A Taste of Athens: Discovering the City Through Its Street Food

by Marcus Smith  |  Published July 4, 2024

With over 5000 years of continuous habitation, Athens is renowned not only for its historical legacy and ancient monuments but also its vibrant culinary culture.

(Photo: Eating Europe)

The city’s street food scene maintains a rich gastronomic heritage, offering a tempting journey through both traditional and modern flavors. Both holidaymakers eager to check out traditional specialties and foodies on a culinary quest are well served. Here’s our guide to modern Athenian food experience in all its variety and flavor, including some less well-known options.

Classic Greek Street Foods

To understand the essence of Greek street food, start with the classics.

Souvlaki is arguably the most iconic dish, consisting of skewered and grilled meat, often served with pita, vegetables, and a generous dollop of tzatziki. Its origins date back to ancient Greece, where it was a common delicacy.

Another staple is the Gyro, a dish made from meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie, usually pork or chicken, and served in pita bread with tomato, onion, and tzatziki.

Vegetarians are well-served in Athens, particularly during the Lenten period prior to Easter, when many Greeks give up meat temporarily.

One specialty to try is Spanakopita, spinach pie with feta, the dough often baked in a spiral form. Patatopita resemble sausage rolls, but the filo is filled with potato instead of meat. Kalitsouni are empanada-styled pastry pockets stuffed with greens and onion.

Dolmades are another plant-based specialty: vine leaves wrapped around rice, onion, herbs, and pine nuts. If you’re health conscious, vine leaves are particularly good, being rich in Vitamins A and K, and loaded with fiber.

The sweet tooth needn’t miss out, however. Much less healthy treats are available! Try Loukoumades, deep-fried dough balls drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon and nuts. These beloved sweets date back to the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece. It’s fun to imagine them being served to sports fans in 776BC and they remain a beloved Hanukkah treat for Sephardic Jews.

You’re sure to try Greek coffee during your visit, of course. For something a little stronger, a shot of Ouzo or Retsina may help wash down those pastries nicely. One unique Greek specialty is Rakomelo, a mulled drink made from Raki (Greek brandy) with honey and spices. This is a common winter drink often served with sweet pastries.

(Photo: Eating Europe)

Regional Street Food Specialties

Beyond the classics, Athens’ street food scene is enriched by its regional specialties.

Koulouri, a sesame-coated bread ring, is a popular breakfast item originating from Thessaloniki. Rather like a bagel, its simplicity and crunch make it a perfect on-the-go snack.

Bougatsa, a pastry filled with sweet custard, cheese, or minced meat, showcases the culinary diversity of Northern Greece, particularly from the city of Serres.

For a pastry treat with a savory tang, try Tiropita, which hails from Mediterranean Greece. These crispy rolls are filled with local cheeses, with variations including feta, ricotta, kasseri, and other local flavors.

The island of Crete boasts its own culture and culinary history. One Cretan dish to try is Dakos, also known as Koukouvagia. Rather like Italian bruschetta, this has a crisp base of barley rusk or dried bread topped with fresh tomatoes, oregano, olive oil and fresh olives.

Seafood lovers should seek out grilled octopus (Htapodi), which is traditionally dried in the sun before being marinated and charcoal grilled. It is often served with a lemony olive oil called Latholemono and wild greens (Horta).

Vegetarians might seek out Revithokeftedes, which originate in the island of Sifnos and are a Greek variant of falafel. Ground chickpeas, wheat and flour are rolled into balls and deep- fried. They are best served with hummus, tahini, coriander, and harissa (hot chili paste).

These regional delights offer a taste of different parts of Greece and highlight the country’s rich and varied culinary traditions.

Modern Street Food Trends in Athens

Athens’ street food is constantly evolving, blending traditional recipes with contemporary twists. Gourmet street food is becoming increasingly popular, including premium meats and unique sauces.

The city’s bustling markets and food stalls now offer innovative takes on classic dishes. For instance, fusion souvlaki wraps incorporate international flavors such as teriyaki or barbecue sauces, catering to a global palate.

Traditional sweets are seeing a resurgence, including deep-friend dough balls with a variety of innovative toppings, and of course, baklava, a flaky filo pastry made with chopped nuts and honey.

Seafood is more commonly served on the street too, with fried sardines, shrimp and squid served in paper cones with dips or salad.

Vegan and vegetarian options are gaining popularity, with creative dishes like chickpea-based gyros and plant-based Loukoumades making their mark.

(Photo: Eating Europe)

Exploring Hidden Culinary Gems

For those looking to delve deeper into street food culture, exploring local food markets and joining food tours are great ways to enhance your Athenian food experience.

Neighborhood markets like the Varvakios Agora offer a glimpse into the daily life of Athenians, with stalls brimming with fresh produce, meats, and seafood. Here, you can taste authentic street food prepared on the spot.

Smaller markets worth trying include Kallidromiou Street; the popular Saturday farmer’s market sells fish, fruit and vegetables and fresh herbs. For the best dried fruit, olives, tea, and other takeaway nibbles, try the Evripidou market near the Roman Forum.

The areas most worth exploring for street food in Athens include Adrianou Street, a charming pedestrian route between Plaka and Monastiraki, and Mitropoleos Street for Souvlaki and desserts.

Athens’ street food is a way of connecting the contemporary and the ancient in Greek food culture. There’s plenty to experience, including modern twists on traditional foods and regional specialties given a street food twist.

One thing’s for sure – you’ll never go hungry in Greek’s gourmet capital.