Psyri’s Best Bars: Drinking in the Underworld of Athens

Psyri’s Best Bars: Drinking in the Underworld of Athens

Step away from the tourist trap of Plaka and descend
into the historic underworld of
. In the shadow of the Parthenon, Psyri’s litany of
excellent bars are prime territory for drinking like a local. Greek
dancing, optional.

Young locals clad in leather jackets and Dr Martens laugh, smoke
and sip microbrews on the cobbles of Psyri. The neighbourhood’s
dilapidated buildings – once leather shops and typesetters – are
lovingly adorned with bold graffiti tags, while
street food
vendors hawk souvlaki and pizza by the slice. Dive
bars hide at the bottom of staircases invisible to the untrained
eye, and music blares from darkly glittering speakeasy-style
joints. Upon first look, this could be the trademark hipster
neighbourhood now obligatory in any large European city, be it

or Manchester.
Yet a quick glance upwards leaves you in no doubt as to your
location, for atop a nearby hill stands the Parthenon, its white
Pentelic marble gleaming in the sun.

Psyri earned its anti-establishment reputation long before it
transformed into a hip nightspot. Indeed, the working class
neighbourhood was once terrorised by resident gangs, placing it
right at the heart of the murky Athenian underworld.

In the 19th century, the cobbles of Psyri would have echoed with
the step of the long, sharp-toed, high-heeled boots worn by the
Koutsavadkides. This gang stalked the neighbourhood in their
trademark ensemble: tight trousers, jackets worn with one arm out
of the sleeve, and a broad sash to hide their weapons. Athenians
were terrified of these fabulously dressed criminals – and so were
the police. Much like in the Greek capital’s anarchist
neighbourhood of Exarchia today, the district was avoided by law
enforcement officers, leaving the Koutsavadkides effectively in
charge of Psyri for over 50 years.

If you’d wandered the streets of Psyri during the rule of the
Koutsavadkides, you’d also have had to dodge the “rock fights” that
were a popular form of entertainment among the working classes
during this era. Typically, the participants would meet at a
pre-arranged time and sling insults at each other. Then the rocks
would start flying as spectators cheered, and the injured became
local heroes.

Had you ducked into any of the district’s tavernas – perhaps to
avoid stone missiles – you may well have stumbled upon groups of
revolutionaries plotting and whispering. With its
anti-establishment reputation and lack of police presence, Psyri
provided the perfect hideout for rebels during the
early-19th-century Greek War of Independence. Leaving the taverna
after sundown, you’d likely be greeted by the saccharine notes of a
love ballad sung by a lovestruck young suitor below the balcony of
his beloved.

It’s hard not to wonder what roving rogue Lord Byron – who
briefly lived in Psyri in 1810 – would have thought of the area’s
gang culture. However, he was perhaps more distracted by the
12-year-old daughter of his landlady – the muse for his famed Maid
of Athens, Ere We Part poem. Rumour has it he later tried (and
failed) to buy the girl for £500.

As the 1800s drew to a close, Psyri’s gang culture came to a
sudden halt with the introduction of a new crime-fighting
initiative, founded in order to end the reign of the fearsome
Koutsavadkides. The officers would cut the toes from the gangsters’
trademark pointed boots, and the unused sleeve from their coats,
shave their moustaches, and break their guns. It worked: the
Koutsavadkides were humiliated and faded into obscurity. Next on
the hit list were the district’s romancers. Officers would break
their guitars over their heads before throwing them in jail for the

Since then, Psyri has largely been a peaceful district, but has
never managed to shake its anti-establishment vibe. Even today,
visitors strolling its streets and drinking in Psyri’s litany of
excellent bars can get a taste of the area’s gritty past – albeit
without the threat of being mugged by a sash-wearing gangster.

Psyri’s leafy main square – Platia Iroon – is its most touristy
area and a safe bet for the start of a pub crawl. In the corner of
the square sits BeerTime, a simple bar filled
with chunky wooden furniture and an extensive list of Greek craft

Fairy-tale-inspired Little Kook, just off the square on Karaiskaki Street,
provides a truly dazzling drinking experience, complete with cake.
This sugary establishment is bedecked with innumerable fairy lights
and larger-than-life fantasy decorations year-round. Previous
displays here have included circus and Mary Poppins themes – with
actors, too – and it’s always particularly over the top at

For a relaxed afternoon beer, it’s difficult to beat Barrett. Located on Protogenous Street, it’s a firm
favourite among young Athenians and Macbook-wielding digital
nomads. This painfully hip watering hole features overstuffed
couches, an indie rock soundtrack and an ever-present student crowd
spilling out onto the pavement. Stone walls and a polished wooden
bar keep the decor minimalist, while its status as an exhibition
space means there’s always something interesting – and usually
provocative – to stare at on the walls.

Just around the corner on Miaouli is Old Fashioned, a tiny, evocative hole in the wall
brimming with trinkets and retro art. Locals slump along the bar
under dim, low-hanging lamps, and every drink comes with a bowl of
gargantuan stuffed olives. The bar staff here are always up for a
chat and, even if you just pop in for a cocktail, you’re likely to
be lured into staying until the small hours of the morning.

For a glamorous evening spent sipping champagne, Juan Rodriguez Bar on Pallados
Street is a must. One of the most renowned bars in Psyri, this
unapologetically ritzy establishment is decorated with the gilded
frames, chandeliers and table lamps of the 1920s. The look is
complemented by well-mannered waiters in suits. This sublime bar is
a true treat, and a dramatic departure from the district’s other,
grittier watering holes.

Down the street, Arodou provides a lively end to
the night. In the small hours it hosts live music acts, with a skew
towards Greek rock. The whole bar inevitably gets involved, with
genuinely good singers regularly hauled from the audience to
accompany the band, and – if you’re lucky – some authentic Greek

Psyri’s oft-gritty aesthetic may not be postcard-perfect Athens,
but you don’t have to venture far to find a district that is. The
narrow marble streets of tourist trap Plaka sprawl in the shadow of
the Acropolis, lined with boutique stores and cutesy cafés. Nearby
Monastiraki is packed with iconic, ancient landmarks, while
Kolonaki brims with upscale shops and fine dining restaurants. Yet
you won’t find many Athenians dining in the expensive, polished
eateries that pack these districts. If you like to party with the
locals, descend to the former underworld of Athens. Just leave your
sharp-toed boots at home.