In the shadow of the Acropolis, the neighborhood of Koukaki, with its unevenly paved sidewalks lined with bitter orange trees, has an undeniably urban village feel. It is the lesser-known sister of Makriyianni, which, boasting the elegant Acropolis Museum on the sweeping cobbled esplanade of Dionysiou Areopagitou, has relegated Koukaki to the status of just another residential district.
Yet this unassuming neighborhood has begun to capture the attention of Athenians and visitors alike. For the latter, it is perhaps best known for its staggering popularity as an Airbnb destination, ranking in the top five most interesting neighborhoods in the world to stay. It isn’t difficult to understand why.
By night, the warmly lit Filopappou monument, the colorful lights of small bars and the chatter of locals unwinding after a day’s work will leave you feeling positively charmed.
A sleepy haunt by day, Koukaki exudes a laidback air, in sharp contrast to Plaka just up the road, which is busy all the time. Nonetheless, Koukaki has much to offer to those who would venture a little further from the historic center. The likes of Trii Art Hub, housing works by local artists and nestled alongside establishments inspired by cultures from around the world, present a taste of Greece blended with international styles.
Koukaki is also home to the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST). Once the Fix Brewery, the building that houses the museum has undergone a major transformation. Not yet fully operational, the EMST is destined to become a beacon of creative talent that will showcase the work of both Greek and foreign contemporary artists.
For jewelry aficionados, the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum is a must-see. Housing over 4,000 pieces of Lalaounis’ work, it pays homage to the ancient art of goldsmithing. Within a very short distance of the city’s most treasured accomplishments of antiquity, Koukaki provides the visitor to Athens with a window on modern life, a display of the promise that the present era holds for the city.
Perhaps the most charming area in the neighborhood is the pedestrian zone running from Koukaki Square along Georgaki Olympiou Street, which has a city-meets-jungle feel to it. Overhanging trees, including palms, entirely conceal the concrete facades of the buildings above the cafés and restaurants. Instead, fairy lights and glowing lanterns create an atmosphere akin to a Cuban Midsummer Night’s Dream, if that’s a vision you can imagine. Brightly painted wood and wicker chairs adorn the pavements where Athenians young and old come to socialize.
With an eclectic mix of cafés and quirky bars inspired by everything from Louisiana to Noah’s Ark, this street caters for every mood and style. At the bottom of Olympiou sits a veritable institution, Bel Ray, a one-time car wash turned retro café-bar, serving perfect croque-madames and tropical concoctions like the Calypso, a rum-based cocktail complete with dates, choco bitters and lime. With a minimalist yet cozy atmosphere and with thought-provoking street art as a backdrop, it is clear why this place has become so popular with young local trendsetters.
Yet in a fashion that Athens knows best, the new never quite supplants the old. Just around the corner, on a street lined with a mix of pre-war housing and modern apartments, lies the traditional Archontiko Café, brightly lit and simply furnished, where elderly gentlemen play backgammon, read the daily papers and play with their worry beads so loudly the noise echoes across the square.
Opposite, the sounds of 1940s jazz can be heard as couples learn their dance steps at the Jump & Jive Athens Swing Team Dance Studio. The whole scene is almost like a time capsule, transporting the wanderer back to a bygone Athens, quite removed from those establishments close by that are striving to push the capital into a new age.
Koukaki is certainly not without promise when it comes to shopping, although what it has to offer is more in the realm of small, sometimes a little surreal, boutique shops that specialize in trinkets and unusual designs. Take Tintinnabulum (named after one of Aesop’s fables) for example, with the endearingly brilliant creations of Athena Drakopoulou. With a cottage-style interior more evocative of a Brothers Grimm fairytale than of Aesop’s works, the boutique shop offers handmade jewelry, candles, ornaments and furniture, almost all of which are made by Drakopoulou herself.
Nearby is the weirdly wonderful Aromatopoleion, a perfumery redolent of the Belle Époque, with aromas kept in vintage apothecary bottles as well as a range of organic creams and oils.
The Greek-French collaboration continues in the form of the Black Rose Boutique, offering chic Parisian pieces, some of which are silk or cashmere, at a fraction of the price you would pay in Paris.
The very young (and those young at heart) will be equally delighted with Damigos Toy Store. From vintage doll houses and wooden toy soldiers to music boxes and modern toys, it is a toy store that induces a feeling of nostalgia and modernity all at once.
If the jungle feeling permeates Olympiou Street, the sanguine lion of this jungle sits close by in the form of a rather more cheeky and charismatic animal. Meerkat Cocktail Safari, the inspired creation of Romain Krot and Christina Mavridis, is a rising star, inspired by the beauty and wildlife of the Serengeti.
Krot, having brought his training and expertise from some of the most prestigious cocktail bars in Paris (Experimental Cocktail Club and Little Red Door), together with Mavridis, who exudes style and creativity, have designed an avant-garde menu of cocktails featuring creations like saffron-infused gin and maple-laced whiskey. When asked what he wants his clientele to feel when they visit, Krot says “I want them to travel.”
This sentiment quite possibly also sums up the entire feeling of Koukaki, which hosts the likes of Italianate Drupes & Drips with its “pedigree coffees” and Verona wines as well as Takis Bakery, whose owner has been baking the Thessaloniki-style koulouri (sesame-seed bread ring) for Athenians since 1961.
Though you might set out to visit Koukaki as simply one step in exploring today’s Athens, you’ll undoubtedly travel further than that in your mind once you get here, inspired by both those establishments embodying deeply traditional “old Greece” and those that celebrate tastes and cultures from all over the world.