Changing of the guards in Athens (Shutterstock)
List Words : Insider Secrets | 01 November

7 quirky things to do in Athens, Greece

Venture beyond the Parthenon and the Plaka district and discover an Athens that is feisty, uncompromising and full of hidden surprises

1: Stock up on icons where the priests go shopping

A priest with his icon (Shutterstock)

A priest with his icon (Shutterstock)

From halfway down Apollonos Street you’ll start noticing a whole series of very different kinds of shops, their windows decorated with glittering religious bric-à-brac and paraphernalia. Look inside and observe jewel-encrusted crosses, hand-painted icons, churchy candelabras. Prepare yourself to see around 20 such shops ahead; on both sides of the street, you can feast your eyes on a vast array of ecclesiastical accessories and elaborately hand-crafted cloths for liturgical garments. 

Reflecting the massive influence of the Greek Orthodox Church in a country where religion is a core element of national identity, the shops stream all the way to Agia Filothei Street, right behind the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens. Some are modern and polished, while others belong to a long-gone era. The first such shop to open in 1926 belongs to renowned iconographer Konstantinos Zouvelos, whose work can be seen in churches around Greece as well as New York, San Francisco and Vancouver. With his wife and son, they create religious artefacts of all varieties; among their one-of-a-kind pieces are an elaborate, stone-encrusted silver brooch shaped like the Star of Bethlehem with an engraving of the Virgin Mary on mammoth tusk at its centre. 

A little further down look out for Tasi, opened in 1986, which is jam-packed with hand-painted icons, incense burners and good luck charms featuring saints. See the many tamata, small metal plaques, each depicting an ailing part of the body and used as a votive offering, usually placed on a miraculous icon in a church. Also rewarding is a visit to Hiton, which centres its trade on handmade materials for every echelon of the clergy, selling everything from basic €100 plain black cotton robes to intricately designed, hand-sewn cloths in bold threads like silver or gold on velvet, satin and silk, worth up to €500 per metre. 

Address: Apollonos Street, Syntagma, Athens 10556

2: Taste yoghurt like ewe have never tasted

Fifty years ago, milk bars in the Athens–Piraeus megalopolis vastly outnumbered bars that served alcohol. In those days, there were as many as 1,600 such places, where customers of all ages would pop in for a bowl of yoghurt, rice pudding or krema (milk pudding) accompanied by a tumbler of cold water or a thimble of Greek coffee. If this habit sounds peculiar, you haven’t tasted real Greek yoghurt. Don’t be fooled; it has nothing to do with the mass-produced versions found in supermarkets. 

Mostly made from ewes’ milk, 400 kilos at a time, this yoghurt is thick and creamy, and so sweet you don’t need the honey and walnuts offered with it. 

Stani, which opened in 1931 in Piraeus, has occupied the same tiny premises off Omonia Square since 1949. Like so much of the centre, its street is a mixed bag, combining ruined buildings with busy eateries, a gleaming neoclassical hotel and a tawdry cinema ‘strictly for adults’. 

But Stani’s immaculate interior returns you to yesteryear with its period photos along with a framed award from the 1953 Thessaloniki International Fair. Interestingly, the founder of Stani – which means sheepfold – came from the same mountainous area beyond Delphi as the founders of Greece’s two largest yoghurt companies, Delta and Fage, but the Karageorgos family has never wished to expand. 

Indeed, the current owner, Thanasis, won’t even sell his yoghurts to any other shop, much less open more. He takes pride in being small but genuine. ‘Think of it,’ he says, ‘each yoghurt we make contains a trace of the original bacillus my grandfather used 90 years ago. Because we always keep back some to make the next batch. It’s a natural, threeway unbroken chain since we also buy our milk from the same producer he did, and some of our old customers bring in their grandkids.’ 

In this changing city, Stanti remains ‘a constant archive of tastes’. 

Address: Marikas Kotopouli 10, Omonia, Athens 10432

Stani yoghurt cafe (Yannis Varouhakis)

Stani yoghurt cafe (Yannis Varouhakis)

3: Get a haircut at a retro barbershop

1900 The Barber Shop (Yannis Varouhakis)

1900 The Barber Shop (Yannis Varouhakis)

Meandering the side streets of Monastiraki or Psyrri you may notice a few nondescript barber shops straight out of the 1950s, while in trendier areas like Koukaki or Kolonaki you’ll spot barber shops with vintage touches and tattooed hairstylists. But 1900 The Barber Shop is an entirely different story. It was envisaged by a Greek with refined old-school tastes and a strikingly dapper style, whose family lived in Cairo for four generations. Growing up in elegant surroundings adorned by antiques and culture, in his own home, as well as those of French, British and American friends, created in him an aesthetic world that he has translated in this shop. 

