What to eat and drink in Athens

Hi Frugalistas!  This week I’m returning to Athens and looking at what to eat and drink.  Yes, there is souvlaki, yes, there is fetta cheese, baklava and ouzo.  But there’s so much more to Greek food and drink.  So join me on a culinary journey around the restaurants, tavernas and street side stalls of Athens to see some of the best food and drink Greece has to offer.

greek yoghurt on a white plate served with honey and walnuts on top

Street food in Athens

Street food in Athens definitely means souvlaki or gyros.  Buy them from tiny hole-in-the-wall takeaways (usually with chips/French fries in the middle) or head to the so-called “Souvlaki Row” in Monastiraki for a sit down feast.  Souvlaki Row looks very touristy at first glance (and definitely not the sort of place I would normally recommend).    Choose your meat (chicken or pork are the more traditional) and your style of souvlaki or gyros.  Serves are generous, so add some dips and some of that EUR1 wine (see below), for a (very) filling, cheap and tasty meal.

pita bread with gyros and salad

Charcoal grilled gyros

 If you avoid the touts at the first group of restaurants in Souvlaki Row and head further along the street you will find a wide choice of options with plenty of locals happily tucking in.

If something lighter is on your agenda, grab a bread ring for as little as 50cents, or choose one with filling for about EUR1,20.  Add some fruit from a local market stall for an ultra cheap, local and delicious lunch.

Dining in Athens

Most people in North America and Australia will be familiar with Chobani, the category-killer supermarket Greek yoghurt.  Yummy, but not really Greek yoghurt.  Your first visit to the breakfast buffet in your hotel will show what Greek yoghurt should be:  firm, ultra creamy and unctuous.  At other times it can be quite firm, and served in a slice.  Eat it with Greek honey (another food that will change your idea of what honey really is) and walnuts in the traditional style.  It is to die for……

Bowl of Greek yoghurt with honey and walnuts scattered on top

My hotel breakfast buffet yoghurt served the traditional way with honey and walnuts

Most people will know Greek fetta cheese, that white, briny and tart cheese.  But how about saganaki?  Grilled haloumi cheese that keeps its shape rather than melts, saganaki is often seen on mezze plates or as an entrée (appetiser) in restaurants.

plate of grilled haloumi cheese with tomato slices and lemon wedges

Grilled haloumi also makes a lovely light lunch

Head away from the tourist tavernas in the Plaka with their pictures of food to experience a wide variety of Greek cooking.  There is more to Greek restaurant food than moussaka.

If you visit the Athens meat and fish market you will see stall after stall with tiny, bait-like fish.  As I discovered on my Culinary Backstreets walk, there are seafood restaurants that specialise just in these small, whole fish.  Floured and deep fried, they are eaten whole (or you can leave the heads if you are a little squeamish).  Served with a wild weed salad, you will enjoy an authentic and very different type of Greek food.

Other restaurants will offer more in the meat department.  Grilled meats such as hamburger-like meat balls and spicy sausages are filling and tasty, as well being a very good budget choice.  Try clay pot casseroles for another different taste sensation.

I couldn’t talk about Greek food without mentioning dips.  From the garlicky yoghurt and cucumber tzatziki, smoky eggplant, hummus, and more exotic dried bean or split pea dips, they make a perfect light starter to share or as part of a do it yourself mezze plate.  My personal favourite?  The pretty, pastel pink, but salty and strongly flavoured taramasalata – made with cod roe.

Now, onto the sweets.  Everyone knows baklava, that sticky, sweet and nutty dessert.  But Greek sweets go far beyond that.  Try galactoboureki, a Greek version of a vanilla slice.  Phyllo pastry sandwiching a layer of thick custard, it is a delicious, slightly lighter option.

Or, how about trying a plate of loukomedes?  These light fluffy donuts come in various shapes and flavours.  The traditional donut shaped served with honey is delicious, but my choice is definitely the Cretan style.  Round, soaked in sugar syrup, then dusted with cinnamon and sesame seeds they taste wonderful, and are a lighter option than the honey style in my opinion.

Drinking in Athens

When I first went to Greece in the early 1990s Greek wine was known as domestika.  At best it could be described as cheap and cheerful.  At worst, it was like vinegar, and rough vinegar at that.  Fast forward 20years, and like a lot things in Greece, the wine scene has changed.  Greek wine is now a pleasure to drink.  At Semeli, a wine producer in the Peloponnese, we were treated to a wine tasting of 7 different wines; each more delicious than the last.  Everything from light whites, to rose, to luscious reds.

Wine glass with red wine, held up to the light

Tasting fine Greek wines in the Pelopennese

Order your Greek wine with confidence, but remember you often get what you pay for.  My EUR1.00 glass at the souvlaki café, tasted just as a EUR1.00 glass of wine would……..

Everyone knows ouzo, the Greek aniseed flavoured spirit.  But who has heard of tsipouro?  A typical Greek spirit, it has a different flavour to ouzo, and is a staple at Greek cafés and bars.  A good café will match your tsipouro with a plate of mezzes that will complement your drink perfectly.

Greek coffee poured from a traditional metal pot

Don’t forget the Greek coffee (which even most Greeks will admit is the same as Turkish).  Order it with sugar, even if you don’t take sugar in your coffee, and you’ll love it.

Regardless of what you think you know about Greek food, a visit to Athens will show you how much there is to this hearty and traditional cuisine.  A single blog post can only capture so much.  I tried so many different foods, and loved so much of it.  My advice?  Try something you’ve never tried before.  Look at what the locals at the table next to you are eating, ask questions of your waiter and be brave.  Greeks are hospitable people, and they will want you to enjoy their food.

Author’s note:  The author was a guest of Semeli Wines and Culinary Backstreets Tours.


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3 Comments on “What to eat and drink in Athens”

  1. Pamela 02/03/2015 at 11:16 pm #

    Greek food is fabulous – and the olives are the best! Specially love the local yoghurt and honey they serve at breakfast in small country hotels. The different honeys seem to have the scent of herbs or flowers or both, depending on what the local bees have been feeding on.
    Have you tried raki? One afternoon in Crete, after a particularly wonderful lunch at a tavern on the waterfront, we were served a jug of raki. They’d discovered we were Aussies and told us how much they loved Australians because the Aussie soldiers who resisted capture during WWII and stayed on to fight with the partisans were so brave and helped them so much in their battles against the German army of occupation. So the unordered jug was brought to us as a gift and we were urged to drink. It was rather good though strong, but we didn’t realise how powerful until we tried to stand up at the end of the meal and found we were nearly legless! Luckily it wasn’t far to our hotel. Best wishes, Pamela

  2. nylonliving 03/03/2015 at 9:05 pm #

    That Greek coffee was strong! I had it extra watered down and even then. I didn’t know it was the same as Turkish coffee! now that makes sense!

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 04/03/2015 at 6:29 am #

      Yes, if you struggle with strong coffee I can understand why you may want it watered down. I found it was less strong in cheaper places if that’s any help to other readers

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