Athens alfresco: street life in the Greek capital

Mar 19, 22
Athens alfresco: street life in the Greek capital

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Life in Athens is played out on the street. The best way to really get under the skin of the city is to join in this intoxicating mix that’s somewhere between bedlam and joie de vivre. From parks and gardens to open-air cinemas and rooftop bars, here are some of our favourite alfresco experiences in the Greek capital.

A horse-drawn carriage on Athens' ancient promenade
The cobblestone ancient promenade is a great place for a stroll in Athens © Vangelis Koronakis / Lonely Planet

Get in the mood with a stroll

One of Europe’s longest and probably prettiest walkways, the 3km-long ancient promenade circles the historic centre of the city. Locals and tourists alike come out in force for an evening volta (stroll) along the heritage trail which takes in the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Acropolis Museum, the mighty Acropolis and the Ancient Agora. You’ll also find plenty of modernity here, with open-air art exhibitions, book fairs, buskers and street traders, lending the pedestrian route a festival air.

Stop for a coffee or two

Open-air cafe hubs, Koukaki and Thisio, lie conveniently at both ends of the cobblestone promenade, so grab a table at any of the bustling establishments that takes your fancy and – if you want to feel like a true Athenian – order an iced coffee (aka freddo) in one of a myriad variations. Don’t rush it: locals can spend hours enjoying their coffee and observing the world go by. Dioskouri in Monastiraki is strategically positioned for endless crowd-watching.

A couple on a cafe terrace at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center
Sprawling views of the park at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center © Vangelis Koronakis / Lonely Planet

Pop into Athens’ latest pride and joy

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center houses both the National Opera and the National Library in a magnificent complex designed by Renzo Piano. The surrounding large park came as a much-needed and welcome addition to Athenians’ outdoor habits – it received 5.3 million visitors in 2018 alone. Olive groves and large plane trees as well as hundreds of acres of indigenous plants, herbs and flowers, combined with the sea breeze from across the road and the free daily cultural events, make for a perfect urban retreat, for a few hours or a whole day. Guided tours in English are organised every morning at 10am. There is a frequent free shuttle service from Syntagma Square and Sygrou-Fix metro station.

Take a breather in one of the green spots

Athens can’t claim to be one of the greener cities in the world, but locals make good use of the parks and leafy spaces available. The National Gardens (the former royal gardens designed by Queen Amalia, located in the heart of the city), Lykavittos Hill (whose summit offers fantastic panoramas of the city and the Attic basin) and Filopappou Hill (a pine-shaded area which has some of the best vantage points for photographing the Acropolis) are all central and, weather permitting, busy all year round.

People strolling in Athens' National Gardens
Athens' centrally located National Gardens were designed by Queen Amalia © Vangelis Koronakis / Lonely Planet

Join the Athenians in eating out

Dining in Athens is usually a rowdy, drawn-out and communal affair and you’ll find restaurants everywhere with tables spilling out onto the streets. Plaka is full of touristy eateries with outdoor tables but, usually, unremarkable food. Great authentic tavernas for dinning under the stars can be found in Petralona, Exarhia and Metaxourgio neighbourhoods. Oikonomou is an institution of simple old-fashioned Greek cuisine, and Ama Lachei serves absolutely scrumptious dishes accompanied by a variety of inexpensive quality house wines in the best Athenian food garden. The popular Seychelles is simply excellent.

Indulge yourself with open-air culture

Come spring, the cultural life of the city takes to the streets, open-air theatres and outdoor concert venues. The Athens Festival is the single most prestigious annual cultural event encompassing all arts with an emphasis on theatre, dance and music; it mostly takes place in a number of open-air stages around the city. Its central venue and crown jewel of the capital’s cultural scene is, of course, the breathtaking Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the foothills of the Acropolis, a place where everyone should watch a performance at least once in their lifetime. Terravibe Park is an idyllic concert venue located in a forest 37km outside Athens, hosting top bands and artists from around the world.

Musicians performing at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a breathtaking setting for concert performances © Vangelis Koronakis / Lonely Planet

Discover an array of places to drink

Athens’ ambience is often made all the better by the balmy nights, restless energy and alfresco hedonism. Head to Psyrri, Syntagma and Keramikos for the latest openings. In the summer months, bars open up gorgeous rooftop terracesand garden courtyards, but you’ll find outdoor revelry on most of the city’s street corners. The rooftop cafe-bar of A for Athens hotel has the best night view of the Parthenon, while Lotos is a youthful urban bar with large crowds socialising on its pavement every night until the early hours.

Enjoy the big-screen magic under the stars

From May to September, you can take in a movie at an open-air cinema. Some are set in tranquil gardens while others, such as Cine Paris, have stunning views from rooftop terraces. Cine Thisio, with a direct view of the sacred Acropolis, has been repeatedly named ‘the world’s best cinema’ by international media. Cine Dexameni, Aegli and Riviera are also very central and worth one of your Athenian evenings. There are usually two screenings every night, at 9pm and 11pm.

The movie screen and rows of seats at the open-air Cine Thisio in Athens
The open-air Cine Thisio in Athens is considered one of the best cinemas in the world © Vangelis Koronakis / Lonely Planet

Stay up until dawn

From the bustling streets of Athens, head to the coast. Stretching from Piraeus to beyond Glyfada, aka the Athenian Riviera, there’s a beautiful line-up of glamorous beach clubs open from May to September. Island is a classic – a bit far down the coast but worth your effort. You’ll feel like you have been teleported to the Cyclades and you’ll mingle with the city’s most fashionable crowds to boot. In the early hours of the next day, ward off that hangover with a refreshing dip in the Saronic Gulf and start all over again!

  • First published in August 2009

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