Acropolis & Koukaki, Athens
What a difference a decade makes. The arrival of the landmark Acropolis Museum and the pedestrian walkway linking the city’s ancient monuments has seen this historic neighbourhood emerge as one of Athens’ most fashionable postcodes.
The Emergence of Koukaki
Nestled in the shadow of the Acropolis, on the south side of Philopappos Hill, and bordered by the beautiful pedestrian street of Dionysiou Areopagitou and busy Syngrou Avenue lies the vibrant neighborhood of Koukaki. Today, Koukaki is fast-emerging as one of the hippest and most artistic neighbourhoods in Athens. But it wasn’t always that way. Koukaki barely even existed before the beginning of the 20th century. Over time, the district became mostly industrial. It was this uninhabited side of Athens that the industrialist, named Georgios Koukakis, chose to be the home of his bed-making small industry. His activity led to the initial growth of the neighborhood; in fact, he chose the location as his own home, too, building his residence on Olympiou Street. Eventually, the area adopted his surname; a phenomenon not uncommon in Athens, where many of the neighborhoods have adopted the names of important families that used to own the lands, lived or operated in the respective areas.
After the industrial trade in the area came to an end, many of the neoclassical houses in Koukaki were transformed into elegant coffee bars and eateries. In the 1980s, the area was nicknamed “Little Paris”. Koukaki had begun emerging as an Athenian cultural hub. The lower rent in Koukaki encouraged artists and aspiring entrepreneurs to set up their shops and galleries here. This artistic vibe has flourished, and Koukaki remains one of the most creative districts in central Athens today.
Myths and Monuments
The Parthenon stands as a monument to cultural achievement, but the structures raised around it memorialize personal myths. The Emperor Hadrian created a sanctuary dedicated to Zeus, The Olympeion, and erected an arch to lay claim to the city. Herodes Atticus, the first Greek to hold the rank of Roman consul, built an open-air theatre in memory of his wife. And first century Athenians dedicated a marble mausoleum to honour the city’s benefactor, Julius Antiochos Philopappos. For decades, these sights had languished in the shadow of the Acropolis. But Bernard Tschumi’s bold and beautiful Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009, transformed the ugly duckling district of Koukaki into a swan. This renewal extends to the National Museum of Contemporary Art taking in tree-lined pedestrianized zones with a lively café and bar culture.
Dionysiou Areopagitou Promenade
A traffic ban in 2003 transformed this from one of the city’s noisiest and busiest streets to its most charming promenade. Linking Hadrian’s Arch to Philopappos Hill, Dionysiou Areopagitou is popularly described as an ‘open air’ museum but ‘living monument’ is more apt for its lively, spontaneous street life. Here you can literally stroll between ancient and modern Athens: Dionysiou Areopagitou is lined on one side by ancient monuments like the Theater of Dionysus and Odeon of Herodes Atticus and on the other by outstanding modern architecture, from the gorgeous art deco apartment building at No. 17 to the neoclassical Meropeio Foundation and the Church of Saint Sophia.
The best view of the Acropolis, as well as the city, is from a rock formation about 300 metres to its west. It’s also where the Apostle Paul chose to preach in Athens. The climb isn’t particularly steep but it can be precarious, not least because the millions of people who have climbed the rock have worn its steps smooth. (Tip: wear sneakers.)
Its English name is the Late Latin composite form of the Greek name Areios Pagos, translated "Hill of Ares" (Ancient Greek: Ἄρειος Πάγος). In mythology, this is where Ares, god of war, was tried before the other gods for killing one of Poseidon’s sons. That may be why the ancient Athenians located their highest court here and why Greece’s modern-day Supreme Court is known as the Areios Pagos.
The site of the Areopagus is always open although visiting during daylight is recommended. It is the best if you are an early riser since you can avoid the crowds at sunset and enjoy a spectacular sunrise. The hill is located just a short distance from the entrance to the Acropolis and there is no admission fee.
Philopappos, or the Hill of the Muses, is one of three forested peaks facing the Acropolis that each played an important role in ancient Athens. The Athenian Assembly met on the Pnyx, while the third was known for a sanctuary dedicated to the Nymphs. These wooded hills cover a total area of some 180 acres. Some of the most delightful scenery is along a stone-laid path winding through the shallow canyon between these hills. Excavations here have uncovered the Koile Road, the primary route for transporting merchandise between Athens and the harbour of Piraeus in antiquity. Look closely and you’ll see the tracks left by carts on the rock surface—a wonderful contrast with the arty street furnishings and ingeniously-designed pathways designed by Greek architect Dimitris Pikionis in the 1950s.
Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum
The Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum (ILJM) is the first museum devoted to the art of jewelry in Greece and one of the three of its kind in the world. It is the perfect museum for those who prefer their history lessons to sparkle. In a handsome building that once served as the workshop of Ilias Lalaounis, Greek jeweller to the stars, this museum tells the story of adornment through the ages. The glittering collections are based on motifs and artefacts from the Stone Age, the Minoan civilization and Byzantium, all the way to the 20th century. The most eye-catching items are the massive gold pieces, almost like armour, displayed on life-sized mannequins: huge circular plates dripping with gold discs, and a thick serpent twined from neck to breast. But it’s in the foyer that you’ll find this museum’s rarest showing: a fully functioning artists’ studio, where resident gold and silversmiths follow traditional techniques, including Lalaounis’ trademark practices of hand-hammering, hand-weaving, filigree ‘embroidery’ and granulation.
Pedestrian Drakou Street
The expansion of the Athens public transport system has created a metro and tram hub at Syngrou-Fix station, transforming a humdrum collection of cafes along pedestrianised Drakou Street into one of the liveliest bar scenes in Athens. Students from the nearby Panteion University bolster the youthful vibe, while the arrival of several cooperative cafes has injected an edginess into this once-staid, working-class district. On weekends especially, after-hours traffic jams up the area as clubbers cruise past 24-hour eateries for a bite to eat before heading home.