Monastiraki & Psirri, Athens
Syntagma may be the city’s nominal centre, but Monastiraki is its tourist hub. Layers of history intersect in Psirri, the hub of commerce and craftsmanship.
Browse and shop by day, bar-hop and drink by night
Old and new Athens converge in Monastiraki. The metro disgorges passengers on Adrianou, a street that is the flea market's main artery but was also part of the ancient city. The city’s historical layers and the area’s traditionally diverse communities align here: look up from the square towards the Acropolis and your line of sight crosses both a mosque and a Byzantine church. Monastiraki, or ‘little Monastery’, is named after a monastic compound that once occupied the site. Today, all that’s left is the small 10th-century Pantanassa basilica on the square.
A wave of gentrification swept most of the old artisan workshops from Psirri and replaced them with bars and eateries in the early 21st century. Now modern craftspeople are moving back in, producing leather sandals and quirky souvenirs rather than wicker chairs and tinware. And derelict buildings have been revitalised with extraordinary displays of street art. But Psirri is still at its most enchanting, and liveliest, at night, when the second-hand shops close and the trendy night-spots set their stools out on the narrow streets.
Avissinia Square sits smack in the middle of Yusurum, the old name for the flea market after the Jewish merchants Noah and Elias Yusurum, who were prominent members of the local antique dealers’ association in the early 1900s. (Today though, all you have to say is Monastiraki and people hear ‘the flea market.’) This pretty square is the heart of the market, although not everything offered for sale is a bargain or an antique.
On Sundays, there’s a festive air with live music from street bands. The area south of the square morphs into an ersatz open-air bazaar that extends to Thissio, where collectors browse for old phone cards, trinkets, and tools.
On Saturday nights, in typically Athenian fashion, junk sellers setting up stalls mingle with the style-conscious bar and restaurant patrons setting out for a night on the town.
The Archdiocese Library
Nothing in the demure façade of this two-storey, neoclassical building in Psirri hints at its odd history—or what it hides inside. Officially it houses the library of the Athens Archdiocese: a 15,000-volume collection. But a discreetly lit dome at the far end of the library’s main corridor reveals the inside of the medieval church of Agia Eleousa.
It wasn’t exactly divine retribution, but close enough: the 18th-century church of Agia Eleousa was converted into a criminal court in 1835 because of a shortage of public buildings needed for the new Greek State. The redesign was overseen by the Danish architect Christen Hansen, who incorporated part of the church into the building. In the 1950s, the two-storey structure was ceded to the Archdiocese of Athens and today houses its library. Visitors can view the church from an atrium balcony. On a literary note, Teresa Makri, immortalized by Lord Byron as the ‘Maid of Athens’, was baptized in Agia Eleousa.
The central square of Psirri is called "Heroes Square" (Πλατεία Ηρώων - Platia Iroon), because the streets leading to it carry names of heroes of the Greek War of Independence (e.g. Karaiskakis, Miaoulis). Laid out in 1850, the square has the slightly unreal feel of a movie set with its partly pedestrianized lanes and marble fountain, low buildings with old-style metal canopies, and a 1930s modernist building constructed at an obtuse angle that follows the shape of the square. The traditional coffee houses and taverns once favoured by a rough-and-tumble mix of patrons—ranging from monarchs and writers to workmen, Asia Minor refugees, and small-time gangs—have now been replaced by hipster bars, student cafés, and craft shops packed along the five narrow streets radiating from the square. But despite its trendiness, Platia Iroon and Psirri somehow retain the flavour of old Athens missing from the more touristy Plaka.
In the early 20th century, Psirri was a neighbourhood with a strong Jewish presence. The two synagogues (Etz Hayyim & Beth Shalom) around the corner from the official Holocaust Memorial—a minimalist sculpture of a compass-like Star of David on Evovoulou Street—attest to this. Concluding efforts that had begun in 1840, a site for a synagogue in Athens was finally purchased in 1903. But differences between Sephardic and Romaniote Jews led to the build of a second synagogue a few doors down. Both synagogues still survive on Melidoni Street, though they are rarely open to the general public.
Etz Hayyim Synagogue: The oldest, Romaniote synagogue at No. 8, is known as the Ioanniotiki, reflecting the community’s roots in the northern Greek city of Ioannina.
Beth Shalom Synagogue: The newer one, a marble-clad 1930s structure renovated in 1970, is at No. 5.
Etz Hayyim Synagogue
Beth Shalom Synagogue
Agion Asomaton Square
Ermou Street, which runs from Syntagma Square right through the city centre, ends rather ingloriously at a narrow square occupied by the late-11th-century Church of Agion Asomaton, another name in the Orthodox faith for the archangels. The area’s revival was spurred by the Benaki’s Museum of Islamic Art a few blocks away, at Agion Asomaton’s intersection with Dipilou. The decision to locate this collection here wasn’t by chance: inside the church you’ll notice Islamic motifs that signal the presence of an Arab merchant community in the area during the 10th and 11th centuries. Arabic influences are also evident in the clay reliefs over the windows.