While visitors from all over come to Athens for its incredible history and panoramic sights, the food culture of Greece’s capital is also worth exploring. This ancient city is home to great food and tavernas that are as exciting as its historical roots. Keep your rumbling tummy happy while on tour and let this Athens city guide help you decide between souvlaki and baklava.
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City of history, tavernas, and healthy food
Thousands of years’ worth of history played a key role in forming the Greek cuisine we know and love today. Persians, Turks, and Arabs brought in several food influences which the Greeks have adapted. Over time, multicultural practices fused with the locals’ inherent culinary traditions gave us familiar dishes that are uniquely Greek. Although a new wave of chefs have introduced twists to tradition, Greek food in general remains just like the old times—cooked with simple methods and flavoured with herbs, olive oil, and no-fuss sauces.
What makes Greek food stand out compared to other cuisines is the experience locals and tourists get from dining. In Athens, the locals’ taverna culture treats food more than a source of sustenance. Rather, it is used as a means to socialise, initiate playful banter, or bond with family. Meals are typically served in large platters and bowls for everyone to share and enjoy. Here, good food and good conversation are equals, with mealtimes lasting for hours.
Geography and climate have also helped define its traditional dishes. Access to homegrown produce allow locals to serve the freshest salad, best-tasting olives, flavourful seafood, and creamiest yoghurt. With quality authentic raw ingredients readily available, dishes are easily infused with both flavour and nutritional value. Perhaps, this is also the reason why Greek cuisine is known as one of the healthiest in the world.
Great culinary adventures truly await curious and hungry visitors roaming the city. But with so many Greek food options, deciding which one to try first can be difficult. Our guide to Athens’ top food, drinks, and restaurants is sure to help settle a gourmand’s dilemma.
What to eat
Pronounced as yee-ro, gyro is the Greeks’ take on fast food—hearty, delicious, and cheap. Its main ingredient is either beef, pork, chicken, veal, or lamb roasted on a large skewer rotating vertically. The meat is then sliced then wrapped in pita bread together with slices of tomato, cucumber, and cucumber. Every bite is made extra flavourful with a generous drizzle of tzatziki.
Tourists would often think gyro and souvlaki are one and the same. While they are both enjoyed with the same accompaniments, their difference lies in their cooking and serving method. While gyro is cooked on a vertically rotating skewer then sliced, souvlaki is made with pieces of meat on individual skewers then grilled. Also, rather than eating it as a wrap, souvlaki is meant to be eaten on its own or with a plate of pita bread, sauce, vegetables, and fried potatoes.
A tasty dip or dressing made by combining Greek yoghurt, cucumber, and garlic, tzatziki is practically a Greek staple. No gyro or souvlaki is complete without this flavourful sauce. Tzatziki perfectly pairs with meat and vegetables, or you can try it as a dip with freshly baked bread or on its own with a spoon!
If you love lasagne, then moussaka is for you, only this one has no pasta in it. It’s an oven-baked dish with layers of sauteed eggplant, minced meat, onions, tomatoes, and bechamel sauce. The best part is, its cheese-covered top is grilled to form a crust. Found in both regular and high-end restaurants in the city, you’ll never have to look far and wide to indulge with spoonfuls of moussaka.
Feta Cheese Dishes
Century-old practices have long shaped Greece’s cheese production. And when you’re in Athens, it’s impossible to miss out on its delectable cheese dishes, particularly those made with feta. This popular Greek cheese is primarily made with milk from sheep or goat, aged, then stored in brine for months. As a table cheese, you should give horiatiki salata (Greek salad) a try—a mix of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, peppers, olives, and a slab of feta on top.
When used for cooking or baking, feta is just as delicious, especially when wrapped in crisp filo (or phyllo) pastry. Feta me meli, for instance, is filo filled with feta, baked or pan-fried, then drizzled with honey, creating a delicious balance of salty and sweet in every bite. Spanakopita is another baked filo pastry delight stuffed with feta cheese and spinach—a Greek favourite made for all pie lovers.
Baklava and Loukoumades
Greek cuisine is not all about meat, cheese, and vegetables. Locals love their sweets, too. They particularly love making them with olive oil and honey. And if you prefer lots of crunch in your dessert, then go for a slice (or two!) of baklava. This baked treat is made with layer after layer of filo pastry, with almonds or walnuts and honey in between. Once made only for the wealthy, locals and tourists can now enjoy baklava any time with coffee or tea for breakfast or an afternoon snack.
Now, should you have sudden doughnut cravings while touring the city, a bowl of loukoumades will do the trick. These deep-fried balls of dough look like the usual doughnut holes, only these are dipped in honey or syrup instead then sprinkled with cinnamon and all sorts of toppings. Paired with a warm beverage, it’s the perfect pick-me-up treat.
What to drink
Known as the country’s national drink, ouzo is a must-try liquor when in Athens. This drink is typically made with distilled alcohol then mixed with aromatic flavourings. Ouzo is best when chilled and mixed with water or ice, creating a cloudy drink with heightened flavours of aniseed. Normally served with a plate of mezes or appetisers, ouzo is a perfect match with strong-flavoured food like octopus, marinated anchovies, and spicy pickled peppers.
During ancient times, Greek winemakers would store wine in open vessels, causing it to spoil quickly. They then used pitches made from pine trees to seal the vessels, preserving the wine while infusing it with a distinct pine flavour, a drink now known as retsina. Made with white or rose wine, this resinated drink is considered an acquired taste even among the locals. Still, an extremely cold glass of retsina is worth a go especially with a plate of spicy meze.
