As I walked out of the Panepistimio Station I was immediately hit with the cool morning and enticing smell of brewing coffee at Starbucks. My stomach started grumbling with the thoughts of a familiar bacon and gouda breakfast sandwich, but I held out. I was about to meet my group for a walking food tour of Athens to taste a little piece of Greek culture. Food is often the center of many cultures around the world. Prior to embarking to Greece I didn’t know much about Greek food. What I did know was from watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding. My taste buds were about to experience a whole new culture.
I met our tour group of 7 in front of the ZARA department store. Our tour group consisted of myself, a Canadian couple from British Columbia, a German family of 5, and our Greek tour guide, Artemis. I’ve taken a lot of walking tours throughout my travels as they are my favorite way to explore a new city and learn a little bit of history, culture, and insider tips from a local, and I’ve learned that the tour guide makes or breaks the experience. Luckily as soon as I met Artemis I knew that this tour was going to be awesome. Her passion for Greek history and food is evident the second you meet her. We left promptly at 9:30am as all our stomachs were growling with hunger.
Our first stop was a small food cart at the corner of Korai and Stadiou. Our first traditional Greek food for the day was koulouri, a round shaped bread covered with sesame seeds. Koulouri is a common street food that is cheap and delicious making them a great on-the-go snack while your sightseeing around Athens. Artemis jokingly told us that the most common Greek breakfast is coffee and a cigarette, but koulouris are a close second. Koulouri is very similar to the “turkish bagel” called simit. Many traditional Greek dishes are very similar to traditional Turkish dishes as they tend to share a mutual history. Centuries ago Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire and thus its cuisine often has Turkish influence and names.
Our second stop of the day was our longest with multiple foods to try at the Zouridakis Cretan Store. Crete is Greece’s largest and most populous Greek island. Crete has a unique climate that produces fruits and vegetables that only grow on that island and we got to taste a small sample of them at the shop. The Zouridakis Cretan Store is a third generation family business in Athens with their own workshop in Crete that produces the products sold in Athens. We tasted various types of olive oil, olives, feta cheese, and spoon sweets. Greece is top in the world for olive oil consumption, but third in production only due to the size of its landmass. Greece has devoted close to 60% of its land to produce olives, which I thought was pretty cool. Additionally, Crete is know for its thyme honey. Thyme honey is honey produced by bees only fed on thyme. How does one only feed bees thyme? Apparently bees only fly on average about 5 miles; therefore, beekeepers will plant thyme in a 5 mile radius around their beehives to ensure the purity of the honey. You can actually taste the thyme in the honey!
After enjoying the salty taste of kalamata olives and the sweetest of thyme honey, it was time to move on to our next stop of the morning – Krinos. Krinos is a family business serving little slices of heaven since 1923. Krinos is famous for a round shaped doughnut soaked in sugar syrup, honey and cinnamon called loukoumades. They are melt in your mouth amazing-ness, hence why I call them little slices of heaven! I ate two.
Next up was a stroll through Varvakios Agora, the central meat and fish market, and the fruit and vegetable market. Per Greek law, market vendors must sell all their products by the end of the market day to ensure optimum freshness. The market is open daily Monday through Saturday from 6am to 6pm. At the end of the day all the local restaurants swoop in and purchase the remaining products at a fair price. The markets were loud, smelly, and chaotic. Vendors would get in your face and yell at you in Greek. Despite the intensity of the market, I loved the freshness, the pure beauty in the fish and flayed chicken carcasses, and the authentic experience of shopping in an Athens food market.
Next up was one of my favorite stops of the day – Fotsis, the local herb store selling exotic and local herbs, spices, and teas. Artemis let us smell some of her favorite teas. My nose was in overdrive enjoying the glorious mixture of tea leaves and spices. We also got to taste mastic, or “Arabic gum.” Mastic, named after the a similar Greek word meaning “to gnash the teeth,” is produced by the resin of the mastic tree that grows on the Greek island of Chios. The gum looks like lumpy chiclets or salt with little to no taste. Apparently it is good for your teeth. The mastic tree are been in decline in the recent years so scientists from around the globe have been working to protect and preserve the special tree. US scientists tried growing the trees on another island with a similar climate somewhere in the world. The trees grew, but never produced the resin that makes the gum. Clearly the island of Chios is a very special island.
We continued our tour a couple blocks away from Fotsis at Miran, a traditional meat shop with hanging curing meat and garlic hung from every inch of the ceiling. While at the shop we tried slices of pastourma, a highly-seasoned air-cured beef of Anatolian origins. The meat is prepared by salting and washing it followed by letting it dry for 10-15 days. The blood and salt are then squeezed out of the meat and the seasoning is added and the meat is hung to air-cure. The seasoning is bright red and consists of cumin paste, garlic, hot paprika, and fenugreek. Artemis told us today the butchers use modern technology to flatten the meat into a pancake, but centuries ago the Greeks would place the meat between their butts and the saddle and ride around until the meat is flat. Hey, whatever works, right?
Additionally the group tried raki, an unsweetened, anise-flavored Greek and Turkish alcoholic drink. I did not partake as I was still recovering from the previous night. The group also tried tsipouro, which is very similar to raki. Tsipouro is made from the promace or the wine residue and is 40-45% alcohol by volume. The alcoholic beverage was first distilled by monks in the 14th century. If you’re looking to get drunk fast this is your drink. It’s pretty much the Greek version of moonshine.
The last official stop on our food tour was a traditional Greek pie shop called Bougatsadiko. Bougatsa is a traditional Phyllo pie containing custard, cheese or minced beef. Again, the custard-filled pie is a little slice of heaven. We nibbled on small slices of pie covered in powdered sugar and cinnamon while we watched the baker throw phyllo dough in the air and make multiple pies within 5 minutes. The whole process is fascinating. And delicious!
Our last stop on the tour was a surprise! Artemis lead us just around the corner to a small, local traditional restaurant with outdoor seating. We grabbed some seats as the waiter went around and took our gyro order. It was my first real gyro in Greece and it certainly wasn’t going to be my last. Gyros are abundant in Greece and are relatively cheap. If you purchase them to go you’ll save a few Euros instead of choosing to sit and eat.
Overall I enjoyed the Athens Food Tour with Athens Walking Tours. I left feeling full, happy, and more knowledgeable about traditional Greek food. Artemis told us that by the end of the tour we would know more about Greek food than most Greeks and I would completely agree with her. My new food knowledge also came in handy on my sailing tour. I would absolutely recommend taking this tour if you find yourself in Athens. You’ll try most of the traditional Greek foods and you definitely get your money’s worth. I didn’t even need to eat dinner until late that night as I was full for hours. Artemis was personable, extremely knowledgeable about Greek food, culture, and history and spoke excellent English. She is easily in my top 3 favorite tour guides and I’ve taken a lot of tours in my past travels.
You can experience traditional Greek cuisine in the Athens Food Tour for two through Tinggly. Make sure you check out their website to find out more about this experience or see what else they offer in Athens or around the world.
A huge thank you to Tinggly for hosting me on this tour as part of my ambassadorship with them. Despite who foots the bill, all opinions are my own. You’ll get my honest opinion 100% of the time.