Nightlife in Athens: performing arts

by rachel.howard

Outdoor cinemas, ancient amphitheatres, experimental theatre and electro festivals - the Athens arts scene is a vibrant mix of classical and contemporary.

The Athens Festival (+30 210 327 2000; takes over town in June and July. From theatre troupes from Berlin, to musicians from Mali, ancient Greek drama to contemporary dance, the line-up is always surprising and exciting. The festival’s main venue is the fabulous Herod Atticus Theatre (Dionysiou Areopagitou; +30 210 327 2000) a Roman amphitheatre in the foothills of the Acropolis. The setting is mesmerising, regardless of the quality of the performance.  

Designed by the criminally underrated architect Takis Zenetos in the mid-‘60’s, Lycabettus Theatre (Lycabettus Hill; +30 210 722 7209) is the modernist equivalent of the Herod Atticus. On the summit of Lycabettus Hill, this outdoor amphitheatre has majestic views and excellent acoustics. I’ve seen everyone from Nick Cave to Macy Gray here. If the gig is sold out (or you’re skint), you can watch the show for free by climbing up onto the surrounding rocks. If you can’t face walking all the way uphill, take the funicular (locally known as the ‘teleferik’) from Aristippou Street in Kolonaki. (Open June-Sept.)

The 1800-square metre, €38-million Onassis Foundation House of Arts and Letters (356 Syngrou Avenue; +30 210 949 3000; opens in December 2010. With a 900-seat amphitheatre, exhibition spaces, a recording studio, digital library and restaurant, it is set to become the capital’s new cultural hub. Designed by Architecture Studio (who also did the Insititut du Monde Arabe in Paris), the building is a landmark in its own right.

Alternative arts flourish at Bios (84 Pireos Avenue, Keramikos; +30 210 342 5335; Electro DJ sets, cultural symposia, video art, and just plain old parties take place in a faded 1930’s gem on gritty Pireos Avenue. The roof terrace has amazing views. To get to it, you have to go through an unmarked door and someone’s kitchen.

Glowing in the dark, the scarlet chimney of Technopolis (100 Pireos Avenue, Gazi; +30 210 346 0981) is a beacon for bourgeois bohemians. The Gazi neighbourhood was named after this converted gasworks. Now a cultural centre, it hosts annual jazz, electronic music and comic book festivals, and other offbeat events throughout the year.

Half Note Jazz Club (Trivonianou 17, Mets; +30 210 921 3310; The hub of the Athens jazz and World Music scene for more than 20 years. It’s small, stuffy, and pricey - but it’s got real atmosphere. Tickets are discounted on Monday nights.

Athens Concert Hall (Megaron Mousikis) (Vas Sofias & Kokkali, Ilissia; +30 210 728 2333; The Athens opera house was purpose-built by the late newspaper mogul (and frustrated classical pianist) Christos Lambrakis. A favourite with the city’s socialites, it has outstanding acoustics and a very good resident orchestra and music library. The season runs from October to June.

Wedged between apartment blocks, open-air cinemas are the saving grace of scorching summer nights. The audience chat, smoke, guzzle cheese pies, and drink beer throughout the film. Neighbours in their underpants dangle off their balconies to watch the show for free. Soak up the starlight, snuggle up to your sweetheart, and watch Casablanca one more time. There are dozens of venues all over town. The most romantic are Thisseion (7 Apostolou Pavlou, +30 210 342 0864) and Cine Paris (Kidathineon 22, Plaka; +30 210 322 2071), which both have views of the Parthenon. (Open May-Oct, screenings usually start at 9pm and 11pm.)

The prospect of a night at the bouzoukia either provokes shrieks of delight or contemptuous sneers, depending on whom you talk to. Known as skyladika, or ‘dog houses’, these kitsch mega-clubs are clustered around Pireos Avenue and Iera Odos. Anna Vissi, Sakis Rouvas, and Natasha Theodoridou are the most worshipped in the modern pantheon of Greek pop stars. Go late – after 1am.

