Image: GRANNY
Carol Ries
Expect the unexpected in Athens' edgy neighborhood of Exarchia, such as this woman lighting up her cigarette on a motorcycle.
By
Tribune Media Services

I used to think of Athens as a big, ugly city with obligatory ancient sights, fine museums, the Plaka (an extremely touristy old quarter), and not much else. "The joy of Greece is outside of Athens," I wrote. "See the museums and scram."

But while updating my guidebook last summer, I enjoyed the city more than ever before. I discovered a place that's getting its act together, despite Greece's economic crisis. I had a great experience, even though it was the worst time of year for a visit. It was sweltering — well over 100 degrees — and since it was mid-August, most Athenians were gone, finding relief on the beach. Still, there was an energy in Athens that made me want to come back and linger ... in the winter.

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I discovered much of that energy in the offbeat parts of the city, thanks to Matt Barrett, who splits his time between Greece and North Carolina. He splashes through his adopted hometown like a kid in a wading pool, enthusiastically sharing his discoveries and observations on his generous website (www.athensguide.com).

Colorful graffiti
He took me to Exarchia, which is sometimes called the "New Berlin," a student district just a short walk from Athens' Omonia Square. This is the home of the anarchists who are the firepower behind Athens' street protests, a place covered in colorful graffiti — making it defiant, artsy, and full of life.

From the small Exarchia Square, side streets spin off into grungy neighborhoods. Mainstream businesses tend to steer clear of this area; instead, streets are lined with alternative boutiques, record stores, and cafes. About two blocks south of the main square — at the corner of Mesolongiou and Tzabella streets — is a memorial to Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a local teen who was shot and killed here in December 2008 when two policemen fired into a group of angry youths. The incident sparked an attention-grabbing wave of riots across Greece, and ever since, frustrated neighbors have kept the cops out and do their own policing. The juxtaposition between Exarchia and the adjacent, very ritzy Kolonaki district makes the tragedy even more poignant.

With its penchant for riots and protests, Exarchia may feel less secure than other Athens neighborhoods. For some people, this is the seedy underbelly of Athens they came to see; others can't wait to get back to the predictable souvlaki stands and leather salesmen of the Plaka.

A more up-and-coming Athens neighborhood is the Psyrri district north of the Acropolis. Until recently, it was a grimy area of workshops and cottage industries, famous locally as a onetime hotbed of poets, musicians, revolutionaries, and troublemakers. But now it's taking off as one of central Athens' top after-hours zones. The mix of trendy and crusty gives the area a unique charm. The options include slick, touristy tavernas with live traditional music; highly conceptual cafe/bars catering to cool young Athenians; and clubs with DJs or live music for partying the night away.

The epicenter of the restaurant area is between two squares, Iroon and Agii Anargiri, and along the street that connects them. If you're seeking nightlife, explore the streets spinning off from this central axis. Lepeniotou Street has the most creatively themed cafe/bars — most of them mellow and colorful, and great spots to relax with a drink and to appreciate the decor. Each one has its own personality and idiosyncratic sense of style (from Lebanese to Argentinean). Wander around a bit looking for the place that suits you.

Today's Athens
Farther to the west is the Gazi neighborhood. As a center of Athens' gay community, the area has a special flamboyance and style. Residents here must be dizzy at the rapid change sweeping through what was just recently a depressed industrial zone.

Towering overhead are the square, brick smokestacks of Technopolis, a complex of warehouses and brick factory buildings that now host an eclectic assortment of art exhibits, rock concerts, and experimental theater. The smokestacks are illuminated in red after dark, giving an eerie impression of the neighborhood's former industrial activity. The only permanent exhibit within Technopolis is a free museum dedicated to Greek diva Maria Callas, who had her heart broken when Ari left her for Jackie Kennedy.

Athens is hugely improved and filled with youthful energy. Yes, there's some economic distress, but most strikes are nuisance strikes — just a day or two here and there, and generally not prolonged. There's an upside to the downturn: Because of the weak economy, you'll find great deals on hotel rooms — and fewer crowds.

Today's Athens is much more people-friendly, an urban scene of pedestrian boulevards and squares filled with benches, shade-giving trees, and inviting cafes. While its drawing power will always be its classic ancient sights, take time to taste its spicy, mod neighborhoods.

( Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2011 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: Glorious Greece

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  1. Pillars of worship

    Construction on the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens began in 515 B.C., and was completed 700 years later by Emperor Hadrian in 131 A.D. There were originally 104 Corinthian columns, but only 16 remain standing now. (Julian Finney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Sandy escapes

    Millions of visitors enjoy sunny days on Anthens' beaches each summer, with warm weather seeming to last longer into fall. Many beaches have a small entry fee that helps pay for keeping the beaches clean. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Stunning sight

    An Orthodox bell tower overlooks the port town of Fira on the Greek island of Santorini. With a view to one of the most stunning sunsets in the Mediterranean, Santorini is one of Greece's most popular tourist destinations. (Sakis Mitrolidis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Ancient attraction

    The Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena and perhaps the most famous surviving building from ancient Greece, sits at the top of the Acropolis and overlooks Athens. Construction on the temple began in 447 B.C. and completed in 438 B.C. Today, the temple attracts millions of visitors a year. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Taste of the city

    The Agora on Athinas Street, otherwise known as the Athens Central Market in Athens, is a great place to buy affordable, fresh food. The market is open Monday through Saturday, and everything from meat to fish to vegetables to herbs is available. (Julian Finney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The modern face

    Concrete buildings typifying Athen's urban sprawl are visible from the Acropolis. The city, which has expanded geographically throughout the 20th century, has had severe problems with urban pollution that have improved in recent years. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Holy refuge

    Monks and hermits have found refuge in the monasteries at Meteora in Athens for more than 1,000 years. The gigantic rock formations in central Greece, which still puzzle scientists as to how they came to be formed, are visited today by thousands of tourists. The Holy Meteora have been maintained and protected as a monument of humanity by UNESCO. (Milos Bicanski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A look at the past

    Visitors view the old winch system that used to bring people and supplies to the monsteries inside the Monastery of Agia Triada at Meteora. The monastery, which is perched atop a pinnacle and is accessible by taking 140 steep steps, may look familiar because it was featured in the James Bond film "For Your Eyes Only." The two monks who still reside there often show visitors around. (Milos Bicanski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Art through the ages

    Frescoes by 16th century Cretan painter Theophanes the Monk have survived over the years and can be seen inside the Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas at Meteora. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A sea of tourists

    Tourists stand before a seawater tank containing sea life of the Mediterranean Sea at the Cretaquarium in the city of Irakleion on the island of Crete in southern Greece. This tourist destination, which opened in December 2005, works as a modern-day research, educational and entertainment facility. The aquarium was developed to hold 32 tanks containing around 2,5000 organisms from 200 species. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Climbing the ranks

    The Athens Olympic Stadium was built in 1982 and hosted the European Championships in Athletics that year. The city won the honor of hosting the 2004 Summer Olympics, and after an extensive renovation on the stadium, including a roof redesign, the building reopened just in time to host the opening ceremony on Aug. 13. Today, the venue hosts everything from major sporting events to concerts. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Birthplace of the Games

    In the 8th century B.C., the first Olympic festival was organized in Olympia (tradition dates the first games to 776 B.C.). Ruins of the ancient stadium are still evident at the site, though a fire in August 2007 ravaged the area and scorched the museum that housed some of Greece's great archeaological collections. Still, the Olympic flame of the modern-day games are lit by the reflection of sunlight in a parabolic mirror at the stadium. (Petros Giannakouris / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. House of antiquities

    The statue of Sleeping Maenad, which dates back to the time of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) can be seen at the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The statue presumably adorned a luxury residence and was found to the south of the Athenian Acropolis. It is just one of the many important artifacts from various archaeological locations around the country from prehistory to late antiquity. (John Kolesidis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Supporting ladies

    Tourists admire the six caryatids of the Erechtheion temple on the Acropolis Hill in Athens. Caryatids are female figures that serve as supporting columns that hold up roofs. Renovation works to restore them were underway for 30 years and finally ended in November 2008. The entire temple was dedicated to Athena Polias and Poseidon Erechtheus when it was built between 421 B.C. and 407 B.C. The caryatids are on a porch on the north side called "Porch of the Maidens." (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Frozen in time

    The Lesvos Petrified Forest on the Greek Aegean island of Lesvos is a UNESCO heritage site. The Petrified Forest numbers around 70 trees of various sizes that are ancestors of today's pines and cypresses, and were fossilized when the area was covered in volcanic lava around 20 million years ago. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Healing waters

    Bathers relax in the waters of the hot Loutraki spring near the town of Aridea in northern Greece. Curative tourism is among a series of new products that Greek authorities want to highlight in a bid to diversify the country's usual recipe of sea and sun. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Home of the gods

    A hiker climbs Mount Olympus, the legendary home of the ancient Greek gods in central Greece. The mountain is the country's highest, standing at 9,570 feet. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rich draw

    The Hozoviotissa Monastery on the Amorgos island, built in the 11th century on the side of the Prophetes Elias Mountain at 300 meters above sea level, is reportedly dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Having for decades relied on its archaeological wealth to draw tourism, Greece now seeks to exploit an equally rich religious tradition to entice visitors from fellow Orthodox countries. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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