“One of Athens’ unique charms is its anarchic construction. On a street named after an ancient philosopher you might find a bordello beside a chic restaurant.”—Angelos Frantzis, film director. Relish this cultural mishmash at the (1) Central Market on Sophocles Street. Whiffs of pork sausage, salt cod, caged canary, and pickled olive hit you in quick succession.
Sozzled locals slurp tripe soup at (2) 24-hour restaurants in the malodorous meat market located on Athinas between Sofokleous and Evripidou Streets. A safer lunchtime bet is (3) Diporto (Sokratous and Theatrou), a smoky basement where market vendors chew the fat over retsina (wine) and char-grilled sardines.
Turn right onto Sokratous Street until you hit the fragrant spice shops of Evripidou Street. “My favorite emporium is (4) Elixir (Evripidou 41; www.elixir.com.gr), whose facade includes a gaudy parrot. Here, the Anatolian merges with the Oriental, as Chinese clothes shops, Bangladeshi call centers, Indian grocers, and halal butchers join the souk style shops.”—Diana Farr Louis, author, Athens and Beyond: 30 Day Trips and Weekends.
Evripidou intersects colorful (5) Athinas Street, a good source of cheap baskets and olive oil decanters. Farr Louis recommends (6) Lesvos Shop (33 Athinas) selling treats from the Northern Aegean islands: delicate olive oil, sea-washed cheese, rare ouzos.
One block east of Athinas is pedestrian Aiolou Street. Sink your teeth into warm loukoumades (doughnuts dunked in honey) at (7) Krinos (Aiolou 87) or press on to (8) Ayia Irini Square with its flower stalls, lovely church, and “the best souvlaki in town,” according to Diane Shugart, author, Athens by Neighborhood. Devotees huddled outside tiny (9) Kostas (Platia Ayias Irinis), which closes at 5 p.m., say the secret ingredient in his kebab is the spicy tomato sauce.
In the tangle of backstreets behind the square, odd little shops sell light switches, buttons, or panty hose. Wander through the old-fashioned arcades, with amazing staircases and atriums. After dark, the area is transformed by a new wave of bars like (10) Booze Cooperativa (Kolokotronis 57; www.boozecooperativa.com) and (11) Pop (Kleitiou 10B).
You can back track to Aiolou, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, these back alleys parallel Ermou, the main shopping drag further south. Turn right and head toward (12) Monastiraki flea market. Cross unsightly Monastiraki Square diagonally and turn right into Iphaistou, with sundry stores selling backgammon boards, army surplus, and leather sandals.
Locals avoid the over-priced antique shops on (13) Avissinia Square, but come for Sunday lunch at (14) Café Avissinia (Kinetou 7, Avissinia Square; www.avissinia.gr): fat chips, juicy burgers, and divine taramasalata (a creamy, fish roe dip), accompanied by live Greek music. Quieter tables upstairs have Acropolis views.
Stroll left down Kinetou Street to Adrianou, whose teeming cafés enjoy prime views of the Ancient Agora and Acropolis. At (15) To Kouti (23 Adrianou), pirate CD peddlers, and gypsies bearing wilted roses try to distract you from zucchini soufflé and rose-petal ice cream.
Today it houses the Ancient Agora Museum, but the (16) Stoa of Attalos, was Europe’s first shopping mall. It is part of the splendid, sprawling (17) Ancient Agora (Entrance from Adrianou 24, Apostolou Pavlou, or Polygnotou Street; www.culture.gr), the center of administrative and judicial affairs back in the sixth century B.C. A highlight is the perfectly preserved Doric (18) Temple of Hephaestus. “On the night of the August full moon, concerts and readings are staged at the Acropolis and Agora. An incredible experience.”—Diane Shugart.
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