Exarchia, Athens: An Alternative Neighborhood

Where is Exarchia?

Athens neighborhoods

Exarchia is just northwest of Lycabettus Hill and the chic Kolonaki district. It makes a very pleasant walk from Kolonaki, mostly downhill. Alternatively, it’s very easy to get to from both the Panepistimiou and Omonia metro stops.

The Archaeological Museum of Athens and Athens Polytechnic are both in Exarchia.

History of Exarchia

This neighborhood is a fascinating combination of elegance and counterculture – long famous for being a center for intellectuals and political radicals. The elegance comes from its early history. The neighborhood was first developed in the 1870s.

The central square has elegant Belle Epoque lighting fixtures that hint at the neighborhood’s genteel pedigree. Late 19th century and early 20th-century neoclassical townhouses now line Exarchia’s many pedestrian streets. The neighborhood takes its names from a businessman of the 19th century named Exarchos, who had a general store here. 

Exarchia’s elegant bones make a wonderful backdrop for one of the most vibrant cultural and student areas of Athens. The main streets now have post-war apartment buildings, signalling the neighborhood’s second stage of urban development. 

From here, the history of Exarchia is a turbulent one. This history gives the neighborhood its unique identity and its reputation for political activism.

A defining moment in the turbulent history of Exarchia, and a chief reason for the counterculture and activism that thrive here, is the Athens Polytechnic Uprising of November 17, 1973. Civilians – students – were killed in the uprising, and the events gave rise to the end of a dictatorship that had been in power since 1967. November 17th is now a national holiday in Greece, and traditionally a day of protest, most especially in Exarchia. 

This neighborhood also played a role in the Greek Civil War, in the events known as the Dekemvriana – the December Events of 1944. There is a famous apartment building on Exarchia square called the Blue Building, as it once was blue.

This building – designed by Polyvios Michaelidis, who had worked with Le Corbusier – remains well-known for its modernist architecture. In December of 1944, in the escalation of tensions between the Greek government and EAM – the Greek People’s Liberation Army, British military had installed a machine gun on the roof of the building. The EAM wanted to evacuate the building and blow it up. Residents could not leave safely, so they gathered in the safest apartment while the EAM dynamited their target. 

Exarchia has historically had clashes between activists, anarchists, and police. More recently – and most tragically – one such clash led to the death of 15 year old Alexandros Gigoropoulos, who was shot by the police. This was on December 6, in 2008. On both this sad anniversary, and the anniversary of the Athens Polytechnic uprising, protests in the neighborhood become violent, with small fires in the streets and lots of tear gas.

How is Exarchia Today?

This sounds like a scary history. But in fact, when there is not a protest in progress, Exarchia is low-key and pleasantly lively, a place to linger among crowds at sidewalk tables, drinking and debating philosophy, until the late hours. 

If you love shopping for vinyl, this is the neighborhood for you. There are also many publishing houses, bookstores, and musical instrument repair shops and workshops. This is a center for all kinds of culture.

There are many great places to eat and drink in Exarchia, from fun student dives to casually elegant wine bars and bistros. Bars and cafes abound, keeping the neighborhood buzzing – but not very loud – most of the night. 

Because it is so popular, especially with a student crowd, the streets are usually full of people. This gives the neighborhood a safe mood.

In keeping with the anti-capitalist identity of the neighborhood, as well as the occasional violent protests, you may have trouble finding a cash machine – there are very few. You’ll find one at Piraeus Bank, Ippokratous 80. 

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. This means that should you click on certain links, and then subsequently purchase a product, I will receive a small commission.

Things to Do in Exarchia

Shop Like a Local at Athens’ best Weekly Farmers’ Market – “Laiki”

The Saturday “Laiki” on Kallidromiou is fantastic in any season. Enjoy the gorgeous mounds of produce, local products, and cheerful vibe, while you stock up on fruits to snack on while you stroll.

Go Record Shopping

Rhythm Records

The well-curated selection includes Indie, Garage, Ska, Punk, and contemporary Greek artists. On Emmanuel Benaki Street, it is in the heart of Exarchia, just a block up from the plateia.

For more record stores, go left at Metaxas street and work your way up hill.

