Greek nightlife and bouzoukia, is for sure something a lot of Greeks love! If you like Greek music and dancing, then you might also try to visit the bouzoukia, a cross between an indoor concert and a loud, flashy night club. It might be not the entertainment everybody is looking for, but it’s definitely a very unique lifestyle experience!
Large Greek cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki are famous for their vibrant nightlife, which starts late at night (around or past midnight) and ends around 6 or 7 am in the morning, challenging New York for the title of “the city that never sleeps”.
Bouzoukia play an integral part of this lifestyle so let’s discover more about them!
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How do bouzoukia work?
Starting with the meaning of the word, bouzoukia is the plural form of bouzouki, a long-necked stringed instrument of Greek origin; it looks a bit like a mandolin. The bouzouki is the key instrument of laïkó music in Greece but we come across it in other music genres as well. Bouzoukia feature mainly laïkó music and there are three types of dances danced there: tsifteteli, zeibekiko and Greek folk music dance.
These venues typically have a raised stage (the pista), where singers, musicians and sometimes dancers perform. The audience sits in narrow, long tables that are placed closely together in a way that allows every guest to enjoy the show. As you can imagine, due to this setting, it’s tricky for anyone, including waiters, to move around. [The proximity is what caused these establishments to remain closed or operate under strict measures even as hospitality started opening up after the lockdowns.]
There is food available but rarely ordered, since the customers usually go there to drink. It is important to book a table as far ahead as possible, especially if the artists singing are very popular. The best tables are, of course, the ones closer to the stage, but these are kept for celebrities and people that are regular and high-spending customers; customers are expected to spend in proportion to their table’s position. Regardless of where they’re seated, customers are expected to dress up and dancing on tables is common, if not welcome.
How about the artists performing there?
What makes bouzoukia a fairly unique cultural experience is that, unlike in other countries where artists usually perform in a venue for a few nights and then move to the next one, Greek artists perform in the same venue for weeks if not months in a row, appearing before audiences 3-4 times per week.
The popularity of the singers is also what creates a ‘division’ between the different venues – even within this type of entertainment, there are different grades! The ‘big’ ones, are where the most popular stars of the mainstream Greek music scene perform: Sakis Rouvas, Anna Vissi, Antonis Remos, Despina Vandi, Giorgos Mazonakis, and so on. Massive posters and billboards are placed all over Athens to advertise these venues.
Then, there are smaller stages, the B-list version of bouzoukia, which are called skyladika – this translates into “where the dogs hang out”. These venues, which sometimes acquire cult status, can often be a bit dodgy and is where lesser known singers perform.
What about smashing plates?
Smashing plates is the most common stereotype of modern Greeks. However, it’s a quite rare occurrence nowadays and it’s more frequently observed at celebratory occasions, such as weddings, instead of at the bouzoukia, where it used to be very common several decades ago.
Instead, there is a modern variation of this custom that you can see at the bouzoukia or at Greek restaurants and taverns that play live music: you can buy trays of flowers that you can throw at the singer(s) and each other. Beware though: even though they usually quite ‘humble’ flowers, such as carnations, they come at a hefty cost.
It is worth noting that plaster plates are more likely to be used for smashing plates, and these are bought specifically for the occasion so don’t expect Greeks to start smashing their everyday IKEA dish set or any special porcelain dinnerware that they inherited from their family!
So add a “Greek concert” in a “bouzouki place” to your “to-do-list” when visiting Athens next time.
And, of course, don’t forget to read more about Greek music on our blog
The evolution of Greek music in a single video
Or find out more with the special eBooks about all categories of Greek Music