With one of Europe’s budget airlines, Athens is now a stone throw’s away from Sofia. Or an hour, to be exact. In spite of what I initially thought, the Greek capital is not much warmer than Bulgaria’s. However, Athens turned out to be a much livelier city than I expected. We spent a long weekend there (From Thursday until Tuesday) and were able to soak up Athens’s good vibes while dodging the touristy stuff. How and why? Scroll down to find out 🙂
Check out this map of Athens for the spots I mention here
But Why No Tourism?
There is nothing wrong with the Acropolis or any other ancient ruins. In fact – it’s amazing that through them we can interact with and learn from past civilizations. However, sometimes you’re just not feeling the whole archeology thing. That’s exactly what happened with the trip to Athens – the Acropolis and all the other popular tourist attractions were not just at the bottom of the list, they completely fell off of it. Actually, they were never on any of our lists, to begin with. And since you can read about them in a million other places, in this article I’ve prepared something different – Athens, the non-touristy way. No museum queues, no groups of tourists pouring out of buses armed with footlong cameras.
Instead, our approach to Athens was to take walks in quirky neighborhoods, featuring remarkable street art, check out unconventional modern art venues (think novelty vaginas!), snacking on fast but healthy food, and just relaxing – the Athenian way.
Free Walking Tour – All the Tourism You Need, Within Two Hours
Whenever I go to a new city I start with the Free Walking Tour. Haven’t heard of it? You should definitely try it! It’s basically a donation-based walking tour of the city, where you learn the staples – a bit of history, culture, traditions, contemporary life, cuisine, and whatever else piques your interest. It’s very interactive and is a good way to get to know a city/country, without going into unnecessary detail.
In Athens though, our guide – Harris, was more than disappointing and with these tours the experience depends largely on the guide. Harris from Athens seemed discriminatory, homophobic and generally just very intolerant. What annoyed me the most was when he claimed that Greeks have no reason to go to Bulgaria, other than skiing in the winter, while there is a lot for us to see and do in Athens. Guess how that effected his tip…
This less-than-pleasant dude aside, we met a super cool girl from the UK, with Indian heritage, who was trying to visit 21 EU countries within 29 days (before Brexit hits), and then write about her experience for the BBC.
Athens caters well to vegans and vegetarians. We mostly had falafel and other fast, yet healthy food, such as a salad-based burrito at the Mexican joint Graxico. The map of Athens that I’ve attached here has all the eateries we went to (and some we’ll visit next time) marked in green.
Athens Street Art
I didn’t expect Athens to be such a hot spot for street art. The neighborhoods to visit for that are Exarcheia and Gazi.
In Athens’s anarchist neighborhood Exarcheia you’ll find this sign, explaining why here, just like in many other cities, street art is a form of protest against violence and injustice.
The murals that impressed me the most weren’t the biggest ones, but rather those who had the strongest point of view, or at least resonated with me the most. In Bulgarian literature classes in school we have books that teach us “what the author wanted to say” with their piece. I don’t agree with that at all. Instead, I believe that art exists to stir up emotions, to drive thought and action. What the person who created it was thinking at the time would probably forever remain their personal little mystery. That’s why I’m just going to share some images here and you can decide for yourself what you see in them and how they make you feel. Or how they don’t.
During my last few trips, contemporary art galleries have become a focal point in the not-so-orderly schedule. I have a theory – to understand classical art, you need to know about the period, techniques, historical background, etc. On the other hand, modern and post-modern art is easier to relate to, even if you don’t have any specific knowledge, because it works with stronger emotions and isn’t afraid to shock. In Athens, my research led me to three modern art galleries, where both the artwork and the buildings were exceptional.
Rebecca Camhi – Faces/People
Hidden away in a neoclassical building in Athens’s Chinese neighborhood, the only way to find this gallery is if you’re looking for it. There is no sign or anything else that would suggest there is a gallery there, apart from the subtle writing on one of the buzzers. Press it and the door opens to reveal a cute little front yard and a friendly curator with perfect English, who gives you space to soak up the exhibition on your own. Honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t ask her anything about the artwork. Perhaps it was because here, as abstract as some of the pieces were, the emotions echoed clearly, no words required.
