Athens’ first stoa
Athens’ first arcade, Stoa Mela, is located at #54 Ermou Street (named after Hermes, the patron god of merchants and travellers). It was built in 1883 following the architectural trends of civic authorities in Paris and London to construct gracious “open-air” (but covered) commercial spaces for the ease and recreation of urban residents. Such arcades became a safe “refuge” from the clamor of city life, where strollers could shop, explore and relax. However, already in ancient Athens, stoas provided a shady passageway through the busy Agora, a means of escaping the intense midday sun and a favourite meeting place for the city’s notoriously sociable citizens. Most famous of Athens’ great stoas – and the prototype for today’s commercial malls and shopping centres – is the splendidly restored Stoa of Attalos.
The stoas back then…
Stoas or “arcades” in western European cities were usually created as covered passageways between and connecting large parallel streets. They usually had high glass ceilings to let in natural light and were often elaborately decorated. And in order for these arcades to function properly in a commercial sense, they required plenty of shopping traffic and offered a variety of activities, services and distractions. The majority of stoas, in Athens, both large and small, were fully operational and popular with the public until the beginning of the 21st Century. They are still characterized by their lively flows of foot-traffic, small shops of all kinds and the hosting of exhibits and displays – thus making a valuable contribution to the commercial and cultural life of the city. A good example of an old-time Athenian arcade is the Stoa Arsakeiou, also known as the Stoa of Books, running between Panepistimiou and Stadiou Streets. Built around 1900 according to plans by renowned Bavarian architect Ernst Ziller, the Stoa Arsakeiou, with its amazing glass roof, used to house a wide variety of publishers’ bookstores – as well as literary discussions and lectures, while today it mostly serves as a passageway between the two avenues. Beneath the arcade you will also find the famous “underground theatre” of Karolos Koun.
… and today
Most of the famous stoas of Athens, which used to pulse with life and activity, are only remarkable today for their architectural uniqueness and beauty and no longer have much commercial traffic. A notable exception is the busy and beautiful Stoa Spyrou Miliou in Syntagma, also known as “Spyromiliou”, which unites Amerikis Street and Voukourestiou Street and boasts many cafés and refurbished high-end stores featuring major international and Greek luxury brands, and which lies next to the Pallas Theatre. Walking down Kolokotroni Street, at number 25, the Stoa Praxitelous, built in 1920 by Vassilios Kouremenos, a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts, has become the open-air court of a bar featuring a serene and timeless atmosphere. A stoa created by another graduate of the famous École des Beaux-Arts, Alexander Nikoloudis, on Panepistimiou #41, Stoa Nikoloudi is small but lovely and has recently begun to rediscover its former aristocratic self. On Adamantiou Koraï, located between Panepistimiou and Stadiou, Stoa Koraï hosts the Astor Cinema and its regular patrons, mostly students, artists and journalists. Two music-centered arcades, the Stoa Pesmazoglou and the Stoa Opera, are the city’s main hangouts for musical romantics who still enjoy browsing and buying classic vinyl and rare CDs.
From Ermou and Voukourestiou in the heart of the city, to gorgeous Herakleidon in the Thisseion neighborhood with the Acropolis in the background, and from the famous narrow lanes of Plaka to the peaceful ones of Mets – with or without shops, bustling with crowds or almost always quiet – our pedestrian streets let you stroll without a care, without danger from cars, and almost always under sunny Attic skies.
The main commercial pedestrian streets
Even in the middle of winter, from morning to night, Ermou, Voukourestiou and Aiolou – the first street laid down in Athens, running from Athinas Street to Kotzia Square and the capital city’s neoclassical Municipal Hall – all around this area tiny streets buzz and bustle with throngs of pilgrims and passers-by, shoppers visiting their favourite stores and markets and regular customers of the countless cafés, bars and restaurants.
The “historic” pedestrian streets
Herakleidon, Dionysiou Areopagitou, Hadrianou and all the little vertical streets and alleys which run uphill and downhill through Plaka and up to the tiny old enclave of Anafiotika – some are filled with people nearly every day of the year, while others remain quiet and peaceful, without shops or cafés, and recall the Athens of yesteryear, all among the living relics and monuments of the ancient city. They are all linked. They all connect. And on a Sunday morning, starting from the highest point in Plaka wind your way down to Monastiraki, and from there saunter up the broad pedestrian thoroughfare to Thisseion, a walk filled with surprises and emotions and, at the same time, a stroll through history.
The little side-streets and alleyways
Although they may be short in length, Haritos in Kolonaki, the pedestrian street of Nikiforou Theotoki with its dozens of old mansions in Mets, Georgiou Olympiou and Drakou in Koukaki and Valtetsiou and Messolonghiou in Exarchia are some of the favourite places for native Athenians to stroll and unwind – providing a respite from the car-choked streets of the city center.
There is a quiet, hidden Kolonaki lying within the embrace of streets resonating with history: Marasli, Patriarchou Ioakeim, Skoufa and Sina. The area within these streets, up to the foot of Mt. Lykabettus, conceals a plethora of small architectural treasures, reminders of a bygone bourgeois era and society that stood for a special kind of upbringing and a cachet still associated with the phrase “Kolonaki people”. And this large area remains today a picturesque, aristocratic neighborhood without large stores, traffic or crowds.
Walking uphill, the streets to the right and left:
Sina, Dimaki, Hersonos, Fokylidou, Glykonos, Kleomenous, Deinokratous, Aristodimou, Xenokratous – and many smaller side streets and cul de sacs – lead us eventually to the Lykabettus téléférique. All of them are incredibly graphic and peaceful, with houses dating from the beginning of the previous century up to the ‘90s. Stop at the little square of Lykabettus, in front of the former Brazilian Embassy at the end of Anagnostopoulou Street, one of the largest private mansions in the center of Athens, designed by the architect Ioannis Axelos. And down at St. Fokylidou 2 in the Dexameni (cistern) neighborhood, a classic example of modernism from 1935 by Ioannis Koukiadis.
Charmed and surprised by this secret Kolonaki
This is a neighborhood worth exploring. Escape for a while from Christmas shopping and all the cafés, restaurants and crowds. Make your way uphill towards the foot of Lykabettus and wander around a different, quiet Kolonaki. And if you are up to one further climb, take one of the footpaths that wind around the hill of Lykabettus and walk all the way to the top – to the little chapel of St. George, where you can enjoy a panoramic view of Athens in all its Christmas finery. This little excursion provides a taste of the brightly decorated city and, through the warmly glowing windows of the nearby homes, a glimpse of private Christmas cheer. Athens is nostalgic and romantic, and far cozier than you might imagine.
This little stroll will help you get to know her better.