In Athens, tourism returns to its analog roots: Cool city tours unearth the secrets of street art, architecture, and nightlife, right in the heart of the Greek capital. smart magazine joined the fun.

‘Berlin is the new Athens’ claims a graffito on a wall in downtown Athens. It is a pun on Berlin’s recent hipster boom, suggesting that a similar fate looms for the Greek capital.

Athens, in recent years, has seen numerous artists move in, attracted by a thriving art scene, cheap rents, and great weather. So, any guest or tourist looking to explore the city’s alternative facets beyond the Parthenon and eager to experience Athens’ indescribable buzz, should book one of the new city tours on offer.

Alternative Tours Athens (ATA) hosts the best of the bunch. Providing a flip-side glance at the city, the local non-for-profit collective promotes several different walks. Themes range from architecture to nightlife, from street art to social movements, giving urban explorers intriguing new glimpses of the city – and its citizens.

praying hands graffiti in Athens
Exploring Athens’ murals.

The oracle of Omonia

Nikos Barpakis is in charge of the collective’s street art tour, which focuses on exploring street culture and the revival of downtown Athens. The walk starts on Omonia Square and takes us through the neighborhoods that form the core of the city center: Omonia, Psyri, Kerameikos, and Gazi – four areas with a flourishing street art scene.

Together with the Syntagma and Monastiraki Squares, Omonia Square forms the historical Merchant’s Triangle – a priority development area for the Municipality of Athens. Interestingly enough, the string of murals by different artists lining our way are not only large, but mostly foresee an optimistic future for the Greek capital. An oracle of things to come?

Nikos not only supplies us with technical background information on the murals, but also contextualizes them in a larger narrative. After all, most street art pieces have a topical, political background: Take the homage to the famous Loukanikos dog, a stray that kept popping up at recent demonstrations and became a symbol of the city’s resistance to austerity measures.

The tour goes on to explore the winding and narrow streets of Psyri. After several years of abandonment following the 2008 financial crisis, the neighborhood is now witnessing a welcome revival. Psyri has become one of the largest open-air street art galleries in Europe, exhibiting some of the world’s best-known names in graffiti.

co-founder of the Alternative Tours Athens Maria Petinaki
Maria Petinaki is one of the co-founders of ATA.

A European borderland

The ongoing economic and financial crises as well as the arrival of refugees have pushed the historical borderland to reconsider its own spaces, histories, and narratives, moving towards radical reinvention. And Athens’ citizens are taking the lead.

They rediscover and re-tell the stories of their home and heritage, beyond ancient mosaics, temple ruins, and heroic mythologies.

Instead, they focus on more practical aspects that affect and shape their everyday lives. Aspects like city tours, which can serve as powerful channels for articulating and delivering spatial narratives.

Despite the wealth of different themes on offer, all of the tours have something in common: engaged citizens, informal activities, grass-roots regeneration, and off-the-beaten-track spaces. Their routes through the dense fabric of Athens weave new chronicles of a territory with three thousand years of history and a tumultuous recent past.

a tour guide in Athens
Wandering off the beaten path with tour guide Nikos Barpakis.

Stories and histories

The guided city walks encourage interpreting and decoding the street art pieces and murals. In any case, it becomes clear that this modern art form complements the stories told by marble reliefs and dusty clay vessels in museums around the country.

According to co-founder Maria Petinaki, ATA was inspired by an interest in social movements, squats, and street art. When asked about her favorite tour, Maria invariably answers: “The one I haven’t done yet.” It is exactly this inquisitive nature of continuously looking for new stories and points of view that allows ATA to operate within an up-to-date framework.

graffiti showing mouths in Athens
Modern mural: a street art collage.

A lively mix, tour participants include locals interested in their own city as well as tourists who want to see what Athens has to offer beyond the Acropolis. All are “interested in new forms of heritage and the history of Athens recorded on its walls.”

Hotel with street art in Athens
Athens’ Psyri district is one of the largest open-air street art galleries in Europe.
dog street art
silver smart fortwo on the streets of Athens

Crystal ball glimpses

The walk moves on to its last stop, Kerameikos/Gazi, where the walls have been non-sequential narrators of the past 15 years of Athenian history. The depicted ups and downs are skillfully contextualized by our ATA tour guide.

Here, street art also doubles as a crystal ball into the future of the city: Like the layers of history beneath our feet, new layers of graffiti emerge on top of the flaking paint of previous works, foreseeing stronger communities, fulfilled and happy individuals, and a welcoming city.

Evocative of the city’s zeitgeist, these graffiti-encrusted walls prompt one of the participants to whisper in surprise, “I never expected Athens to be so … contemporary.”

At the end of the tour, one thing has become clear: street art is changing a city’s narratives by giving space to the voices of the present.