In every city of a certain size and age, especially a metropolis like Athens, the flea market is a fixture. In Athens you will find a genuine
one that caters to locals and visitors alike in the part of town called Monastiraki.
Monastiraki means "little monastery" and there actually used to be one from the 11th century until the 16th. Its focal point is now a former mosque that serves as a museum and is located on, predictably, Monastiraki Square, a bustling hub of retail business. Half the square has been taken over by a building site for the new subway system since 1995 or so (I'll bet you a dollar it's still there when you visit). The area that bears its name is a narrow, strip, two blocks wide at the most that stretches from the square westwards, bordered by the train line which emerges and becomes a surface line from the station onwards and Ermou (Hermes) Street. Next to the mosque and to the right when facing it lie the (frankly, unexciting) ruins of the ancient Roman agora.
You can get there by subway on the green line station called Monastiraki or, officially, Monastirion, or on the blue line whenever it's finished. Alternatively you can walk there through the Plaka, arriving from the east, use the Thision subway station at its western end or come from the
commercial centre and Omonia Square from the north via Athinas (Athena) Street. Bus lines serving it are few and their routes complicated so you're
best off using the train or walking. Either way, stick to the south side of Ermou St. (left as you face the train station) since not only the quality of shopping but also the neighbourhood deteriorates as you head north.
Whichever end you arrive from, next to the train tracks and on a good day, especially a weekend, you'll find an endless row of street vendors selling everything from handkerchiefs to contraband cigarettes. Many of them will have interesting knick-knacks of uncertain origin and use which I have no doubt the connoisseur will recognize and pounce on. To me half the stuff looks like honest-to-god junk. One thing you'll notice about these street hawkers is how few of them are Greek. Since the fall of the iron curtain many ethnic Greeks from the Soviet Union (and some who could buy documentation to that effect) have emigrated to Greece and not found life much easier. Chances are an inordinate percentage of the items on sale will be from Russia, Kazakhstan and Georgia as will their sellers. This is a pretty good place to pick up coins, cheap beadwork, lace and dubious decorations, and you could possibly come out with some Soviet-era labour medal since they were issued in the millions and are frequently on sale.
Near the eastern end, immediately on and surrounding Monastiraki Square, lies the tourist shop zone. The locals find it a good place to shop in
basements and on side streets for stuff like military surplus clothing, used records or books and the likes but most of the storefront property is given over to the tourist trade. Greek-looking gifts, phallic statuettes, jewelry, t-shirts, anything that can conceivably be decorated with meanders, the works. This is where you'll play the tourist game and shop for the stuff you'll take back home. If you have a friend who collects common items like Athenian owl or Minoan bull figurines, bronzes or ceramics you can make them very happy shopping here. One word of caution--if it says something like "made in China" don't buy it. Look for local stuff. As in any place catering to tourists, vast amounts of kitsch will also be on display. There are plenty of nice *and* tasteful things to be found if you take the time to look, don't bother with it.
One thing you should look for in Monastiraki is jewelry. Greece, and Athens in particular, has a long tradition and enjoys a worldwide reputation for making fine gold and silver jewelry and this is where much of it is sold. You'll find some excellent hand-crafted silver at very reasonable prices.
There's a corner shop on the left (recognizable by the small entrance on the corner of the building), a few blocks from the square heading down Adrianou Street, which has an astonishing variety of themes and items and which I wholeheartedly recommend.
If you venture into the side streets you'll find the true flea market. Not much English is spoken here because most of the trade is the typical antique and bric-a-brac trade that goes on in any local flea market. Here's everything from typewriter parts to brass doorknobs to balls of string, new and in various states of disrepair and decrepitude. Next to these dark, dusty shops in two-hundred year old buildings you'll also find the odd cafe serving the surrounding businesses and their patrons, cafes which you'll discover are surprisingly authentic for being in the middle of a tourist zone.
In all these shops, you'll get used to the watchful eye of the shopkeeper monitoring your every move. Look at something closely, touch it and they'll be all over you like a swarm of flies praising it and quoting prices. Mind you, not all of them are friendly. You don't have to put up with being treated like a nuisance in any of the "touristy" places since you'll probably find an identical selection in another shop. Ignore pushy individuals trying to get you to come into their shops--the practice used to be common but isn't half as popular now and there's a sort of gentlemen's agreement among merchants not to hire people to do it. If someone does do it it's probably the proprietor. Don't expect to be treated like a prince, least of all in shops selling clothing but don't let anyone treat you like a cheapskate backpacker. The friendliest people, in my experience, are usually those selling low-price jewelry.
Wherever you are and whomever you're dealing with, don't forget the cardinal rule of flea market and bazaar shopping applies here too: HAGGLE! If you're not good at haggling, start with the skeptical look and mumble and watch the price fall. Argue politely and
watch it drop even lower. Even the decent jewelry prices can be dropped a bit, sometimes they'll even offer to throw in an extra item for free.
Print out this writeup and take it with you since Monastiraki is the last stop before leaving town for many visitors. I wish you a fine experience shopping in one of the most fascinating places you can shop in in a
cosmopolitan city that may smell a bit but lives life with gusto.
Written for the E2 Tourist Guide Quest