By Katherine Brubaker
Living like an Athenian - what does it mean? You’re on holiday and find yourself in Athens, a city celebrated for its unique mixture of antiquity and modernity. You scour an endless assortment of bright travel pages to know exactly how to spend your time: falling head first, you descend into a rabbit hole littered with images of ancient, towering temples, radiant riviera beaches with piercing blue water, a myriad of world class museums, and an endless stream of souvlaki recommendations. While these delights are all things you should enjoy while in Greece, you might be looking for an opportunity to stray from the beaten path.
As an American living in Athens for only a few weeks this summer, I am not fully equipped to answer this question on my own. Though, with the help of true Athenians, I have curated a list of experiences that will help you not stand out like a sore thumb in the city!
First and foremost, you need to make friends with the locals. I know, this can be a daunting task when in a new country and if you’re the shy type. However, these friendships are invaluable: you’ll get all the local scoops without having to pay a dime for a tour! For example, I befriended an Athenian who took me all around Plaka and Psyri, explaining the histories of sites like the Acropolis, the Cathedral Church of Athens, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus Theatre, Socrates’ Prison, and Filopappou Hill. In between history lessons I was given restaurant, Riviera beach club, and bar recommendations that were nowhere to be found on travel pages. The lesson is, get out there and socialize - it pays dividends!
Athens has a thriving coffee culture. This was a pleasant surprise, as I have a caffeine addiction and can be a bit of an espresso snob. Seemingly every corner and street here is blessed with a picturesque cafe and bakery, a match made in heaven. At the heart of this coffee scene is the frappe, a Greek speciality. Made with instant Nescafe mixed with water, ice, milk and lots of sugar, a frappe will provide you with the right amount of caffeine for your coffee break, and a buzz that will keep you sipping, gossiping, and people watching for hours to come.
There is also the freddo, which is prepared similarly to the frappe, replacing the instant coffee with a double shot of espresso. Recipes for creating a freddo espresso involve blending a double shot of espresso with ice and sugar in a drink mixer, creating the signature foam. The freddo cappuccino follows the same process but is topped off with a layer of cold, foamy milk.
My favorite spot to grab coffee and lunch is six d.o.g.s in Psyri. I purchased my first freddo here, which is an experience I consider to be religious. Along with delicious coffee, this place makes a mean lamb burger and chickpea bowl (vegan). Six d.o.g.s is located in one of Athens' busiest neighborhoods and acts as a kind of oasis with its large, secluded outdoor seating atrium that’s shaded by lush trees. In the evening, this tranquil space is transformed with purple string lights and packed with people grabbing drinks for a night out.
After you’ve finished your coffee, start munching on some Koulouri. Walking around the city, you will spot men selling these round pastries coated in sesame seeds. They are great for when you’re on the go and need sustenance for the day ahead. I know I was thankful for one after a long, enriching day at the National Archeological Museum.
On the subject of food, eating in Athens is one of my favorite activities of all time. There are hundreds of places in every neighbourhood that provide a wonderful fusion of traditional and modern Greek cuisine: I’ve had the pleasure of trying moussaka, gyro and seafood dishes that have melted perfectly in my mouth. Beware, however, of restaurants that seem too touristy - the food isn’t always great. I have personally found the best spots while exploring my neighborhood. This is how I discovered my favorite souvlaki place, Around the Plane Tree (Γύρω από τον πλάτανο) in Gyzi. The chicken souvlaki is the best I’ve had and comes in at a wapping 1.20 euros, which I consider a steal.
Regardless of what day it is, the nightlife in Athens is lively and beyond fun to participate in. Psyri has a plethora of bars with whimsical concoctions and rooftop seating areas that provide stunning views of the Acropolis. I like Taki 13 in this neighborhood, which has seating that spills into the street, a welcoming ambiance, and not to mention tasty drinks and food. If you happen to be in Kolonaki for the evening, there are a number of bars that have a more sophisticated vibe: by a random stroke of luck, I found myself at Amazing Grace in Kolonaki, which is a low-key bar that plays music ranging from traditional Greek songs to the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” If you’re more of a wine connoisseur, try Paleo. Located in a small street in Pierus, this wine resto has great bottles and some of the most delicious plates in town.
Frequent your local laiki market: whichever neighborhood you’re in, there is always a farmers’ market nearby. When I tell you I got the most delicious, world-stopping cherries and strawberries at the Tuesday market in Ambelokipi, I’m not exaggerating. The produce at these markets is almost always cheaper than what you find at the store. Even better, you get to chat with the sellers and locals while you peruse the legumes, olives, and berries.
If you’re feeling like you need a change of pace, take a short fourteen kilometer drive up to Kifisia. Historically where wealthy Athenian families escaped for the summertime, this northern suburb of Athens is less crowded, shady, and home to a number of quality restaurants, upscale shops, hotels, and cafes, giving it the feel of Kolonaki, a ritzy neighborhood in Athens. If you’re in the mood for aimless wandering, there is no shortage of picturesque streets packed with historic villas and their dazzling gardens to admire.
I love public transportation in Athens. I have taken BART in SF, the subway in NYC, MARTA in Atlanta, and the MBTA in Boston, and I can honestly say the metro in Greece is one of my favorite modes of transportation. The three lines are easy to navigate, and the metro cars and stations are extremely clean and never too crowded. If you are here for around four weeks, I would recommend purchasing the month-long pass, which is around 27 euros - you will definitely put it to good use. Currently, there is a curfew of 12:30 am on weekdays and 2:30 am on the weekend due to the pandemic. This means you can’t be on the streets and the metro isn’t operating after these times. If you do get stranded, taxis are easy to get.
Go for a ride on a motorcycle! This one is not for the faint of heart, considering the fact that traffic in Athens can be described as chaotic on the mildest of days. Driving a motorcycle or riding on the back of one is common practice in the city: you will frequently see passengers leisurely parussing their phone or taking a drag from their cigarette, completely unphased by the hectic streets that surround them. I have not yet been brave enough for this experience, but it’s definitely an effective mode of transportation!
Get to know your neighborhood cats: a paradise for feline lovers, there are cats around every corner in Athens. They seem to be pretty well fed and move about the city as if they own it, getting into every archeological site for free.
Finally, you should make an effort to learn some Greek phrases. The locals seem to appreciate it, even if you have a tendency to butcher the pronunciations. A prime example of this is when I went to say “thank you” in Greek to my landlord as she was leaving, and instead shouted “sas parakaloúme,” meaning “please” (yes, I am aware that these are two completely different words). I didn't immediately realize my mistake, and she simply laughed. Later that evening I registered the error and was humiliated. Moral of the story, keep practicing and try your best.
Athens is a city like no other: urban with its graffiti covered buildings, trendy bars, and glossy shops, it is also enveloped in a rich, ancient history that is both tangible and intangible at every turn. Here, the old and new exist harmoniously. I encourage you to experience it all, both as a visitor and like a local. Good luck and safe travels!