Panayiotis Grigoriou is an entrepreneur who worked for 20 years in marketing management for major companies, but since the ’90s he began to visualise opening his own barber shop. He sought to stand out commercially and offer men treatment fit for gentlemen – indeed most of his clientele are businessmen, politicians, actors and diplomats. His greatest goal was to recreate his fond personal memories from the barber shops in Cairo during his childhood. ‘My dad took me to the barber shop, where I experienced a sense of male bonding; vibrant conversations and a relaxing sense of being pampered.’ 

Advertised as a ‘gentlemen’s club’ of sorts, 1900 is what he describes as a stylish, yet accessibly priced, ‘decompression room’. Wooden floors, plush sofas, books, a drinks tray, chandeliers, vintage artworks and quirky details like a magnum champagne lamp are the mise-en-scène for this no-woman’s land. Most of the décor is from 1880 to 1920, with an ambience one would feel in an old villa that’s comfortably worn around the edges. Apart from classic-style hair cutting, grooming inspired from Cairo includes face massage, hot towels and a deep shave, lighters to burn away ear hairs, manicures, pedicures and threading. 

Address: Ipsilantou 35 & Ploutarchou, Kolonaki, Athens 10676

4: Get a crash course on Greek olives at Ariana

For almost a century this warehouse-like shop has sold almost nothing but olives. Open to the street, with no doors to put you off, it invites you to inspect the contents of 23 large free-standing barrels as well as smaller containers poised on shelves along the side walls. And taste them. 

Perhaps you thought there were only two kinds of olives, green and black, pitted or stuffed with pimento, garlic or almond? This collection features the fruit of some 20 varieties, with emphasis on the big oval greeny ones from Amphissa, the famous olive grove below Delphi. The Kalothanasis brothers, Andreas and Mihalis, represent the third generation in this business started by their grandfather, Andreas, who came from the area, and where the olives are still processed. As Mihalis, who runs the shop, says, ‘Amphissa olives grown anywhere else don’t taste the same. The land, soil, climate make a difference. We deal with olives from all over Greece – tear-shaped Kalamata, tiny Cretan, wrinkly (salt-cured) throumbes from Thasos – and my brother knows the secrets of curing, preserving and storing them until the next season. Ideally, we’d like to run out the day the new olives arrive, and sometimes that has happened.’ 

The most popular and priciest are big green olives from Mount Athos, followed by blonde throumbes from Chios. And some firm Amphissa ones are rated by size: jumbo, colossal and mammoth. 

The name Ariana comes from two ancient Greek words, ari and a(g)no. It means ‘very pure’, like the olive tree, Athena’s gift, which earned her the patronage of the city over Poseidon’s salt spring in the mythical contest on the Acropolis. 

But if olives are not your thing, you can feast your eyes and taste buds on a wide assortment of pickles and two kinds of capers. Those imported from Turkey are the only non-Greek item in the shop. No comparison with those from Syros, of course. 

Address: Theatrou 3, Athens 10552

Barrels of olives at Ariana (Yannis Varouhakis)

Barrels of olives at Ariana (Yannis Varouhakis)

5: Play chess at the Panellinion

A chess board (Dreamstime)

A chess board (Dreamstime)

For a kafeneion, it is uncharacteristically quiet. But patrons don’t come to Panellinion to argue over politics or football (or both simultaneously as in many cases the two are inextricable). Nor do they come to indulge in the counter-culture ambience of other area cafés. They come to play chess. And every single table in the café is set up with a chess set, ready for the contest. 

Panellinion isn’t the sort of place that attracts passersby. Scuffed tables, a marble mosaic floor typical of 1950s and 1960s kitchens, stiff wooden chairs with flaking paint, and, at first glance, a clientele of mostly pensioners. The coffee is almost exclusively Ellinikos, individually brewed over a gas flame. The décor is mostly framed photos, including one of the original, far grander premises at the corner of Benaki Street that it occupied for the first eight decades after its founding in 1885. Pride of place among these souvenirs of its history is a magazine spread from 24 August, 1992, featuring Gary Kasparov, the Russian former world chess champion, who not only stopped by Panellinion but simultaneously played – and won – 30 games against the café’s regulars. 

