Μy Greek friends might howl with laughter, but Pangrati was once a total mystery to me. The neighborhood is just a 15-minute walk from Syntagma Square, yet not many foreign visitors ventured any further than its star attraction: the world’s only all-marble stadium, the Panathenaic Stadium. The horseshoe-shaped masterpiece, popularly known as the Kallimarmaro, sits on the perimeter of the historical center, its white marble mouth opening out towards the city.
Focused on that sight, few ever wonder about what lies in the other direction, behind the tiered marble seating, but the hills that flank the Kallimarmaro adjoin one of the most charming and authentic Athenian neighborhoods. Once you’re inside, Pangrati feels like you’ve stepped backstage at a small theater, into a hidden but homely world, known only to the locals who run the show out front. In fact, it took until the day I moved here to realize how much this neighborhood contributes to the urban fabric of Athens. This is where real Athenians live, work, eat and play.
One of the most charming ways to make your way into the neighborhood is via the forested hills that float above the stadium and the rest of the city. Walk along Agras, then Archimidous, and follow the winding path up through the pine and cypress trees to the top of Ardittou Hill, where a council of ancient Athenian judges once held court. Here you can see fragments of a shrine to Tyche, the ancients’ goddess of fortune, as well as a ravishing view of the Acropolis, the modern city and all the way out to sea.
Pangrati doesn’t have a uniform style; it’s not all picture-postcard neoclassical buildings, like Plaka, for example. It has a much more diverse architectural mix, from princely old villas, to mid-20th century apartment blocks and even some new, cutting-edge additions, like the BlueBuilding, a boutique apartment complex on Effranoros, with whimsical design elements by Greek artist Alekos Fassianos. The retro neon glamour of Cinema Palas, which opened in 1925, hints at the neighborhood’s high-culture heritage (this small area once had 23 cinemas), which lives on in contemporary form at the idiosyncratic Life Sport Gallery.
Inquisitive wanderers are rewarded in Pangrati: peer through an illuminated window as you navigate the shadowy streets at dusk, perhaps on the trail of a new hipster café you’ve been tipped off about, and you’ll notice that the residential décor in these parts is often decidedly vintage.
There is a corner of Pangrati called Proskopon Square, which feels much more like Paris than Athens. Here, the atmosphere is far more Continental than Mediterranean; the square is brimming with sidewalk cafés and shaded by both tall trees and tall apartment buildings.
For the most part, Pangrati has managed to preserve many of its older treasures intact, alongside diverse new enterprises that have sprung up in recent years, bringing younger residents and visitors flooding in. In fact, the nibbling and sipping options just keep multiplying, which isn’t a bad thing at all – until you’re forced to choose from so many viable contenders (see the map above for our top picks).
On the opposite side of the neighborhood from Proskopon Square, there’s a bohemian smorgasbord of life around Varnava Square. In the streets that fan out like sunrays from the oval square, you’ll see the architecture is older and you’ll notice large, hulking apartment blocks making way for smaller, more elegant buildings in pastel shades.
For a change of pace, leave the buzz of Varnava Square behind you and head west towards Markou Mousourou, Nikiforou Theotoki and the streets around the western edge of Ardittou Hill. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time to the Athens of a century ago or more. Free-standing, eclectically styled villas define this mini neighborhood-within-a-neighborhood.
Keep heading west until you reach the First Cemetery of Athens, whose entrance is in the neighborhood of Mets, but whose residents sleep eternally in Pangrati. With its ornate mausoleums and tree-lined thoroughfares, this is Athens’ answer to Paris’ famous Père Lachaise. Although much less visited than its Parisian cousin, it has a similar feeling of peace and seclusion, ringed by tall pines and cypress trees, which form a buffer against the noise of city traffic.
Outside of the somber walls of the cemetery, Pangrati is a young and lively neighborhood that rarely sleeps; the cafés and bars are packed all day long and into the night. It may not boast an assortment of big-ticket tourist landmarks, yet for those aching to fill up their social media feeds, take comfort in the knowledge that Pangrati is brimming with urban Instagram opportunities.
When the new Goulandris Art Museum finally opens in October this year on Eratosthenous, it will bring Monet, Picasso, Kandinsky and Van Gogh to the neighborhood – further boosting the artistic and cultural energy which the locals, new and old, have been reviving in recent years. Peeling back the curtain on Pangrati reveals an old-meets-new melting pot with lots of spirit. In fact, it turns out it’s not a backstage area or a sideshow after all. Athens’ best-kept secret is the main event.