Created by disillusioned refugees from Asia Minor, rembetika is the Greek blues. The lyrics revolve around typical pastimes of the 1920s Athenian underworld: hookers, heroin, and how to outwit the police. The main instruments are the bouzouki and the smaller but similar baglamas. Inside the meat market, Stoa Athanaton (Sophocleous 19, Omonia; +30 210 321 4362) is open mid-afternoon until the early hours of the morning. Mostrou (Mnisikleous 22 & Lykeiou, Plaka; +30 210 322 5558) is more low-key and open year-round.

Byzantine chanting dates back to the beginning of Christianity. I’ve never really understood the appeal of visiting churches but listening to this sacred music performed as part of the Greek Orthodox liturgy is a profoundly meditative experience. The Sunday service generally runs from about 7am to 11am, but you need to know where to look. Try your luck at Agia Irini on Eolou Street near Monastiraki, home of the all-male Greek Byzantine Choir, or Agios Georgios in Platia Karytsi.

More expert advice on Athens

For suggestions on where to stay in Athens, see my Athens Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Athens page.

Read my nightlife overview on my Athens nightlife page.


When I was five, my parents packed up their belongings, packed my sister and I into their battered Renault van, and set off from London to spend a year in Greece. Over thirty five years later, my parents are still there and Greece is in my DNA. I've travelled all over the country writing about my experiences and encounters for magazines, guide books, websites, audio guides and documentaries.

Currently living between Athens, London - and occasionally Istanbul - I balance big city life with trips into the Greek countryside in search of the best local taverna or the latest luxury resort. Recently, I wrote the best-selling Secret London - An Unusual Guide, an insider's guide for intrepid tourists and jaded locals alike. But I have never tired of the anarchic allure of Athens, an ancient capital with a restless capacity for reinventing itself.

My Athens

The most breathtaking view:  The Parthenon by moonlight from pine-forested Philoppapou Hill, with only stray dogs for company.

My secret cafe:  The rooftop cafe at the Islamic Museum overlooks Keramikos, the ancient cemetery of Athens. Both sites are surprisingly under the radar.

My dream date:  A black and white classic at any of the city's outdoor cinemas. Ice cold beer, wafts of jasmine and cigarette smoke, and Alfred Hitchcock under a canopy of stars.

My favourite place to get lost: Wandering the whitewashed alleys of Anafiotika, a miniature Cycladic island marooned in the shadow of the Acropolis.

Where I always grab a coffee: Da Capo on Kolonaki Square is a little slice of Italy (divine coffee, theatrical barristas, a marble counter with picture windows for people-watching) with a very Greek sensibility (chain-smoking patrons, a disorderly self-service queue, loud crowds who sit gossipping for hours rather than knocking back their coffee). An Athenian classic. 

Where to be seen: Gazi is a good entry point into the city's riotous nightlife, but the edgier bars in Keramikos (try Nixon or Bios) are for those in the know. The most alluring example of the latest trend for bars that double as event spaces is Six Dogs bar in Monastiraki, with a lovely secret garden.

Where to find a moment of calm: Athens isn't a byword for tranquility. But wander up to the summit of pine-forested Lycabettus Hill for bird's eye views of the clamouring city below and you'll suddenly feel at peace. 

Fiction for Inspiration: Although a few years old, Dinner with Persephone by Patricia Storace really gets under the skin of contemporary Athens in all its surreal, chaotic glory. Sofka Zinovieff's Eurydice Street is a more recent chronicle of a foreigner getting to grips with the modern-day city, enriched with plenty of fascinating historical context. 

City soundtrack: The band of the moment is Burger Project, who like to perform in fancy dress. Their live shows - consisting of mangled cover versions of everyone from Prince to Johnny Cash - are never less than brilliant.

Don't leave without: natural cosmetics from Greek ingredients by Korres or the less familiar Apivita brand. A tin of olive oil (the best is from Crete or the Peloponnese). Leather sandals from Monastiraki (Olgianna Melissinos has the finest workmanship).