lots of money. You might want to reserve a seat at the terrace bar (if it's early enough) and enjoy the view over a drink.
The central post office is at the corner of Mitropoleos. For years, the sidewalk cafes here were popular places to spend time, but with the proliferation of the fast-food joints that attract younger Athenians and bands of student travelers, you may not want to linger. That said, beautifully restored Syntagma Square, the plateia in front of the Syntagma Metro, with two cafes across from one another, is a convenient meeting point. This square is even more beautiful at night when it is brilliantly lit.
Syntagma is the home of much of governmental Athens: The handsome neoclassical building at the head of the square is the Greek Parliament building, formerly the Royal Palace. The most impressive thing about this grand building is its stone and how it changes color throughout the day: from off-white to gold to a light blush mauve before it is lit dramatically at night. During the day this is where you'll see the Changing of the Guard several times a day and may hear a band playing on Sunday around 11am. The soldiers who march in front of the Parliament building and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier often wear the evzone uniform (frilly white skirts and pom-pommed red shoes) of their ancestors who fought to gain Greece's freedom during the War of Independence (1821-28). (Be sure to spend some time in the National and Zappeion Gardens adjacent to the Parliament.) Tucked away off Stadiou Street, across the street from the National Historical Museum, you will find a cobblestone oasis known as Karitsi Square with some of downtown's funkiest eateries, galleries and multipurpose cafe/bars spilling over onto Kolokotroni Street. This is where Athens' indie heart beats. South of Syntagma Square, Monastiraki Square and the Plaka area are Athens's two main tourist destinations.
Plaka: Right below the Acropolis, Plaka is the most tourist-heavy neighborhood in the city. Its maze of narrow medieval streets twist their way through ancient sites, Byzantine churches, offbeat museums, and 19th-century homes. Restaurants and cafes line many streets of this pedestrian neighborhood that is rich in history and character and is atmospheric, romantic, and nostalgia-inducing. Feel free to lose yourself in the labyrinthine streets. Maybe you will find the tiny village within a village of Anafiotika, a Cycladic town at the base of the Acropolis.
Monastiraki: This neighborhood fringes the Agora and the Roman Forum, and the flea markets are open every day but are usually best—and most crowded—on Sunday. Many tavernas, cafes, and shops line the streets, but my favorite street by far is Adrianou, the street that links Monastiraki to beautifully restored Thissio, with restored houses as restaurants and cafes on one side and the Agora on the other—and Acropolis views as well.
Psirri:Between Athinas and Ermou, Psirri was once derelict and forgotten; now it's one of the city's hottest destinations after dark. Slick warehouse conversions; restored neoclassical houses; trendy restaurants, bars, cafes, tavernas, and mezedopoleia (establishments offering "small plates") with live music, clubs, and galleries side by side with some still remaining workshops and dilapidated buildings—this area comes alive in the late afternoon until the early morning hours, even though its outer pockets remain a bit gritty. Recently the neighborhood has taken a serious backseat to Gazi and is no longer the king of downtown urban chic or nightlife central as it used to be, though it still remains popular.
Back on the Archaeological Promenade (just cut across Ermou towards the Thissio Metro stop to get back on the Promenade), you will find the ancient neighborhood of Kerameikos. The little-visited ancient Athenian cemetery is peaceful and green and a delight to visit, with many stunningly beautiful classical sculptures and part of the city's ancient walls. Psirri and Kerameikos are linked by yet another restored square: Koumoundourou.
The promenade ends right after Kerameikos, and across busy Pireos Avenue is Technopolis (Art City), better known as Gazi—once an industrial area that spewed black gas fumes (thus the name Gazi, which means gas) from the foundry's smokestacks. When the factory closed in 1984, the area became an urban wasteland. But when the city of Athens bought the old foundry and turned it into a multipurpose art and exhibition center, it kick-started a revival of the neighborhood. Today the old foundry's smokestacks are illuminated in neon red, and the streets are filled with the edgiest and hippest nightlife in the city and a real downtown vibe—arts spaces, fusion restaurants, galleries, theaters, bars, cafes, and a gay "village." The revival has even spread beyond the neighborhood's borders into other long-forgotten urban areas, where closed factories are becoming the hottest clubs in town (due to their sheer size) or transformed into museums, multipurpose arts centers, and exhibition halls; this is the birthplace of 21st-century Athens.
