Kypseli means “beehive” in Greek and that’s a great metaphor for this area that always throngs with activity. It’s one of the most densely populated urban areas in Europe – and you can feel it. The old apartment blocks stand close together and certain streets can provoke a sense of claustrophobia that sometimes detracts from the spectacular, historic architecture that abounds. The upside is that, while they might be a little cramped for space, the worker bees of Kypseli are constantly working hard on creative projects, chic eateries and cool galleries, which all come together to form a vibrant honeycomb of cultural life.
Kypseli is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Athens, but it only started to take on its present form in 1937 when architect Vasilios Tsagris began transforming a stream called Levidi into a long stretch of gardens with trees, water fountains, play areas and statues, including a much-loved dog statue which appeared in 1940. The now-pedestrianized Fokionos Negri Street became Kypseli’s central thoroughfare, as a middle-class to upper-middle-class neighborhood grew around it between the 1930s and the 1970s, leaving a treasure trove of architectural gems, from art deco to Bauhaus and mid-century modernist.
It’s still possible to relive the glory days of Kypseli’s golden era, a time when international stars like Frank Sinatra would hang out on Fokionos Negri whenever they visited Athens. Catch a movie at Stella, a retro open-air cinema whose bright neon-pink lighting is a throwback to the neighborhood’s glamorous, showbiz past. English-language films are screened without dubbing and the screen is surrounded by a mosaic of concrete balconies. After the film, head for a stiff cocktail at Au Revoir, a classic-with-a-Greek-twist drinking hole, run by the Papatheodorou family since 1958.
Lights, coffee, action!
After the 1970s, well-heeled Greeks began abandoning the city center for more space in the suburbs and left their neoclassical townhouses and upscale mid-century apartments to fall into disrepair. As inner-city living went out of style across much of Europe, Kypseli, too, went through a difficult period of urban decline and fell into a familiar pattern of depopulation, dereliction and crime. But the cheap rents available made the area appealing to immigrant communities from Africa, particularly Nigeria and Ethiopia, Albania and the former Soviet Union, who helped lay the groundwork for the area’s eventual renaissance and the cultural diversity it enjoys to this day.
The resurgence of Kypseli began in earnest in the 2010s, with urban interventions such as Fotini Kypseli (“Bright Kypseli”), which literally brought light back to the neighborhood. The group helped revitalize neglected public spaces and restored a sense of security by installing new lighting. It restored vintage illuminated signage and apartment entrance lights, and created new lighting installations, such as the neon pink Kypseli sign which shines out proudly over Fokionos Negri today.
In recent years, the energy of Kypseli has been given a serious caffeine boost by a flood of beautifully designed coffee shops. Kick began the trend; a coffee shop meets concept store and creative hub, from the creators of the Indiego clothing brand. It has since been joined by Dope Roasting Co., which offers its own coffee blends alongside yummy baked goods; Williwaw Café & Canteen, an architectural delight serving stellar brews and healthy sandwiches on bread baked on the premises each day; and Morning Sweetie, a great place to start the day with tasty baked goods, vegan sweets and, of course, spot-on coffee.
Built in 1935, the Kypseli Municipal Market occupies pride of place at the heart of Fokionos Negri. It was a focal point of neighborhood life for decades, until its fortunes declined along with those of its surroundings, but a process of renovation began in 2015 and, after a series of events and neighborhood consultations, it was handed over to Impact Hub Athens, who transformed it into the city’s first social entrepreneurship market.
Following its full reopening in October 2018, the market has once again become a centerpiece of economic, social and cultural life. Almost every weekend, the market buzzes with a free concert or event, from craft beer festivals to zine fairs and queer house balls such as the Wet Gala. The market hosts a weekly organic farmers’ market on Wednesdays, and its permanent residents include Second Hand Shop, which stocks vintage clothes, jewelry, household items and more; Replay Toys, which bills itself as the coolest toy store in Athens; and La Grace Authentic African Fashion, run by Delfin and Bebe from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who create eye-catching clothing with kaleidoscopic patterned fabrics sourced from countries across Africa, including Nigeria, Cameroon and Ivory Coast.
Kypseli continues to attract people from around the world, and foreign-run shops and businesses abound across the neighborhood. Opened by Frenchman Benoît Durandin, Meteoritis bookstore is a neighborhood favorite which stocks books, magazines and zines in English, French and Greek. British bike builder Tom Donhou relocated his Donhou Bicycles store and workshop here in 2021. Icelander Halldor Ulfarsson builds halldorophones, his own creation, and other experimental musical instruments in his workshop.
Kypseli’s multiculturalism extends to its food options as well. At Lalibela, Elisabeth and Tsehay Taddasse from Addis Ababa have been serving up delicious Ethiopian cuisine for two decades; the restaurant’s traditional decor offers diners a glimpse of Ethiopian aesthetics. You can enjoy authentic Syrian falafel under the trees on Fokionos Negri at Tastes of Damascus, which was founded by Za’atar, a local NGO which helps refugees find employment. The redevelopment of Aghios Georgios Square in 2014 had a positive impact on the community. Reclaiming much of this circular plaza from vehicular traffic helped create one of the most charming squares in Athens. People of all ages congregate here. At VILATZ, there’s always a young art crowd enjoying coffee or cocktails. Kyveli serves up taverna classics with a high-end twist, to be enjoyed in an intimate setting on the square, while Solo Gelato’s delicious icy treats help everyone cool down in the summer heat.
One of the most colorful corners of Kypseli is artist Cristina Koutsolioutsou’s store in the Municipal Market, called Funny Radical Acne Scars. Koutsolioutsou, who prints joyously technicolor patterns onto sarongs and beachwear or paints directly onto shirts and fabrics she finds in vintage stores and then hand-dyes, is just one of a new generation of creatives adding their own bright brushstrokes to the neighborhood. Alessio de Girolamo is a painter, sculptor and sound artist from Italy whose ceramic wolf heads bare their teeth at passersby from his studio on Mithymnis. Pilos Ceramics Workshop is one of the most inviting of a new wave of ceramics studios that have opened across Athens of late. You can drop in for a single class or anything up to the full three-month ceramics program. In Kypseli, even plant stores look like galleries – and throw great parties. At Papigion Project, Achilleas Hariskos rescues abandoned plants and displays them in hand-made pots crafted from recycled materials that he scatters around his concrete jungle space.
Kypseli manages to hold all of its old and new residents together in peaceful coexistence: traditional Greek kafeneios, tavernas and bars sit comfortably alongside authentic food and social spaces from around the world, while creative spirits are constantly adding splashes of cool to the mix. Taken together, Kypseli is more than just a hive of activity; it’s a kaleidoscopic neighborhood of culture, cuisine and creativity.
This article first appeared in Greece Is (www.greece-is.com), a Kathimerini publishing initiative.