Athens : A Walk Around the Historical Center
Writing an article about Athens feels strange to me. After all, it is my hometown and looking at it as a travel destination doesn’t come natural.
I have to admit that the Greek capital doesn’t look attractive on first sight. When the rest of Europe was going through renaissance, Greece was occupied by the Turks. Unlike other European capitals, there are no wide avenues and perfectly aligned blocks with big squares and elaborate gardens. Centuries of building without urban planning have led to an anarchic pattern which is irreversible I’m afraid, but also a part of its character.
Athens’ beauty lies under its skin. It’s in the little shops and tiny cafes which live in every neighborhood. The city still has neighborhoods in the traditional sense of the word. People more or less know each other in the area where they live, even if it’s in a lesser degree than it was in the past. Every neighborhood has: its bakery, a butcher, a kiosk and even a grocery store which became a rarity in the 90s but has came back with the crisis and the bankruptcy of many supermarkets.
I grew up in a neighborhood close to the historical center, called Kato Petralona. “Kato” means lower and the clarification is there to denote that the neighborhood is divided by the train tracks into lower and upper Petralona.
Back in the eighties and early nineties when I was kid, it was a working class area and Athens a different city altogether. We were allowed to roam outside by ourselves, take a couple of friends, a ball, and head to the nearest square for a match. We liked to explore the city even if our parents didn’t always “approve” that.
We walked to the train tracks which are less than two minutes away from the block where I used to live. Once there, we turned left and walked along the fence as the Metropolitan trains passed by every now and then with their rhythmic pulse-like thud.
Past the 12th high school and just before Pireos Avenue we would stopp since it was the border of our neighborhood with another ancient area—Thission, and we were not allowed to cross it, something we usually respected. Later in our teenhood, our strolls would grow longer and we would go on, turn right under the bridge and walk on the old abandoned tram tracks towards Thission which in turn would get us to the cobbled road of Dionisiou Areopagitou and from there straight all the way to Acropolis hill.
Places You Must Visit in Athens
If you try to draw the borders of Athens’ historical center on a map, it will look like a triangle between Thission, Monastiraki and Acropolis. Parthenon is the centrepiece of this ancient city. A building that condenses the spirit of ancient Greeks in its core.
Forty six Doric order columns on the outer side, support this marvel of a building which is probably the most copied in the world. Made from the purest Pentelic marble the mountain had to offer and even though it is severely damaged by Venetians, Turks, early Christians and plundered by Lord Elgin, Parthenon is still is a monument to the love ancient Greeks had for arts and especially architecture. Even Caryatids, the female shaped columns that support Erechtheion seem to stare at the awe-inspiring temple.
Built to perfection by Iktinos and Callicrates, and decorated by a true master sculptor—Phidias, Parthenon is a wonder to observe. Its two fathers even gave a small curvature to its longest lines so that they would appear straight to the imperfect human eye, and they did so 2500 years ago.
Theater of Dionysus & Herodus Atticus Odeon
On the south side of Acropolis rests the Theatre of Dionysus, the first stone theatre ever build. A bit to the west is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Fully restored and functional, it has hosted several great artists during the years: Luciano Pavarotti, Elton John, Frank Sinatra and Maria Callas to name a few. It still hosts some great concerts from time to time and they are always very special to watch with the extravagant lighting of the Odeon and the lightened Acropolis in the background.
Just across the street is the new museum of Acropolis. The contemporary building made of glass and concrete is a landmark in its own right. Artifacts and building are working as a single entity giving the visitor an amazing experience. The structure is manipulating the light in a way that makes the unique exhibits come to life, and every time you look to the north, Acropolis is there, immovable and framed by the building itself like a painting.
To the west of Acropolis is a flattop hill known as the Areopagus which was used as the first justice court of ancient Athens. Nowadays people gather there to watch the sun setting behind the Observatory which is located opposite on the Nymphs’ hill.
On the north side looking down at the base of the Holy Rock (as Acropolis is also addressed) you can see the rooftops of Plaka and the labyrinth alleys that surrounds them. On the north east foot of the hill there is an area with small houses and even smaller alleys. This part is called Anafiotika to the honor of the first builders who came from Anafi island and built their small houses and Cycladic style alleys there.
Further away to the north, is the Roman forum with Hadrian’s library behind it and the Greek Agora to the left, featuring the magnificent Stoa of Attalos and the temple of Hyphaestus—one of the most well preserved temples in Greece. A bit further to the west is Kerameikos. The potter’s ancient neighborhood and burial ground.
