The Chess Café in the heart of Athens

Venture outside the tourist box to see how Athens’ ever-changing present syncs with its age-old past! The book ‘111 Places in Athens You Shouldn’t Miss’ was written to offer you exactly that. This is just one of 10 unmissable places that even locals often miss, offered exclusively for IN+SIGHTS GREECE readers by the guide’s publishers EMONS.

For a kafeneion, it is uncharacteristically quiet. But patrons don’t come to Panellinion to argue over politics or football (or both simultaneously as in many cases the two are inextricable). Nor do they come to indulge in the counter-culture ambience of other area cafés. They come to play chess. And every single table in the café is set up with a chess set, ready for the contest.

Panellinion isn’t the sort of place that attracts passersby. Scuffed tables, a marble mosaic floor typical of 1950s and 1960s kitchens, stiff wooden chairs with flaking paint, and, at first glance, a clientele of mostly pensioners. The coffee is almost exclusively Ellinikos, individually brewed over a gas flame. The décor is mostly framed photos, including one of the original, far grander premises at the corner of Benaki Street that it occupied for the first eight decades after its founding in 1885. Pride of place among these souvenirs of its history is a magazine spread from 24 August, 1992, featuring Gary Kasparov, the Russian former world chess champion, who not only stopped by Panellinion but simultaneously played – and won – 30 games against the café’s regulars.

Chess isn’t just a game, but a philosophy. Or, as the Emanuel Lasker quote tacked to the service counter notes, ‘On the chessboard lies and hypocrisy do not survive long.’ As a game, it enjoys enduring popularity in Greece, with active clubs throughout the country. Panellinion is more of a haven, a place where players go to share their love of the game, rather than compete for a title. Like the décor, this love for chess has remained steady over time. Perhaps the one thing that has changed is that the coffee house no longer charges customers by the hour so they can continue to contemplate the board without anxiety about running up a bill. And there’s no rush to leave: Panellinion will stay open until the final checkmate. checkmate, even if it takes hours. Unlike our fast-paced lives, chess requires strategy and patience.

Insights Greece - The Chess Café in the heart of Athens

Address: Mavromichali 16, Athens 10680, +30 210 3634492

Getting there: Metro to Panepistimio (M 2); bus 21, 22, 54, 60, 100, 224, 608, 622 or 732

Hours: Daily 8am – 9pm (or later)

Tip: The old antenna atop the Law School Library on the corner of Solonos was used for Morse code transmissions to the government-in-exile in Cairo in World War II.

111 Places in Athens That You Shouldn’t Miss can be found at all major bookstores worldwide as well as online at Amazon.