Like the stars in the sky, the bars and the cafes of Athens are without count. They are everywhere, on every block, practically on every corner. In Athens this is where life takes place. The Greeks live their extroverted lives in tavernas and cafes and bars and gyros joints. In cities like Thessaloniki, Nafplio and Volos you will find pedestrian blocks that become congested with throngs of people during the long evenings. Athens is the same but on a bigger scale. Everywhere people are nursing a coffee, a beer or a glass of wine. And a barrage of noise from chatting Greeks in the street makes a din that can be heard blocks away. This is one of the most impressive of Greek capabilities – to talk and to socialize. And the wine bars of Athens and the cafes and cocktail bars are where much of this talking (and drinking) takes place.
Downtown Athens is the best place in Greece to catch this noisy adrenaline rush. Here, as in other parts of Greece, there is an upsurge in new night action. The relentless and terrible economic downturn that decimated the Greek economy has been going on for 10 years now. But there is a budding renaissance happening. One that is revitalizing the downtown core. During those long, tough years a young generation of entrepeneurial restauranteurs and bartenders has snapped up crumbling classic commercial spaces in the central neighbourhoods of the Plaka, Monastiraki and Psiri. Now these resilient people (the Greeks are just about the greatest practitioners of hospitality in the world) have brought amazing new life to Athens. Even in the past year the difference is exhilarating. New growth is pushing through the remnants of the lost decade of the 2010’s and unfolding in an explosion of human vigour and vitality.
Where To Start? Somewhere unexpected.
To create a wonderful, eclectic counterpoint to our tour of the streets of Athens, let’s start the night by indulging in some elegance and plush old-world class. Before we dive into the wonderfully messy realness of the Plaka and Psiri let’s have a warm-up cocktail at Alexander’s Bar in the Gran Bretagne Hotel. The Gran Bretagne and Parliament Building across the street dominate Syntagma Square. This is the heart of Athens and, on many occasions in the past 10 years, Syntagma has been a great place to take in a tear-gas-fuelled riot. Above the harangue of Greek politics, the stately Gran Bretagne maintains its aloof, hushed charm. A few steps up the stairs, through the door and the hubbub of Syntagma is gone. Despite being named after Alexander the Great, Alexander’s Bar is more genteel English than it is Greek. But the mellowness is perfect. Enjoy a gin and tonic under the gaze of the conquering Alexander in the massive, antique tapestry hanging behind the bar.
Don’t forget to keep it local! Make your drink with a good Greek gin like the international award-winning Grace Gin from the island of Evia.
Into The Breach!
Now, let’s go exploring … and drinking! Let’s have a good wander around the labyrinth streets and stop in some of the best wine bars of Athens and discover some stuff! It won’t take long before you feel the new energy pulsing in the ancient capital of the civilized world. The crush of people and the noise of energy being released is crazy.
Our tour of the wine bars of Athens is going to take us through four very different but iconic neighbourhoods of downtown Athens. From the tourist buzz of the Plaka below the Acropolis to the recovering crumble of Psiri to the edgy and young beehive that is Monastiraki. Plus the added bonus of upscale swishy Kolonaki. Let’s go pound the ancient pavement and discover Athens’ new groove.
Best Cocktail Bar In The World? We Better Go Check
From Syntagma Square head down the jostling pedestrian street Ermou and then go left on Voulis. At Petraki 5 check out the eclectic Tazza Bistro and Wine Bar. Then follow another 50 meters to the landmark corner bar Heteroclito at Petraki 30 (picture at top). Heteroclito is famous for the location and for carrying some of Greece’s best wines. The Dalamara Xinomavro served here is something to be experienced. Xinomavro is, in my opinion, Greece’s greatest red wine grape. Or if white wine is on your mind, try Greece’s flagship white, Assyrtiko from Santorini. Assyrtiko is easily one of the greatest whites in the world.
Now I want to take you to the intriguingly named The Clumsies at Praxitelous 30. In the past 5 years or so this bar is consistently rated as one of the best cocktail bars in the world. In hindsight, maybe we should have started our tour here because this place is always packed and you have to arrive early. Squeeze in, have a great drink and enjoy the crazy ambience! The Clumsies is a short walk from Heteroclito but you might want to use your Google maps to get here. We are now in the eclectic Psiri neighbourhood and the streets are winding and disorienting. Psiri is famously a bit sketchy but its not as edgy as it was a few years ago. Psiri is gentrifying and the bar scene is suitably hip. Despite increased fame, Psiri is still soulful and refreshingly gritty and you are likely to get lost in this warren of winding streets.