Chess isn’t just a game, but a philosophy. Or, as the Emanuel Lasker quote tacked to the service counter notes,‘On the chessboard lies and hypocrisy do not survive long.’ As a game, it enjoys enduring popularity in Greece, with active clubs throughout the country. Panellinion is more of a haven, a place where players go to share their love of the game, rather than compete for a title. Like the décor, this love for chess has remained steady over time. Perhaps the one thing that has changed is that the coffee house no longer charges customers by the hour so they can continue to contemplate the board without anxiety about running up a bill. And there’s no rush to leave: Panellinion will stay open until the final checkmate. checkmate, even if it takes hours. Unlike our fast-paced lives, chess requires strategy and patience. 

Address: Mavromichali 16, Athens 10680 

6: Discover a secret escape route in an ancient church

Shrine hiding secret passage at Agioi Isidoroi (Yannis Varouhakis)

Shrine hiding secret passage at Agioi Isidoroi (Yannis Varouhakis)

Agioi Isidoroi, which sits against the western slope of Lycabettus Hill, is one of those ordinary churches found throughout Athens and, indeed, Greece – neither especially pretty nor particularly well-known. One apparent oddity is its name, which uses the plural form of saint, although there was just one Saint Isidore to whom the church is dedicated. But on closer inspection, something else stands out: the church isn’t simply built against the grey rock, but into it. 

The church was built in the 15th or 16th century by a monk on the spot where Agios Isidoros – a Greek commander in the Roman army who was martyred for preaching Christianity – came to him in a dream. The interior is as plain as its flat, white-washed exterior, except for a gold-edged icon screen and a few icons hung on the rock walls.

But the church’s true purpose may have not been as a place of worship, but to conceal the opening of a tunnel linking Lycabettus to Galatsi, part of an escape route to the Penteli mountains that was used by Greek revolutionaries during the Greek War of Independence.

This would not be uncommon, as numerous churches throughout Greece are said to have been built on particular sites for similar purposes. Whether the passage, if it existed, was also used by resistance fighters during World War II is not known. 

A sign inside the church confirms the underground passage (while also mentioning that the church is the area’s oldest and was celebrated for its many miracles). But the possibility of a tunnel’s existence is not far-fetched. The supposed entrance is behind a glass screen but seems wide enough for someone to squeeze through.

Lycabettus is part of the Tourkovounia ridge where Galatsi sits. While the city has grown to a point where it is hard to imagine such a link, the opening in the rock may have been formed millennia ago by water coursing down the slopes. 

Address: Sarantapihou 61, Lycabettus, Athens 10210

7: Pay your respects to Loukanikos, the riot dog

As an expressive, somewhat anarchic people with a soul-tapestry woven of democratic ideals, Greeks love to protest. When the Eurozone crisis reared its ugly head in 2009, Greece began to hit the global headlines.

In the ensuing years, Athens became a battlezone, with hooded, bare-chested anarchists in violent face-offs against shielded, helmeted riot police. Shop windows were smashed, Molotov cocktails launched, and Athenians shut their windows to keep the tear gas out of their homes.

Meanwhile, Loukanikos (‘sausage’) the dog, one of Athens’ multitude of strays, was always on the front lines at these dramatic events; siding with protestors, he barked aggressively at the cops, unhindered by rocks, kicks or flames. 

Worldwide, the media picked up on this canine anarchist. In 2011, TIME magazine featured Loukanikos on its front cover. The song ‘The Riot Dog’ by David Rovics was written in his honour and the four-legged warrior even inspired the documentary Dogs of Democracy by Mary Zournazi, in which he’s described as the ‘Che Guevara of Greece’ and ‘an ally of the Greek people of all ideologies’. In 2012 he retired from his energetic street life and was adopted by a family who offered him the loving care he deserved. He died peacefully in his sleep in 2014. 

Apart from its reputation for protests, modern Athens is also known for its graffiti, a liberal practice that dates back millennia in Greece. After Loukanikos’ death, street artists who knew the brave hound well dedicated a giant wall portrait in his memory, titled All Dogs Go to Heaven. Billy Gee, Alex Martinez and N_Grams say they wanted to bring a smile to the faces of passers-by. 

Despite his world fame, few know that they can visit him here. And indeed, the wonderfully expressive and instagrammable portrait inspires many emotions in any observer – from the superficial to the profoundly idealistic. 

Address: Riga Pallamidou 4 & Sarri Street, Psyrri, Athens 10554

Street art portrait of Loukanikos (Yannis Varouhakis)

Street art portrait of Loukanikos (Yannis Varouhakis)

111 Places in Athens That You Shouldn’t Miss by Alexia Amvrazi, Diana Farr Louis and Diane Shugart is published by Emons Verlag. Order your copy on Amazon now

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