As soon as you touch down in Athens, you will head off the beaten path as you make your way to the city's northern neighbourhoods near Strefi Hill. You are in for a unique artistic experience in Exarcheia, where the district's tumultuous past quickly sets the tone. It was here where the 1973 uprisings began against the rule of the Colonels, along with the more recent riots of 2008.
The atmosphere is one of political and citizen activism. Myriad posters and graffiti, each more colourful than the next, reflect this passion. Artists have chosen urban art as their medium to communicate their ideals and indignation.
Throughout the streets, the themes run the gamut from politics to ecology and religion. The result? Monumental works of art that cover entire sections of building walls. The façades truly come to life with scenes that are realistic, at times cruel and always impactful.
Take your time to wander through the flower-filled streets of Exarcheia and contemplate these frescoes that are as varied as they are symbolic. At the corner of Emmanouil Benaki and Arachovis streets, you will find a man in rags stretched out over more than ten metres. He is alone, sleeping, huddled up, symbolising the deprivation of the ill-housed. The artist, Achilles, doubles down on the social and political message with a dedication written in black: “To all the poor and homeless here and elsewhere”.
Another fresco at the corner of Benaki and Koletti offers up a different message: “Wake up”, from iNO, an urban Athenian artist known the world over. God's hand reaches down from above to join the hand of man. God attempts to wake man up and shake him from his obsession with money. This contemporary take on the Resurrection calls attention to the consequences of economic and financial inequality. Each of these discoveries catches your attention.
The very romantic Sleeping Princesses by Sonke (AKA Alekos Skoutariotis) create a sense of melancholy and tenderness in the city with curved lines, a tear on the cheek, and softly closed eyes against the geometric backdrop of Athens.
Rebellion behind traditional façades
In between viewings, stop into one of Exarcheia's many taverns. Oxo Nou on Benaki street is an inviting option, with a casual and friendly vibe that is perfect for a refreshing break. Among the locals who meet up here are a few ready to remake the world, while others own vintage record stores. The neighbourhood has a decidedly boho feel.
This artistic and rebellious soul can be felt in front of Athens Polytechnic, the university that is a veritable symbol of Greek defiance. Do not be fooled by the Neoclassical façade and impressive Ionic columns that seem to epitomise conformism. It was here, on the great plaza in front of the building, that the students of Athens rose up against the rule of the Colonels in 1973. Their uprising, which was violently repressed, left its trace on the walls and hearts of the Greeks. Still today, locals place flowers in front of the commemorative plaque while militants write their demands on the building's walls.
As you continue your stroll, be sure to visit Navarinou park. It is the embodiment of Athenians' philosophy. This oasis of green – created in a space that was intended to become a concrete car park – is a breath of fresh air managed by residents. The huge colourful painting on one of the walls reminds visitors of nature's resiliency in the middle of the city. It was designed by Italian artist BLU, known across the globe for his activist urban art.
If you want to have dinner in Exarcheia while enjoying a charming courtyard decorated with flowers, book a spot at Ama Lachei. The restaurant's tables are dispersed below lovely arbours providing shade. The menu features the great classics of traditional Greek fare updated with a modern touch. Between mezzes you can admire the beautiful views over Athens.
Emmanouil Benaki 63
Athens 106 81
+30 21 0380 1778
National Technical University of Athens
28 Oktovriou (Patision) 42
Athens 106 82
+30 210 7722017
Zoodochou Pigis 26
Athens 106 81
Athens 106 83
+30 21 0384 5978