In Athens, it’s easy to tell when summer is on its way. The weather gets nicer, the nights are warmer and the outdoor cinemas open for the season. Every evening, the fragrant aromas of blooming jasmine and buttered popcorn welcome movie-lovers from all over the city to watch their favourite films and enjoy the cool summer breeze under the stars. It’s a much-loved tradition that runs every year from early May to late October, mostly depending on the weather.
Is this the best place in the world to watch a movie under the stars? Often located on rooftops or in gardens, often with spectacular views, Athens’s outdoor cinemas are a unique experience for moviegoers. Today, at least 60 and possibly as many as 100 operate in the city, putting Athens somewhere near the top of the list of cities with the most alfresco movie theatres per capita in the world. And although there are open-air cinemas throughout Greece, it’s Athens which has the strongest connection with them: a love affair with a long history.
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How Athens got hooked on open-air cinema
It is believed that the first open-air movie screenings in the Greek capital began in the early 1900s at the cafés around central Syntagma Square. At the time, an open-air cinema was just a projector screening black-and-white silent movies onto a white sheet.
It wasn’t long afterwards, in 1904, that Cine Aegli opened its doors. Located in the garden of Zappeion Hall, next to the Parliament and the National Garden, it’s the city’s oldest open-air cinema which is still up and running. A year later, Cine Dexameni opened at the foot of Lycabettus Hill, sitting on top of the Roman aqueduct and cistern that supplied water to Athens for more than a thousand years.
Within the next couple of decades, open-air cinema culture spread all over the city. A handful of cinemas, such as Cine Zefyros in the Petralona neighbourhood, initially opened as shadow theatres – a popular trend at the time – before jumping on the movie bandwagon. The ’20s and ’30s also saw the opening of two of the city’s most enduringly popular outdoor cinemas: Cine Thisio and Cine Paris.
Cine Thisio has been screening movies continually since 1935. Strategically placed next to the Acropolis, it boasts one of the best views in the city. Michalis Maniakis, one of Thisio’s owners, jokes that if you sit in the back row, it can be hard to choose between watching the movie or gazing at the illuminated Parthenon. You’ll have the same ‘problem’ at Cine Paris, on the rooftop of a two-storey building on the other side of the Acropolis. It closed for renovation after the 2019 season but is expected to reopen sometime in summer 2023, according to the Greek-language website Athinorama.
The outdoor cinema frenzy peaked after WWII. In the ’50s and ’60s, open-air cinemas were so popular that the wider area of Attica, surrounding the Greek capital, had more than 500 establishments. For many Greeks who could not afford to go on holiday during the summer months, open-air cinemas were a source of much-needed diversion and a hub for socialising, with families and friends gathering to watch movies together. Three of Athens’s most popular cinemas from this era are still running in the Exarcheia neighbourhood: the legendary Vox, situated right on Exarcheia Square; Ekran, named after the French word for screen; and Cine Riviera, located in one of Athens’s most beautiful small gardens. Just a short distance away on Patision Street is Cine Electra, which recently reopened after more than a decade of closure.
In more recent years, many open-air cinemas have shut down or changed owners, but a few new ones have emerged too. Cine Flisvos is one of the most recent additions, making its first appearance in the summer of 2003. You’ll find it in the Flisvos Marina in the southern suburb of Palaio Faliro, a bus or tram ride from the city centre: a great way to combine a movie night with a walk by the sea. And since 2013, the annual Athens Open-Air Film Festival has run from June to August. It’s the only event of its kind in Greece.
How to watch open-air cinema in Athens
So what do you need to know before going to see an open-air movie in Athens? First of all, you don’t need to speak Greek. The programming includes everything from brand-new blockbusters to Hollywood classics, indie releases and modern European cinema – and in Greece, movies (with the exception of children’s releases) are never dubbed. If a film is in another language, cinemas will subtitle it both in Greek and in English.
‘It takes a little more space on the screen, but everyone can enjoy the movie,’ explains Maniakis, pointing out that on some days, the majority of his audience at Cine Thisio consists of visitors from overseas. In fact, the crowd tends to be as diverse as the movie selection, with families, groups of friends and couples of all ages sitting side-by-side.
In general, tickets cost somewhere between €6 and €8.50. There are typically two screenings per evening, depending on the length of the movie, and the projection quality is high. The seats are usually deckchairs or comfortable couches. Even though you’re in the open air, you’ll still need to turn off your phone, please. And it’s unlikely in the middle of the Greek summer, but if you start feeling chilly, don’t hesitate to ask the cinema owner for a blanket: they’ll be happy to provide.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, most open-air cinemas come with bars and snack stands. They serve all the moviegoing classics: popcorn, nachos, soft drinks, beers, hot dogs, pizza… But for the real Greek experience, you’ll want to pick up a tiropita or spanakopita (cheese or spinach pie) and sour cherry preserve, plus handmade sour cherry juice (with or without alcohol) and ouzo.
So stock up on snacks, settle back, and soak up a movie under the stars in a city that does it like nowhere else.
Where to find the best open-air cinemas in Athens
- Cine Aegli, Zappeion Megaron Garden, Vasilissis Olgas Avenue
- Cine Dexameni, Dexameni Square 7, Kolonaki
- Cine Zefyros, Troon 36, Petralona
- Cine Thisio, Apostolou Pavlou 7, Thisio
- Cine Paris, Kidathineon 22, Plaka (reopens in summer 2023)
- Vox, Themistokleous 82, Exarcheia
- Ekran, Agathiou 11, Exarcheia
- Cine Riviera, Valtetsiou 46, Exarcheia
- Cine Electra, Patision 292, Patissia
- Cine Flisvos, Flisvos Park, Paleo Faliro
About the writer
Demetrios Ioannou is an independent journalist and documentary photographer, based between Istanbul and his native city of Athens. He has covered travel, culture, food, social issues and breaking news for publications including The New York Times, National Geographic, The Economist, BBC Travel, NPR and The Daily Beast.