Other than sightseeing and exploring, one of the best ways to truly experience the culture of a place is to enjoy its local cuisine. Whenever you are coming to a new destination, there’s always something exciting about getting to know their gastronomy and the history behind them. The city of Athens is no exception; the capital of Greece has a strong dining and food scene that focuses on traditional dishes.
Greek cuisine is among the most popular in the world; whichever continent you might be in, there’s a good chance that you will encounter restaurants serving up some of your favorite dishes native to Greece. However, nothing beats eating at the very place where the cuisine was born and in Athens, there are plenty of opportunities to discover local flavors, making it arguably the best place to taste authentic Greek food.
If you have plans to visit the Greek capital, you should definitely include sampling the local food as part of your travel itinerary. However, with so many options to choose from, it might be overwhelming to pick which delicacies are worth trying. We’ve made this guide on the top treats you should not miss out on when in Athens. We've included everything from appetizers and entrees to the city’s best street food and dessert options.
While traditional Greek cuisine features a lot of meat, plant-based diners will be glad to know that there are several vegetarian restaurants in Athens that make meat-free versions of the city’s famous local food. Before deciding where to dine, don’t forget to look for a luggage locker in Athens where you can safely store your bags.
Athens Food: Moussaka
One of Greece’s most renowned delicacies is the moussaka, which is typically made using sautéed eggplant or potatoes (or both), tomatoes, and minced meat. It is then topped off with a generous serving of cheese or bechamel sauce to create a layered dish, similar to how lasagna is built. Although several countries have their version of the dish, the Greek-style moussaka, which originated in the country in the 1920s, is the best-known version in both Europe and North America.
The contents of the moussaka vary from one restaurant to another as most families have their own recipe and take on the iconic Greek dish; some like to put spices while others like to use zucchini instead of eggplant. Regardless of the version, you can easily find moussaka in nearly any restaurant in Athens.
Athens Food: Saganaki
If you are a cheese lover, then you will surely enjoy a serving of saganaki, an extremely popular dish in Athens and a must-try when in the city. The term saganaki actually refers to the small frying pan that is used to prepare the dish; it could be made out of fresh seafood such as shrimp or mussels. However, the most typical version of the saganaki features cheese.
In some Greek restaurants in North America, the “flaming saganaki” is common, where servers flambee the saganaki at the table and shout “opa!” as they light the pan. In Athens restaurants, however, the saganaki is a simple dish of cheese (often gruyere or kasseri) that is wrapped in flour and fried until crispy. This cheese dish is served as an appetizer before every meal or consumed along with salad and is available in almost any traditional Greek restaurant in the city. You may find this dish at a wine tasting tour in Athens as well.
Athens Food: Tzatziki
It’s impossible to talk about traditional Greek food without mentioning tzatziki, which is a staple dip in almost any local dish. This dipping sauce is made out of Greek yogurt, olive oil, cucumber, garlic, and a range of herbs such as dill and mint and is often finished off with a splash of lemon juice or white wine vinegar. Tzatziki can either be served as a mezze (cold appetizer) or paired up with either grilled fish or grilled meat.
Although tzatziki is common in any Greek restaurant in the world, the authentic version that you can get in Athens is often significantly creamier and more flavorful. The locally-made sauce boasts better quality yogurt and generous amounts of garlic. The best place to get tzatziki is at the oikogeneiakes, which are family-style grill houses found all over the city.
Athens Food: Souvlaki
Souvlaki is arguably the most popular street food in Greece and one that you should definitely try when in Athens. This simple but delicious dish is a dream for meat lovers; it is a combination of marinated meat and grilled vegetables on a skewer. While it can be made using a variety of grilled meats, the most commonly used type of meat for the souvlaki is lamb.
The skewered dish can be consumed on its own or served with pita bread and/or potatoes and a side of tzatziki sauce. You can find souvlaki in most tavernas in Athens but if you want to eat like the locals do, head over to one of the street stalls scattered around the city.
Athens Food: Baklava
Baklava is perhaps the most famous Greek dessert is baklava and is a staple sweet treat in the country. While there is still a lot of debate regarding its actual origins, baklava is definitely one of the most popular pastries in Mediterranean cuisine. Apart from Greece, this sweet dish is also common in other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean nations such as Turkey, Iran and the Balkans, with each country having its own take on the classic pastry.
The Greek version of baklava features a flaky filo dough that is filled with honey (or sometimes syrup) and huge amounts of ground nuts. When in Athens, you can order baklava from almost any restaurant in the city or even buy pre-packed versions in stores. However, the best place to get them would be in specialty dessert shops or patisseries, where you can guarantee that they are always freshly made. (Pro tip: Baklava is best paired with a cup of black Greek coffee). If you are working at a coffee shop in Athens, be sure to ask about this popular dessert.
