Historic Center, Athens
The heart of modern Greece beats in the historic center of Athens—but contrary to what you’d think, it has little to do with ancient ruins.
Shopping, Politics & Grand Designs
Most visitors to Athens would imagine the Acropolis to be the ‘historic center’ of Athens. But just as classical Greek society centered on politics and trade, so does modern Greece. Commerce remains anchored in the triangle formed by Syntagma, Omonia, and Monastiraki Squares—the city’s ‘historic triangle’ that contains both the banking institutions that are the economy’s backbone and the one-man enterprises that represent its psyche. Politics is also firmly rooted here: Parliament overlooks the city’s largest public square and many key ministries such as Finance and Foreign Affairs are located here. It is not quite the ‘navel of the earth’ like Delphi, but it is certainly where a place where the decisions made reverberate throughout Greece.
Politics has been front and centre at Syntagma ("constitution" in Greek) ever since an 1843 revolt forced King Othon to give in to the demands for a national constitution. The square’s location facing Parliament has since established it as the main site for demonstrations and election rallies. Like Athens itself, Syntagma Square has changed through the centuries. The luxury hotels on the northern side preserve the glamour of Othon's time and some of the spirited café life of the 1970s. Today, it’s less a destination and more a meeting place. Even Athenians arrange to rendezvous at Syntagma, usually referred to simply as ‘the centre’, as this is where the city’s main streets and public transport routes converge. And that's what the city's planners, Eduard Schaubert and Stamatis Kleanthes, intended in the 1830s when tasked with designing the capital of newly independent Greece. Stand atop Syntagma Square, on the stairs leading up to Amalias Street, look down and imagine the city they envisaged—not enclosed by walls as in antiquity, but open, with grand sweeping boulevards leading here.
Shopping on Ermou & Aiolou
Malls increasingly draw shoppers to the city’s periphery, but Ermou Street retains its status as the crown jewel of Athens retail activity. If you start at the top of Syntagma Square and walk down the steps and past the fountain, at the bottom of the square is the beginning of Ermou Street, a paradise for those who live to shop. There are shops, large and small, with every style of clothing you can imagine. On Ermou, global brands have replaced most of the local stores, although smaller niche shops thrive in the side streets between Ermou and Aiolou—another retail area of family-run or discount stores. Here you’ll find everything from haberdashery and handmade lampshades to meditation crystals, feather boas, freshwater pearls, buckles, and beads. Window-shopping on pedestrian Ermou is a popular Sunday pastime. But traffic is round-the-clock on the centre’s side streets: when the shops close, the district transforms into a hip strip of bars and ethnic eateries.
Named after one of Greece’s national heroes, gentleman pirate Ioannis Varvakis (1974-1825), the Varvakios Market, aka Athens Central Market, is a tribute to the everyman, as this place knows no class divides. Shopping for Lenten seafood, Easter lamb, or Christmas pork at the city’s central meat and fish market is a tradition among the city’s residents that dates back to the late 19th century. But even outside the holidays, the Varvakios Market is a modern incarnation of the ancient agora as vendors and shoppers haggle over sides of beef and politics as the sun rises. Be warned: this is not a place for one with a sensitive stomach, so if you insist upon the sight of the butcher’s knife, stick to the lanes surrounding the covered market where you’ll find stalls selling a cornucopia of cheeses, glistening green and black olives, chunks of sesame halva, wreaths of garlic, and hand-picked herbs. Hungry? Try one of the old-style mageiria (workers’ canteens) in or around the market.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
One of the city’s most-photographed landmarks, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a war memorial located in Syntagma Square in Athens, in front of the Old Royal Palace, which has housed the Hellenic Parliament since 1934. It is set into the wall at the base of the Parliament’s ceremonial marble steps. Excerpts from the funeral oration of Pericles carved into the marble are a touching reminder of the cost of war, even for the victorious side: "An empty bed is lying here in honor of the unknown". The Presidential Guard, or evzones, standing guard by the tomb symbolize the Greek military. Their distinctive uniform is based on the traditional 19th-century male costume of the Peloponnese but the colour, fabric, and cut of each garment represents an aspect of Greek history: the red cap is the blood spilled in conflict, the kilt has 400 pleats, one for each year of Ottoman rule, and the pom-poms on their curved slippers symbolize freedom. There’s an hourly changing of the guard, but it’s worth planning your visit to include the full ceremonial honours on a Sunday morning. On Sunday at 11am, a whole platoon marches down Vasilissis Sofias to the tomb, accompanied by a band.
The Neoclassical Trilogy
National Library of Greece
The grand ambitions of the ‘modern’ urban planners are captured in three fine neoclassical buildings: the Athens Academy, the University and the Library. Activity swirls in and around these architectural gems as the university’s portal is often the staging ground for protests, under the watchful eye of the revolutionary poet Rigas Feraios, whose statue sits out front. Peek inside the austere façade’s portico at the colourful murals depicting scenes from history and mythology, a hint of the richly-decorated interior with columned ceremonial halls and gold-edged ceiling decorations.
The Library, with its sweeping marble staircase, and the Academy, with its elaborate statuary, were both designed by Theophil Hansen but on a more lavish scale. The Academy and University are often open, so you can wander in and out. The Library’s main collection has relocated to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre and the old building now serves as a reading hall. Leonidas Drossis’ glimmering white sculptures of Athena, Apollo, Plato, and Socrates against the blue Attic sky make a great backdrop for your Athens holiday snaps.
University of Athens
Omonia and its landmark Square
In the Greek popular imagination, Omonia is as much a symbol of the modern city as the Acropolis is of the ancient—and with as many cultural references. When Athens first became Greece’s capital, this was the terminus for carriages and other transportation of the times, thus making it literally the place where Greeks from the provinces arrived. Through successive waves of migration during the 1960s and 1970s, Omonia is where those newly-arrived from the village connected with ‘compatriots’ who frequented the coffee houses on its perimeter. Omonia emerged as the locus of blue-collar Athens—the staging point for labour union marches but also the convergence point of spontaneous celebrations of major sports victories, such as 2004 European football championships. And while both the square and the city have undergone several transformations down the years, Omonia is still where you go to feel Athens’ urban pulse (and since the square’s latest look debuted in May 2020, the cooling mists from George Zongolopoulos’s hydrokinetic sculpture).