I probably spent at least half of my time at the gallery flipping through an album called “Suburbia” – the photos seemed to have been taken sometime in the middle of the 20th century and the title was an obvious reference to the hidden life underneath the seemingly smooth surface of the American family life in the suburbs.
One of the coolest art venues I’ve ever seen! It’s located on a small dirty alley in a fuesion neighborhood between Chinese and Arabic. On both sides of the alley the buildings were covered in graffiti and passersby would look at me with curiosity as I tried to find any indication of a gallery. No signs, no clues, no nothing.
After a while, I noticed the flags on top of one of the buildings and remembered seeing something similar when I was researching the gallery. Underneath was an enormous metal door. I was sure that it was hiding a parking garage, fire trucks, or something like that. Still, I gave the tiny red button in the middle of the door a try, to the effect of “Sesame open!” The door, about 4 meters high and half a meter thick, cracked open to unveil the exhibition and an enthusiastic curator.
The first and ground floors were dedicated to an unnecessarily pretentious exhibition, by an artist who called himself Socratis Socratous. The mere fact that someone would reference one of the greatest thinkers of all times in their pseudonym says to me that this guy thinks quite highly of himself. I did, however, learn the right and wrong way to help someone out of the water if they have fallen overboard. A piece of knowledge I hope to never use.
Тhe top floor was way more impressive to me, even though the artist Aristeidis Lappas (who was timidly walking around the gallery with a friend) seemed light-years less preoccupied with himself than “Socratis Socratous”. His ideas were graphic, at times ironically sexual. Yet the sheer size of the paintings and their vibrancy were exhilarating. That’s exactly what I look for in art – to stir up my insides.
When something is dazzling, passionate, creative, fun, and supports a good cause, it’s hard not to like it. While The Breeder was the most interesting venue I’ve ever visited, Atopos is hiding the craziest, most exciting and provocative exhibition in Athens. As an adult, it takes you back to pure childhood joys, while curating important social topics and therefore effectively reminds us that we are all children who need to love and have fun, that segregation on any grounds is a futile political sham. And with this I’ve started analyzing art, as I promised not to do, so I am just going to shut up and let you make up your own mind 🙂
Even though Athens is not a small city, its central area is walkable. If it gets to be too much, you can always hop on the public transport which costs 1.4 euros per 90 minutes (9 euros for 5 days, and a few other options as well) or get a bicycle/electric scooter with Athens’s Lime app. Even though we used the metro and the scooters (great fun!) several times, we mostly walked and the following ended up being our favorite routes in Athens.
The top is the highest point in central Athens and can be reached either on foot or with the cable car. Walking up is not difficult because the entire way is paved and has stairs. It’s not particularly long either. But if it’s too hot or you don’t have the time and energy, the cable car seems like a good option as well. Personally, I enjoyed the way up more than the actual top of the hill because there was quite a lot of people, a church, and a restaurant there. The view, however, is definitely worth it, although it’s a bit intimidating as well – all around the hill, as far as you can see, all the way to the sea, Athens has stretched its concrete body.
The Anarchist Neighborhood and Strefi Hill
Known as Exarcheia, word has it that the police don’t enter this Athens neighborhood. Many migrants live here, the walls are covered in graffiti, and you can often see peaceful demonstrations for freedom and equality. It’s a neighborhood with character and for me, it was worth the stroll. We got there on Saturday and found a huge open-air market for fruits and vegetables (it’s the Laiki farmer’s market that takes place in different locations around Athens). We also stopped by several second-hand stores and ended our day with a sunset from Strefi Hill.
According to the website Culture Trip this is not a place where you want to be after dark. To us, however, it seemed safe enough and perfectly pleasant. On top of the hill we met a group comprised of a Moroccan, a Finn, and a Syrian, who gave the sunset a French rap soundtrack.
