On the surface, Athens can feel centered around its breathlessly beautiful ancient monuments. The Parthenon on the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora, the Theater of Dionysus-- all of these sites belong on every traveler’s itinerary. But in rushing from ruin to ruin, what most people miss out on is experiencing the lively, artistic, modern city that is Athens. A few steps away into neighborhoods like Plaka or Kolonaki will transport you to the beating heart of modern Greece. Here now are some of the best neighborhoods to spend an afternoon walking around.
“Constitution Square”, as it is translated, is the centerpiece in this elegant, modern neighborhood. The neoclassical Old Royal Palace is located here and has housed the Greek Parliament since 1934. Constructed in 1843 for the Bavarian king of Greece, King Otto, the building would look right at home in Vienna or Munich. After a 1924 referendum abolished the monarchy, the building went through a variety of uses, until the newly established Greek Parliament took up residence in 1934. As a result, many of the administrative and civic buildings of the world capital are also nearby, and the broad and open square frequently hosts a variety of events.
The neighborhood around it boasts some of the best green spaces in Athens. The expansive National Gardens create a shady refuge from the frequently harsh Mediterranean sun, and serves as a sort of “Central Park” for the city. Throughout the park you can find duck ponds, a Botanical Museum, cafes, a children’s library, and playgrounds. But the highlights might be the Roman-era ruins found throughout. Between a Roman villa complete with mosaics and columns, and the remains of a Roman bathhouse, the park merits its own day of exploration.
As the oldest of all of the neighborhoods in Athens, Plaka is perhaps the most famous. A labyrinth of streets and alleys that cluster near the Acropolis, the neighborhood is sometimes known as the “Neighborhood of the Gods.” With the modern neighborhood built on top of and reusing elements from previous eras of the city, it is like a mosaic of all that makes Athens unique.
Turn a corner and you can watch a quiet sunset over the ancient columns of Hadrian’s Library and the Roman Forum. Go another direction and you will be confronted with bold street art. And still other directions will take you to the Acropolis Museum, the Athens University Museum, or the Frissiras Museum, with its contemporary paintings.
Still other streets take you to some of the best restaurants, bars, and cafes in the city, not to mention shopping. The charming alleys can lead to unexpected finds, like the Stamatopoulos Tavern, where live Greek folk music is played in a cozy back patio. Grab a cocktail at the 110+ year old Brettos Bar, or enjoy nighttime views of the Acropolis from the Thea Terrace Bar.
As one of Athens most charming neighborhoods, Plaka is sure to delight any traveler.
Named after a “Little Column” found in the neighborhood long before it was even urbanized, Kolonaki today is one of the most upscale neighborhoods in Athens. Found on the slopes and in the shadow of Mount Lycabettus, the neighborhood quickly found an audience with the elite in Athenian society. Today it is one of the leading shopping areas in Athens, with high-end boutiques, like the Claviano International Store, Massimo Dutti and Balenciaga. You can find everything from young adult clothing and accessories, to casual, to prestigious haute couture from Greek and international designers. One of the main arteries through the shopping district, Voukourestiou Street, is particularly known for its jewelry.
In addition to the shopping, this neighborhood also has great art galleries and museums. The Benaki Museum and Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art house two of the finest private collections in Greece. Other museums, like the Byzantine Museum or the War Museum of Athens, focus on different eras of Athenian and Greek history.
This neighborhood is best paired with the mountain whose shadow it sits in: Mount Lycabettus. This mountain provides some of the best views of the city, and is one of the only peaks where you can capture a picture of the Acropolis and the city beyond. Starting a morning with a quick ride up the funicular for some spectacular photo ops and a coffee is best paired with a shopping spree and lunch afterwards.
Monastiraki is named after the 10th-century Church of the Pantanassa, known as the “Little Monastery” found in the main square. This bustling neighborhood today is known for its flea market and the bargains that can be found here, as well as the various shopping streets that splinter off the main square. Boutiques, specialty stores, souvenir shops, and other casual shopping can be done here (as opposed to the more upscale shopping in Kolonaki). This gives the neighborhood a more communal feel.
One of the more iconic buildings in the area is the Tzistarakis Mosque. This was built in the 1750’s by the Ottoman governor at the time, and allegedly used columns from the Temple of Zeus (and also more than likely from the nearby Library of Hadrian). The building today serves as part of the museum of Greek Folk art. This reuse of Ancient Greek and Roman elements to make a mosque by the Ottomans, which was then converted to a museum celebrating Greek folk art serves as a powerful symbol of the nature of the Greek identity.
The most historically diverse neighborhood in Athens, the working class neighborhood of Gazi has become a melting pot of different cultures, immigrants, students, and artists. Centered around the Technopolis of Athens, a former industrial building now converted into a multicultural center and museum to modern architecture, the neighborhood has experienced a boon in recent years as its diverse character has attracted a vibrant nightlife. Nightclubs, gay and lesbian bars, and countless restaurants have made it one of the best places for those seeking a more thrilling end to their day.