Scattered like pearls on the Aegean and Ionian Seas, the Greek islands draw millions of visitors each year. But such laurels cannot pass off the allure of the capital Athens. Athens is a cocktail of ancient history and urban charm; after visiting just once, the city beckons time and again. There’s no denying that beautiful Greek ruins and famous landmarks get the maximum attention here, but today, there’s far more to do in Athens than tour ruins. A wave of new eateries, pubs, contemporary cafes, and Greek fashion are on the rise. The centuries-old neighborhood of Plaka is a hotbed of urban regeneration and nostalgia, a place where even the Greeks ache to return to over and over. Its iconically Greek charm makes it the ideal welcome to this city for first-timers — here’s why you need to visit.
1. The neighborhood offers a village-like charm in an urban sprawl.
Plaka’s laid-back vibe is a welcome change from the rat race of the city’s urbanity while you stroll around its pedestrian-only streets. Sleepy sidewalks lined with bougainvillea creepers and lovely neoclassical buildings juxtapose Ottoman structures in Plaka, a neighborhood that sits today where old Athens existed centuries ago.
It’s now alive with boutiques and cafes calling young Athenians as well as tourists. Plaka feels like a bijou village housing the amenities of urban life. You’ll see this at Anafiotika, a tiny village cluster cropped up under the rock of the Acropolis. History has it that settlers came here from one of the Cyclades for the reconstruction of Athens and since then have lived here imbibing their Cycladic architecture. The whole ethos feels as if you’ve stumbled upon a small Aegean island in the heart of historical Athens. While you photograph this scenic island village, stop and put the camera down to soak in it. Amid the tightly packed dinner tables that jostle for space on the streets of Plaka, the locale oozes tranquillity and old-world charm.
2. Plaka is a stone’s throw from historical landmarks.
Athens is a cluster of historical, architectural, and artistic riches born out of majestic ruins, and Plaka sits in the middle of it all. The holy rock of Acropolis is visible from whichever part of the district you amble around. The temple complex of the Parthenon tops the bill, backed by the recently restored temple of Athena Nike. Around the slopes, you can walk to the Theatre of Dionysus, the sanctuary of Asclepius, and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Bonus points if you correctly pronounce all three in the same breath. A photographic tour that starts at the foot of the Acropolis opens a window into the city’s past, though as a UNESCO World Heritage site, major restoration programs are in progress, and most of the original sculptures and friezes have been moved to the Acropolis Museum to be replaced by near replicas.
But the museum itself is worth a visit while in Plaka. The elevation and design of the Acropolis Museum allow you to glance over the city while simultaneously being glued to its ancient artifacts, which appear nearly as they originally would have.
Further north is the Roman Agora. The new agora was born after Romans became the new lords of Greece in the first century BC, with the leadership of Julius Caesar and his nephew Octavian. Another masterpiece easily reached from Plaka is the monumental Arch of Hadrian, built by another Roman leader, beyond which rose the colossal temple of Olympian Zeus. It’s not hard to imagine the ancient neighborhood of Plaka developed around such ruins, and spending a day walking through the area pins down a unique perspective on European history, and vicariously parts of modern humanity, through treasures of Greek history and art.
3. Traditional taverns here are innovating Greek eats.
As inspiring as these sites are, your true Greece experience kick starts only when you tuck into a traditional Greek tavern serving Souvlaki grills. The food scene in Athens is evolving, with both Greek and foreign-born chefs introducing innovative restaurants and cafes in place of their former run-of-the-mill joints. Plaka, due to its central location and walkability to major sites, is in the center of the action.
After getting ancient history fix, walk over to any rooftop restaurant with a view of Athens. It is a common scene across the main square to be lured into restaurants by the waiters, who vie for travelers’ attention. Even if your instinct is to rebuff the advances of pushy peddlers, now is a fine chance to give in — especially if you haven’t yet tried a gyro, lamb chops, or moussaka.
There is no dearth of Athenian bistros in Plaka, but Cafe Avissinia raises the bar by serving octopus in wine — you read that correctly — along with a dish called yaprakia, made of stuffed sour cabbage with pork, along with its signature Greek salad and tzatziki. Nolan, a Japanese-Greek fusion spot near Syntagma Square a few blocks from Plaka, is another must-eat. The soba noodles smeared in smoked salmon and tahini broth are the standouts here. 7 Food Sins, a gourmet Greek gastro pub, is ideal for an evening aperitivo and dinner.
4. But Plaka’s cafes remain a throwback to ancient Athens.
You never need to wander too far for a cuppa when in Plaka. Many flamboyant hangouts have popped up around Plaka, but locals stay loyal to cafes. Kafeneio, as the Greek call them, became the launching pads for great writers, thinkers, and politicians in the city. Yiasemi Cafe, named after the jasmine flower, is located in part of an old house and frequently sees locals spill out from its confines onto the flowery, romantic stairways that lead up to the Acropolis. Another cafe housed in an old house is the aptly named Kafeneio in Plaka. This is a cosy gathering place filled with antiques that serves traditional Greek coffee and daily specials.
Though Greeks are famous for their frappe, a newer, espresso-heavy invention called the freddo has gained popularity. It sees the traditional espresso shaken with ice and served super cold, like a martini. Try a freddo made with speciality coffee beans at Taf in Monastiraki Square. On the quainter side of the art house Poems N’ Crimes, the bookstore cafe is a perfect sit out in the company of good friends or a good book.
5. Plaka has diverse shopping options.
New age shopaholics should head to the upscale Kolonaki area, where designer names like Armani, Hermes, and Gucci light up the streets. Plaka also hordes plenty of local finds and handcrafted one-off pieces, however. Adrianou Street is home to shops selling local products, jewelery, handmade bags, and linen boutiques, along with artist-owned stores selling handmade wall plates and miniature Greek sculptures. If you’re heading to the islands after visiting the city, stop by Sea You Soon for beachwear, sand-resistant towels, and flip-flops brought in by Greek and Turkish hand weavers.
6. Unique cocktails and late-night fun are easy to come by.
Nights out in Athens are all about clinking glasses, diving into mouth-watering mezzes, and holding on to that old “drink life to the lees” idea. As day-trippers flock to museums to explore deep layers of history and art, nights are reserved for cocktails. While the trendiest clubs in Athens are located in Exarchia and other decidedly hipper neighborhoods, Plaka’s central location offers easy access to late-night pubs and hotel bars with a view of the Acropolis. As you walk through the neighborhood you’ll also find wine bars and flourishing craft beer joints. Head to A for Athens or 360 Cocktail in the Monastiraki Square area when the urge for a cocktail hits. Stop into Brettos, both a bar and the city’s oldest distillery, which attracts a good mix of drinkers who sit for hours sampling its home-made wine, ouzo, brandy, and other spirits.
While craft beer is big around the globe, Athens puts a unique spin on the concept with what’s been dubbed “nomadic brewing.” Small-scale brewers who lack their own brewing facilities travel to larger breweries to churn their beers. Try one at Brew Str, a new addition on Nikis Street in Plaka, but expect to wait as the place is constantly packed. Also expect some uniquely local takes, be it the solo beers from Crete, the red donkey from Santorini, or the Corfu Royal Ionian Pilsner. Warehouse CO2 is a similar concept that swaps hops for grapes and coffee beans. The artsy space has a wide variety of sparkling wines from Greece.