On a narrow street in Plaka, at the foot of the Acropolis, cars inch past a huddle of people gathered around a tour guide. The group admires a building at number 30-36 Apollonos Street, built around 1930 and incorporating eclectic architectural influences. Today, it accommodates a ground floor coffee shop and a store selling icons—a typical mash-up in a city that melds all kinds of architectural styles, often in the same block.
The guide, Eirini Gratsia, is an archaeologist who heads Monumenta, a group tasked with protecting Greece’s architectural heritage. She arranges occasional tours (in Greek) to satisfy the growing appetite among Athenians for insights into the city’s heritage buildings. For decades, the architectural wealth on Athenian streets has been largely ignored—and, on occasion, recklessly demolished. But now history buffs, architecture fans, investors and curious residents all want to know more about these overlooked landmarks.
Many Athenian buildings are dominated by neoclassical architecture, a style that began in the mid-18th century and is heavily influenced by classical antiquity. Apartment blocks constructed in the first half of the 20th century often reflected the German Bauhaus movement, which favours functionality over ornamentation, and adopts flat roofs. Other modernist influences, such as Art Deco and Art Nouveau, can also be spotted in downtown Athens.
Apart from organising walking tours, Monumenta has put together a database of 10,600 buildings in Athens constructed between 1830-1940. Their mission is to study, protect and promote these historic spaces.
"Until two years ago, there was a complete abandonment of buildings in the centre of Athens. In some cases, the owners neglected them because they didn’t have the money to pay property tax," says Gratsia. "Now buildings are being restored and built. People are returning to the historic centre.”
Greece's tourism boom is driving renewed interest in the real estate market, as investors eye the potential of these dwellings, each with a story to tell. But in a city that’s home to one of the world's greatest architectural masterpieces, the Parthenon, the interest goes far deeper than that. Open House, an annual spring event that opens the doors to private and public buildings for those eager to peek inside, attracted 37,000 visitors in 2019. Among the buildings that were open to the public were container homes, a dance studio in an apartment, and a Gothic castle that has been turned into a toy museum.
Seeking value from the old is also helping to fuel new business. The Athens City Council has launched several initiatives aimed at renovating its stock of rundown buildings, such as the Kypseli Municipal Market, located in one of Athens’ oldest and most multicultural suburbs. Built in 1935, the market faced demolition on several occasions. Via SynAthina, a platform that brings together citizen's groups, the municipality renovated the market and leased the shops to eight businesses with an emphasis on social entrepreneurship. The businesses include Flower Power, a florist that offers work opportunities to people with disabilities, and Wise Greece, a food company that uses profits to help those in poverty.
This strategy of revitalising abandoned spaces is being rolled out in other prime buildings across Athens. The Merchants’ Arcade on Voulis Street has just undergone a makeover. Designed in 1950, the arcade’s shops have been closed for over 20 years. The municipality is renovating the two-storey arcade and helping start-ups to launch their businesses by offering tenants the first six months’ rent for free.
The Energy and Environment Ministry has also started a public discussion on how to restore 1,800 abandoned buildings that are privately owned, some of them crumbling and in disrepair.
Beyond the legal and architectural debates, it is the human stories that breathe life into the bricks and mortar of Athens. On its walking tours, Monumenta brings along local residents to share their personal knowledge of each neighbourhood.
Back in Plaka, the group has now reached Ladou Street. Thanassis Papalexandris, aged 88, points to the roof of a corner building that belonged to his grandfather.
"That is where we used to play as children," said Papalexandris, a former bank manager. "And over there," he adds, pointing to some rusty old gates, "that's where our live-in maid used to sneak her lover into the house. Things were very different back then."