Weaving Between Psiri And Monastiraki
As you wind along between Psiri and neighbouring Monastiraki breathe in the charisma and energy. The soul of the place is reviving as the old city repopulates its historic center and reinvents its classic buildings. We are close to the gaudy touristy part of the Plaka but the side streets of Psiri and Monastiraki are bohemian, artsy and imbued by youthful Greek innovation. We are on our way to one of the most important wine bars of Athens – Cinque Wine and Deli Bar at Agatharchou 15. This place shouldn’t be missed but to get here you will have to navigate the crush of bars, restaurants and other hedonist offerings of Psiri. Note Cinque also has a bar a few blocks away at Voreou 10 in Monastiraki. Cinque offers flights of wine so that you can taste a cross section of Greek varieties. Pair them up with the generous platters of meats, cheeses and other Greek delicacies. Elysium!
It’s starting to get a little bit late. Let’s head back towards Syntagma. Another one of the wine bars of Athens that should not be missed is Oinoscent. Oinoscent Wine Bar at Voulis 45-47 is a mecca for wine afficionados. They have a massive wine list including a tremendous cross-section of Greek wines. This is the best place for an eclectic dive into thumping music, sommelier advice and wine tasting flights. The menu includes not only rare Greek selections but also some of the best wines from around the world.
Layers Of Greek History On The Way To Kolonaki
If you still have legs we can go up to the swish and elegant downtown neighbourhood of Kolonaki for a night cap. But I want to show you something special and almost transcendental along the way. Something that puts human history in perspective. The current rebirth and revitalization of Athens is just one of countless swings in the fortune of this place and its people for the past 5,000 years. As you come out of Oinoscent and turn right up Voulis street you will come to Apolonos street. Here at the corner the pavement turns to a sturdy glass and you walk, suspended 7 meters up, over an excavation of the famous Themistoclean wall which once surrounded Athens. But the full story is told by continuing on around the modern, new Electra Metropolis Hotel to the far corner of the block. Here, sunk only about 1 meter below street level is the 16th century Byzantine church Agia Dynami. The church is not sunken as deep as the Themistoclean wall because it is relatively young! The church is literally partially embedded into the brand new Electra hotel. Buildings built upon buildings … on and on through time.
With that glimpse of the many marvels of Athens in our minds, we cross Syntagma and enter the upscale precinct of Kolonaki. This involves steep streets since we are on the slopes of the famous Lycabettus hill. Here you will again find an overwhelming range of bars and restaurants. Stop in at the trendy DRY Caffe & Spuntino. It has a great location on Kolonakiou Plaza, a great music playlist and smartly-dressed patrons. Ask for George and try the Cyrus One by La Tour Melas for an elegant full-bodied red or the Estate Argyros Assyrtiko from Santorini or one of my favourite Greek rosé wines, the Idylle d’Achinos by La Tour Melas.
The Options In Kolonaki Are Endless
From here the Kolonaki neighbourhood is yours to discover. Definitely visit The Stinking Bishop at Loukianou 36. The wine list here is first-rate. Yesnik is The Stinking Bishop’s very talented bartender (famous for his Bloody Mary). Try the Tselepos Winery Kokkinomylos Merlot – definitely not your girlfriend’s easy-going merlot! And there are many more places to check out including the very pretty Ante Post on Patriarchou Ioakim 46. Their wine list includes some of the most important winemakers in Greece such as Ktima Gerovassiliou and Domaine Skouras. Highly recommended is the impressive space – and the cocktails – of Zuburbán down the street at Patriarchou Ioakim 38.
Getting Your Greek Wine Research Done
We’ve scratched the surface of the wine bars of Athens. Like an archaeologist we will need patience, time and dedication to even begin to discover Athens’ secrets. When you are in Greece take the time to savour this amazing, nuanced city before you head off to the islands. And don’t forget there are a range of fantastic wineries to visit just on the outskirts of the city. So you should also seriously consider adding a day of wine touring to your schedule.
Three of Greece’s finest wineries are right on the outskirts. Papagiannakos Winery makes very elegant wines. Vassilis Papagiannakos has been instrumental in bringing the ancient Savatiano grape to new respect for dry white wines. He also makes outstanding Assyrtiko and Malagouzia that exhibit the local terroir. Similarly the very talented team at Mylonas Winery are making some of Greece’s most prized wines. Their range also includes a nuanced and bright Savatiano (the traditional grape for retsina). Also the famous Domaine Costa Lazaridi is known for magnificent wines but also an amazing museum. There is an extensive collection of antique winemaking equipment and a tremendous exposition on the history of Greek winemaking.