Neighbourhood guides: Live like a local in Koukaki, Athens
3 Nov 2021
Athens’ Koukaki neighbourhood was humbly named after a businessman, George Koukakis, who set up shop in the area selling beds and mattresses. This quaint little beginning is reflected in the charm of the pedestrianised streets that run from Koukaki Square to Georgaki Olympiou Street. Here you’ll find overhanging trees, including old, oversized palms that entirely conceal the concrete facades of the buildings above, most of which are cafes or bars. Or both.
In the 1980s, Koukaki garnered the nickname Little Paris, as this was the period when the neighbourhood began to represent contemporary culture and become a hotspot in the city. It’s wedged between the ancient glory of the Acropolis hill and the rumbling traffic and sex shops of Syngrou Avenue — it’s a district of intriguing contradictions.
Art and architecture thrive in this neighbourhood, and it’s easy to see why when you spend an afternoon walking the unevenly paved sidewalks lined with bitter orange trees and keep an eye on the buildings, street art and people you pass. Make sure to meander down to Tsami Karatasou Street to see the colourful tiles, mosaics and porcelain plates that decorate the house of artist Margarita Theodorakis, daughter of composer Mikis Theodorakis — yes, the dude who composed the soundtrack to Zorba The Greek.
Here are the spots we recommend.
National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST)
Perhaps the biggest pull to the neighbourhood, Koukaki’s National Museum of Contemporary Art is a 20-year old operation that relaunched last year in the modernist FIX brewery building. The EMST showcases the work of both Greek and foreign contemporary artists. Another artistic must is nonprofit multi-disciplinary gallery, State of Concept, which fosters local talent with public programmes, tutorials and cross-border collaborations.
Koukaki is jam-packed with souvenir shops, due to its close proximity to the Acropolis. Naturally, most sell cheap copies made in China, however, Mon Coin caters to a far more sophisticated crowd. Expect to find eye-catching designs created by local Greek creatives: from ceramics and jewellery, to cosmetics and postcards. If you prefer to taste your souvenirs, head to the female-founded Daphnis and Chloe, the independent Greek herb brand.
By day, KINONÓ serves as a sun-drenched minimalist coffee shop with healthy offerings. By night, swing by for their eclectic taste in music and in-house cocktails. It’s a popular spot with creative Athenians who flock to its road, Falirou, that’s lined with several good cafes all in a row, on either side. Those with a design sensibility will also favour its industrial fittings contrasted with warm wood and homely plants.
Across the street from a brutalist car park, you’ll find the elevated essentials brand, ME THEN. In Greek, methen means zero — this use of typography and wordplay is ingrained in the brand’s DNA, and you’ll find graphic T-shirts emblazoned with words such as epos meaning epic in Greek. Run by a collective of Greek and international artists and designers, the creations reflect the streetstyle of Athens today.
Celebrating the independents, Mikrokosmos acts as both a bar and a small movie theater screening arthouse cinema and films. The eclectic movie programme has cultivated a devoted group of followers that flock to the hybrid spot located along the hustle and bustle of Syggrou Avenue.
At one point in time, Bel Ray acted as a car wash, however, now the space is known for being a retro café-bar, serving perfect croque-madames and tropical rum-based cocktails. Much like most of the neighbourhood, the interior fuses minimalism with industrial vibes, yet it retains its cozy atmosphere. With thought-provoking street art as a backdrop, it is clear why this place has become so popular with fresh creative types.
Perhaps due to the area’s growing popularity, Koukaki now boasts one of the city’s most delectable take on modern Greek cuisine. MANIMANI’s chefs take inspiration from the recipes that their grandmothers cooked, yet they ensure sustainable practises by working with local venders and producers for fresh ingredients such as handmade pasta from a small cooperative in Gythio. The numerous awards speak for themselves.
For traditional Greek baked goods, there really is only one: Takis. The family-owned business has been
baking the Thessaloniki-style koulouri (sesame-seed bread ring) in the same spot since 1961. You’ll also find more than 30 types of bread on offer, so you’ll certainly be spoilt for choice. If after something sweet, we recommend the lipsopita, a semi-sweet bun made with olive oil and spiced with orange zest. Yes, there will most likely be a queue, but these treats are worth the wait.
Lotte Cafe Bistro
Generally Koukai is great for people watching, however, this quaint little cafe may just be one of the best spots. Its vintage vibe and quirky decoration lend an innately homely feel that will most likely see you spend more time than anticipated enjoying the home-made cake and sweets and Greek coffee on offer. If you are yet to try a traditional Greek kafé — coffee — this is the place to do it.
Meerkat Cocktail Safari
Owned by Romain Krot and Christina Mavridis, Meerkat Cocktail Safari is inspired by the beauty and wildlife of the Serengeti, even though Krot honed his training and expertise at some of the most prestigious cocktail bars in Paris (Experimental Cocktail Club and Little Red Door). The duo exude style and creativity, and have designed an avant-garde menu of cocktails — the saffron-infused gin and maple-laced whiskey stand out above the rest.