A must-see here is the beautifully reimagined Technopolis center, which has retained much of its original industrial architecture while being converted to an arts complex for shows, festivals, and exhibitions. It also has a cafe and a courtyard used for concerts. The one permanent exhibition here is the small Maria Callas Museum.
To understand the renaissance that Gazi started, apart from the many cutting-edge multiuse spaces and sophisticated dining and nightlife options, you must see the ripple effects it has had on the neighboring areas, creating new architectural landmarks. Within walking distance of Gazi (along Pireos Ave.) you will find the School of Fine Arts and the glossy Foundation of the Hellenic World (converted from an old warehouse and featuring interactive and virtual tours of ancient Greece) with its striking ribbed dome meant to evoke a Bronze Age beehive tomb. Farther along is the Pantheon, a concert and conference hall multiplex. Then there's the Benaki Museum (called the Beautiful Red Box for reasons you will understand once you see it), which holds temporary exhibitions, film screenings, theater performances, and concerts in its internal courtyard. Farther down is the Athinais, a magnificent restoration of a former silk factory into a sophisticated arts complex. Here you will find the Museum of Ancient Cypriot Art, galleries, a concert hall, a theater and cinema. Nearby you will find the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation, a privately funded nonprofit institution founded by the acclaimed filmmaker (Stella, Zorba the Greek, The Trojan Women) that concentrates on the performing arts but also stages various exhibitions and has a wonderful cafe/restaurant on its top floor.
At night, be sure to take in the buzz of this lively neighborhood. Walk the streets and hop in and out of as many bars as you can, or join the locals as they enjoy their drinks out in the streets after bar capacity has reached its limit; the Kerameikos Metro station smack in the middle of Gazi Square is surrounded by some of the city's coolest bars and eateries and is where locals socialize (drink in hand) when the bars are full, creating a scene that can only be found in the most popular islands at the height of summer. Gazi is where Athens's modern heart beats to its own rhythm.
Back on the Archaeological Promenade, across Ermou from Psirri, is Thissio—my favorite downtown neighborhood. Right on the pedestrianized Apostolou Pavlou, Thissio with its restored neoclassical buildings, uninterrupted Acropolis views, the temple of Hephaestos, and some of the city's best places to hang out, is the place to be. It's charming and old-fashioned, modern and happening. Be sure to check out the grand National Observatory, a beautiful neoclassical mansion from the late 1800s.
Kolonaki: Forever posh, elegant, and happening, this neighborhood tucked beneath the slopes of Lycabettus Mountain has long been the favorite address of the socialites. The streets (many pedestrianized) are packed with boutiques, designer houses, art galleries, and restaurants, cafes, and cooler-than-thou night and day spots. Leof Vasiliss Sofias is one of the most imposing streets in Athens, with beautiful neoclassical mansions that have been converted into museums (a few embassies as well), thus earning the nickname the Museum Mile (aka the Embassy District). Take your time soaking up all the urban chic you can before making your way to the top of Lycabettus mountain for an extraordinary sunset with Athens laid under your feet like a sparkling map. If you walk down, you'll pass through some of central Athens's nicest and greenest streets winding around Likavitos's lower slopes.
If you're in Kolonaki on a Saturday, don't miss the beautiful people and the wannabes promenading up and down the streets, thronging in front of favorite boutiques to ogle the latest fashions, and collapsing at street cafes to revive their spirits with cool drinks. There are more shoe stores per inch in Kolonaki than almost anywhere else in Greece.
