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Real neighbourhoods: Where to stay in Athens

One of my pet hates when I travel is not being able to find true, local and non touristy information about city neighbourhoods. Things like the vibe, the feel of the place as well as commuting info. The assumption that all travellers want to stay in the dead centre of a city irks me.

I grew up in Athens, so here are some notes about neighbourhoods I know some things about. As always, this is my personal insight – please let me know of any other places I should add.

If you decide to go, here is my constantly updated list of things to do (eat, drink, see) in Athens.

The basics

The vast majority of neighbourhoods in Athens combine residential with commercial and business activity. It’s relatively rare to find a spot in the city where you won’t also find a small shop and some coffee shops. The more outside the centre you go, the more residential everything gets.

Even though Athens is really the centre and the whole region is called Attiki (i.e. inclusive of Piraeus and the suburbs) we tend to use “Athens” to mean everything. Inaccurate but it happens.

The city has an excellent Metro and Overground system which can definitely be relied on. Buses are not as reliable and it will be relatively tough to find information in English. If you are not adept at public transport systems in unknown cities always try to be close to a Metro or Overground station. Note that all Metro stations have wheelchair access. The Tram is excellent if you want relatively slow and picturesque – even if you don’t need to use it, at least one ride is recommended.

A simply *great* alternative to public transport is using taxis with Taxibeat (I really don’t recommend just flagging a taxi). Compared to other European capitals taxis are cheap and with Taxibeat you can be sure that you’ll get a great service. Just download the app. (Full disclosure, a family member works there)

Quickies

What are you looking for?

  • Monuments and the tourist trail: Plaka, Syntagma, Koukaki
  • No tourists: Everything in Piraeus apart from the port, Chalandri.
  • Local eateries: Piraeus and Exarcheia
  • A bit of a rock n roll feel: Psirri, Exarcheia
  • Urban nobility: Kolonaki, Kifissia
  • The sea, oh the sea: All of the Southern suburbs
  • Holidays in the City: Vouliagmeni, Varkiza

Syntagma

Σύνταγμα (Syntagma)

Syntagma Square is where you will find the Greek Parliament. Yes, this is the spot you saw on news reports of riots in Athens but it’s safe enough. Ministries abound, as well as offices. You will also find small shops and a street with lots of haberdashery and fashion jewellery accessories. Small coffee shops and some restaurants too. Seeing as how this is the dead centre you have all public transport passing through. Generally I would say it’s a bit… generic in terms of character.

Kolonaki

Κολωνάκι (Kolonaki)

The lah-dih-dah neighbourhood in the centre of the City, just around the corner from Syntagma. This is old Athenian money but as you can imagine the neighbourhood has been hit hard by the financial crisis.  Expect empty shopfronts. Still, Kolonaki Square retains its fascinating pretentiousness, so it’s a place to see and be seen. Lots of coffee shops, some bars and restaurants. Easily walkable to metro stations. Do take care of any streets that are close to Mount Lycabettus as they are seriously steep. That part of the city is lovely and quiet but be prepared for a bit of a climb.

Exarcheia

Εξάρχεια (Exarcheia)

By far my favourite but a seriously misunderstood part of Athens. Exarcheia has a bad reputation for skirmishes between various youths and drug use around Exarcheia Square. It can be a keep your wits about you sort of place but I have a very soft spot for it. It’s a real neighbourhood and people who live there tend to love it. You’ll find loads of coffee shops, some legendary souvlaki restaurants and great bars. Lots of publishing houses have their offices there. Look around for anarchist posters, political graffiti and the most alternative crowds. Artists and university students are everywhere as well as little old ladies who have lived there for decades. Easily walkable to the metro (let’s say between 10 to 15 minutes).

Plaka

Πλάκα (Plaka)

The right hand side of the Acropolis (as per the map, not as per you standing physically in front of the Acropolis). This is a truly magical and exceedingly touristy neighbourhood. Move away from the touristy side and there’s only homes. Move towards the touristy side and there’s only tourists. It’s challenging to commute in there but the walk to get to a metro (e.g. Syntagma station or Acropolis station) is lovely. Touristy food galore. There are some coffee shops beloved by the Athenians around but you’ll have to do your homework.

Psiri

Ψυρρή (Psirri)

Hipster and loft central. A great spot for beard watching (sorry, I had to, it was right there). Do look around for alternative galleries, excellent eateries, noisy bars and awesome boutiques. If you are feeling adventurous cross Athinas Road and go to the Central Market. If you really want to see many sides of the city explore the streets surrounding the Central Market where you’ll find local and expat shops selling food, clothes and lots of spices. Really easy commute. You might get a bit scared walking around after dark but it’s all in your mind.

Koukaki

Κουκάκι (Koukaki)

A while ago my only comment would have been “don’t, there’s nothing there” but now I’m not so sure. If you are all about the Acropolis then the access is easy. There are also some very interesting restaurants and coffee shops around there (do your homework though. There are enough touristy ones too). Your commute will be really easy too. Again though, in terms of character it’s really generic.

Piraeus

Πειραιάς (Piraeus)

Piraeus is basically the port and its surrounding neighbourhoods. All neighbourhoods are obviously not the same and I’ll cover some. I’d like to stress though that Piraeus is seriously overlooked and misunderstood – there are some excellent things you can get up to there.

Piraeus feels and is incredibly different than Athens proper. I grew up in Piraeus and we pride ourselves in our working class roots and our refugee backgrounds (mainly from Asia Minor). You will spot differences in the shops, the restaurants and the bars. Piraeus is the source of Rebetiko – the Greek blues let’s say but sadly this is not evident anywhere any more.

Light industry abounds – this is the port after all – as well as what the Greeks affectionately call “koutouki“; small eateries with house wine and meze cooked by a mother or auntie in a tiny kitchen. Do not assume that you won’t also find trendy hotspots – especially around the coast. Dress up – you have been warned.

