Lifestyle A New Yorker's guide to Athens By NINA RUGGIERO Updated November 7, 2014 4:16 PM Print Share fbShare Tweet Email At once an unkempt, graffiti-covered concrete jungle and a sanctuary for stunningly preserved ancient treasures, Athens is a city of contradictions. Not unlike New York, its daunting commercial traps make it difficult for the newcomer to infiltrate (and signs written in another alphabet surely don't help), but it takes just one perfect moment of stumbling upon an impossibly charming side street to realize the rewards of embarking on such a challenge. Yes, a hike up the Acropolis to see the Parthenon is mandatory -- the tribute to Athena has been watching over the city since 438 BC, and you too will feel god-like as you take in the views from above. But any true New Yorker will soon get the itch to leave the tourists behind and explore the land below, which, also like the city we call home, is made up of unique neighborhoods, serving up their own distinct personalities and flavors (all with a side of tzaziki, of course). Athens' Greenwich Village: Plaka Photo Credit: Nina Ruggiero Plaka is arguably the most beloved spot of visitors to Athens, and not without reason. Nicknamed "Neighborhood of the Gods," the area's winding, mostly pedestrian streets, old mansions and quaint, plant-strewn balconies make way for seemingly endless shops and cafes, all nestled in the shadow of the Acropolis. Though you'll likely feel most at home in this bustling district, you'll have to search for spots that aren't too touristy for your taste. (New Yorkers hate to feel like tourists, even when we are them.) Forgo the English signs advertising brunch-- you get enough of that at home-- and brave the steps up one of the quieter streets to find the historic spots worth visiting. Wander up Epicharmou Street to To Kafeneio (Epicharmou 1; tokafeneio.gr) for a lunch of fresh salads, cumin-spiced Greek meatballs and an affordable carafe of wine, with picturesque outdoor seating for sunny afternoons or cozy tables in its dining room, housed in a 400-plus-year-old former residence, perfect for cooler days. By night, let the walls of colorful, glowing bottles lure you into Brettos Bar (Kydathinaion 4; brettosplaka.com), Athens' oldest distillery, for the best ouzo in town, made from a recipe for the popular Greek spirit that has been passed down through three generations of the Brettos family. Athens' SoHo: Monastiraki Photo Credit: Nina Ruggiero SoHo-obsessed shopaholics need look no further than Monastiraki for the city's best buys, though you'll have to be ready to dig. Unlike the orderly storefronts of Spring and Prince Streets, Monastiraki's shops spill out onto pedestrian paths, forming a giant flea market/bazaar filled with everything from souvenirs and handmade jewelry to books and artwork. Hidden gems-- especially one-of-a-kind antiques-- are buried among cheap, Chinatown-like trinkets, if you take the time to uncover them. Walk or take the metro to Monastiraki Square. The stores are open on weekdays, but for the full experience, go on a Sunday morning. (And don't be afraid to haggle.) Athens' Meatpacking District: Gazi Photo Credit: Flickr/dinstereo Formerly an industrial district centered around a gas factory (Athens Gasworks closed in 1984, but the original tower stands today as Technopolis, a cultural center often used for concerts, fashion shows and art exhibits), Gazi is now the place to be in Athens when the sun goes down. The hottest nightclubs, gay bars and upscale eateries that double as chic lounges have taken over the area surrounding Gazi Square, a go-to hang-out for local college students, well-dressed 20-somethings and party-seeking visitors. Rooftop bar Gazaki (Triptolemou 31; facebook.com/gazakiloft) is a local mainstay with trendy cocktails and city views, while Villa Mercedes draws the DJ-loving set (Tzaferi 11; venue-athens.com). The artsy crowd will always find something to talk about at Bios (Peireos 84; bios.gr), an art space, performance venue, bar and club rolled into one. You can arrive in Gazi by taking the metro to Keramikos, but you'll have to take a taxi home; the party heats up around midnight and continues into the early morning hours. Like the Meatpacking District, it's either your scene or it isn't, with generally loud music and expensive drinks. If you're looking to cap off an indulgent night out with a cheap late-night snack, however, head over to Myplate (Persefonis 43; myplate.gr) for a tasty gyro or souvlaki and free Wi-Fi. Athens' LES: Exarchia Photo Credit: Nina Ruggiero Lower East Side regulars will feel right at home in grungy Exarchia, a downtown Athens neighborhood with a history of anti-police riots that today is where counter-culture-leaning artists, students and political activists are known to congregate at book and record stores, organic food shops and quirky cafes. History buffs should check out the National Archaeological Museum (28is Oktovriou 44; namuseum.gr) and the National Library of Greece (Panepistimiou 32; nlg.gr) while in town, and comic book fans will find plenty of shops to browse, including Tilt (Asklipiou 37). A casual evening spent sipping wine and sampling Greek dishes tapas style at Rakoumel (Emmanouil Mpenaki 71) is a flavorful and authentic Athens experience. Also nearby is Mount Lycabettus, the highest point in Athens and a worthwhile hike (or trip in a cable car). At the top a classic white Greek Orthodox church stands in contrast against the blue sky, and an open air cafe serves drinks and light bites with sweeping views of the city. The subject of many Greek myths, it is said that the hill was once a refuge for wolves, and that it was formed when Athena dropped it there on her way to create the Acropolis. Athens' Williamsburg: Psiri Photo Credit: Nina Ruggiero Trendy cafes, artsy shops, local food vendors and cozy tavernas bring life to the forgotten, old neoclassical buildings of Psiri, a neighborhood popular among young locals that is perfect for a quiet daytime stroll and wakes up in the evening to offer low-key but popular nightlife. Wander through on the weekends and you're sure to hear live Greek music and jazz, right on the street or spilling out of a busy bar, beckoning you in for a drink. Shoppers will find authentic mementos such as komboloi (Greek worry beads) at the Komboloi Museum (Ag. Anargiron 13), and sandals from famous Greek poet and sandal maker Stavros Melissinos at Melissinos Art (Agias Theklas 2; melissinos-art.com). Foodies will want to grab a table at Lithos (Aisopou 17; lithospsiri.gr), where dinner comes with a deeper knowledge of Greek cuisine, explained to you in depth at your table, or enjoy a casual, homemade meal at Taverna Tou Psirri (Eschilou 12). By NINA RUGGIERO Share on Facebook Share on Twitter More on this topic A New Yorker's guide to IstanbulThere are striking similarities between Istanbul and the Big Apple. 5 reasons to visit Mykonos in the off-seasonGet a quieter, more authentic Greek island experience for less. Comments We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.