Athens is full of famous tourist destinations – the Acropolis, the museums, the Ancient Agora – just to name a few. Of course, these are all a must. But it would be a shame to leave Athens without experiencing it like an Athenian. Athens off the beaten path is the Athens of the locals. This vibrant Mediterranean capital will open its secrets to you if you follow the locals. Trying some of these activities will help you to have a true Athenian experience:
Discover Athens off the Beaten Path
Join the Crowds at the Varvakios Fish Market
Athens is a city that loves to eat. In addition to the tavernas, the ouzeries, the souvlaki shops, and the charming restaurants, there is one other essential gastronomic experience that many tourists never experience – the Varvakios Fish Market. This high-ceilinged covered market in the center of Athens – between Omonia Square and Monastiraki – was built in 1886.
A generous donation from a benefactor – Ioannis Varvakis – helped with the construction. Interestingly, he made his money in the caviar trade. You won’t necessarily find caviar here, but you will find nearly everything else from the sea – all manner of Mediterranean fish, crabs, shrimp, eel, shellfish, octopi, squid. It’s a glorious display – and a noisy one! Wear closed shoes unless you don’t mind getting a little wet.
Savor the Scents at the Spice Market
There is not a specific spice market as such – but the spice merchants are all concentrated in this vicinity, and especially along Evripidou street. You’ll also see many stores selling traditional housewares, barrels for oil, jugs for wine, in short, anything the Athenian needs to eat and cook well. The real interest in all of this is not just the displays, but the locals themselves. Greeks enjoy their food shopping – imagine a kind of noisy, chaotic ballet – it’s a beautiful thing to see them in action.
This is a great place to get some packable, edible souvenirs. You have not had oregano until you have tasted wild Greek oregano, sold in dried bouquets, still on the stem.
Browse for Antiques in Monastiraki
The Monastiraki neighborhood is known for its flea markets and antique stores. Bargain-savvy Athenians comb the shops for furniture – “antique” through mid-century, prints, jewelry, glasses, clocks – anything you can imagine. Be ready for some good-natured bargaining, if you plan to make a purchase. You’ll find many stores along Ermou street, between Athinas (the street the fish market is on) and Pittaki.
Check Out Some of the Less Central Neighborhoods:
To get off the beaten track in Athens, try leaving the center. Athens is full of neighborhoods with distinctive characters. Here are some to start with:
The metro will whisk you quickly from the city center to the leafy northern suburb of Kifissia – the neighborhood of the well-heeled. Check out the lovely homes and crumbling mansions – especially around the old part of the neighborhood. Relax in Kefalari Square – the charming local park, and join the locals at the old-school cafe/patisserie Varsos.
The tram, which leaves from the center of Athens, is a scenic way to get to the glamorous seaside suburb of Glyfada – sort of the Rodeo Drive of Athens. Great shopping, chic cafes, and wide shady streets draw primarily locals. Metaxa is the main shopping street, and parallel to it is Kyprou, where you’ll find stylish cafes, concept stores, and chic restaurants. Dress up a little if you would like to fit in – it’s a stylish crowd out here.
The port city of Piraeus is part of Athens, and yet not – it has its own, distinctive harbor character. Countless tourists “see” Piraeus – this is where the majority of the ferries leave for the islands from. But very few visitors to Athens actually explore this part of the city, which has a lot going for it. The central harbor – which you see the moment you step off of the “Electrico” (Line 1 of the metro – and the Piraeus station is really a beauty, so make sure to take it in as you get off) – is not our destination. There are two other very charming smaller harbors to explore.
The Mikrolimano – “Small Harbor” is an enchanting marina with fishing boats and yachts. For a worthwhile splurge, eat in one of the seafood restaurants here that are directly at the edge of the water – they are completely charming and much the favorite of locals.
There is also the Zea Limani – also called the Pasalimani – with some of the larger and fancier yachts. Between the Mikrolimano and the Zea Limani is Kastello – a hilly and charming area that has the original character of Piraeus.
Hit the Beach with the Athenians
Many visitors to Athens are passing through on their way to the islands. They don’t even think of Athens as being a beach destination. But in fact, the Athens Riviera is a prime beach destination for Athenians – there are many sophisticated beach clubs and seaside lounges for the ideal combination of a swim and a cocktail or a dinner with your feet in the sand.
Have a Coffee at Cafe Peros
Kolonaki is the old money section of Athens. In the course of the day, most locals will stop by Cafe Peros, directly on Kolonaki Square. Like many old money places, it is pretty ordinary-looking – in this case, with classic 80’s furniture. But it has an atmosphere and true local character – may be a more interesting experience than getting a single-origin flat white at a contemporary place. The senior set meets here for lunch – moussaka and other old-school dishes.