Kolonaki gradually merges to the northwest with the university area, which is spread loosely between the 19th-century university buildings (the Neoclassical University Complex, or Trilogy) on Panepistimiou and the Polytechnic some 10 blocks to the northwest. Many publishers have their offices around here, and bibliophiles may enjoy the window displays of everything from children's books about Hercules to mathematical texts.
A few blocks from the Polytechnic—where countless students were killed in 1973 during a protest against the ruling junta—and near the excellent National Archaeological Museum, is Exarchia. Long before Gazi, this was the closest thing Athens had to an "alternative" neighborhood, ironically, next to the posh Kolonaki. This bohemian neighborhood—covering 50 city blocks—is a lively area to spend a few hours in, with excellent tavernas on a buzzing square and pedestrian streets, great lounges and bars, plus the city's finest rock clubs and live music venues. If you have the time, explore Streffi Hill, a little-visited area, green and lovely, which offers incredible views of the city and the Acropolis all the way to the Saronic Gulf once you reach its top. Across busy Leoforos Alexandras is central Athens's largest park, Pedion Areos.
Koukaki & Makrigianni: Once the working-class counterpart to Kolonaki, Koukaki has been thoroughly gentrified and is one of Athens's most desirable neighborhoods. The district lies at the base of Lofos Filopappou (Filopappos Hill), also known as the Lofos Mousseon (Hill of the Muses). A number of pleasant paths lead from streets at the base of Filopappos up through its pine-clad slopes, some ending at the Dora Stratou Theater or the observatory. Buses and trolleys run along Veikou, the main road through Koukaki, home to unpretentious cafes and restaurants as well as reasonably priced hotels. The arrival of the metro and the tram have made the area even more desirable for locals and tourists alike.
Makrigianni, the upscale neighborhood just north of Koukaki, at the southern base of the Acropolis, got a new lease on life with the arrival of the Archaeological Promenade, the Acropolis Museum, the Metro, the pedestrianization of Makrigianni street and its close proximity to the Plaka. You will also find several smaller museums, a few luxurious hotels, many wonderfully restored mansions and several good restaurants, including the popular Strofi and Socrates's Prison (also known as the Samaria). Stay here if you want to be centrally located, but a bit out of the tourist maelstrom.
Pangrati & Mets: Surrounding the reconstructed Athens Stadium known to the Greeks as Kallimarmaro (Beautiful Marble), where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896, you will find two lovely, lively residential areas with excellent dining and nightlife options. To the south of the stadium is the steep, beautiful street of Markou Mousourou, shaded by flowering trees, lined with neoclassical houses, and filled with the scent of jasmine and bougainvillea. Mets is a taste of old Athens, full of pre-World War II houses with tiled roofs and courtyards. It's one of the most beautiful neighborhoods to explore in the city, and the nightlife isn't bad either. To the south of the stadium is Pangrati, a residential area popular with those who can't afford Kolonaki.
If you enjoy baroque funerary monuments, don't miss the First Cemetery, where anybody who was anybody in 19th- and 20th-century Greece is buried among the tall cypress trees and exceptional century-old marble statues. Be sure not to miss the splendid Koimomeni (Sleeping Girl), considered by many to be a masterpiece by Ianoulis Halepas, a sculptor from Tinos, who battled mental illness most of his adult life and died in poverty during World War II. If you prefer your green spaces without tombs, explore Pangrati's green park, almost a miniforest in the heart of Athens. There are also lots of restaurants (the excellent Spondi for starters) and many charming traditional tavernas scattered in Pangrati.
The Embassy District: Leoforos Vas. Sofias (Queen Sophia Blvd.) runs from Syntagma Square toward Athens's fashionable northeastern suburb of Kifissia. If you walk along Vas. Sofias and explore the side streets that run uphill into Kolonaki, you'll notice the national flags on elegant office buildings and town houses. This Embassy District stretches past the Hilton, where many embassy workers head for lunch or drinks after work—you should consider doing the same at least once for lunch or dinner at the excellent Milos seafood restaurant, or for a drink at around sunset on the rooftop's bar Galaxy with its great views of the city. The Embassy District is also known as the Museum Mile for the excellent museums found here just downhill from Kolonaki: The Benaki Museum, the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, the Byzantine Museum, the National War Museum, and the National Gallery.