Kastella

Καστέλλα και Μικρολίμανο (Kastella and Mikrolimano)

Kastella is a hill that overlooks the east side of the Piraeus peninsula (can we call it a peninsula?) and towers over the tiny little port of Mikrolimano. Some gems of old school architecture can be found around its tiny streets. Be prepared for lots of climbing but if you score a good view, nothing beats it. Mikrolimano has an abundance of fish restaurants (some truly legendary), coffee shops and bars. Definitely not as hot and trendy as it used to be. Commuting will be tough, take note. Climb the hill to go bowling – it’s what we used to do as high school students.

Pasalimani

Κέντρο και Πασαλιμάνι (Piraeus centre and Pasalimani)

This is the centre of Piraeus. Start from the Municipal Theatre, cross to the square and take Sotiros Dios (a pedestrian street with lots of shopping). You will end up in Pasalimani, the home of the boats of the rich (even if not so famous). The port is on the other side of the peninsula so this is the side with real everyday life and no sunburned tourists. Excellent coffee shops and some nice restaurants (but the best are more to the west). It is surprisingly difficult to commute. You can walk to the other side to get the Overground (Piraeus station). Lots of buses but again, difficult to make heads or tails of their schedule.

Keratsini

Κερατσίνι και Δραπετσώνα (Keratsini and Drapetsona)

Shit just got real. This is the real heartland of Piraeus, where Rebetiko songs were born, where my dad had to walk through dust choked little roads to get to school and work. One of the most beloved old Greek songs is about Drapetsona

Take our wedding wreath , take our geranium
in Drapetsona there is no more life for us
Hold my hand and let’s go my star
we will live on even though we are poor

Do note that most Greek songs are about poverty and lost love, this is not an exception.

Do not picture poor neighbourhoods with shoeless kids obviously. These are real neighbourhoods with no tourists. Families, small businesses and some truly excellent eateries – again do your homework. Do look for the ones with live music. It’s truly hard to commute from any of those places. Buses and taxis are your safest bet.

The South

Νότια Προάστια (Southern Suburbs)

Athenians say “Southern Suburbs” but they really mean the south east. For some reason “Southern Suburbs” does not include Piraeus. This whole region feels like new money central. The Authorities have started using the term “Athens Riviera” and even though some of us might smirk it’s not inaccurate. The coast is endless, the boats plentiful, the clubs fancy. Also, the more you move towards the east, the more excellent beaches you can find.

Palaio Faliro

Παλαιό Φάληρο – Palaio Faliro

The most old money neighbourhood of the Southern Suburbs. Lots of families moved here from Istanbul and it retains that old world charm in a few spots. Mainly though it’s a maddeningly confusing place with small roads and lots of high rises. Try to stay really close to the Flisvos Marina. It has been redone, you can have a drink or a bit to eat and just watch the boats of the rich (and famous). Simply and *amazing* neighbourhood if you run, there is a path that will keep you next to the sea for kilometres. Commute with the tram or taxis.

Glyfada

Γλυφάδα – Glyfada

Glyfada used to be the most important spot to see and be seen in the Southern Suburbs. It also had the most shops so the shopping centre used to be incredibly lively. It has lost some of the charm but it’s still a great sport for trendy bars and great coffee shops. Expect lots of boat shoes or ski jackets during the winter. It’s burger restaurants are legendary. Commute using the tram or taxis.

Vouliagmeni

Βουλιαγμένη (Vouliagmeni)

Truly a Riviera. Beaches galore AND two of the most exclusive locations. Head to Kavouri (and marvel at the villas) or over to the beach of Astir Palace, one of the most legendary Athenian hotels. This is a neighbourhood where you will need a car, it’s a challenge to commute in any other way. Having said that it’s one of the few places where you’ll feel you are somewhere in the country. Lots of spaces for kids and some excellent cafes. Exclusive fish and seafood restaurants too.

varkiza

Βάρκιζα (Varkiza)

This used to be the holiday suburb but it has now become an actual neighbourhood where people live 365 days a year. It’s one of the most remote spots and it’s tough to commute (really, you need a car). But it has an excellent beach and still retains the “holiday spot” ambience. Just a skip and hop away are some of the legendary club restaurants of the Southern Suburbs. Highly recommended if you are a bit of a speed freak. Drive along Limanakia between Vouliagmeni and Varkiza and you’ll know the true meaning of fear.

North

Βόρεια Προάστια (Northern Suburbs)

Here’s a funny local tidbit: Athenian slang includes the phrase “Northern Suburbs Hottie” – which communicates a number of things: A young and beautiful man, comes from money, dresses like a tennis club lifelong member, a bit of a wimp possibly.

It’s no surprise that the more you move towards the north, the more exclusive the neighbourhoods get (and the more impossible the commute). This is where you will find the mansions, the pools, the tennis club, some amazing restaurants and exclusive labels.

I am sadly not very well versed in that part of town but here are some notes.

Chalandri

Χαλάνδρι (Chalandri)

The most normal of the Northern Suburbs. Used to be just a run of the mill residential area until a few years back when the night life simply exploded. The decline of the centre as a night life hot spot helped. Lots and lots of bars, great eating and basically… everyone. It’s seriously crowded everywhere but the cocktail bars make it all worthwhile. Metro access is easy if you choose your spot well but it’s mainly buses.

Kifissia

Κηφισιά (Kifissia)

Seriously upscale (even though the villas are towards Kefalari and Ekali) with a great commercial centre AND an Overground station – which makes it great for commuting. Tree lined streets and well heeled residents make this one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods in Athens. Some truly excellent restaurants too.

 

Comments? Additions? Leave me a comment or drop me a line.

 

 

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