Traditional food has a stronghold on Athens’ dining scene, and Greece as a whole. Widespread respect for classic dishes means that family recipes are often untampered with, even at restaurants, but contemporary newcomers have also found their voice in the sea of tradition.
Ancient Athenians were creators – the very people to thank if you’ve ever been to the theater or voted in an election – and you’ll find innovation on the food front, too. There are more daring chefs serving up modern Greek and fusion dishes, which cater more to the individual than the typical share plates Greek cuisine is founded on.
Get to know the classics first, and then enjoy them in modern forms. Here are the best dishes and drinks to sample in Athens, and where to find them.
Grab a kolouri for breakfast
Bread is a dominant category of Greek breakfast. Simplicity is found in a kolouri, a crisp-shelled, soft-centered bread ring covered in sesame seeds. These are vegan, as is a lot of Greek food to many people's surprise (more on that later). Kolouria (plural) are available at bakeries and street vendors – you’ll see Athenians eating them on their commutes to school or work.
Delve into the glorious world of filo pastry pies
If you’re after something more substantial for breakfast, go for a filo pastry pie. There are comforting cheese pies (tiropites) filled with feta, ricotta or halloumi; or often a mixture of cheeses. These can range from salty to tart, depending on the cheeses used. If you’re after a salty option, go for a halloumi-heavy pie. If you’d rather something more sour, a feta-dominant pie is the best option.
A spinach and cheese pie, called a spanakopita, is a sure (and moreish) way of getting your greens in. Those with a sweet tooth might opt for a kolokithopita – an aromatic pumpkin pie spiced with cinnamon.
Where to try them: Athens abounds with great bakeries, but as a starting point head to Takis Bakery in the Koukaki neighborhood, which has been running for three generations. Or go to The Bread Factory in Metaxourgeio to experience a mega bakery-patisserie.
Try real Greek yogurt
Greek yogurt is another quintessential breakfast option – and an affordable one, too. If you’re purchasing yogurt from a supermarket, the brand Fage is a trusted go-to. Take note of the varying levels of fat; 2% is creamy, 5% is overdrive creamy. Enjoy on its own, with some fruit and/or a drizzle of Greek honey.
Learn the difference between souvlaki and gyros
Athenians also invented the casual souvlaki bar. A quick language lesson, souvlaki is the word for "skewer", which refers to skewered meat cooked on a grill. Gyros is different – this classifies meat cooked on a rotisserie and shaved into small pieces. In Athens, you'll find both souvlaki and gyros, either served in a wrap (pita) or open on a plate (meritha).
Generally, the herbs and spices used in a souvlaki or a gyros are similar – the difference is really in their textures. If you want to bite into juicy chunks of meat, choose souvlaki. If you’d prefer thinner shreds of meat, go for gyros.
Where to try them: Achilleas in the Neos Kosmos neighborhood is a trusted hole-in-the-wall, ideal for a pork or chicken souvlaki or gyros wrap on the run. If you’d like to dine in, head to O Kostas.
Take it to the next level with a yogurt kebab
Athens is famous for its yogurt kebab, where fluffy pita bread is topped with pieces of grilled ground lamb, a helping of Greek yogurt and fresh tomato sauce. If you’re not super hungry, consider sharing one of these between two people. Restaurants usually don’t mess around with their kebab portion sizes.
Where to try it: O Thanasis in Monastiraki is one of the most renowned casual restaurants among locals. Here, food comes with a side of filoxenia – the all-important Greek concept of providing warm hospitality to strangers.
Indulge in seafood by the ocean
The seafood in Athens is not to be missed and one area to enjoy it is Palaio Faliro, a seaside neighborhood about 5km (3 miles) from the city center. If you have a few nights in Athens, it's worth heading out and eating at one of its waterfront seafood restaurants, backdropped by a marina of luxury yachts.
Restaurants here offer a mix of traditional and modern Greek dishes. Dive into grilled red mullet, fried whitebait, pickled octopus and feta-stuffed calamari. Follow it with a night-time stroll to help with digestion. In the warmer months, you may pass people roller-skating on the esplanade and playing beach volleyball.
Enjoy vegetarian and vegan food, which is aplenty
Greek cuisine is brimming with vegetarian and vegan food, despite common conceptions of it being meat-dominated. Must-try dishes include kolokithokeftethes (fried zucchini fritters), vlita (boiled greens in lemon and olive oil), fasolakia (green bean and potato stew) and fakes (an iron-rich lentil soup).
Where to try it: Yiasemi, an eclectic double-storey bistro whose seating spills onto the streets of the Plaka, in central Athens. The eatery specializes in small plates that change seasonally. It’s a great spot to dine before or after exploring the Acropolis, a mere 10-minute walk away.
Refresh with a frappe
The Greek frappe is coffee in one of its most divine forms; an iced, creamy summer favorite. Order it to your liking: either sketo (with no sugar), metrio (medium sweetness) or gliko (sweet). You can also add gala (milk) and/or a scoop of pagoto (ice cream).
Dig into the iconic dessert ekmek kataifi
Keep an eye out for ekmek kataifi, an impressive triple-storey dessert. It has a base of syrupy shredded filo pastry, topped with a decadent vanilla custard, crowned with sweet whipped cream and nuts. This old-school dessert is an absolute crowd-pleaser.
You’ll also find different versions of ekmek kataifi in Turkey and the Middle East. In Turkey, for example, it’s a bread pudding topped with clotted cream.
Don’t leave without getting some lukumades
These airy fried doughnut balls are traditionally covered in honey syrup and cinnamon but you’ll find more adventurous versions around town, filled with the likes of lemon curd and chocolate praline.
Where to try them: Lukumades, which has locations in Monastiraki and Vougliameni.
Enjoy your drinks with a view
At night, the way the Parthenon glows atop central Athens is a gift from the gods. There are many places to admire the landmark from, including an array of rooftop cocktail bars.
Sip away on some ouzo, Greece’s most renowned spirit (if you like the taste of licorice, you’ll probably like ouzo). Not a fan? Try mastika, a sweeter, musky spirit made from the resin of mastic trees. There are plenty of bars integrating these spirits into clever cocktails.
Where to drink: 360 Cocktail Bar is one of the best spots to view the Parthenon from, offering an almost perfectly centered view.