Vinyl City

At the northeastern edge of the neighborhood, the selection at Vinyl city will please fans of Funk, Soul, Jazz and other classic genres. Ippokratous 132

Browse for Books

… And Book Shopping

Travel Bookstore

Technically just outside of Exarchia, this bookstore is a paradise for travelers. Pick out your next destination here. Solonos 71

Polyglot Bookstore

Like the name says, there are books in several languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, and German, and language guides. The English selection is delightfully spotty and eclectic, with titles ranging from Chopin’s Letters to the Oresteian Trilogy of Aeschylus. Most titles are under 4 euros and many as low as 2, so you won’t mind leaving it in a cafe for the next reader if you want to keep traveling light.

Acadimias 84 at Emmanouil Benaki

Check Out the Street Art

Exarchia defines Athens’ alternative cultural scene. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood is one giant urban museum, where you can see works of many international and Greek street artists. Much of the street art shares political messages, especially in the quadrant defined by Metaxas, Benaki, Tzavella, and Mesolonggiou. This is the site where Alexis Grigoropoulos was killed.

Update Your Old-School Look with Vintage and Second-Hand Clothing

Yesterday’s Bread

Yesterday’s Bread has been outfitting locals and visitors in style for over two decades. This well stocked shop on Kallidromiou is super-friendly, with equally friendly prices. They are beautifully stocked to outfit any gender or identity. Kallidromiou 87

BOHBO

Get deals on authenticated pieces from luxury brands like Prada, YSL, Gucci, and Christian Louboutin at this little gem of a high-style shop. Ippokratous 40.

Visit the Community Park of Navarinou

Between Zoodochou Pigis and Charilao Trikoupi at Tzavella, this community-managed alternative Green Space expresses Exarchia’s environmentalist and activist concerns.

Hike up Strefi Hill

view from Strefi Hill.
view from Strefi Hill.

As Benaki street rises, you’ll see a set of stairs at Kallidromiou Street. Up here is Strefi hill, one of the delightful wild places in Athens. There are lovely views, but the terrain is rough. Also, especially after dark, this may not be the safest choice. For even better views, try the more crowded and better paved Lycabettus hill.

Have an Intellectual Debate at a Cafe

Even if you don’t speak Greek, you get the sense that the caffeine-fueled passionate dialogues surrounding you have some substance. Here are the best places to get coffee in Exarchia

Chartès

With many tables on the broad pedestrian street Valtetsiou, this friendly and relaxing all-day cafe bar is also a great place to catch up on some work. Valtetsiou 35 at Zoodochou Pigis.

HBH Coffee Bar

Directly on Exarchia Square, this is the perfect place to sip a Freddo Cappuccino and watch the neighborhood stroll by.

The Cafe at the National Archaeological Museum

This self-service cafe is a garden of serenity surrounded by an elegant loggia. If you look carefully enough you may spot the tortoise wandering around in the garden.

Visit the Museums

Exarchia is home to two museums – one of them is one of the most famous Museums in Greece, and the other is an under-the-radar surprise.

The National Archaeological Museum

Join the crowds exclaiming as their history classes of youth spring to life before them – Poseidon in bronze, the monumental Kouros figures, the bronze Horse and Small Rider, Aphrodite getting ready to smack a lustful Pan with her slipper. You’ve seen them all, and to see them in real life is even more thrilling than you might imagine. October 28th Street 44 

Opening Hours: Winter (November 1st – March 31st) Tuesday 1:00 pm – 8 pm. Wednesday – Monday 9:00 am – 4:00 pm. Summer (April 1st – October 31st) 12:30 pm – 8 pm. Wednesday – Monday 8:00 am – 8:00 pm

Tickets: €6 Winter (November 1st – March 31st), €12 Summer (April 1st – October 31st) €12

There is also a combined ticket available that costs €15 valid for 3 days that includes entrance to the Archaeological Museum, the Epigraphic Museum, the Numismatic Museum, and the Byzantine and Christian Museum.

