Courtesy: Thomas Gravanis

Syntagma may be the city’s nominal centre, but Monastiraki is its tourist hub. Layers of history intersect in Psirri, the hub of commerce and craftsmanship.

Browse by day, bar-hop by night

Old and new Athens converge in Monastiraki. The metro disgorges passengers on Adrianou, a street that is the flea market's main artery but was also part of the ancient city. The city’s historical layers and the area’s traditionally diverse communities align here: look up from the square towards the Acropolis and your line of sight crosses both a mosque and a Byzantine church. Monastiraki, or ‘little Monastery’, is named after a monastic compound that once occupied the site. Today, all that’s left is the small 10th-century Pantanassa basilica on the square.

A wave of gentrification swept most of the old artisan workshops from Psirri and replaced them with bars and eateries in the early 21st century. Now modern craftspeople are moving back in, producing leather sandals and quirky souvenirs rather than wicker chairs and tinware. And derelict buildings have been revitalised with extraordinary displays of street art. But Psirri is still at its most enchanting, and liveliest, at night, when the second-hand shops close and the trendy night-spots set their stools out on the narrow streets.

Avissinia Square

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On the hunt for a good deal at Avissinia Square.

Photo: Thomas Gravanis

The Archdiocese Library

Iroon Square

Platia Iroon has kept the flavour of old Athens.

Photo: Thomas Gravanis

Melidoni Street

In the early 20th century, Psirri was a neighbourhood with a strong Jewish presence. The two synagogues around the corner from the official Holocaust Memorial—a minimalist sculpture shaped like the Star of David at the junction of Ermou, Evoulou and Melidoni Streets—attest to this. Concluding efforts that had begun in 1840, a site for a synagogue in Athens was finally purchased in 1903. Differences in traditions between Sephardic and Romaniote Jews led to the establishment of a second synagogue right across the street. Both synagogues still survive on Melidoni Street, though they are rarely open to the general public. The oldest, Romaniote synagogue at No. 8, is known as the Ioanniotiki, reflecting the community’s roots in the northern Greek city of Ioannina. The newer one, a marble-clad 1930s structure renovated in 1970, stands at No. 5.

Agion Asomaton Square

Ermou street, which runs from Syntagma Square right through the city centre, ends rather ingloriously at a narrow square occupied by the late-11th-century church of Agion Asomaton, (another name in the Orthodox faith for the archangels). It is worth noting those elements of the temple inspired by Islamic architecture, such as the ceramic decoration above the windows of the dome imitating Arabic script, or the arch above the northern door of the temple. These testify to the period's tendency to imitate eastern decorative elements but also relate to the presence of a small Arab trading community in the area during the 10th and 11th centuries. The area’s revival was spurred by the Benaki’s Museum of Islamic Art a few blocks away, at Agion Asomaton’s intersection with Dipilou.