And then an Ouzo at Dexameni
Dexameni square is higher up in Kolonaki and therefore a little off the beaten path unless you were actually looking for it. The all-day, outdoor Dexameni – the name means “reservoir” and in fact, Hadrian’s reservoir is right next to it so make sure to check that out too (you see it through some windows as there is a structure at the entrance) – is the local’s choice for really good and not at all expensive meze, wine from the jug, ouzo, and coffees, depending on the hour and your mood.
Have Tea at the Grande Bretagne
The Grand Bretagne can hardly be considered “off the beaten path Athens” – it is, after all, directly across from Syntagma square. You really can’t miss it. But, having an elegant Afternoon Tea is not the kind of thing you usually associate with Athens, so this definitely counts as a non-touristy thing to do. Locals enjoy this elegant ritual, and it is a great opportunity to be in what is surely the loveliest room of all Athens. A great way to recharge.
See One of the Not So Famous Museums
With the must-see museums – the Archaeological Museum, The Benaki, the Acropolis Museum, and the Cycladic Museum – taking up so much attention, it’s easy to miss some of the more specialized museums. The Ghika Gallery is one – a very special museum in Kolonaki. This is the entire home and studio of the famous Greek painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos Ghika. Maybe you don’t know him, but you know his circle – the author and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor, the poet Sepheris, the author Henry Miller. The museum, in addition to his works and those of others, has much correspondence and photographs that bring to life the intellectual world of pre-war Greece.
And Check out Greece’s Contemporary Art Scene at the Galleries
Athens has an internationally recognized, thriving contemporary art scene. Kolonaki is home to many of the leading modern art galleries of Athens, where you can get a picture of what is going on currently as well as see works of 20th-century Greek modern art and those of international artists. See the Nitra Gallery for new works by up-and-coming artists, as well as Can – Christina Androulakis gallery. Works of established Greek and international artists are at Zoumboulakis Gallery. These are just three of many. Others include Eleftheria Tseliou Gallery, Evripides Gallery, Skoufa Gallery, Alma Gallery, and Elika Gallery.
Other neighborhoods with a strong art gallery scene are neighboring Syntagma, Psyrri, Metaxourgeio, and Thisseon/Petralona.
See More Art in Exarchia
Just over the hill from Kolonaki is Exarchia. This neighborhood is famous for being a counter-cultural enclave, and also for having some of the best Street Art in Athens. This is saying a lot – Athens has become internationally known for its great street art from both local artists and international street artists. Street art is also thriving in the areas around Metaxourgio, Psyrri, Gazi, and Kerameikos. There are informative tours specializing in the best street art – a novel way to get to know off the beaten path Athens.
Visit the “Laiki” – Greek Farmers’ Market
A great non-touristy thing to do in Athen that gives you – literally – a great taste of local life is to visit one of the weekly farmers’ markets, called “Laiki” which roughly translates to “Market for the People.” And it is – everyone goes to the Laiki – who can resist the peak seasonal produce, sold by the farmers who grew it, at unbelievably low prices?
Unlike in some countries, where local and organic are for the elite, in Greece wholesome food – organic or not – is within reach of all. At the Laiki you will also find honey, wine, tsipouro, olives, fish, sometimes cheeses, and herbs and spices. One of the best farmers’ markets in Athens is in fact in Exarchia, on Kallidromiou street on Saturdays. It starts early and finishes around 2:30 pm.
Get a Solid Workout with a View
One of the best things about Athens is that the dense urban fabric has a surprising amount of green space. The whole area around the Acropolis and by Thissio is one place to wander in nature. Another is Mt. Lycabettus. 300 meters high, this wooded hill provides both a great workout and a great view.
Paths and stairs ascend the mountain, and at the top, there is a cafe and a restaurant (really nice bathrooms), and the church of Agios Giorgos at the very summit, plus a viewing platform. There is also a teleferique to reach the top, leaving from the Evangelismos neighborhood.
Enjoy an Outdoor Spa – Lake Vouliagmeni
Lake Vouliagmeni, just past the Glyfada neighborhood, is a fascinating alternative to the beach. This thermal lake (mixed with seawater) that’s partially enclosed with a cliff has both a small beach area and a very long and elegant wooden deck with chaise longues. The lake is part of the Natura 2000 network and is named as an Outstanding Site of Natural Beauty by the Ministry of Culture.
The lake’s temperature fluctuates from 22 to 29 degrees C throughout the year. The waters are therapeutic, indicated for musculoskeletal, gynecological, and dermatological difficulties. Also, there are those fish that will give you a pedicure – swarming around your feet if you hold still.
There is an admission to the lake, and it is very well kept up. There’s also a nice cafe and restaurant.
Or, Enjoy an Indoor Spa
Athenians love some quality relaxation. Follow them to one of Athens’ superb spas. The best one we know of is Al Hammam, a traditional Turkish Bath located near the Bathhouse of the Winds in Plaka. This enchanting spa offers the complete classic hammam experience in a beautifully appointed traditional marble hammam – including a steam bath, a rub down with a rough cloth, and a soothing soap bubble massage. You’ll emerge ready for more activity, after a glass of tea and a lokum on the terrace.
