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Summer cinema with few people, illuminated houses on a hill and at the top the ancient walls of the Acropolis of Athens. Dusk.
P. Merakos

Star-studded Summer Nights

The moonlit magic of Greece’s open-air cinemas

Nothing quite tugs at the heartstrings like the nostalgia for those long, carefree childhood summers. For Greeks across generations, this evokes memories of family days at the beach, thick slices of juicy watermelon, cicadas singing in the sweltering afternoon heat, and as a treat, the most iconic of summer outings: an evening out at the open-air cinema.

Outdoor film screenings in Greece can be traced back to the summer of 1900. Within years, Athens had its first open-air cinemas, and by the 1960s, it was home to over 600. A far cry from the dark, stuffy screening rooms of traditional movie theatres, Greece’s answer to America’s iconic drive-in saw rooftops, parks, and vacant lots transformed into magical summer wonderlands, giving rise to a unique cinematic experience that’s inextricably linked in the Greek psyche with the nostalgia of carefree and idyllic summertime.

© Th. Gravanis

Known in Greek as theriná cinema—quite literally, summer cinemas—outdoor movie theatres come alive as dusk settles into darkness. Under the clear, star-studded night sky, movie stars unfurl their stories to the soft hum of crickets in the background, and the cool night breeze is fragrant with honeysuckle and jasmine, which somehow always seem to flourish here. As familiar and consistent as so much about these summer cinemas is, no two are ever quite the same, and each is shaped by its distinctive environment: In city centres, tall buildings might tower all around the silver screen. In the countryside, night birds might add their song to the experience. In coastal areas, the air might carry the salty scent of the sea.

Despite being the stuff of summer dreams for generations of Greeks, for a brief moment, Greece’s traditional summer cinemas seemed like they might be a vanishing breed. Like so many venues the world over, they were hit by the general decline of family-run businesses, rising real estate prices, increasingly sophisticated home entertainment systems, and the arrival of streaming services. Luckily though, people soon realised that what they were passing up on was much more than just films.

© P. Merakos

Today, Greece’s outdoor summer cinemas are increasingly recognised as an important part of the country’s culture and heritage, and while their numbers have dwindled considerably, there are still some 60 operating in Athens, with more to be found in cities, towns, and villages across Greece. Many have changed with the times, boasting impressive technical setups and offering all kinds of extras, from cushy recliners and tables for your snacks to in-house cocktail bars and souvlaki stands. Yet frills or not, each of these cinemas is doing something invaluable: keeping alive a wonderful Greek tradition, a celebration of carefree summer moments, of togetherness, of simple pleasures revelled in, of making something truly magical of something so easily taken for granted.

The outdoor cinema season generally spans May through September, with a movie selection ranging from popular new releases to old classics and obscure arthouse films. Often, however, it’s the cinemas themselves that are the real stars of these summer nights. Some highlights include:

- Aegli, in Zappeion, next to the National Gardens of Athens, began screening films in the first decade of the 20th century and is arguably the oldest open-air cinema in Athens.
- The Thision, in the historic Athens neighbourhood of Thisseio, has been dubbed the “world’s coolest cinema” and boasts views of the Acropolis. With the exception of a forced closure during WW2, it hasn’t missed a season since opening in 1935.
- Cine Paris, a rooftop cinema in the heart of Plaka that also boasts views of the Acropolis, and Cine Kamari, on the ever-popular island of Santorini, have both been voted by travellers among the Top 10 open-air cinemas in Europe.
- The Bethlehem Cinema in Heraklion, Crete, screens films inside the city’s 15th century Venetian fortifications.
- Cine Manto, on the island of Mykonos, has been named among the world’s Big Six open-air cinemas and is situated in a stunning Mediterranean garden tucked away between the traditional sugarcube houses of the island’s capital.

© Athens Open Air Film Festival

From listed historical buildings to unique locations, you can find fantastic open-air cinemas all over Greece: in Athens and Thessaloniki, in cities such as Argos, Chania, Corinth, Kastoria, Veria, and Volos, in charming resort towns such as Nafplio in the Peloponnese, Neoi Poroi at the foothills of Mount Olympus, and Porto Rafti and Varkiza in Attica, and in popular island destinations including Aegina, Chios, Hydra, Kos, Naxos, Paros, Poros, Samos, Skiathos, Syros, and Zakynthos (Zante).

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