I started my love affair with Athens around 2011, but it wasn’t until I moved there in 2014 that I began to understand the true marvels of this city. Athens is one of those places that has a je ne sais quoi; its energy is pulsing. It is a massive expanse of urban and natural beauty all at once.
Upon first glance, Athens can seem inaccessible. Gems are hidden or only busy at certain times of the day or specific seasons of the year. Nightlife is just as much a priority as work-life, and a typical Wednesday or Sunday night in Athens can arguably be just as busy as a Saturday. By the same token, Athenians work hard and it would behoove anyone visiting the city to spend some time understanding the country’s recent history. Yellow “for rent” signs dot the city’s structures, and life in an ongoing crisis is something to note if one wants to understand life in modern Greece.
The population of Athens and its outlying areas make up about half the country. While some residents are generational Athenians, many people have not-so-distant village roots, a remnant of the country’s history over the last hundred years. With this brings a mix of culinary traditions from various regions, as well as a list of standard fare that makes up a modern Greek cuisine. Greeks take food seriously because they have access to amazingly flavorful products year-round, and because sitting for a meal is often an hours-long affair, particularly for dinner and on weekends. There is a rhythm to the Greek meal, and while the food is obviously a centerpiece, it is just one component of the experience. Diners get lost in conversation, drinking, smoking, laughing, enjoying. It’s as much about the food as it isn’t; it’s about pleasure.
What visitors can do to get a taste of this paradise is to explore beyond the well-treaded paths of Plaka. Discover the night, have lunch around 3 p.m., order food that is totally unfamiliar, engage with locals, and let go of inhibitions. Greek meals are meant to be shared, a practice that should be strictly embraced.
Coffee in Greece is an essential part of starting the day. Throughout Athens you’ll find shops selling the classics as well as two of the country’s famed coffee drinks—freddo espresso and freddo cappuccino—which make their way into the hands of millions of Athenians all day long, especially during summer.
Breakfast in Athens is simple; it’s usually some toast at home, perhaps with jam, honey or cheese, or a koulouri (round circular bread ring with sesame seeds) from a local street vendor or bakery. For those eating out, pie is the choice (πιτα, pita), which includes spanakopita (spinach pie) and various tyropita (cheese pie).
Spirou Merkouri 25, Athina 116 34
You can find coffee everywhere in Athens, but good coffee can be more selective. Generally, places with beans from specialty roasters are reliable, TAF being one of the most popular local outfits. My personal favorite coffee spot is o.kokkos. Walk up to the bar and place your order with owner Spiros Lappas, grab a seat at a table outside, and take a pie from the shop next door, Chez Alice, run by Lappas’ parents and sister. I recommend the spanakopita (spinach pie).
Marikas Kotopouli 10, Athina 104 32
(On a small pedestrian street between Satovriandou and Veranzerou streets. Look for the neon green ‘Loukoumades’ sign in the window)
Founded in 1931, Stani is an old-school milk bar just off Omonoia Square. Their traditional homemade yogurt is made from ninety-five percent whole sheep’s milk from farms near Corinth. Topped with walnuts and honey from the village of Mousounitsa, this sweet dish (acceptable for breakfast, a midday snack or dessert) will make you look at yogurt in a whole new way. Also try the bougatsa (custard filled pastry).
Lunch in Athens is late by American or Northern European standards, anywhere between one p.m. to four p.m.. For a visitor, one’s day will likely revolve around sightseeing, but even within the maze of tourism there are acceptable options for lunching.
Ta Karamanlidika Tou Fani
Sokratous 1, Athina 105 52
Ta Karamanlidika is conveniently located close to the central meat and fish markets, making it an increasingly popular destination for visitors. Featuring an excellent selection of Greek products in a unique and hospitable setting, Ta Karamanlidika is a great option for lunch. I like sitting in the semi-covered outside area just outside the main dining room. Have some wine or raki and order a selection of plates to share. The house-marinated sardines, saganaki pastourma (cured meats, eggs and cheese served hot in a steel pan), and a plate of cured meats make for an excellent midday stop amid the hustle and bustle of the streets.
