There was a time when most travellers would book a ‘package’ trip that included accommodation,transport and activities. It came as the easier solution when travelling to a specific destination for the first time. However, in the last decade, more and more travellers choose to travel independently as Airbnb and other platforms have started flourishing and offering cheaper and more authentic options. Surely, travelling has become a much more complicated procedure with lots of things to consider and lots of planning ahead. One thing that is quite similar among internet explorers nowadays is the ‘local experience’, the need to see, taste and explore the place they visit in a non-touristic way. If you are planning to visit Athens, this article will be the perfect introductory guide to experience the city like a true local and enjoy a trip of a lifetime. So grab your notebooks and start writing down all these useful tips and recommendations about how to experience Athens best like a local before coming!
By Savina Skourmalla on 21 – 11 – 2022
- Eat and drink like a local
The past few years, Athens has become a culinary metropolis with a wide network of foodie choices. Here you will find a bit of everything. Elevated and fusion local cuisine, huge food chains, exotic restaurants from all over the world and of course street food. The centre of the city hosts a variety of choices so you will never be short of choice when you choose to eat out. However, some of these choices can be quite expensive and there are places that we call ‘tourist traps’. If you are aware of the term you know what to avoid.
Everyone wants to have a meal or enjoy a coffee with a view to the Acropolis but be prepared to pay almost twice as much as you would in a different place that offers about the same thing. The trick is the same everywhere. Go where the locals do. Ask a Greek friend or check where the locals usually choose to eat and you will probably be satisfied taste and price wise. Do not just go for the traditional ‘souvlaki + greek salad’ combo. Try different things, experiment with not only greek but also international cuisine! Some of the most popular places among Athenians are Koukaki, Gazi and Psirri, all easily accessible and a breath away from the Acropolis. Exarcheia and Petralona are also loved by locals when it comes to budget food choices. Both areas are pretty accessible by metro and are definitely worth visiting if you are looking for a more alternative side of Athens.
Food for Greeks is almost like religion so don’t be afraid to ask and receive suggestions before you search for the ‘best’ choices in Tripadvisor.
Coffee is another sacred thing among Greeks and the Athenian coffee scene is competing worldwide coffee-capitals at the highest level. In Athens, there is a coffee shop in every corner most of which use high quality varietal coffee and world famous brands and techniques which will satisfy even the hardest critic. Try ordering an iced cold ‘freddo espresso’ which has successfully replaced ‘greek coffee’ as the signature coffee-to-go.
Don’t be afraid to replace your favourite and regular choices with something you have never tried before and you will be surprised by the character and taste of your choice. If you are not sure, just simply ask your barista to suggest something based on what you like and what you don’t.
- Party like a local
Athens has a vibrant and loud nightlife.Even during weekdays, you will see people crowding local bars to enjoy a drink after a tiring day. You will be surprised to see large groups of people all sitting together around a small table and enjoying a drink. There are different places Athenians choose to go depending on what they wish to drink or how they want to party and we will spill the tea for you.
The most popular choice among locals is the combination of food and drinks in favourite local hangouts. If you hear a Greek say ‘let’s go for tsipoura’ trust them! ‘Tsipouro’ is one of the most popular local drinks along with Ouzo and it’s always combined with good Greek ‘meze’ (Greek term for tapas). The company around the table will order one ‘karafaki’ (bottle) of tsipouro and a variety of plates to go along with the drink. This ritual-almost combination is a local tradition for those who wish to relax and have a nice chat with their friends. If you asked anyone ‘where to find the best tsipouro’ the answer would vary since the choice is based upon favouritism towards a local place. Have a look around local tavernas or ‘mezedopolia’ and choose the one that suits best to your aesthetic.
If you are looking for something more sophisticated, the numerous cocktail and wine bars will definitely not let you down. Starting from Syntagma area, take a walk down the area around Ermou and Mitropoleos street and you will find some of the best bars hidden away between beautiful neoclassical buildings. Continue further down towards Monastiraki and explore the whereabouts of Aiolou street before you finish to Psirri area. The choices are endless and the scene might seem overwhelming but wherever you choose to sit you will have many options to choose from between signature cocktails and fine Greek wines. Just take a stroll and don’t be afraid to explore around these areas to find all the hidden local gems.
The epitome of Greek partying style however is the world-famous ‘bouzoukia’. Going out to the bouzoukia is a whole experience and even though it’s loved by locals, it could be a challenge for travellers. ‘Bouzoukia’ comes from the Greek word ‘bouzouki’ which is a traditional guitar-like musical instrument with a distinct sound. In the older days, when people went to ‘bouzoukia’ they heard exactly that. Songs accompanied by the said instrument and a live singer or band that entertained the crowd. These days, the experience has changed with the addition of more modern sounds and a variety of famous well loved artists but the term has remained the same. The club has tables and seats and the prices differ depending how close you wish to be on stage. The program starts at around midnight and it lasts until the early hours of the morning. The price starts from 50 euro per person and it goes higher the closer you want to be to the stage and how much you drink. There is a specific ordering system as well where you and your company have to order a bottle of the liquor of your choice and no food included. Everyone will drink and dance and have a good time while listening to their favourite songs that all emerged in a truly greek party experience. If you wish to be part of it I would suggest you follow someone local and you will be able to ‘help’ you through it, alternatively you can just stick to the first two choices mentioned above.