The Northeast Suburbs
Much of Athens' expansion is to the northeast, in the valley between the mountains of Penteli to the east and Parnitha to the west. Going north on Leoforos Kifissias, you will pass by Kolonaki, Ambelokipi (with its many first-rate bar/restaurants such as Vlassis, Baraonda, 48, and Balthazar), popular Panormou Street (since the arrival of the Metro) and Neo Psihiko (with many first rate cafes, lounges, tea houses and restaurants), and you will find yourself in Marousi and Kifissia.
Marousi is home to Santiago Calatrava's Athens Olympics Sports Complex, the elegant, soaring modernist complex that stole the show during the 2004 Olympics and the stadiums that became the architectural landmarks of the new city; beautiful glass and steel arches over the main stadium; a velodrome; the Athens Tennis Academy in a landscaped park lined with glass-covered walkways; and a steel arched agora.
The last stop on line 1 is elegant Kifissia. Cooler than downtown Athens, thanks to its elevation, Kifissia was fashionable enough for the royal family to have a villa here. Here you'll find 19th-century neoclassical mansions, outrageous 21st-century ones, graceful tree-lined streets, excellent shopping options, lovely parks, two good museums (the Goulandris Museum of Natural History and the Gaia Center), and trendy hotels such as the must-be-seen Semiramis and Life Gallery. Add these to countless bars, lounges, and clubs—and the open-air cinema dating from 1919—and you'll discover that Kifissia is a delight to spend some time in (if you've already spent some time in central Athens).
The main port of Athens, Piraeus is a city very much in its own right—although even locals have trouble telling precisely where Athens ends and Piraeus begins. Piraeus prides itself on being rough and tough—a stronghold of communism, the home of rembetika (traditional Greek "blues" music, born out of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1922). This is where you come to catch a boat to the islands from the main harbor (Megas Limani or Great Harbor), or from Zea Marina, also called Pasalimani. Mikrolimano (Little Harbor), also called Turkolimano (Turkish Harbor), is a picturesque harbor with eateries and cafes by the marina. Zea Marina also has countless cafes by the harbor and a bustling shopping center. Nearby is the pretty neighborhood of Kastella, with its neoclassical mansions and unbeatable views of the Saronic Gulf.
The Southern Suburbs (Coastal Athens)
The coastal avenue Leoforos Poseidonos begins where Syngrou ends—right by the sea. Easily accessible from downtown Athens via the tram (up to Voula) and farther via bus, this is where Athenians love to hang out and party during the hot summer months. Coastal Athens begins at the Metro line 1 stop Faliro and the tram stop SEF (Stadium of Peace and Friendship). Nearby, the yacht marina of Flisvos (at tram stop Trocadero) is a delight for strolling, with stores, restaurants, cafes, lounges, and bars where you can sit near the water and gaze at the gleaming yachts. There is also a lovely open-air cinema right by the surf. This is the marina where the battleship Averoff, which played a decisive role in the Balkan Wars, is berthed and operates as a museum. The coast is also home to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC), which will some day feature the National Library of Greece, the Greek National Opera, and the Greek National Ballet School, all designed by acclaimed architect Renzo Piano, and all clustered in the same spot.
As you continue down Leoforos Poseidonos, you'll find beaches (which consistently score high on the E.U.'s Blue Flag list of clean beaches), boardwalks, esplanades, marinas, multiplexes, and open-air megaclubs. First-rate restaurants (Matsuhisa Athens, Ithaki) along with excellent shopping on pedestrian Angelou Metaxa in Glyfada and top hotels (such as the Astir Palace, the Divani Athens Spa and Thalassio Centre, the Margi, and Grand Beach Lagonissi), and many sports facilities and watersports options make the coast a fashionable and fun scene. Even if you're on a tight schedule try to at least have dinner or drinks in the city's most romantic venue: Island.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.