Born and raised in downtown Athens, Vassilis Haralambidis knows the city centre better than almost anyone. A graphic designer and curator, Haralambidis founded Bios, the city’s first independent centre for contemporary urban culture, back in 2001. Housed in a faded Bauhaus building, Bios put the edgy Keramikos neighbourhood on the map. In 2014, he opened Romantso, a co-working space for creative businesses, housed in a former printing plant where pulp magazines were produced. Current residents range from a hula hoop teacher to a textile designer who works on a digital loom. You’ll find them brainstorming in the ground-floor café, bopping to local bands in the basement, or at pop-up parties on the rooftop.
Romantso is located in Gerani, a grungy, lively area wedged between Omonia Square and Psirri. “This is the oldest part of the modern city. It’s the commercial centre of Athens, but it also receives all the moving populations from across Greece and abroad,” says Haralambidis. “To me, this neighbourhood feels like the centre of the universe. It’s very multicultural. It’s the place that brings everything together. Omonia means unity.”
In the web of newly pedestrianised alleys above Athinas Street, hip bars and boutiques are peppered among the traditional textile, hardware and haberdashery shops. But Gerani is still distinctly ungentrified. “It’s like a forgotten area of the city. It’s very vibrant, a little decadent, with a mix of old-school shops and cheap Chinese knock-offs that give the area a unique vibe,” says Haralambidis. “There’s a big Pakistani population here. I like to eat at places that I call ‘Athens exotica’—ethnic food joints where few tourists or even Greeks venture.” These are Haralambidis’ other favourite hangouts.
The area around Omonia used to be full of dairy shops—they were the cafés of the day. This is the last dairy shop in downtown Athens. If there’s such a thing as a Greek breakfast, it’s Stani’s sheep’s yoghurt slathered with honey and walnuts. They use fresh milk to make all their products right here on the premises. Other delicacies are the bread rolls with freshly churned butter and honey, and the anthogala, fior de latte served in a sundae glass and topped with walnuts.
Lefteris o Politis
One of the oldest kebab shops in Athens, it’s very much a family business. The original owner’s grandson took over a few years ago, but you still get the same classic taste. This is probably the most minimalist souvlaki you can have in Athens: just tomato and a kebab (a well-seasoned meatball) wrapped in pita bread. Usually they make it really spicy, with lots of red pepper. The first Lefteris was an immigrant from Asia Minor. The recipes brought over by these refugees have been so integrated into our cuisine that now we think of the kebab as a totally Greek thing. I hope the same thing will eventually happen with the other immigrant populations around here.
Loukoumades—deep-fried dough balls covered in honey and cinnamon—are a classic Greek delicacy. What’s special about these loukoumades is that they are really tiny and the syrup is put into the doughnut before it’s fried. It’s like a honey bomb. You have to eat the whole thing in a single bite. It’s really hot, crunchy and delicious. When you bite it, you get a honey explosion in your mouth.
The first department store in Athens, Athenée was hugely successful. Back in the 1970s, this is where Greeks from the villages would come to make a bespoke suit for their wedding or a special occasion. They used to have several outlets, but this is the last surviving branch. The store is now the ghost of its former self, but if you dig deep you can find amazingly cheap vintage clothes for men and women.
Varvakios Fruit & Vegetable Market
The whole area around Athens Central Market is full of specialist shops selling everything from olives to tools. While you’re treasure hunting, pick up some seasonal produce from the fruit and vegetable market. I highly recommend the salami sandwiches from the second shop on the left. This is where the market traders buy their lunch. Alternatively, they head down to Diporto, one of the oldest tavernas in Athens. It has a real old-school atmosphere. The food is very simple, but really good. A word of advice: if you want cheese in your Greek salad, you have to bring your own. So first go and buy some cheese from Miran, a fantastic deli that stocks all sorts of unusual Greek cheeses and other hard-to-find produce. If you dare, try their pastourma, a kind of charcuterie with an intense smoked taste.