The Epigraphic Museum

On the ground floor in a wing of the National Archaeological Museum, this separate museum focuses solely on inscriptions. The collection totals over 14,000 of them, from early historical times to the late Roman era. Truly a treasure to the curious mind, this is the largest museum of its kind in the world. Tositsa 1

Enjoy Cocktail Hour

From wine bars to classic cocktail joints and cozy student dives, Exarchia has it all. Here are our favorites:

Warehouse

An Oenophile’s paradise, this contemporary minimalist-elegant spot offers 100 wines by the glass, with many, many more options by the bottle. A menu of wine-friendly small dishes, excellent cheese, and charcuterie selections, and innovative entrees completes the experience.

Alexandrino Cafe Bistro

A little slice of Paris on Benaki, the warm vintage decor of Alexandrino makes a romantic setting for classic, expertly-prepared cocktails. The detail-oriented mixologists are a delight to watch as they warm your twist of lemon with a flame to release the fragrance. A tempting menu of light dishes will help you linger longer.

Time for Dinner

Exarchia is one of Athens’ best neighborhoods for dining out. From rustic Greek Taverna cuisine to Cretan specialties complete with Raki, enchanting Meze places, and an adorable French bistro, you have plenty of tempting choices.

Rozalia

In the pedestrianized section of Valtetsiou uphill from Exarchia Square, this classic taverna has plenty of outdoor seating and serves up all the classics – chops, fries, and Greek Salads, as well as a full menu of beloved standbys. Valtetsiou 59

Oxo Nou

One of two excellent Cretan restaurants on Benaki, Oxo Nou has all the classic Cretan dishes, with ingredients sourced directly from the island. Try Staka – a cooked creamy side of goat butter, Cochilous – snails in rosemary and vinegar, and Kalitsounia – crispy fried cheese pies with honey. Benaki 63 at Metaxas

Ama Lachei

Probably one of the most enchanting spaces in Exarchia, Ama Lachei is set in the schoolyard and old rooms of a former school. The long lost of delicious mezes will keep you here chatting with friends and ordering pitchers of good house wine for hours. Kallidromiou 69

Chez Violette

Downstairs in the lower courtyard and school rooms is the delightful Chez Violette. You’ll find a menu of French classics, delicious salads, and good wines by the glass. The service is very warm.  Kallidromiou 69

Alternative Street Food

A strong street culture means good street food, and Exarchia is full of alternative street food choices. Here are a couple we like:

Cookoomela

Vegan Souvlaki? Oh, absolutely. The 100% plant-based menu at Cookoomela features juicy, savory mushrooms taking the place of traditional meat in delicious Gyros-style wraps, while organic lentils stand-in for mince in spicy kebabs. Themistokleous 43-45

Kumpirista

Anyone who has been to Istanbul will be familiar with ‘kumpirista’ – these huge baked potatoes with their delicious skin on are filled with anything and everything you could wish for. Happily, they are now available in Exarchia. They make a hearty and delicious vegan or vegetarian meal.

Themistokleous 45.

Something Sweet at Sorolop

Satisfy your day-time or late-night sweet tooth at the sidewalk counter of this corner shop. Sorolop specializes in two things – their own artisanal ice cream in delicious flavors, and ‘profiterole’ – fresh choux puffs drenched in a delicious pudding-like sauce of your choice, starting with the obvious chocolate. They also make a nice “tsoureki” – Greek-style brioche. At the corner of Benaki and Metaxa.

Where to Stay in Exarchia

Exarchia is an ideal neighborhood to stay in for younger travelers and anyone who does not mind the hum of nightlife and outdoor cafes. It’s central, and there is a lot to do here. These are two good choices to consider:

The Museum Hotel

As the name suggests, this three-star hotel is right next to the National Archaeological Museum, which is also one of the quieter corners of Exarchia. The comfortable rooms have an elegant contemporary design. Guests praise the friendly service and the rich and varied breakfast. – Click here for more information and to check the latest prices.

The Dryades and Orion Hotel

A great choice for young travels, the Dryades and Orion Hotel is on Benaki Street right by Stefi Hill, one of the best streets in Exarchia for restaurants and bars. Rooms have a spare and modern decor, and the choices run from a room with Acropolis views to budget selections. There’s a rooftop terrace and a shared fully-equipped kitchen. – Click here for more information and to check the latest prices.

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