Athens: Awesome Neighborhoods And Amazing Eats!

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

12.19.09               Athens: Awesome Neighborhoods And Amazing Eats!

Several days have gone by since I've sat in front of our little netbook and resumed work on my Greece journals – a procrastination that reminds me of my law school days!  I guess I’m at a lull right now in writing these entries – yet something keeps driving me to write, as we’re almost to the end of our travels and I refuse to give up now!  So – onward I go, and as I reminisce about recent days past, hopefully I will find my inspiration and the entries will be better as a result!

As I mentioned in my last journal, our new "home," Hotel Carolina, is located between the Plaka and Syntagma areas of Athens.  It is also quite close to Monastiraki.  Today we explored these and other Athenian neighborhoods, took in several more ancient ruins, and finally got ourselves out of our culinary rut by eating some INCREDIBLE Greek food!

When we booked our room at Hotel Carolina, we asked for their quietest possible room, as some of the reviewers said that some of the hotel’s rooms could be quite loud.  Arriving at the hotel yesterday, reception had us look at two different rooms and pick the room we liked best – and we thought we’d found a quiet one, until last night (Friday night) came and went!  There seems to be some sort of club adjacent to our room (no joke), so we had to bust out the ear plugs from about 10pm until 2am.  We are hoping that after this weekend, nights in our room will get a bit quieter.  Hah.

Needless to say, last night was a bit of a rough night for us, and this morning’s breakfast at our hotel did not inspire us (it was a somewhat uninspiring buffet of bread and cheese, mass market cereals, and hard-boiled eggs, etc.).  However, once we headed out into the Plaka, the day definitely picked up! 

Neighborhood #1: Athens’ Plaka (Greek: Πλάκα) neighborhood is a lively area!  Lying just beneath the Acropolis, it is famous for its plentiful Neo-classical architecture, making it one of the most scenic districts of the city.  Plaka remains a traditionally prime tourist destination with a number of picturesque tavernas, shops and restaurants, live performances, and street stalls selling all manner of things.  It was a lot of fun to walk through Plaka, finding little churches here and there, watching various buskers perform, and even sampling a few of the local bakery delights!

After exploring Plaka, we passed quickly through Monastiraki to our first ruin of the day, Hadrian’s Library.  This vast, 2nd century AD library complex was the largest structure erected by Hadrian (the Roman emperor who had great affection for the city of Athens, and built several monuments and other structures here).  Originally, the library complex included a cloistered courtyard bordered by 100 columns, with a huge pool in the center.  The library itself housed not only books (rolls of papyrus), but also both music and lecture (auditoria) rooms, as well as a theatre.

I was a bit disappointed with the current state of Hadrian’s Library.  While extensive renovations on the complex began in 2005, there still is a long way to go in terms of restoring the ruins.  (Still, it’s definitely not the first area of ancient ruins we’ve seen where bits of block and column are lined up in a “yet to be restored” section.)  Anyway, from Hadrian’s Library, we walked through another area of Athens, Thission, to get to our second ruins of the day. 

Neighborhood #2: Theseum or Thission (Greek: Θησείο) is another central district notably famous for its student-crammed, stylish cafés.  It is not far from Plaka and just west of Monastiraki.  Thission is home to the Ancient Agora – including the large and impressive Temple of Hephaestus, which stands atop a small hill overlooking the neighborhood.  Thission also is known for a picturesque 11th century Byzantine church, as well as a 15th century Ottoman mosque.  Once in Thission, we grabbed a latte, a hot chocolate (once again, more of a hot chocolate pudding than the hot chocolate you’d think of in the States), and some biscuits before going on to explore the Ancient Agora.

Beginning in the 6th century BC, the Ancient Agora was Athens’ meeting place in ancient times.  It was the focal point of administrative, commercial, political, and social activity – in other words, all roads led to the Agora!  Notably, Socrates spent a lot of time here expounding his philosophy, and in 49 AD, St. Paul debated daily here, intent upon winning converts to Christianity.  So – the Agora was a lively, crowded, and interesting place. 

We spent a few hours walking around Athens’ Ancient Agora, which is a huge area containing countless ruins (like the New Bouleuterion, or the Council House).  Its main monuments, however, are the Temple of Hephaestus, the Church of the Holy Apostles, and the Stoa of Attalos, and we spent time touring each.

