Sun-baked, crumbling Neoclassical buildings with those signature terra cotta Grecian rooftops and perhaps half-gutted, the remnants of pastel façades either daubed with graffiti or splashed out with arresting specimens of street art line the serpentine streets of that swirl of downtown Athens called Psirri. These silently singing structures saturate this scruffy neighborhood which unfolds improbably—but resolutely—in the shadow of no less monumental a peak than the Acropolis itself. Welcome to the anti-art gallery, and a concrete urban garden that seethes with more secrets than most Athenians are willing to spill.
Many of these buildings, built during the late 19th century when Athens was coming into its own again after several centuries of slippage, are right now inhabited only by pigeons and perhaps ghosts. The neighborhood is, after all, on the fringes of Kerameikos, the open field opposite the Agora where the ancient Athenians buried their dead. But a stroll around here will leave you with the feeling the place is less haunted than spirited. Coffee bars and bakeries and second-wave New Athenian bistros jostle for prominence amid the unruly pink bougainvillea vines with the antiquarian and craftsmen’s shops that were here before them, the buzz generated by all this keeping the asphalt in these parts plenty animated. There’s a jaunty musicality to this jigsaw puzzle that trades on many things, restraint not being one of them.
Nor can you overlook that many of the structures around here appear sucker-punched and readier for the wrecking ball than renovation; one good earthquake and—well, one mustn’t get hung up on such thoughts, especially when the Athens sun is shining and the ground wouldn’t dare move, or would at least think twice about it so close to the Parthenon. The city of Athens, for its part, certainly hasn’t signaled any major initiative to “save” this district that is bordered on the south by Monastiraki (the most boisterous section of the Plaka), and the north by the old spice market and Athens City Hall, and what, after all, would they be saving? A neighborhood of no known archaeological significance that trades on transition?
Instead, encouraged by Greece’s wobbly emergence from years of financial crisis, and also by Athens’ vaunted new claim to fame as the southern European “city break” destination par excellence, Greek entrepreneurs have stepped up to the plate. Incursions by the increasingly reviled Airbnb notwithstanding, it is the new café owners, eatery impresarios and innkeepers who are taking over what otherwise would be considered buildings on Athens’ next “check out these ruins, too” list. They bring their Hellenic know-how and somehow the cash, too, to make sure their little birds can take flight, and people from all over the globe are watching the wings.
About a year ago, a subtle yet decisive chapter in this book of living heritage began when the glass door entrance opened at 18 Micon Street: an industrial-chic boutique hotel of 15 rooms and suites built in a repurposed 1950s tool trader’s storehouse. That trader, a certain Mr. Kostas, discovered a Christian religious icon on the premises that is now displayed at the entrance. (By the way, Micon Street is also known around here as Mikonos street, but that has nothing to do with the party island: Micon the Younger was an Athenian painter and sculptor who plied his trade in the fifth century B.C.) The property’s new owners chose to focus on three elements fundamental to modern construction—cement, wood and brick—and creatively incorporate each of these materials into the interiors. By employing these elements, they bring the building’s past industrial life and Psirri’s evolution as a neighborhood to the fore. The fabric of a more modern Athens, grounded in the past but no blushing flower when it comes to flirting with the future, starts right here.
Of course, no good hotel design team overlooks the whole gamut of details that enhance a guest’s experience. From gorgeous bathroom tiling and luxurious bedding to artsy wall coverings, industrial-style light fixtures and locally handcrafted furnishings, every design box has been ticked. And then there’s the buffet breakfast, a fantasia of pastry, Greek yogurt, jams and other goodies served in the clubby but brightly lit lobby, where at all times guests can reach into a sleek red vintage-style honor fridge for treats like Kayak “Pure Magic” Greek ice cream. At some point you probably have to leave the hotel to go and explore Athens a bit, but when you get back, there’s the Decompression Lounge waiting for you. One level below the lobby, it’s where you can rest, leave luggage to explore the area and even take a shower before heading out to the airport. Visit 18miconstr.com.