Our ultimate Athens Food Guide brings you restaurants, tours, lessons and stories to bring Greek food alive. Why? In the words of Hippocrates, let food be thy medicine.
THE ATHENS FOOD GUIDE
Tasty and unusual things to do in Athens (involves finding stuffed vine leaves among other things!)
Our Athens food guide begins, as all great food tours do, with a trip to the main market in Athens: Varvakios Agora. We then stop off at the Gastronomy Museum before heading into a cooking class. You can use the links above to jump to each section or jump right to the end for a hand crafted lists of where to eat in Athens, from the best restaurants to tavernas. Finally, the traditional Athens dishes you can’t miss.
Disclosure -I found out about the Gastronomy Museum, its market tour and cooking lesson as part of a paid consulting project with Afea Luxury.as ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like here on the blog. Otherwise, there’s just no point. If you book or buy through these links, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Cheers!
The Home of Greek Food: Varvakios Agora
The hawkers yell, the metal shutters clatter and the salty scent of fresh sliced fish mingles with cinnamon, lobster tanks and the bloody entrails of hanging innards. Like many a live food market, Varvakios Agora heaves with industry, pulses with activity and throngs with the shoulder-thumping movement of a focused, frenetic crowd intent on getting by – and buy.
Yet this place, in Athens, feels like something more. If Greece can be said to be the home of democracy, and the Acropolis, the beacon of hope and respect, what can the city’s central food market tell us about the history of trade?
What is Greek food?
And while the market floor may wear tell tale spatters and splatters of blood, the story of Greek Food, of course, reaches much further than that. It reaches through the complex labyrinth of this Grecian city out toward feta cheese and fresh tomatoes served on bright white plates aside deep blue seas and an even bluer skies.
Traditional Greek food relies on top quality ingredients, simply served. Like many mediterranean cuisines, you’ll find a focus on sharing dishes and platters with lots of yoghurt and aubergine-based dishes. Meats and fish are frequently grilled, with seasoning, coffee is hot and strong, honey is plentiful. And the olives? Oh, the olives…
Food matters in Greece. It’s an integral part of daily social life and it aims for joy.
Traditional Greek Dishes To Try
Greek cuisine varies from region to region, but economics mean that you’ll find just about everything located in Athens. With so much to choose from, where do you start? Here are the traditional Greek dishes that no Athens food guide should be without. They are the ones that you have to try.
- Greek salad is not a lazy turn phrase for foreign markets. Built from chunky sliced cucumber, fresh tomato, olives and herbs, it comes with slabs of feta cheese the size of mini iPads.
- Souvlaki also deserves a little more attention than it gets. Typically formed from grilled pork and served as street food in Athens, you’ll also find the dish reconstructed in fancier food outlets around the city as well. It comes wrapped in pita bread, with sliced red onion, green peppers, tomato and tzatziki. Its cousin is gyros, a similar dish but with the meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie instead.
- Olives and olive oil. Served with most main meals, Greek olives burst with flavour and would be reason enough for me to write this Athens food guide. Fresh, peppery olive oil should give you a kick at the back of your throat, according to olive oil sommeliers with these handy olive oil tasting tips. Drizzle over flatbreads and rosemary-soaked loaves while waiting for your main dish. And send me some. Please?
- Dolmades come in many shapes and sizes. Typically, dolmades mean stuffed vine leaves but you can find tomatoes, courgettes and aubergines also stuffed in a similar way. Recipes vary from household to household but include rice, minced meat, oregano or soft cheese.
- Moussaka is possibly the most famous international Greek dish. Often described as lasagna without the past, you’ll find layers of sliced aubergine with a tomato and beef mince sauce topped off with the white, cheesy bechamel sauce. And while I’m including it in this Athens food guide, it’s also the dish that’s most decimated by tourist traps and perhaps best saved for eating at home. Relish the Mediterranean freshness available to you in Greece and try something else instead!
- Spanakopita comes as a crispy spinach and pie with a feta cheese filling. Miss out the spinach and it becomes tiropita. All of the calories; none of the pretence!
- Saganaki. To describe saganaki simply fried cheese would be to do it a disservice. It tastes so much better than that. It’s often served as an appetiser and relies upon frying the cheese in a small pan until golden bubbles appear, forming a tasty crisp on the outside. Most saganaki involves the hard graviera cheese, but you can also find feta, halloumi, kasseri, kefalotyri and formaela in the pan.
From the visceral stalls of the marketplace, we moved through shaded stalls and walkways that sang with spice and danced with damson. We passed by baskets of natural sponge and sauntered beneath speckled violet sausages that hung from the rafters. And then it was time for the cooking lesson.
Sweet Dishes to Try
- At breakfast, try the simple but fantastic Greek yoghurt with honey.
