There’s no better way to explore Athens than through the ideas that inspired the city’s foundations and, of course, its many delicious Mediterranean tastes.
People tend to associate ancient Greece with philosophy and modern Greece with the healthy, fresh aroma of its tasty cuisine and that most ubiquitous of cooking complements: olive oil.
Which meant if I was going to explore my beloved metropolis from a local perspective to put together a local guide to Athens, I needed experts in both these fields. Thanks to Discover Greece, I partnered up with Alternative Athens and Be a Greek to get a different view of Athens. Thanks to the Electra Metropolis Hotel as well for hosting my stay.
Because of what I imagine to be popular demand, I will start with the food first.
Pick The Best Olive Oil…For Your Health
Anyone who grew up in a Greek household is acutely aware of the importance of olive oil. It’s cooked with, used as a dressing, mixed with lemon juice to be poured over fish, and is generally every Greek mother’s number one ally in the kitchen.
As Mediterranean cuisine has become increasingly popular for both its taste and its health benefits, olive oil has skyrocketed in popularity worldwide. However, many people may not know just how healthy pure, well-made olive oil can be.
On my tour with Alternative Athens, we stopped by Malotira. Which is a boutique olive oil shop in the center of Plaka, one of my favorite Athenian neighborhoods. This particular store is run by very hands-on owners who only sell products from small, Greek farmers they know and have quality checked.
After a quick shot of 76 proof tsipouro to clear the palate we started taste testing the olive oils along with some classic charcuterie bites. For those who don’t know, tsipouro is strong Greek alcohol. Yes, it was 10 AM, and I will not be judged.
Fun (Nerdy) Fact: Though charcuterie may be something your wine snob friends insist on ordering at every restaurant now, the cheeses and cured meats in it were actually once known as Cucina Povera aka Kitchen of the Poor. Those cured foods and cheeses lasted longer than many other foods. Especially for people without good access to fridges or ice, so poor people favored stocking them up. So next time you’re out, tell your bougie friends they’re ordering from the kitchen of the poor.
I learned it takes about eight kilos of olives to make one kilo of olive oil; I also learned that Greece is first in the production AND consumption of extra virgin olive oil.
Though olive oil is considered one of the healthiest oils to use, there are guidelines for choosing the ones that provide the best health benefits. Choose EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), cold-pressed, AND in a dark container. Why? Because olive oil is photosensitive, and dark containers don’t let the light pass through and ruin all those antioxidants.
Olive Oil Benefits:
- cardioprotective qualities
- neuroprotective qualities
- anti inflammatory
The Biggest Food Market in Athens – Varvakeios
Varvakeios – or Athens Central Market for tourists avoiding the minefield of Greek pronunciation – is one of Athens’s best-known food markets. Unlike many other markets throughout the world that have pivoted to catering to tourists, Varvekeios is still a mostly local-frequented food market for Athenians to buy great quality, fresh ingredients on a budget.
As in most markets and bazaars of the world, the vendors are loud, direct, and will do their best to lead you to their stall. So if you’re passing by, the trick is to keep walking fast but not fast enough to slip on the hosed-down floors.
Varvakeios market, built between 1876 and 1886, houses over 70 different shops under its roof. Fresh meat, olives, cheese, fresh fish, and seafood – you will find almost any Greek staple at Varvakeios. If you want to stop by, go any morning Monday through Saturday. The earlier you go, the more likely you will find the stalls full and the food at its freshest.
Right outside, you will find another market selling fresh food and vegetables.
Now moving right on over to some of the unhealthier (but tasty as hell) foods you can find in Greece: one of the oldest and most well-known cured meat shops in Athens: Miran.
Mezedes – Small Bites – of Athens
Originally a term used to describe the small dishes served along with ouzo, another famous Greek liquor, “mezedes” is used casually by Greek to refer to most small bites.
One of the favorite dishes to accompany hard liquor are cheeses and cold cuts, including pastourma. Which is a seasoned, air-dried cold beef. And one of the best places for pastourma in Athens is Miran, founded in 1922.
Located in central Athens’ working-class streets, Miran is a must-visit for any meat-eating foodie visiting Athens. In true Greek fashion, the owners and employees greet you warmly and make you feel right at home from the second you walk inside.
Many traditional casual restaurants in the area also feature old-school Greek cuisine. Including many of the bread dips, beans, and cooked vegetables popular in my grandparents’ generation.