Athens Food: Spanakopita
Baklava isn’t the only pastry dish known in Greece; there is also a savory version known as the spanakopita. The Greek version of a spinach pie, the spanakopita is a filo pastry pie that is stuffed with spinach and other additional fillings such as eggs, herbs and spring onions. Also, in true Greek fashion, this delicious pie contains a generous amount of cheese and olive oil.
The spanakopita is usually served as a side dish or as a takeaway snack. You can order this savory pie in just about any Athens restaurant, whether it’s in street food stalls and patisseries or from fine dining establishments. If you want to try one of the most famous versions in Athens, head over to Ariston Bakery near Syntagma Square, where you can order spanakopita and a range of other cheese pies and pastries.
Athens Food: Dolmades
Dolmades is another dish that originated from Ottoman cuisine and is one of the best things to eat in Athens. While this snack is not native to Greece, it has become a staple in the local food scene; in fact, the country is one of the top importers of the dish (usually in canned versions). The dolmades are made from vine leaf parcels that contain a special stuffing of minced meat and rice (and sometimes with various herbs).
It is commonly served as a mezze (appetizer), finger food, or as a main dish. The dolmades also come in many variations, with each restaurant or household having its own recipe for this traditional snack. Like most food on this list, dolmades can be found in just about any Greek restaurant across Athens.
Athens Food: Choriatiki
In Greece, eating a salad before every meal is common, so much so that Greek salad has become a popular starter that is served in restaurants all over the world. In Athens, you have the chance to try the traditional Greek salad, known locally as choriatiki, prepared the correct way.
While the Greek salad versions may differ from one restaurant to another, what remains constant are the key ingredients; choriatiki typically consists of lettuce, tomatoes, green pepper, cucumber, onion, olive oil, kalamata olives, and a huge block of feta cheese on top. Even though it is meant to be a starter, most servings of choriatiki in Athens restaurants are huge and can be shared by up to three persons.
Athens Food: Kolokythokeftedes
Regardless of where you eat in Athens, you should always order the kolokythokeftedes as a starter for your meal. This traditional mezze dish is a fritter made out of zucchini (or courgette) that is lightly fried and prepared with a variety of herbs and spices. While it is especially popular among vegetarians, meat eaters also enjoy having a piece or two because of the burst of flavor in every bite.
Some versions of the kolokythokeftedes contain feta cheese, giving the meal a creamy filling, and are served with a delicious tzatziki sauce. Because it is a popular local food, almost any restaurant in Athens would have their own variation of the dish on their menu.
Athens Food: Loukoumades
The Greeks are known for their sweet tooth and this is evident in the different pastries and desserts that originated in the country. Among their most popular sweet treats are the loukoumades, which are reminiscent of small doughnuts that are deep fried until crispy. As outsiders, you might think that this is the Greek version of doughnut but, in reality, loukoumades are one of the world’s oldest pastries. In fact, it is believed that those who won the ancient Olympic Games received this dessert as their award.
Traditionally, the loukoumades are small, profiterole-sized doughs that are drizzled in honey or syrup and sprinkled with various toppings (the most popular being cinnamon and sesame seeds). However, most dessert shops and bakeries in Athens have come up with their own twist on this classic Greek dessert. Perhaps the most renowned Athens restaurant serving this beloved dish is Lukumades, a dessert café that sells both the classic version and modern variations such as loukoumades stuffed with lemon cream or chocolate.
Athens Food: Gyros
Gyros is undoubtedly one of the best food items to have come out of Greece and one that is served in almost any part of the world. However, the international variations of this dish do not even come close to the original version. When in Athens, you will find plenty of stalls, restaurants, and tavernas serving this classic local dish as it is a quick and affordable meal option.
Although those who are not in the know often mistake this dish for the more popular souvlaki, the difference between the two lies in the preparation. As previously mentioned, the souvlaki is made of marinated meat (lamb is most commonly used) that is skewered and grilled; the dish can be served consumed straight out of the skewer or with a side of pita bread and tzatziki sauce.
Meanwhile, the gyros is a sandwich-like meal that is made of spiced meat grilled in a vertical rotisserie (most commonly chicken or pork but could also be beef or lamb) and stuffed in pita bread along with other ingredients, such as red onions, tomatoes, and lettuce. In Greece, gyros are often served along with a side of French fries and tzatziki sauce.
Traditional Greek Food
Greek food is internationally renowned and it is easy to see why; this cuisine is always oozing with flavor and the local ingredients used are both delicious and of high nutritional value. As the capital of Greece, Athens boasts some of the best versions of the country's beloved local treats.
After you're done eating your heart out in the city, you may want to check out these fabulous day trips from Athens and discover some incredible Greek islands during your vacation. Or take a walk to build your appetite again by trying one of the best hikes in Athens!