Pl. Varnava 8, Athina 116 35
The mark of a good taverna is a sense that the food could be coming from a grandmother’s kitchen. One of my local favorites has always been Mouries. A no-frills taverna in the delightful Varnava Square, Mouries likely does more business during the weekdays in deliveries and takeaway than actually serving tables, but the best variety can be found from noon into the mid-afternoon. The restaurant is bustling with families lunching on the weekends as well as with evening diners during the week. Although you can look at the menu, walk into the restaurant and see (or ask) what is available for the day. Behind a glass counter you will see the answer, a very common practice in Greek tavernas. In villages, you’d be invited to go into the kitchen to see the day’s offerings.
I strongly recommend the gigandes (giant white beans). These beans are magical, little pillows of perfection. I also recommend tzoutzoukakia (meatballs in tomato sauce), patates fournos (oven-cooked potatoes), mosxari lemonato (veal in lemon sauce), chorta (stewed greens), revithia (stewed chickpeas), fasoulakia (cooked green beans), and whatever melenzanes (eggplant) offering is available. For those wishing to go the extra mile, Mouries’ pastitsio (baked pasta, meat and bechemel casserole), gemista (rice stuffed peppers or tomatoes), and spanakopita (spinach pie) are also worth trying.
Athens is a nocturnal city. Whether you’re going for dinner or drinks, people are out at night yearlong. Dinner is typically around eight or nine p.m., if not later, and while some restaurants certainly go beyond standard Greek fare, taverna-style food still dominates. For a visitor, this is an excellent opportunity to explore the bounties of traditional Greek cuisine. Dishes like chorta (stewed wild greens), various bean and melenzanes (eggplant) dishes, fava (cooked yellow split peas), stewed meats, and grilled fish are just scratching the surface. These dishes are far more common to the everyday Greek palate than any stereotypical associations, so I always encourage people to order everything unfamiliar and dive in.
Keramikou 49, Athina 104 36
(Dinner reservation recommended. Select outside/inside seating weather depending.)
Off the main path through a menu mixing traditional Greek dishes with a modern twist, owners Anna and Fotis have made Seychelles a must for visitors because it offers a modern and accessible glimpse into Greek cooking. The setting is a corner space in a neighborhood that is both gentrifying and preserved, which further sets the scene for a relaxed Athenian experience. My personal favorite at Seychelles is the pappardelle—large ribbons of pasta with stewed meat topped with local cheese. Try chef Vangelis Sterpas’ modern riff on dako (Cretan rusks with tomatoes and cheese), as well as the shrimp risotto, sardines, and most any meat dish.
Kallidromiou 69, Athina 106 83
Slightly out of view from the street, Ama Laxei is like walking into a garden oasis. Under the shade of trees, grape vines and adorable lights, diners relax in a magical garden of serenity. Although Ama Laxei can be visited in winter, spring, summer and fall offer the best experience. Ama Laxei has a lovely range of salads, many incorporating various Greek cheeses and combinations beyond the typical Greek salad. Try the sardines with fava when available, or the stewed pork with chickpeas and greens.
Archimidous 1-5, Athina 116 35
Plateon 29, Athina 104 35
Although most visitors will associate souvlaki with a meat wrapped in pita, another extremely common (if not more popular) way to enjoy it is kalamaki, i.e. grilled meat (typically pork or chicken) on a stick seasoned with oregano and usually served with potatoes or bread.
As someone whose souvlaki intake revolves around flavor and convenience, I have a particular love for the chicken kalamakia at Elvis. Now with two outfits in the city, Elvis is a great spot to get a taste of the city’s souvlaki vibe. They also carry Temenia soda from Crete, a nod to owner Angelos’ Cretan roots. Grab a gazoza Temenia and saddle up to the bar-top tables. Be sure to douse your skewer with the accompanying wedge of fresh lemon.