Offbeat Athens, exploring the city with a local

One of the oldest cities on Earth and the birthplace of western civilization, Athens could easily rely on its glorious past and multi millennium-old ruins and fall into grogginess. For years it has been only a sneak peak into Ancient Greece or a gateway to the islands with many tourists making it to the famous Acropolis before heading to the Piraeus to catch a boat. However, the Greek capital has a lot more to offer with vibrant neighborhoods and a true urban culture.

And this is precisely what Constantina wants us to experience. The passionate Athenian does plenty of walking tours and as an archeologist she knows the ins and outs of the historical sites of the Ancient Athens. Yet, her favorite tour is a bit different. It plunges into the various neighborhoods and gives an insiders’ feel to her guests.

No need to wander very far from the busy and bustling compact touristic center to experience authentic Athens. Only a few streets away from the Acropolis, smells of the islands and the mountains emanate from traditional shops selling herbs and nuts to locals. Along its southern slopes, the Koukaki neighborhood with its scents of freshly brewed coffee from many of the excellent coffee shops draws more locals than tourists – even though Airbnb has been turning the neighborhood into a favorite location for traveler to explore Athens for good reasons.

A short walk from Syntagma square we follow Constantina through an arcade that has been revived recently and hosts many stores to end up in a small and lively pedestrian street. The city hall has been developing initiatives to make Athens friendlier from creating more car-free areas, to promoting street art (or surfing on the strong local graffiti counterculture) or even getting electric boxes colorfully painted. Wandering the streets of Exarchia (the alternative neighborhood with politically charged murals – and great bars to have a drink at night around Koletti Street), Gazi (the cool place to be by the old city gasworks turned exhibition space), or Psiri (the up and coming neighborhood) street art is omnipresent.

“Every two to three years, a neighborhood becomes fashionable. Today Psiri is the place to be with its galleries, Cuban area, popular ouzeries next door to trendy coffee shops or bars”, Constantina explains as we sit at a table on a lively square in Psiri attracted by the smell of Greek coffee. Peeking in the shop my mouth waters by looking at the baklava’s – traditional small pastries made of a simple syrup of water and sugar, about a dozen layers of the thin phyllo dough and nuts and honey (want to know more about Greek gastronomy? Check this article out!). Then I observe how the Greek coffee is made in hot sand, being stirred slowly always in the same direction. The friendly waitress brings three small trays each with the traditional container made of copper filled with the freshly brewed coffee and three empty cups. Constantina starts pouring the coffee into the cup from pretty high: “the more foam on top, the more luck!” she says with a big smile really focused on her task. “And no worries, if you spill it, it means you’ll get money!” Looking at our pouring skills, we’ll definitely get quite a bit of money then! Taking in the pace of Athens seated at a table soaking in the atmosphere is a treat. Soon my fortune is being told in my coffee grounds. “My Grandma is really good at it, my Mum also has the skill and I was taught from an early age.” Constantina explains detailing how her friends would come to have their future decrypted in coffee sediments in their cups.

Apparently, my immediate future is taking me to Anafiotika! This cute neighborhood along the slopes of the hill of the Acropolis is stuck between Plaka – the tourists’ favorite – and the Parthenon. Built by workers from the island of Anafi back in the 19th century as they came to Athens to look for jobs, wandering its narrow alleyways feels like being on a Greek island with the white-washed stone houses and colorfully painted window shades and doors. The smell of fig trees, the blue skies and the omnipresent cats add the finishing touches to the postcard. From the highest alleyway of Anafiotika, the view on the city and on Lycabettus Hill – Athens’ best sunset spot – is stunning. “Philopappos Hill is an easier access and offers a great view on the Acropolis” Constantina says.

As we go back down the staircases of Plaka, we sit on one of steps that has been turned into an improvised chair. A low wooden stool is used as a table. Surrounded by tourists and Athenians sharing the little space in the narrow alleyway, we enjoy a shot glass of raki – a strong alcohol made from distilled grapes. The spirit warms up our esophagus instantly as we feel the warm wind on our skins in the midst of the warm atmosphere. The waiter smiles at us and puts down a bowl of local pistachios on the wooden stool: “Yamas!” as we talk about everything and nothing overlooking the Greek capital trying to grasp the fact that Athenians have been doing so for about 5,000 years!

Greeks in general and Athenians in particular are very forthcoming and always happy to speak a bit of English. Still, exploring Athens with Constantina definitely helps breaking the ice and gives us an insider’s view into Greek traditions and culture. Yes, the Acropolis is a must, and so are the Greek islands but there is so much more to experience in Athens’ diverse neighborhoods that we are already looking forward to what we will uncover tomorrow!

Marcella & Claire

Travel tips:

  • To explore the scents and flavours of Athens with a local like we did and to have fun and learn about all the ins and outs that you are interested in make sure to book a walking tour with the Greek TravelTellers. You will see the city through different eyes!
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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