The Temple of Hephaestus was our first stop in the Agora.  As I said earlier, the temple stands atop a small hill overlooking the entire Agora, as well as the surrounding neighborhood of Thission.  This temple originally was surrounded by foundries and metalwork shops, and was dedicated to Hephaestus, god of the forge.  Built in 449 BC, it is one of the best-preserved Doric temples in Greece (you may remember that the Parthenon is the largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece – although the Parthenon was more awe-inspiring than this monument).  The temple has 34 columns, and a beautiful frieze on its eastern side.  In 1300 AD, it was converted into the Church of Agios Georgios, and services were held here through the 1830s.

From the Temple of Hephaestus, we crossed to the other side of the Agora to the Church of the Holy Apostles.  This charming little church was built in the 10th century to commemorate St. Paul’s teaching in the Agora.  Inside, the church is light and airy, with interesting and beautiful remains of Byzantine frescoes throughout.

[Note: as we approached the Church of the Holy Apostles, I made friends with a local dog by speaking some silly dogspeak to it.  After that, the dog literally led Murray and me to the front door of the church, waited outside for us, and then accompanied us partway to our next destination, the Stoa of Attalos – wagging his tail furiously the entire time.  As a parting treat, I used my foot to rub the dog’s belly, which he especially liked.  Whereas Morocco and Egypt were stray cat countries, Greece appears to be a stray dog country.  There are dogs everywhere here, and most appear to be homeless (but collared and tagged, perhaps by locals or by the government?), yet (fortunately) well treated and well looked after by the general population!  I want to pet every dog I see, but this always conflicts with my “I better not touch them/possible diseases plus don’t know their temperament” sentiment…  Hence, the foot-on-belly rub!]

Our final stop in Ancient Agora was the Stoa of Attalos.  This structure was incredibly long and had too many columns to count – out of all the ruins we’ve seen on this trip, this monument definitely was unusual simply because of its sheer size and length!  Built from 159-138 BC, the original stoa hosted a two-story, two-aisle elite shopping mall of sorts, serving as the marketplace for Athens’ wealthy citizens.  Today, the inside of the stoa houses the Agora Museum, which contains a model of the entire Agora, as well as artifacts from the site.  Murray and I spent some time looking through the museum, which was quite interesting (although way hot inside).

After the Ancient Agora, we walked through the rest of Thission to get to our third and final ruins stop today, Keramikos.  Keramikos was Athens’ cemetery from the 12th century BC to Roman times – yet it wasn’t discovered until 1861!  Like the Ancient Agora, Keramikos was also green and expansive, and Murray and I found it to be one of the most tranquil of Athens’ ancient sites.

Two gates – the Sacred and Dipylon Gates – lie near the entrance of Keramikos.  The Dipylon Gate, the more interesting of the two, was the most important gateway of the Athenian City Wall, the main entrance to the city.  Covering an area of 1800 square meters, it was the largest gateway in the ancient world.  The Dipylon Gate was built in 478 BC, and as the main entrance, it served as a central meeting place for both locals and travelers alike.  It contained a huge fountain where people could refresh themselves.  It also was the stamping ground for the city’s prostitutes, who gathered there to offer their services to all the people coming and going.

Also in Keramikos, we walked down the Street of Tombs (where Athens’ most prominent citizens were buried, and which contained the most impressive of the funerary monuments and bas reliefs), and later visited the Archaeological Museum of Keramikos, housed onsite.

By the time we left the cemetery, it was late afternoon and we were hungry!  We also were ready to enact Phase One of “Operation Amazing Eats in Athens.”  Following up on a guidebook recommendation, we headed through Thission and walked back to the Monastiraki neighborhood.

Neighborhood #3: Monastiraki (Greek: Μοναστηράκι), nearby Plaka and containing the bustling Monastiraki Square, is well-known throughout Athens for its string of small shops and markets, as well as its crowded and infamous Flea Market, and its numerous tavernas specializing in souvlaki.

In Monastiraki, we had lunch at Café Avyssinia (specializing in regional Greek dishes) in the middle of the neighborhood’s Flea Market.  It took us a few minutes to wind our way through the crazy and narrow streets of the Flea Market, but we finally found the café hidden away on the edge of the grungy Plateia Avyssinias – a tiny square jammed with a ton of market stalls (including “shops” consisting of blankets on the ground) selling bizarre and junky (but fascinating) stuff!  The search for this café definitely was worth it – the meal we had Was.  Absolutely.  Phenomenal.

