The average tourist—en route to a leisurely Greek island vacation—spends about two-and-a-half days in Athens: a densely packed tour of ancient sites and museums, complete with a dash to the top of the Acropolis to ponder the most important ancient monument in the Western world.
Most will leave Athens suitably impressed by the timeless evidence of its former brilliance in the arts, architecture, philosophy, and politics. Few will have taken the time to contemplate the second most stunning sight on Acropolis hill: the seemingly endless span of modern Athens below—dense, ever-changing, and totally alive.
Living in Athens as a non-Greek—making a home in a neighborhood, establishing a routine that allows for getting to know the local pace and rhythm—requires more than adjusting to a different mindset and culture. It means teasing out answers to a perplexing conundrum: What, then—and who—is Athens?
Athens may be steeped in history, but is by no means stuck in time. Athens is a rapidly modernizing metropolis where the immediacy of the past stands in stark juxtaposition to the evolving demands of the present.
With a population of about 4 million, its phenomenal growth is quite recent, having begun with the 1922 debacle of the Asia Minor campaign, which ended the three-thousand-year-old Greek presence in Asia Minor. Almost the entire Greek population of Turkey flowed into Greece, doubling the population of Athens seemingly overnight. Athens’ first high risers were built to house the refugees, and the resulting unplanned concrete sprawl was subsequently extended by waves of emigrants from the villages and islands.
Today, those emigrants have been joined by waves of migrants—both legal and illegal—from Albania, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Although Greece in general remains largely culturally homogenous and steeped in tradition, these newcomers are changing the social and economic landscape. The future of Greece, like the future of most EU countries, will be shaped to a large extent by how it adapts to the changing face of its people.
Yet despite its rapid and ongoing transformation, Athens remains a city of small, intimate neighborhoods clustered around a central plateia, or square. Each enclave—from the bohemian outpost of Exarhia to the posh Kolonaki to Nea Smyrni, named by the refugees from Smyrna who settled it—has its own distinct personality and charm. Believe it or not, traditional village life is still very much alive in Athens, where apartment balconies stand in for gardens and living rooms in the warm weather and the neighborhood cafes brim with people, night and day, sitting over coffee or ouzo, joking, endlessly debating, and sharing news.
If arriving in Athens leaves the impression of endless bustle and urban anonymity, living in Athens and dedicating time to exploring a variety of the city’s neighborhoods will reveal a city with a distinctly Mediterranean pace and intimacy coupled by an indomitable zest for life.
Known worldwide for its monuments and museums, the cultural life of Athens is an energizing blend of old and new. Here, hip bars and dance clubs (Athens boasts some of the best night life in Europe) spring up alongside small, traditional music venues offering ever-popular rebetika and laika. There is a thriving theater tradition—from the ancient to the experimental—and Athens boasts an impressive number of art galleries and cinemas. There are beaches, sports venues and concert halls, myriad restaurants and countless cafes, and the open market is a weekly mainstay in most neighborhoods. To find out more about what to see and do, see our Culture and Travel Links.
Take a virtual tour of Athens, starting from the area near the CYA Academic Center (to the left of the Kalimamaro Stadium).