The human experience was part of Athens’ culture for centuries when the city was occupied by the Ottomans before the War of Independence of 1821.
Get Lost in the Charming Anafiotika
Just below the Parthenon, on the north side of Acropolis Hill, is a neighborhood that looks like a charming island village full of winding alleys and whitewashed traditional homes. The Anafiotika was first settled in the 1830s and 1840s by people from the island Anafi – hence the name, and the Greek island vibe – who came to work on the palace of King Otto. Other workers from the Cycladic Islands – construction workers, marble workers, and so on – also came. They all built their homes in the same charming island-style they were used to.
It’s hard to believe you are in the heart of such a big city in the Anafiotika. This neighborhood is completely enchanting – quiet, covered with vines, and full of crumbling stone walls with cats perched on them, and the sound of birdsong. Truly an oasis.
Join the Locals in Plateia Agia Irini and around Kolokotronis Street.
Downtown, central Athens, just a few blocks from Syntagma Square, has all the most interesting cafes, bars, and restaurants. Old buildings are being restored and commercial arcades repurposed to serve as atmospheric spaces for them. The Clumsies is not just one of the best bars in Athens but has also made the list of the top 50 bars in the world (number 3!).
Check it out. Locals also enjoy Drunk Sinatra, Baba au Rum, and the Speakeasy (really – you have to figure out where it is there’s no sign), as well as many others. By day, come for lunch, or Brunch – a very Athenian thing to do now – at Estrela, Zampano, or any place that strikes you and has a good crowd.
See a Film at the “Therino” Cinema
A Therino cinema is a summer, outdoor cinema, and a beloved summertime pleasure throughout Greece. From sometime in May until sometime in October, These gorgeous garden cinemas open up where you can see a film under the stars. All films (excep children’s films which are sometimes dubbed) are shown in their original language with Greek subtitles. The programs include first-run films, art films, and classic films, depending on the cinema. The very finest to try are the Thisseon – famous for its view of the Acropolis, the Riviera, in Exarchia, with usually an art film/classic film program, and the Paris, on a rooftop in Plaka.
All Therina cinemas have complete snack bars so you can enjoy refreshments or a cold beer – or even a cocktail – during the film.
Try Some Local Specialties
Getting off the beaten path is not just about places, but about novel experiences. And sometimes, about getting out of your comfort zone. Octopus for example is a popular meze, but if you didn’t grow up eating it, then it might make you squeamish. Give it a try – its fresh taste of the sea and its clean white meat with a tender-chewy (not squishy) texture may win you over. Also, Greece is a nose-to-tail culinary culture – this means, they eat everything. Kokoretsi is lamb innards wrapped in entrails and roasted until luscious brown over the spit. It does not sound good, but it is.
If these sound like a little too much for you, then perhaps at least start one day with a Greek coffee instead of a cappuccino or espresso. The classic coffee of Greece is finely ground and simmered, served unfiltered with the grounds settled in the bottom of the demitasse. It’s prepared with sugar to taste- “sketo” means no sugar, “metrio” means a little, and “glyko” means sweet – like really, really sweet. Rich and aromatic, this classic coffee drink might make you a convert.
You might also like: Greek food to try in Athens.
Go Stargazing at the Observatory
The Observatory of Athens is in yet another of Athens’ magnificent historic neoclassical buildings – this one, like many, by Theophil Hansen (his first) The location is marvelous, on the Hill of the Nymphs. Established in 1842, this is one of the oldest such research facilities in southern Europe. The original 1902 Doridis refracting telescope still brings the heavens close to us, as you can experience for yourself when you take in the majesty of the night skies on an observatory tour.
Have a Big, Fat, Greek Night Out at the Bouzoukia
Greek singers can draw huge crowds at the Bouzoukia – nightclubs specializing in a distinctly Greek form of entertainment. Dress in your flashiest best, and expect dancing on tables and patrons commissioning the hostesses to shower their friends with buckets of carnations (a safer alternative to the now more rare plate-breaking). This popular entertainment – off the beaten path for most tourists – will set you back quite a bit, but it makes for a memorable evening that will last until the wee hours. This is much more fun in a large group.
Or a Classy Night Out at the Opera, under the Stars
If the bouzoukia doesn’t sound like your thing, then perhaps you want to visit the other end of the cultural spectrum. During the summer months, the Herodes Atticus open theater, at the base of the Acropolis, hosts quality performances of all kinds. Classic operas are always on the schedule, and seeing Puccini or Bizet under a starry sky on a hot Athenian night is something you won’t soon forget. The least expensive seats – those on the upper tier – are actually much cheaper than a night out at the bouzoukia.