Lunch started with olives in preserved lemon, olive oil, and various spices, eaten alone and on top of thick slices of freshly baked Greek bread.  We followed the olives course with grilled Haloumi cheese with mixed greens (with fresh rocket!) and fresh lemon squeezed over top.  Unbelievable.  (The cheese even squeaked in our teeth, which we heard was a sign of a superior cheese!)  For mains, I had assorted grilled Greek sausages with pickles, marinated cabbage, and spicy paprika mustard.  Murray had pork fillets slow-braised with prunes and caramelized onions.  By the time we were done with those courses, we had no room for dessert (a shame, because their sweet options looked amazing!).  But, we were able to declare Phase One of “Operation Amazing Eats in Athens” a HUGE SUCCESS!!! 

After lunch, we did more exploring of Monastiraki, touring the colorful Athens central market.  One side of the market contains the luscious fruit and vegetable market – the other side contains the meat market. 

This massive meat market was totally wild – and a bit hard to stomach (at least for me)!  Imagine a very long hallway lit by fluorescent lights and densely lined on both sides with at least 50 different stalls – every stall containing every animal (farm mammal, fish, birds) you can think of, usually hung up stripped of its skin but still with the rest of its body parts intact (including head/eyes, feet, tail, etc.).  Add to that picture lots of small, high tables, placed on each side of the hallway between every little stall – and standing over each of those tables, men in bloodied butcher coats, holding giant meat cleavers high over their heads and chopping away at various cuts of meat, the staggered sound of these cleavers echoing throughout the entire hallway.  Add a smell (take your pick) to this entire scene, and you’ve envisioned the meat market perfectly.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m pregnant, or because I don’t always eat a lot of meat, or what, but less than halfway through the meat market and I had to cover my mouth and nostrils with my shirt, and race the rest of the way through.        

From the markets, we walked back to Monastiraki Square, ordered some delicious gelato (Phase Two of “Operation Amazing Eats in Athens”?  if so, another SUCCESS), and happily ate it while we watched the various musical acts and other buskers work their magic with the square’s large crowds. 

[Another thing we’ve also noticed in all the neighborhoods we’ve visited last night and today are all the African salespeople we’ve seen throughout Athens, selling their wares (“designer” purses, “Rolex” watches, etc.) on white blankets spread on the ground around every street corner.  We’ve particularly noticed these salespeople because every so often, we will hear a yell or a cry, and all of a sudden they are grabbing the corners of their carefully laid blankets, whipping them up with their wares inside, slinging them over their shoulders, and racing off down the street.  I don’t know anything about the refugee programs and/or immigration issues in Greece, but we are guessing that these salespeople are illegal immigrants in the country, trying to make a living while also trying to avoid getting rounded up and arrested by the police.  It is both intense to witness these quick get-aways, and difficult to think about the kind of struggles these individuals must go through.  During our people-watching in Monastiraki Square, I was able to grab a few photos of one of these get-aways, but for the sake of these individuals’ anonymity, I will refrain from posting all but one with this entry…]       

By the time we left Monastiraki Square, it was early evening and I was exhausted (common story these days)!  So, we headed back to our hotel, where I took a nap and Murray did some work on our computer. 

Later this evening, we were finally hungry enough to eat dinner and try out Phase Three of “Operation Amazing Eats in Athens.”  We walked through our hotel and headed out into Plaka, stopping at another guidebook recommendation, Tzitzikas & Mermingas.  Grabbing a table outside, immediately the waiter brought out this delicious Greek bread, marinated olives, and two shots of “Tsipouro in barrel” – a type of Ouzo (poor Murray – he had to drink his own shot plus mine).  So, the meal started off with a bang!  Then, continuing with the culinary bliss, we ordered and shared a gorgeous spinach salad with crunchy bacon, pine nuts, homemade croutons, fresh Parmesan cheese, pomegranate seeds, and Balsamic vinegar dressing (delightful and refreshing).  We also shared Filiani doulmades – spring onions stuffed with spinach, cheese, bacon, and aromatic herbs.  Wow – so rich and flavorful!  For our mains, I had the sesame chicken bites with raisin sauce (yum), while Murray had rabbit in sweet mustard and dill sauce, served with grilled potatoes (in Murray’s words, the best rabbit he’s ever eaten).  Thus, Phase Three –  uber successful!

Today was another brilliant day in Athens.  The ancient sites were great, as were the local/neighborhood ones – and the food, in one word: spectacular (we are no longer in culinary distress!  You can call off the food police!).  I’m looking forward to what the rest of our week in Greece brings us!

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Liz C. on

I'm very jealous of the food! It all looks soooo good!

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