This Athenian ‘hood has Heart
It’s somehow fitting that what for many is the quintessential Athenian neighborhood is also one of the Greek capital’s least known—and this despite the fact that the ancient Panathenaic Stadium with its glorious Olympic history is located here and that from many vantage points you can gaze just a short distance northwest to the former palace that now houses the Greek Parliament building. It’s truly no exaggeration to say that Pagrati is the great Athenian backstage, and it only takes a few hours to see how the whole place pivots from funky to fabulous several times a day and pretty much 24/7 too.
Of course, no part of Athens is without its many layers of history and Pagrati is no exception. Ancient associations define the DNA of the capital as they do the very name Pagrati (incidentally, also called Pangrati), too. Back in the day—in the range of about 500-475BC, that is—there was a popular and quite rough sport in these parts that was a mix of wrestling and boxing called Pankration. This was not for the faint of heart, as the athletes could do anything they wanted to their opponents except bite them or poke their eyes out. Athletics has mercifully moved on but the name remains, and today Pagrati is an arena that’s ripe mainly for the sport of urban exploration and enjoyment in all its variations.
Pagrati is not small. The Panathenaic Stadium (also called Kallimarmaro, a reference to its all-marble construction) defines the northern and western limits along with Leoforos Vasileos Alexandrou Street, with Immitou Avenue running along the southern perimeter, extending to the historic, lushly landscaped First Athens Cemetery. Within these broad boundaries is an often dense patchwork of streets lined with rather ungainly polykatoikies, the modern apartment blocks that characterize so much of the urban Athenian landscape outside the small historic core. Suggestion: keep your sights set on the street level, not the sea of balconies because any given block is crackling with life. Flower shops and fishmongers, bakeries and kafeneion, or authentic little Greek cafés, interspersed with more modern hipster cafés and restaurants and of course bars, because no city in this part of the Mediterranean world is more thirsty for the night than Athens. Or as hungry for it!
In the past couple of years Pagrati has become an incubator of culinary innovation too, adding a new level of exuberance to a district that at first glance may appear to be lacking in aesthetic charm. Because what you’ll find among the stretches of apartment blocks and busy boulevards are thickets of chef-driven restaurants and plenty of quirkier, more understated eateries and cafés as well. In Efranoros Street—the location of Athens BlueBuilding and named for a Greek painter and sculptor working in the 4th century BC, by the way—you are very much in the center of the action. Walk a few minutes in any given direction and you will spoiled for foodie choices, whether you head to the posh Proskopon Square or make a beeline for the hipster Varnava Square. The laiki agora, or farmer’s market that takes place every Friday on nearby Archimidous Street (which runs parallel to the back side of the Kallimarmaro) is a feast for the senses that will dazzle you with succulent fruits and vegetables on display from all over southern Greece. It will heat up your Instagram and also give you plenty of material to cook up for yourself, should be so inclined.
But it won’t be easy to stay home for long, because bustling Pagrati happens to be a very social place and the temptation to go out and discover more is really something best not resisted. Pagrati culture is ‘going out’ culture and staying here for any length of time is your unique chance to be a part of it, just like a local. In no time at all and with a cool Pagrati perch to call your very own, you’ll find yourself becoming a habitué and devotee of one of the hottest neighborhoods in Athens right now.
Anthony Grant is an American-Athenian journalist based in Pagrati.