Here we are at the last post of this Athens series, wrapping up my amazing trip to the capital of Greece. Before going to Athens, I wrote that my “mission” would have been to investigate how Balkan is Athens and now I can say that, despite an initial scepticism, I found a lot of Balkan vibes in Athens indeed. Food markets, bazaars, kiosks, shoe-shine men and vendors on the streets… you will spot the Balkan side of Athens just strolling around the city centre; for a further investigation, you can attend a live music concert, look for the Ottoman architectural heritage or eat at one of the many street food kiosks, where you will find the best Balkan recipes and –it goes without saying- the ubiquitous meat.
But the Balkan feature I’ve been especially happy to find in Athens is the warm, welcoming attitude of its inhabitants: everybody was extremely nice with me, from providing me with very detailed information on where to find street art in Athens, to suggesting me traditional restaurants where to try the best of Greek cuisine, or introducing me to a local street artist and arranging an interview…without considering the countless times I’ve been helped to find an address or to catch the tram in the right direction!
Ok, enough with rambling, let’s review a few more places in this very welcoming town.
Off-the-beaten path places to see in Athens
Trust me, it’s way easier if you download my free google map of Athens!
ANCIENT AGORA || MONASTIRAKI
Usually I travel off the beaten path, but in every town there are some touristic spots even I don’t want to miss; and so, with all due precautions such as visiting during unpopular hours, I went to the Ancient Agorà for a taste of Ancient Greece.
The Agorà was the heart of the public life in Ancient Athens and –therefore- the centre of Athenian democracy, the place where Socrates presented his philosophical theories and many theatrical, musical and athletic events took place.
Founded in the 6th century BC, the Agorà was a large square surrounded by many administrative buildings, temples, altars, fountains and houses; during the centuries it was repeatedly destroyed and pillaged, until a Byzantine neighbourhood grew up in the area in the 10th century AD and the Church of the Holy Apostles was built. In the late 19th century the Agorà area was buried under the “Vrysaki” quarter of modern Athens, which has been destroyed to begin excavations.
The site, now fully restored, is preserved in an excellent way (surprisingly for me, too used to the way we treat the archaeological heritage in Rome): it is clean, well organized and really taken care of.
The Temple of Hephaistos (460 – 415 BC) is the best preserved Doric peripteral temple of the Greek world. In the 7th century it was converted into a church (the Church of Saint George), which later became a burial place for Protestants.
At the other side of the site there is the Stoa of Attalos, which was a place for Athenians to meet and to trade, that is the first gallery of shops ever! The place now hosts the Museum of Agorà and its rich archaeological collection, whose most ancient artifacts date back to 4000 BC.
Another great highlight of the site is a small Byzantine Church (Church of the Holy Apostles, 1000 A.D.), which also happens to be the only medieval monument preserved of the many known to have been built in the Agora.
NATIONAL GARDENS || SYNTAGMA
Right behind the hectic centre of Athens (Syntagma Square and the Parliament) there is a peaceful oasis. Designed as the royal garden, it is now the meeting point of all old Athenians, gathering here to chat on the beautiful stairs of the neoclassical Zappeion.
NEA IONIA DISTRICT
Considering also the amount of pictures I took over there, I should have written a whole post just about the Nea Ionia district, whose discovery and exploration have been among the most amazing experiences of my trip. I went there already on my second day in Athens and I liked a lot the area, but it has been only after a tour with Dimitri from Couchsurfing.org that I fully appreciated the charm of this post-industrial hood.
Dimitri came to our appointment fully prepared: he knew I am into industrial archaeology and thus he brought on his tablet a pdf illustrating the history and the urban development of Nea Ionia, from its origin as a refugees’ area (in 1923, when the Greek Orthodox citizens of Turkey moved to Greece and the Muslim citizens of Greece moved to Turkey, a “mutual expulsion” that followed the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922) to the industrial development which employed all the newcomers, most of which were expert in the Turkish art of making carpets.
While many factories have been destroyed, few of them survived and have been reconverted, hosting now supermarkets, banks, a cultural foundation (the Desde Foundation Centre for Contemporary Art, inside the former Anatolia Factory) and they even hosted the Olympic Games Headquarters in 2004.
Wandering around Nea Ionia you can still spot some of the traditional refugees’ houses, which are lovely even if in a pretty bad shape… but instead of investing in restoring them, during the 1960s many of these small houses were destroyed to make room to some modern buildings and now we can only imagine the original charm of Nea Ionia’s small houses and curvy cobbled streets.
Today Nea Ionia is a residential area where you will find many shops, bars and restaurants but just venturing few steps off the most commercial streets you can still find some small, lovely houses.
Another suburban area I liked a lot is Halandri, located on the blue line few stops before (or, well, after) the Airport of Athens. Being quite detached from downtown Athens, Halandri is a sort of small town by itself, with its local park, many restaurants and cafés (among which the trendy Theory Bar), art galleries, shops, churches and so on…
The area is very nice, with modern buildings (some of which really eccentric) and many green areas.
THE NATIONAL SCULPTURE GALLERY || KATECHAKI
My visit to the National Sculpture Gallery has been another top experience of my week in Athens, not only for the beautiful collection, but also for the whole experience of finding it by venturing across the Hellenic Army Park, walking by the abandoned Olympic Park of Goudi and discovering -on the way- many fascinating industrial abandoned structures.
The National Sculpture Gallery is inside two buildings of the former royal stables and it hosts a permanent collection of Greek sculptures from the 19th and the 20th century; there is also an outdoor sculpture park with the most contemporary artworks.
Many Athenians don’t even know about the existence of this annex of the National Gallery and if they do they don’t bother to come as far as this suburban area to visit it; but what I love the most when I travel is to enjoy all those minor sights that locals, drowned in their busy routines, never visit.
THE ABANDONED MILITARY HOSPITAL || KOLONAKI
There it is, my urban exploration in Athens: a charming corner of the city centre which used to host a Military Hospital composed of 13 old stone buildings from the late 19th century, now abandoned and partially ruined.
The complex, unknown to the most, is hidden behind the high concrete wall of Deinokratous street and you can get a bird-view of it by entering the nearby hospital and admiring the former barrack from above.
There are some plans to list the area as historic place and to reconvert its building, as it already happened for similar old stone buildings in the nearby Liberty Park, but so far the barrack complex is still abandoned and decaying: the perfect location for an urban exploration!
While planning my week in Athens I considered a couple of islands for a day-trip: I read that I could have reached Salamis or Aegina in less than one hour from downtown Athens, but the weather wasn’t good during my holiday, so I had to skip the islands and –unfortunately- also Piraeus and Perama. But I still wanted to see the sea, breath its scent, listen to the sound of the waves… and so I opted for a walk along Flisvos’ seaside.
I guess the place looks way more lively during the summer, while it was definitely not welcoming when I visited, with a cold wind blowing from the coldest areas of Greece and all restaurants closed.
But it was a special day, the first day of the year, and I enjoyed it a lot: after all, I was on the road again, and that’s all that mattered.
Plan your trip with my Athens google map!
Street art, cafés, museums and more alternative spots to discover in Athens
PEEK THROUGH | You find all places mentioned above in my video “7 days in Athens in 70 seconds“
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