The gritty streetscape of Athens may dominate the scattering of golden classical sites, but its history is rich, its neighbourhoods varied, and its soul thriving in both tradition and a unique modern-day cultural regeneration.
Athens is a city that is easy to walk around and big on experiences outside of the Acropolis fame, especially in the company of locals who can take you through this diverse metropolis and show you a very different side. During my year living here, I’ve clocked up quite a few walking tours, knowing I can always learn something new. It was a past-time I continuously enjoyed in my home city of London, and an activity I recommend in any big city.
It is possible to take in the highlights in just a few short hours with an Athenian who will guide you through the ancient and ottoman parts of the city and walk the neo-classical ‘triangle’ from Syntagma, to Omonia, to Kerameikos. The Alternative Athens City Walk in particular combines easy-to-digest historical highlights with hidden city quirks, such as hidden streets with character and modern clothing stores showcasing ancient ruins.
The Unknown Greek Wine Scene
If you don’t know your Nemea from your Nauossa (two of Greece’s main wine producing regions) or that Santorini’s volcanic soil is known as the best terroir in the country, then it’s time to brush up on your Hellenic vino knowledge.
While Greece isn’t known for its wine, the scene in Athens has grown over the past two years, in an attempt to highlight homegrown varieties to international wine lovers. During the Ottoman rule in Greece, wine production was halted and vineyards became neglected, while France and Italy’s production soared. Over the years, small vineyards emerged, with every village touting a different grape variety – a much wider choice, but less concentration on mass production and export.
So you shouldn’t leave Greece without trying its best selection on home soil. Sommelier Yiannis from Athens Insiders takes you to three of the most well established wine bars in central Athens. You’ll not only learn basic tasting techniques, you’ll be able to pick out regional attributes and Greece’s very distinct blends as you savour some of the finest by the glass. From the sauvignon-like Nemea, the pinot noir-like Naoussa and fruity moschofileros, to the wild fermented assirtikos and the distinct flavours of Santorini and Crete, the real test is if you can pronounce the names of them all at the very end.
Showcasing Street Art With Local Artists
Street Art has become the modern voice of creative Athens – a city that is said to have the largest collection of street art in the world. While unsightly tagging is common, some of the ultra-creative pieces on show here will catch your eye on every corner. Shop shutter covers and buildings whose entire façade is covered; abandoned spaces and hidden finds – each artwork has its own story, sometimes about the particular building or area itself.
Join urban artists from the city who will give detailed insight into the street art scene, emerging in the early 1990’s as a social-political voice – a sentiment that continues today. You can learn about the designs, techniques and messages found mainly within the central Exarchia, Monastiraki and Psirri neighbourhoods with Manolis from Dopios and in the lesser-known and grittier Gazi and Metataxourgio neighbourhoods with Achilles from Alternative Athens. Each has their own distinct style and personal highlights to share.
Destruction, Occupation, Rebuild. Athens Architecture
The birthplace of democracy and a city that changed with Roman and Ottoman occupation, to the more modern wave of Neo-Classicism and the practical yet non-descript re-build of the 1960’s, Athens has been destroyed, conquered and rebuilt many times over. This is most apparent in the varied architecture of the city.
While the Renaissance was happening elsewhere in Europe, the Ottoman Turks didn’t follow. In the 19th century, countries including Germany, France, and Britain injected classicism into the city as a way of bringing back the ancient Greek identity. With Greece besieged by seven wars over the centuries, Athens in particular always lagged very far behind in its engineered beauty.
Your architectural journey, in the company of scholar Vasillis from Context Travel, starts in 1935 at Syntagma Square and jumps back and forth through the ages as you walk through the Omonia, Monastiraki and Plaka areas. You’ll soon notice the triangular pediments and classical column designs of the neo-classical era, learn why Plaka’s buildings are dotted with beautiful balconies, see the oldest standing preserved Ottomon building, find one of the only art-nouveau buildings in the city, and pass through Athens’ secret island-like village.
Traditional Greek Eats
To not sample traditional Greek eats is quite possibly one of the biggest sacrilegious acts of travel here. Even the least discerning of food aficionados will learn to love the Greek cuisine, based on the most simple and fresh of ingredients.
With Culinary Backstreets, you go beyond the taverna and explore the tasty secrets of downtown Athens – think northern Greece style Souvlaki, mousakka, Greek salads, generations old recipes of feta cheese, yogurt and honey served in old dairy bars, olives fresh from the market, Armenian cold cuts, Cretan cuisine and sweet treats like the loukoumades Greek doughnuts.
This tour is a full day of food tasting in the city, which combines history, sightseeing, and a very full stomach, as you hop between third generation food stores, restaurants offering traditional foods and cooking methods, the famous fishmongers’ market and locally recommended eateries, hangouts and secret spots. Skip breakfast, you will need the space.
A Philosophical Wander
In the eastern reaches of the city, outside of the central confines, is a park known as ‘Plato’s Academy’. If you stumbled across it, it would look like nothing more than a slightly abandoned space with a scattering of ruins. Yet this was an important space from the 4th Century – a time of power, intellectual growth, and literary and philosophical activity.
The ‘Socrates, Plato and the Pursuit of happiness’ walk brings to life the history behind this simple patch of land where Plato lived and worked. Wander the ruins of the gymnasium where it is said Plato met the young men he would later educate, and stand within the school (Academy) he founded (albeit with Byzantine additions). This is a scenic and thoughtful walk through the importance of Plato’s teaching in early Greek civilisation and where his ideas of temperance, wisdom, virtue, and piety were practiced.
Connect with a local walking tour guide and experience Athens through their eyes. It really is the best way to break through the misconceptions surrounding the identity of the city, dig deeper into its past, understand its present day persona and indulge in the unique culture that thrives here in this bustling Greek capital.
I was a guest of all the walking tour companies listed, and I took the walks over a period of three months during the summer. All opinions and historically geeky excitement remain my own.