Ever so fortunate to have a rich landscape and the perfect climate suitable for grape growing, Greece is one of the oldest wine-producing nations in the world and home to over 300 wine varieties. Wine drinking has been part of the Greeks’ festivities and historical ceremonies since ancient times, making wine an important part of their dining affairs even to this day.
Tsipouro, another traditional drink from the pomace of grapes, is a distilled spirit that contains about 45% alcohol. This is usually served in a shot glass as a refreshment or hot beverage. At times, it is a replacement drink for wine or coffee. No matter how you enjoy it, it is recommended that you try tsipouro with feta, ham, olives, or tomatoes.
Coffee is another important component of Greek food culture. In Athens, drinking coffee can last for a few hours and is typically used as an excuse to catch up or build friendship. While Greek coffee is prepared similar to espresso, using a small copper pot called briki in hot sand for brewing makes it special. When brewed properly, you’ll be served a drink with a strong flavour and foam on top.
Where to eat
Best souvlaki: Kalamaki Kolonaki
Kolonaki may be a high-end Athenian neighbourhood of chic boutiques and foreign embassies. But not everything here is expensive. In fact, this upscale quarter is where you’ll find Kalamaki Kolonaki that offers the best quality souvlaki made of Angus beef. Its extensive menu also includes healthy salads and dips to go with your grilled meats.
With several fish tavernas found in the city, the locals do make the most of their access to the freshest catch. And if you are after the best, then go where the locals dine. Near the port of Piraeus, Dourambeis has been serving top-notch Greek seafood dishes and appetisers since 1932. When you’ve had your fill of grilled fish and marinated crawfish, make sure to have room for dessert. Their loukoumades in thyme honey and fruit salad with ice cream on top are also highly recommended.
Brunch: Estrella Athens
On Romvis Street near Monastiraki stands a haven for breakfast and brunch lovers alike. Relatively new in the food scene, Estrella Athens has been specialising in eggs, pancakes, burgers, pasta, and fresh juices since it opened its doors in 2016. What makes the place popular though are their Instagram-worthy plates and the infamous bougatsan, a cross between croissant and bougatsa or filo pastry filled with cream.
Sweets and pastries: Mitropolitikon
Tavernas or restaurants in Greece do not usually offer a wide selection of sweet treats to cap your meal. However, its many pastry shops make up for it. And if you happen to visit downtown Athens, make sure to look for Mitropolitikon on Voulis Street. Famous for its macaroons, this confectionery store also offers various traditional Greek sweets, syrups, and handmade chocolates to satisfy your sweet tooth. They say this is also where you’ll find the best-tasting and visually beautiful baklava.
Traditional: Tis Theatrou to Steki
True Greek food fare is delicious yet humble and best when shared. So if you want an authentic Greek lunch experience, then come by a side street near Varvakios Market and find Tis Theatrou to Steki. You are not likely to run into any tourists at this restaurant; however, this is where the locals and workers dine, so meals offered are good and inexpensive. Here, food is served in bowls and platters. Don’t expect any plates to be served. Simply grab a piece of bread, choose a dip or topping, then gobble up.
Phrases to know
Many locals know how to converse in English. However, it will be nice to learn a few Greek phrases that may come in handy while going around the city. Who knows, you may even earn a free shot of ouzo for trying!
|Hello or Goodbye!||Γειά Σας!||Yia-sas!|
|Please or You’re welcome.||Παρακαλώ.||Para-kah-loh.|
|Sorry or Excuse me.||Συγνώμη.||Sig-no-mee.|
|What’s your name?||πως σε λένε?||Pos-oh leh-neh?|
|My name is…||Με λένε…||May leh-neh…|
|Nice to meet you.||Χαίρω Πολύ.||Heh-ro po-li.|
|How much is it?||Πόσο κάνει αυτό?||Poh-soh kah-nee af-toh?|
|Do you speak English?||Μιλάτε αγγλικά?||Mee-lah-teh ag-li-kah?|
|How much is this?||Πόσο κάνει αυτό?||Poso kani afto?|
|The bill, please!||Το λογαριασμό παρακαλώ!||Toh loh-gah-re-ah-smoh para-kah-loh!|
|Where is the toilet?||Πού είναι η τουαλέτα?||Poh-ee-nay ee tua-leh-tah?|
Good to know
- Greeks are so fond of dining out, they even have specific names to identify different dining places. Taverna is Greece’s traditional public eating house where you can enjoy inexpensive home cooking. Estiatorio is taverna’s high-end counterpart where you can order the same home-cooked meal for a higher price plus a generous tip. They say the table cover is also a good way to differentiate a taverna from an estiatorio: paper lining for taverna and cloth for estiatorio. If you love quick and cheap food, then look for souvlatzidika or street food stalls scattered throughout the city. Psarotavernas are fish tavernas, psistaria are grill houses, furnos are pie shops, kreperi are crepe stands, and kafenia are coffee shops.
- Ouzeri is another type of Greek eatery that serves ouzo with meze, or a plate of appetisers to pair with alcohol. Some meze staples include dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with rice and herbs), kolokythokeftedes (fried courgette patties or balls with dill or mint), kalamarakia (fried calamari), and octopus. Sauces like melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant), fava (split pea puree), and taramosalata (fish roe) are also served for dipping.