Finally, to the east you have a great view of the ruins of Olympian Zeus temple or “Stiles Olympiou Dios” as it’s called in Greek. The density of ancient sites in the Athenian center is just mind blowing and for people who appreciate history it can’t get much better.
A walk around
Monastiraki—a buzzing square at the edge of Plaka—is an ideal starting point for downtown walks. It’s the point where the commercial part of Ermou Str. starts but its biggest attraction is Monastiraki flea market which is far more interesting especially on Sunday mornings when Athenians gather downtown for their traditional Sunday walk and coffee.
Walking past street artists and vendors who sell everything from fruit to local pretzel (“koulouri”) you will find the entrance to the market in the small alley next to the train station. Once you get there, the square’s buzz will fade out behind you as you enter the most famous market of Athens. It’s a long narrow street with little shops left and right which provide shade for the most of the day keeping the travelers cool while going up and down. Their facades are heavily decorated with the merchandise like banana trees and no space is left unused. From t-shirts to military equipment and from gothic boots to old vinyls, vintage cameras and antiquities of all sorts. In Monastiraki you will see some the most rare and surprising objects you would ever expect to find anywhere.
You will also find incredible little spots like the cryptic Metamatic:TAF cafe which is located at the inner yard of a typical old Athenian house complex in the heart of the market, or the decorated “Kuzina” and “Davinci” on the parallel Adrianou Str. for a gourmet meal and killing waffle respectively. On the same street there is also “Eucharis”, a beautiful tavern with great prices to match.
Speaking of coffee, one can notice the astounding number of cafes in the city most of which are crowded for the biggest part of the day. Coffee time is part of the Greek culture and that’s where friends meet, on a daily basis to exchange news or just hang around and take a break from their day-to-day routine. And we Greeks can sit there for a long time, so a special coffee was invented to keep us busy.It’s called “frappe” and basically it is instant coffee shaken with a bit water. On top of that, ice cubes and water are added and sometimes a bit of milk. The secret is that the coffee makes a thick foam which floats on top of everything and dissolves really slow. At the same time the ice cubes also melt in a similar fashion providing water and keeping the consistency stable so that more coffee can be sucked through the straw. Brilliant!
After you are done with the flea market you can board the train to Acropolis or even better, walk there through the labyrinth-like alleys of Plaka. The oldest and probably the most characteristic neighborhood of modern Athens with the Neoclassical buildings, the small gardens and balconies overflowing with all kinds of flowers and colorful pots.
On your way, you may come across a “laterna” which is a Greek version of the barrel piano. It’s a rectangular wooden box decorated with fine textiles and flowers. In the center there is always on old picture usually depicting a woman. The player turns a crank and it produces a very distinctive sweet sound from its cords and bell. Because of its extravagant decoration Greeks compare overdressed ladies with it, often calling them “laternas” but I strongly suggest to avoid calling a Greek woman like that in her face. The consequences may be grim.
Though it can be confusing to navigate yourself in the narrow alleys of Athens’ historical center, you will never get lost. Just keep Acropolis on your right side and walk around the hill until you find the museum and just opposite, the entrance to the holly rock.
I always prefer to visit the museum first and Acropolis later in the afternoon so as to avoid the midday sun which can be fiery even in an autumn or a spring day. After your visit to Acropolis is over, you can take the west exit and go to Areopagus hill which is just across the cobbled road. It’s a classic place to sit and watch the sunset.
For dinner, Thission or Monastiraki have endless choices, some of which are exceptional. Keep an eye for places where the locals eat and you should be fine. If you crave something extravagant you can always try the Acropolis museum restaurant on the second floor which is open until 8pm every day except Fridays when it stays till midnight. The food is great, the views unique and sometimes you will dine accompanied by live classic or jazz music. Although the rates are on the higher end, they are still very reasonable for what is being offered. My lamb and manestra (orzo) was delightful during my last visit.
And for a last drink I usually pick a place near Agia Eirini—the small church you find when you cross Ermou str. opposite Monastiraki. There is a bar for every taste there from art to jazzy ones. Two of my favorite joints are Ampariza for the great off menu cocktails and Speakeasy for the prohibition era ambient only a secret bar could have. Both are a bit farther from the church on Lekka str towards Syntagma.
It would take days to go to every single site and museum in the city. But even if all you have is a single day, the historical center can be very fulfilling and is undoubtedly worth a walk.