- Over elevenses, indulge in honey-soaked baclava, as popular here as it is across the Med in the Middle East.
- After dinner, try Greek rice pudding or rizogalo, with cinnamon and given a citrus twist.
Where to eat in Athens
Discover some of the best restaurants in Athens with these recommendations.
Michelin Starred Restaurants
- Accompanied by the gentle songs of the waves at the coast in Piraeus, Varoulko is one of those hidden gems in Athens I’m reluctant to tell you about. Although the food is creative and daring, with syringes of olive oil and minced langoustine wrapped in leaves, the service is friendly, the approach humble.
- At the other end of the spectrum, Spondi earned its Michelin star first and likes to let you know it. The setting is calm and beautiful, an atmospheric neoclassical building in Pangrati. The food feels infused with France, after a succession of top French chefs brought their enthusiasm from Paris to Athens. Not the place for those with food restrictions, this does make an incredible place to dine for those who can eat anything.
- Hytra, on the other hand, is far more accessible. Brimming with Scandinavian influence, Hytra features foraged vegetables and plenty of non-dairy options. Plus, sister restaurant Apla lives next door. Greek for “simple,” it offers fun mac and cheese and gourmet hot dogs to balance up the fine dining.
- Finally, Botrini’s brings the character from Corfu, often dubbed the Gordon Ramsay of Athens (with TV show to boot.) The bright white restaurant in Halandri offers bold flavours and colourful dishes, with the aim of creating affordable gastronomy.
Where to Drink in Athens
- When it comes to coffee, it may not sound cool, but it’s hard to beat some of the stylish cafes that live in and around the museums. The Acropolis Museum has an outdoor terrace where you can stare at antiquity while enjoying your caffeine fix (it’s also open for dinner on Friday nights.)
- The Cycladic Cafe at the Cycladic Museum describes itself as an oasis in the city centre. With its bright white walls and dripping foliage, I’d agree.
- For fun, head to Brettos, the oldest distillery in Athens, to taste ouzo served from a wall of coloured glass.
- When it comes to the question of Greek wine, head to By the Glass or Heteroclito in central Athens to savour and experiment with different Greek labels.
Brunch with a view: the St George Lycabettus
Restaurants with a View of the Acropolis
- One of the more brilliant aspects of the nature of Athens is just how many places provide a view of the Acropolis.
- You can stay up close, eating pomegranate sorbet at the Electra Rooftop Hotel in Athens. Or stay further out with sushi at the Galaxy Bar Hilton Athens.
- On Sundays, you can head to the fashionable Kolonaki neighbourhood and brunch with a view of the Acropolis and the Aegean Sea at my favourite Athens restaurant: the St George Lycabettus.
Where to Eat Lunch in Athens
I love the fresh Greek classics amid recycled furniture at the NEW Hotel in central Athens: a great place for lunch. So, too, is the outdoor terrace in the National Garden the Aegli Zappeiou. If the weather lets you down, head to the beautifully lit Cycladic Cafe in the Cycladic Museum. A modern oasis in the city.
A Museum Dedicated to Food and Art
The Museum of Greek Gastronomy invites artists to question and construct the central role that food has in our lives, beyond simply keeping us alive.
Saline dripped fed into bacalao, a fish so salty you can usually spot the shimmer of crystals. Except, this time, more salt flowed into the fish, leading to a column of crystals on the floor below.
Silverware clung one to another, representing the central role of food in the home. And beneath the glare of a student’s lamplight, an interesting geography lesson took place.
Baklava, the sticky sweet honey-soaked treat found, among others, in Turkey and Greece formed the Aegean Sea that separated the shoreline. The piece showed that both shared food and water stretches between these feuding rivals, both of whom claim the sweet as their own. Yet the raised edge of the pastry also highlighted the division, the obstacle between the two.
Or at least, I think that’s what it meant. Note – this museum is sadly now closed.
Athens Food Guide Top Tips
- Don’t overlook Athens hotels. Some of the best Athens restaurants are hotel owned.
- Avoid anywhere that tries to thrust a plastid menu in your hand as you walk past (the real danger zone is around the Acropolis in Plaka and close to Syntagma Square.)
- Smoking is still, unfortunately, very common. Sit outside whenever you can and check before you book a special dinner. Most fine dining places will limit this and I don’t recall it every being a problem.
- Find the most up to date advice from locals. Don’t know anyone in Athens? Try out This is My Athens, a good-hearted project that connects travellers with local volunteers. If nothing else, they’ll know the best kafeneion (coffee house) and expect to sit and chat for hours, Greek style.
Greek Food Lessons in Athens
Away from the lamplight and into the sun, Costas, a chef with a disposition so cheery both he and baklava ought to be sent into top level diplomacy, slapped fish onto the counter and put us to work.