Later, at the neighborhood’s main square, a bunch of people had gathered around a fire. On the one hand, we were cold and wanted to warm up next to it, but on the other – we felt weird approaching some random people’s fire, especially since we were really stood out. As we made a few shy steps towards it, a guy who looked quite poor invited us, in English, to join in. Nobody paid much attention to us, but the vibe was friendly. Still, I am not sure how I would have felt there had I been alone.
Plaka and Monastiraki
Plaka is the oldest neighborhood in Athens and Monastiraki is right next to it. In both, you’ll find picturesque little houses on cobbled streets, cafes, restaurants, and 5-hour long happy hour where a glass of wine costs 1.5 euros 🙂
Monastiraki has a market, open daily, separated into two sections. One is at a small square and features mostly antique furniture, lamps, and all kinds of ancient knick-knacks that can turn your home into an eclectic representation of your inner weirdness. Although I didn’t buy anything, I am always excited by flea markets because they feel like the closest thing we have today to Ali Baba’s cave.
The other part of the market is a mix of souvenirs (keychain penises for instance), Greek sandals, Nikes, jewelry, olive oil – you get my drift. Here, you can find stuff like refrigerator magnets and post cards cheaper than in Plaka.
Yet another unexpected surprise in Athens – the Gazi neighborhood turned out to be one of my favorite spots. At first sight it doesn’t seem like much but the old, run-down buildings and their stunning street art made me fall in love with Gazi.
Second Hand Shopping
Yet another activity I’ve recently added to my must-does. Before I visit a city, I make sure to research the best thrift stores, flea markets, etc. and then visit the best ones, in search of treasure.
In Athens, we visited all the second-hand stores I’ve marked on my map, and a few random ones too, but I was disappointed. Second-hand purchases are more sustainable and they allow for more creative freedom in expressing yourself. That’s why I love thrift and have talked about it on the blog several times already. However, my thrift interests do not include super vintage pieces, looking like they’ve been taken out the set of an 80s teen sitcom. Unfortunately (for me) the clothes at most second-hand stores in Athens was exactly that. Besides, looked extremely worn down, which was not reflected in the prices. For instance, in the Anarchist neighborhood, we went to a place called Yesterday’s Bread, where a pile of Chuck Taylor sneakers was crammed on a small a shelf, all on top of each other, dirty and battered. The price? 30 euros per pair…
Avissinias Sunday Flea Market
Starting at a small square, stall by stall this market creeps up Ermou Street and down several other alleys. In its heart, the square, you’ll find mostly antique furniture. I didn’t check any prices because I but I did have a great time playing around, opening drawers, exploring the woodcarvings, and just soaking up the delicious abundance of weird, old, beautiful furniture-jewels.
A bit further on you’ll find all kinds of other “treasures” – books, vinyl, cutlery, paintings, actual jewels, leather good, etc. I found an item I am super happy with – an extremely well-made, gorgeous and practical original Moschino wallet. I never wear leather anymore, unless it’s second hand. I’ve given this topic a lot of thought and I believe that purchasing second hand leather both means you’re not encouraging the production of new leather goods, and are extending the life of pieces that have already been used and discarded. So, this awesome little wallet that I bargained down to 7 euros is a great example.
Athens became the 5th time I’ve exchanged my home and this type of travel is becoming increasingly appealing to me. For a ridiculously small amount (service fee for the website I used) and a deposit (which is returned in full unless any damage has been done to the house) we spent 5 days in a huge, creatively decorated apartment near the center of Athens, with a sunny balcony big enough to play volleyball on. At the same time, the apartment’s owner stayed at my place in Sofia and had a fabulous time. Because of the stories I posted to Instagram, lots of people messaged to ask how home exchange works. This, however, is just the teaser 🙂 I am going to run an article on it next week.
Until then – what do you think of Athens? What are your favorite places there, have you been to any of the spots I mentioned, and what would you recommend I do next time? Your opinions and suggestions would be very much appreciated, as I am definitely going back to Athens at some point. Please share by commenting below or getting in touch on Facebook.
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