- Shop like a Local
It’s really difficult to resist shopping when in Athens. You’ve probably heard of Ermou, the city’s most central and busy shopping street, where you can find all the major brands and other things if you are looking for this kind of thing. Alternatively, for souvenirs and traditional products all guides will recommend Plaka and Monastiraki area where you can find almost everything you’re looking for from spices and herbs to decorative figurines and ancient greek clothing. Taking into consideration that all these central places target the traveller you will easily guess that sometimes, the prices can be higher than usual. In order to experience the real, local, household shopping, take a shopping trolley and enough patience because the places I am about to suggest are for hardcore local shopping situations.
In every area and neighbourhood of Athens, once or twice a week, a big flea market opens and welcomes hundreds of people from early in the morning until late noon. This flea market is called ‘laiki agora’ and this is where you will find all kinds of people shop for their groceries, fruit, fish and even clothes and household items at very low prices. All of the area’s local producers gather and set their stalls to sell their products depending on the season (you will not find good tomatoes all year round!). This is where you will find the freshest, cheapest products, some of which you can pack in your suitcase to take back home, like olive oil, spices, nuts and honey. Here you can also find a variety of comfort clothing at really low prices made from local companies and materials. So whenever you are, just search the closest laiki market to you and which day it runs and enjoy a true local experience!
The biggest flea market in Athens and a food lover’s paradise is the Varvakeios Municipal Market. This historical market is perfect for anyone who wishes to explore Greek gastronomy a little further and taste things that are not served in restaurants. The market covers a large area with side corridors where the grocery and poultry stalls can be found. The centre part of the market is packed with more than 100 fishmonger stalls. The producers start really early by securing their catch of fresh fish which is then distributed in the hall for the local shoppers to choose. There is no type of fish you cannot find here and every seller will try to lure you into buying their own product. You can even try sushi, made by these very fish! This is the perfect place to try a variety of greek cheeses like graviera or mitzithra, cured meat like sausage and pastourma, dried fruit, nuts and so on. The atmosphere and the scents will take you back to a different time and you will definitely have a lot of food stories to tell back home.
- Move like a local
Like in most big European cities, the most common means of transportation in the city is by car. If you are planning on renting a car for your stay in the city, be prepared for long minutes of waiting behind traffic lights, and good luck using that GPS! A convenient (most of the time) and cheaper solution would be to move around with public transport, which is used daily by a great number of people to commute from one end of Athens to the other.
The Athenian metro line is pretty easy to follow and understand. There are three main lines, line 1, line 2 and line 3 which serve most of the major areas and extend from Piraeus to the Airport. Regardless if you are staying in the city centre or a bit further from there, there is definitely a line that will make moving around easier for you. There are different types of tickets from daily to monthly and there are discounts on students and elderly people as well as people with special needs. For areas a bit further from the city centre, one can also use the suburban railway that is eventually connected to one of the three main lines depending on the area.
The bus is another great option to move around the city and it’s great for covering shorter distances. There are numerous buses and trolleys that cover the city network and can even take you to the airport or the port. Choosing the right bus can certainly be confusing so make sure to download the timetables on your phone or Moovit app that shows you all the available lines and timetables for the bus routes. This is a really convenient app that is used by most locals and it’s also available in English so it will definitely come in handy when you are visiting Athens for the first time.
- Sightseeing with a local
In the previous chapters we gave you tips on how to eat, shop, party and move like a local, offering the cheaper, budget friendly options to you that are favoured among locals. Travelling to a new place for the first time can be overwhelming since most of us want to see as many places and things as possible in the usually short amount of time we have. Planning an itinerary for Athens can be stressful since there are so many monuments and museums to visit and a vast list of choices that is hard to choose from what’s best for you.
These days Airbnb offers experiences run by locals that cover all kinds of topics from food to sightseeing and through these experiences you are able to fill in a part of the itinerary you struggle so much to put together. Have a look through the pages to see what’s offered and what sounds more interesting and exciting for you and let the locals tell you their story about the city.
For first time travellers who don’t know what to see first or where to start, our Athens City Bike Tour is a perfect way to get introduced to the beautiful city of Athens by an experienced local. Exploring a city on a bike is definitely the most unique and fun way of exploring it and seeing places one wouldn’t normally see on their own without the guidance of a local leader. The tour covers most of the city’s highlights and gives you a fantastic overview of the city. At the end of the tour, your tour leader will give you lots of tips and recommendations on what to do next and where to go in order to experience Athens best as a true local.