We’d a busy afternoon ahead: sea bass, mussels, cucumber soup, spanakopita and some ice cream I’m pretending to ignore as part of my no-dairy lockdown.
Typically, I love cooking classes for the chance to chat to people from different cultures, to experiment with photography and to try different flavours.
Costas has a different idea: he intends to make me work.
Apron on, hands washed and camera abandoned, I’m pummelling dough, rolling spirals and delving into a sea bass with some fancy tweezers and a sniper’s eye for bones.
It’s surprisingly satisfying. Incredibly so.
While I spike on with the tweezers, the rest of our small group takes care of the rest: chopping dill, blanching spinach, sipping wine. The menu couldn’t be further from my experience of Italy, but the basics remain the same: simple recipes made from ultra high quality ingredients (plus, in both cases, a nice touch of sunshine but I don’t think that that’s essential.)
But as the sun does shine and we pause while something sizzles, I get the chance to reflect on the day, and the week in Greece in general. Crumbling pastry, squashed spanakopita, fresh and delicate mussels and a rogue bone found in a single sea bass (whose job was it to take care of that again?)
But above all else, the best thing about my brief foray into the world of Greek food was the laughter and friendship that came along for the ride.
Let’s raise a glass the world over to culinary traditions that support sharing, good conversation and good friends.
How to Cook Greek Food: Some Introductory Recipes
GREEK FOOD RECIPES: MAKING SPANAKOPITA
SPINACH PIE WITH FILO PASTRY – SPANAKOPITA
For the filling
- 500 g spinach leaves, washed and blanched
- 1 leek (the white part only), cut into thin slices
- 4 spring onions, cut into thin slices
- 2 tablespoons of thin cut dill
- 100g of grated manouri cheese (or feta cheese, if you cannot find manouri)
- 4 tablespoons of olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
For the filo pastry
- 300g all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 tablespoon of white wine vinegar
For the filo pastry, add all the ingredients and as much water as needed to reach a pliable yet not too sticky formula. This takes some tough old kneading and plenty of energy! Leave the dough on the side to rest.
For the filling, sauté the leeks and spring onions in olive oil, just to get them soft and combine them with all the other ingredients. Season to taste. Roll the filo pastry as thin as you can and then spoon in the filling. Dab a little oil on the pastry to help “stick” it together at the end.
Bake at 200 °C until slightly golden brown. Eat while hot! (But not too hot, obviously…)
Ladies and gents, this is my kind of recipe. Simple, healthy, not much to wash up…
- 7-8 baby cucumbers peeled but with a few tiger stripes of green left (don’t forget to take out the seeds)
- Lemon zest and juice from one lemon
- 1 small chilli pepper
- 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- A sprinkle of salt and 3 ice cubes
Add all the ingredients in the blender and start blending. Sieve the mix and then serve adding a twist of lemon.
STEAMED MUSSELS WITH SAFFRON
Another one. Blindingly easy really ;-)
- 500g mussels
- Half a clove of garlic
- A pinch of ginger
- A pinch of chilli
- A pinch of high quality saffron (Krokos kozanis)
- 1/2 cup of white wine
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
Sauté the mussels in olive oil for 1 minute on a high heat, with the saffron, chilli, garlic and ginger. Then add salt, pepper and wine. Let it simmer for 1 minute and serve.
SEA BASS WITH NATIVE GREENS WITH LEMON AND OLIVE OIL SAUCE
- 1 sea bass filleted and deboned
- Greens blanched (Greek Almira if you can get hold of it )
- Spring onions
- Pinch of dill
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tomato peeled and sliced
Sauté the tomatoes in olive oil over a low heat to let them caramelise, season and set aside. Set the 2 fillets of the sea bass with the skin side down, season and place the tomatoes over the one fillet, to cover all the flesh. Add parsley and maybe a little grated Parmesan and cover with the other fillet.
Sauté the fish skin side down in olive oil, until the skin gets light brown, and do the same for the other side. Serve with the greens, adding olive oil and lemon.
Food Tours in Athens
Find a selection of food tour operators here as part of this Athens food guide. Sadly, I haven’t been able to test them all by hand but Get Your Guide is a reputable operator so feel reassured when you book. I’ll also earn a small commission should you book through them, so cheers for that.
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Dietary Needs in Athens
- Vegan and vegetarian diners should be OK in most places. Greek food prides itself on its fresh salads, dips and breads and it’s relatively easy to skip the cheese or meat in smaller tavernas without dedicated veggie options. Likewise, for those with dairy allergies or lactose intolerance, you’ll find more olive oil than butter and even Greek yoghurt and feta are relatively low in lactose.
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