Up until the last 50 years or so, Greece was a predominantly poor and rural country. Unless you lived in the mountains and had to rely on hunting game, meat was a rare, expensive item for most households. Though gyro may be the most popular Greek fast food dish known to the outside world, I think every tourist looking to discover a more authentic side of Greek cuisine should look to these older, perhaps simpler, but healthier staple foods.
Of course, to discover an even older part of Greece, we have to go back a loooong way. That’s right – back to toga land, ancient Athens.
The Philosophy of Athens
You’ve probably heard of the big ones; Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. Though most of us know these names, for many people, they are little more than words your history teacher made us memorize for a multiple choice quiz.
However, their modes of thinking affected not only the events of their times but also the entire basis of many movements and governments going forward. Aristotle first said that “man is a political animal” and emphasized the importance of education in making people the best they can be and civic engagement as a duty. Most of our social sciences today stem directly from Aristotle’s ideas.
I purposely don’t want to go too much into detail about a lot of the incredibly surprising information I learned thanks to my Be a Greek tour guide (who was WONDERFUL). I think it’s important people take the tour – or look certain people up – themselves.
But suffice it to say, I realized there was a lot more nuance and depth to not only the philosophies I thought I knew, but the men themselves.
Did you know Epicurus was the first to take women, slaves, and prostitutes as students? This played a big part in why he and his philosophy experienced ridicule. Did you know Socrates was the original “why is he with her” guy? No, really. There were rumors that he was to be married to the ugliest, most irritating woman in Athens. He often said that a big reason he could deal with almost anything in life is that he could deal with her (ouch).
One thing almost all the philosophers had in common, though, is their extreme, one might say excessive, pride in Athens. Perhaps giving us an idea of what kind of beacon of light Athens was at the time, exile from the city was a punishment almost as bad as death. In most Athenians’ minds – and most certainly these philosophers – everything outside of Athens was an intellectual wasteland.
The Athens Trilogy
Streets and buildings in Athens still bear these mens’ names. You can see their statues pop up, as well as statues of more recent Greek heroes, at the Athens Trilogy.
What is the Athens Trilogy? It’s a triad – threesome – whatever you want to call it – of buildings in the heart of the city that symbolize the pinnacle of academic, research, and intellectual achievement.
First, there is the National Library of Greece. Traditionally, every publishing house had to bring a copy of every new book here. Though the library has a new location at the ultra-modern Stavros Niarchos Foundations, the newspaper archive remains in this beautiful neoclassical building.
Next is the National University of Athens, though this specific building has a purpose now for graduation ceremonies. The number of students has increased from a couple of dozen in the early 1800s to many thousands now. Holding class here now would be a bit impractical.
This was the original first university of Athens below, used in the early 1800s. The building would barely fit a single kindergarten classroom now. But at this time, much of Greece was completely illiterate.
Last is the Academy of Athens, responsible for much of the groundbreaking research done in the city. It is the highest research establishment in all of Greece. To the left and right of the main stairs are statues of Socrates and Plato. Up on the columns, you can see Athena and Apollo, two of the original twelve Greek gods.
These buildings are all built in a neoclassical style. This was favored in the 1800s after the Greek War of Independence. Greece’s King Otto wanted to remind the rest of Europe that the newly liberated country bore ancient Greece’s heritage. Which had provided an incredible foundation for the rest of the continent. He hoped this appeal to Europe’s philhellenic (Greek-friendly) tendencies would garner even more support for the fledgling government.
The country has commonly used the strategy of appealing to Greece’s general international love up until today.
The Greek Exports of Yesterday and Today
There is a reason I combined the food and philosophy of Athens as a local guide to Athens. For such a small country, Greece has enjoyed popularity throughout the world for its exports. Whether this be its products, natural beauty, or ideas.
The current population of Greece is just under 11 million people. Yet almost everywhere I go in the world, I always see fascinated reactions whenever I mention I am from Greece. People are itching to go to the beautiful beaches they’ve seen. Or they are raving about their love of Greek food. A lot of people are also mesmerized by ancient Greece and its extensive mythology.
It gives me a special pride in my country. It also makes me marvel at the outsized influence Greece has had on people worldwide. Most of all, it makes me love my homeland even more.
If you’re ever in Athens, I highly recommend Alternative Athens and Be a Greek. They provide a really knowledgeable, insider look at the city. You will get to learn so much more in so little time! And truly gain a lot of context for everything you’re observing and experiencing. Thanks to the Electra Metropolis Hotel as well for hosting my stay!