Athens like a local is better than Athens like a standard tourist. If there’s one consistent thing in travel, it is this: locals are always eager to impart their knowledge of a place. Those with a deeply entrenched passion for the place they call home want nothing more than to show you why.
In the case of Athens, especially in the light of crisis and western media frenzy, they now more than ever want you to view it (and them) differently.
Having lived in Greece’s capital for nearly a year, and having dedicated a lot of time and genuine love to promoting the city, I was always striving to find something new. I had taken so many incredible walking tours with locals, and spent so much time reading, researching and writing, that I often found myself eagerly showing people around myself.
This also means I was a tough one to impress in a city I called home, as I liked to think of myself as an Athenian too.
But with Athens being a city in constant regeneration, one can never proclaim to have seen everything. The ancient and classical sites may remain the crowd-drawing constant, but the contemporary city is always reshaping.
One must therefore, always, take up the offer of local hospitality. Or attempt to seek it out.
A Walk With a Local in Athens
“Ah, yes, I know this place!”, I would often say to Vicky – an Athenian who often volunteers her time showing tourists around as part of the ‘This is My Athens’ free ‘greeter’ programme. As part of a new campaign surrounding this latest tourism platform, I was invited to try out the new service and showcase the contemporary culture of the city. More often than not I would end the sentence with: “But I didn’t know that.”
We had met at Monastiraki Square, a starting point for a walking tour that would take me through the adjacent neighbourhood of Psirri and eventually end in Plaka on the opposite side.
The thing is, I already knew these two historically rich neighbourhoods really well, yet more often that not still found myself drawn back to them for an aimless wander in the hope of surprising myself.
Former French teacher, now Acropolis guide, Vicky is a real history buff, pointing out everything from Lord Byron’s now decaying residence to Psirri’s secret neighbourhood restaurant, the famous artistry of sandal maker Stavros Melissinos, to the meaning of some of the best street art murals that line almost every available wall space. Like Sonke’s famous swirling black and white closed-eyed female faces or the street which depicts the moustached gangsters that ran this part of town after years of in-fighting following the dissolution of Ottoman rule.
There’s a pride in the way a Greek shows off their hometown – knowing it is both a mixture of a glorious past and a present battered by negative news headlines that overshadow what people know of the reviving bustling metropolis. Whether that’s pulling together everything they know in articles (like this post on Athens here) or simply giving the time to show you in person, this city is their podium.
Vicky said Psirri was her favourite neighbourhood and it showed as we walked to its most secluded corners and sought out its quirky stores and local hangouts. Athenians are all to eager to fight through the negative perceptions, and can change the most stubborn of minds within hours.
She taught me that the old, revived neighborhood of Psirri started its regeneration around 20 years ago in a bid to clean up its notorious reputation and make it more accessible. With this came a surge of new tavernas, and in more recent times, hostels (such as City Circus and Athens Style) and new business ventures like the Museum of Greek Gastronomy, art cafes and gallery spaces.
Hope for the future was not without forgetting the past – one must not gloss over the traditional strongholds that preserve the area’s history. Like the Koulouri (round sesame bread rings) store, which is one of the oldest in the neighborhood and still going strong, or the stores that sell one particular item, like globes. As much as I am an advocate of artistic regeneration, I love stumbling upon the old. Without it, the new has no context.
Local Insight. Always Learning
I got excited when I found a new street I hadn’t yet discovered and more often than not found myself saying over and over: “I’ve never seen that before!” Only a local and their means of imparting a very personal interest can evoke that kind of reaction in a person with an eager eye and a love for quirks and hidden secrets. There’s no doubt I could walk around the well established and central parts of Athens with 10 different local people and see and learn something different.
Saying goodbye to Vicky after two hours of strolling, I stood in the streets of Plaka looking up at the mighty Acropolis where she would start her ascent, in order to show another visitor the wonders of her city from an entirely new perspective.
Like many other locals willing to give you their time to show you their Athens, just as much as I am eager to show you mine.